The Middle Classes/Part II/Chapter IV
The next day Theodose felt himself possessed by two curiosities: How would Celeste behave as to the option she had accepted? and this Comtesse Torna de Godollo, what did she mean by what she had said; and what did she want with him?
The first of these questions seemed, undoubtedly, to have the right of way, and yet, by some secret instinct, la Peyrade felt more keenly drawn toward the conclusion of the second problem. He decided, therefore, to take his first step in that direction, fully understanding that he could not too carefully arm himself for the interview to which the countess had invited him.
The morning had been rainy, and this great calculator was, of course, not ignorant how much a spot of mud, tarnishing the brilliancy of varnished boots, could lower a man in the opinion of some. He therefore sent his porter for a cabriolet, and about three o'clock in the afternoon he drove from the rue Saint-Dominique d'Enfer toward the elegant latitudes of the Madeleine. It may well be believed that certain cares had been bestowed upon his toilet, which ought to present a happy medium between the negligent ease of a morning costume and the ceremonious character of an evening suit. Condemned by his profession to a white cravat, which he rarely laid aside, and not venturing to present himself in anything but a dress-coat, he felt himself being drawn, of necessity, to one of the extremes he desired to avoid. However by buttoning up his coat and wearing tan instead of straw-colored gloves, he managed to unsolemnize himself, and to avoid that provincial air which a man in full dress walking the streets of Paris while the sun is above the horizon never fails to convey.
The wary diplomatist was careful not to drive to the house where he was going. He was unwilling to be seen from the countess' entresol issuing from a hired cab, and from the first floor he feared to be discovered stopping short on his way up at the lower floor,—a proceeding which could not fail to give rise to countless conjectures.
He therefore ordered the driver to pull up at the corner of the rue Royale, whence, along a pavement that was now nearly dry, he picked his way on tiptoe to the house. It so chanced that he was not seen by either the porter or his wife; the former being beadle of the church of the Madeleine, was absent at a service, and the wife had just gone up to show a vacant apartment to a lodger. Theodose was therefore able to glide unobserved to the door of the sanctuary he desired to penetrate. A soft touch of his hand to the silken bell-rope caused a sound which echoed from the interior of the apartment. A few seconds elapsed, and then another and more imperious bell of less volume seemed to him a notification to the maid that her delay in opening the door was displeasing to her mistress. A moment later, a waiting-woman, of middle age, and too well trained to dress like a "soubrette" of comedy, opened the door to him.
The lawyer gave his name, and the woman ushered him into a dining-room, severely luxurious, where she asked him to wait. A moment later, however, she returned, and admitted him into the most coquettish and splendid salon it was possible to insert beneath the low ceilings of an entresol. The divinity of the place was seated before a writing-table covered with a Venetian cloth, in which gold glittered in little spots among the dazzling colors of the tapestry.
"Will you allow me, monsieur, to finish a letter of some importance?" she said.
The barrister bowed in sign of assent. The handsome Hungarian then concluded a note on blue English paper, which she placed in an envelope; after sealing it carefully, she rang the bell. The maid appeared immediately and lighted a little spirit lamp; above the lamp was suspended a sort of tiny crucible, in which was a drop of sealing-wax; as soon as this had melted, the maid poured it on the envelope, presenting to her mistress a seal with armorial bearings. This the countess imprinted on the wax with her own beautiful hands, and then said:—
"Take the letter at once to that address."
The woman made a movement to take the letter, but, either from haste or inadvertence, the paper fell from her hand close to la Peyrade's feet. He stooped hastily to pick it up, and read the direction involuntarily. It bore the words, "His Excellency the Minister of Foreign Affairs"; the significant words, "For him only," written higher up, seemed to give this missive a character of intimacy.
"Pardon, monsieur," said the countess, receiving the paper, which he had the good taste to return to her own hands in order to show his eagerness to serve her. "Be so good, mademoiselle, as to carry that in a way not to lose it," she added in a dry tone to the unlucky maid. The countess then left her writing-table and took her seat on a sofa covered with pearl-gray satin.
During these proceedings la Peyrade had the satisfaction of making an inventory of all the choice things by which he was surrounded. Paintings by good masters detached themselves from walls of even tone; on a pier-table stood a very tall Japanese vase; before the windows the jardinieres were filled with lilium rubrum, showing its handsome reversely curling petals surmounted by white and red camellias and a dwarf magnolia from China, with flowers of sulphur white with scarlet edges. In a corner was a stand of arms, of curious shapes and rich construction, explained, perhaps, by the lady's Hungarian nationality—always that of the hussar. A few bronzes and statuettes of exquisite selection, chairs rolling softly on Persian carpets, and a perfect anarchy of stuffs of all kinds completed the arrangement of this salon, which the lawyer had once before visited with Brigitte and Thuillier before the countess moved into it. It was so transformed that it seemed to him unrecognizable. With a little more knowledge of the world la Peyrade would have been less surprised at the marvellous care given by the countess to the decoration of the room. A woman's salon is her kingdom, and her absolute domain; there, in the fullest sense of the word, she reigns, she governs; there she offers battle, and nearly always comes off victorious.
