The End of Evil Ways/Section 6
Asie could depend on the absolute secrecy of an old-clothes purchaser, known as Madame Nourrisson, who also called herself Madame de Saint-Esteve; and who would lend Asie not merely her personality, but her shop at need, for it was there that Nucingen had bargained for the surrender of Esther. Asie was quite at home there, for she had a bedroom in Madame Nourrisson's establishment.
She paid the driver, and went up to her room, nodding to Madame Nourrisson in a way to make her understand that she had not time to say two words to her.
As soon as she was safe from observation, Asie unwrapped the papers with the care of a savant unrolling a palimpsest. After reading the instructions, she thought it wise to copy the lines intended for Lucien on a sheet of letter-paper; then she went down to Madame Nourrisson, to whom she talked while a little shop-girl went to fetch a cab from the Boulevard des Italiens. She thus extracted the addresses of the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse and of Madame de Serizy, which were known to Madame Nourrisson by her dealings with their maids.
All this running about and elaborate business took up more than two hours. Madame la Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, who lived at the top of the Faubourg Saint-Honore, kept Madame de Saint-Esteve waiting an hour, although the lady's-maid, after knocking at the boudoir door, had handed in to her mistress a card with Madame de Saint-Esteve's name, on which Asie had written, "Called about pressing business concerning Lucien."
Her first glance at the Duchess' face showed her how till-timed her visit must be; she apologized for disturbing Madame la Duchesse when she was resting, on the plea of the danger in which Lucien stood.
"Who are you?" asked the Duchess, without any pretence at politeness, as she looked at Asie from head to foot; for Asie, though she might be taken for a Baroness by Maitre Massol in the Salle des Pas-Perdus, when she stood on the carpet in the boudoir of the Hotel de Cadignan, looked like a splash of mud on a white satin gown.
"I am a dealer in cast-off clothes, Madame la Duchesse; for in such matters every lady applies to women whose business rests on a basis of perfect secrecy. I have never betrayed anybody, though God knows how many great ladies have intrusted their diamonds to me by the month while wearing false jewels made to imitate them exactly."
"You have some other name?" said the Duchess, smiling at a reminiscence recalled to her by this reply.
"Yes, Madame la Duchesse, I am Madame de Saint-Esteve on great occasions, but in the trade I am Madame Nourrisson."
"Well, well," said the Duchess in an altered tone.
"I am able to be of great service," Asie went on, "for we hear the husbands' secrets as well as the wives'. I have done many little jobs for Monsieur de Marsay, whom Madame la Duchesse——"
"That will do, that will do!" cried the Duchess. "What about Lucien?"
"If you wish to save him, madame, you must have courage enough to lose no time in dressing. But, indeed, Madame la Duchesse, you could not look more charming than you do at this moment. You are sweet enough to charm anybody, take an old woman's word for it! In short, madame, do not wait for your carriage, but get into my hackney coach. Come to Madame de Serizy's if you hope to avert worse misfortunes than the death of that cherub——"
"Go on, I will follow you," said the Duchess after a moment's hesitation. "Between us we may give Leontine some courage . . ."
Notwithstanding the really demoniacal activity of this Dorine of the hulks, the clock was striking two when she and the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse went into the Comtesse de Serizy's house in the Rue de la Chaussee-d'Antin. Once there, thanks to the Duchess, not an instant was lost. The two women were at once shown up to the Countess, whom they found reclining on a couch in a miniature chalet, surrounded by a garden fragrant with the rarest flowers.
"That is well," said Asie, looking about her. "No one can overhear us."
"Oh! my dear, I am half dead! Tell me, Diane, what have you done?" cried the Duchess, starting up like a fawn, and, seizing the Duchess by the shoulders, she melted into tears.
"Come, come, Leontine; there are occasions when women like us must not cry, but act," said the Duchess, forcing the Countess to sit down on the sofa by her side.
Asie studied the Countess' face with the scrutiny peculiar to those old hands, which pierces to the soul of a woman as certainly as a surgeon's instrument probes a wound!—the sorrow that engraves ineradicable lines on the heart and on the features. She was dressed without the least touch of vanity. She was now forty-five, and her printed muslin wrapper, tumbled and untidy, showed her bosom without any art or even stays! Her eyes were set in dark circles, and her mottled cheeks showed the traces of bitter tears. She wore no sash round her waist; the embroidery on her petticoat and shift was all crumpled. Her hair, knotted up under a lace cap, had not been combed for four-and-twenty hours, and showed as a thin, short plait and ragged little curls. Leontine had forgotten to put on her false hair.
"You are in love for the first time in your life?" said Asie sententiously.
Leontine then saw the woman and started with horror.
"Who is that, my dear Diane?" she asked of the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse.
"Whom should I bring with me but a woman who is devoted to Lucien and willing to help us?"
Asie had hit the truth. Madame de Serizy, who was regarded as one of the most fickle of fashionable women, had had an attachment of ten years' standing for the Marquis d'Aiglemont. Since the Marquis' departure for the colonies, she had gone wild about Lucien, and had won him from the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, knowing nothing—like the Paris world generally—of Lucien's passion for Esther. In the world of fashion a recognized attachment does more to ruin a woman's reputation than ten unconfessed liaisons; how much more then two such attachments? However, as no one thought of Madame de Serizy as a responsible person, the historian cannot undertake to speak for her virtue thus doubly dog's-eared.
She was fair, of medium height, and well preserved, as a fair woman can be who is well preserved at all; that is to say, she did not look more than thirty, being slender, but not lean, with a white skin and flaxen hair; she had hands, feet, and a shape of aristocratic elegance, and was as witty as all the Ronquerolles, spiteful, therefore, to women, and good-natured to men. Her large fortune, her husband's fine position, and that of her brother, the Marquis de Ronquerolles, had protected her from the mortifications with which any other woman would have been overwhelmed. She had this great merit—that she was honest in her depravity, and confessed her worship of the manners and customs of the Regency.
Now, at forty-two this woman—who had hitherto regarded men as no more than pleasing playthings, to whom, indeed, she had, strange to say, granted much, regarding love as merely a matter of sacrifice to gain the upper hand,—this woman, on first seeing Lucien, had been seized with such a passion as the Baron de Nucingen's for Esther. She had loved, as Asie had just told her, for the first time in her life.
This postponement of youth is more common with Parisian women than might be supposed, and causes the ruin of some virtuous souls just as they are reaching the haven of forty. The Duchesse de Maufrigneuse was the only person in the secret of the vehement and absorbing passion, of which the joys, from the girlish suspicion of first love to the preposterous follies of fulfilment, had made Leontine half crazy and insatiable.
True love, as we know, is merciless. The discovery of Esther's existence had been followed by one of those outbursts of rage which in a woman rise even to the pitch of murder; then came the phase of meanness, to which a sincere affection humbles itself so gladly. Indeed, for the last month the Countess would have given ten years of her life to have Lucien again for one week. At last she had even resigned herself to accept Esther as her rival, just when the news of her lover's arrest had come like the last trump on this paroxysm of devotion.
The Countess had nearly died of it. Her husband had himself nursed her in bed, fearing the betrayal of delirium, and for twenty-four hours she had been living with a knife in her heart. She said to her husband in her fever:
"Save Lucien, and I will live henceforth for you alone."
"Indeed, as Madame la Duchesse tells you, it is of no use to make your eyes like boiled gooseberries," cried the dreadful Asie, shaking the Countess by the arm. "If you want to save him, there is not a minute to lose. He is innocent—I swear it by my mother's bones!"
"Yes, yes, of course he is!" cried the Countess, looking quite kindly at the dreadful old woman.
"But," Asie went on, "if Monsieur Camusot questions him the wrong way, he can make a guilty man of him with two sentences; so, if it is in your power to get the Conciergerie opened to you, and to say a few words to him, go at once, and give him this paper.—He will be released to-morrow; I will answer for it. Now, get him out of the scrape, for you got him into it."
"Yes, you!—You fine ladies never have a son even when you own millions. When I allowed myself the luxury of keeping boys, they always had their pockets full of gold! Their amusements amused me. It is delightful to be mother and mistress in one. Now, you—you let the men you love die of hunger without asking any questions. Esther, now, made no speeches; she gave, at the cost of perdition, soul and body, the million your Lucien was required to show, and that is what has brought him to this pass——"
"Poor girl! Did she do that! I love her!" said Leontine.
"Yes—now!" said Asie, with freezing irony.
"She was a real beauty; but now, my angel, you are better looking than she is.—And Lucien's marriage is so effectually broken off, that nothing can mend it," said the Duchess in a whisper to Leontine.
The effect of this revelation and forecast was so great on the Countess that she was well again. She passed her hand over her brow; she was young once more.
"Now, my lady, hot foot, and make haste!" said Asie, seeing the change, and guessing what had caused it.
"But," said Madame de Maufrigneuse, "if the first thing is to prevent Lucien's being examined by Monsieur Camusot, we can do that by writing two words to the judge and sending your man with it to the Palais, Leontine."
"Then come into my room," said Madame de Serizy.