Coquettishly lying back in a corner of the sofa, her head carelessly supported by an arm the form and whiteness of which could be seen nearly to the elbow through the wide, open sleeve of a black velvet dressing-gown, her Cinderella foot in its dainty slipper of Russia leather resting on a cushion of orange satin, the handsome Hungarian had the look of a portrait by Laurence or Winterhalter, plus the naivete of the pose.
"Monsieur," she said, with the slightly foreign accent which lent an added charm to her words, "I cannot help thinking it rather droll that a man of your mind and rare penetration should have thought you had an enemy in me."
"But, Madame la comtesse," replied la Peyrade, allowing her to read in his eyes an astonishment mingled with distrust, "all the appearances, you must admit, were of that nature. A suitor interposes to break off a marriage which has been offered to me with every inducement; this rival does me the service of showing himself so miraculously stupid and awkward that I could easily have set him aside, when suddenly a most unlooked-for and able auxiliary devotes herself to protecting him on the very ground where he shows himself most vulnerable."
"You must admit," said the countess, laughing, "that the protege showed himself a most intelligent man, and that he seconded my efforts valiantly."
"His clumsiness could not have been, I think, very unexpected to you," replied la Peyrade; "therefore the protection you have deigned to give him is the more cruel to me."
"What a misfortune it would be," said the countess, with charmingly affected satire, "if your marriage with Mademoiselle Celeste were prevented! Do you really care so much, monsieur, for that little school-girl?"
In that last word, especially the intonation with which it was uttered, there was more than contempt, there was hatred. This expression did not escape an observer of la Peyrade's strength, but not being a man to advance very far on a single remark he merely replied:—
"Madame, the vulgar expression, to 'settle down,' explains this situation, in which a man, after many struggles and being at an end of his efforts and his illusions, makes a compromise with the future. When this compromise takes the form of a young girl with, I admit, more virtue than beauty, but one who brings to a husband the fortune which is indispensable to the comfort of married life, what is there so astonishing in the fact that his heart yields to gratitude and that he welcomes the prospect of a placid happiness?"
"I have always thought," replied the countess, "that the power of a man's intellect ought to be the measure of his ambition; and I imagined that one so wise as to make himself, at first, the poor man's lawyer, would have in his heart less humble and less pastoral aspirations."
"Ah! madame," returned la Peyrade, "the iron hand of necessity compels us to strange resignations. The question of daily bread is one of those before which all things bend the knee. Apollo was forced to 'get a living,' as the shepherd of Admetus."
"The sheepfold of Admetus," said Madame de Godollo, "was at least a royal fold; I don't think Apollo would have resigned himself to be the shepherd of a—bourgeois."
The hesitation that preceded that last word seemed to convey in place of it a proper name; and la Peyrade understood that Madame de Godollo, out of pure clemency, had suppressed that of Thuillier, had turned her remark upon the species and not the individual.
"I agree, madame, that your distinction is a just one," he replied, "but in this case Apollo has no choice."
"I don't like persons who charge too much," said the countess, "but still less do I like those who sell their merchandise below the market price; I always suspect such persons of trying to dupe me by some clever and complicated trick. You know very well, monsieur, your own value, and your hypocritical humility displeases me immensely. It proves to me that my kindly overtures have not produced even a beginning of confidence between us."
"I assure you, madame, that up to the present time life has never justified the belief in any dazzling superiority in me."
"Well, really," said the Hungarian, "perhaps I ought to believe in the humility of a man who is willing to accept the pitiable finale of his life which I threw myself into the breach to prevent."
"Just as I, perhaps," said la Peyrade, with a touch of sarcasm, "ought to believe in the reality of a kindness which, in order to save me, has handled me so roughly."
The countess cast a reproachful look upon her visitor; her fingers crumpled the ribbons of her gown; she lowered her eyes, and gave a sigh, so nearly imperceptible, so slight, that it might have passed for an accident in the most regular breathing.
"You are rancorous," she said, "and you judge people by one aspect only. After all," she added, as if on reflection, "you are perhaps right in reminding me that I have taken the longest way round by meddling, rather ridiculously, in interests that do not concern me. Go on, my dear monsieur, in the path of this glorious marriage which offers you so many combined inducements; only, let me hope that you may not repent a course with which I shall no longer interfere."
The Provencal had not been spoilt by an experience of "bonnes fortunes." The poverty against which he had struggled so long never leads to affairs of gallantry, and since he had thrown off its harsh restraint, his mind being wholly given up to the anxious work of creating his future, the things of the heart had entered but slightly into his life; unless we must except the comedy he had played on Flavie. We can therefore imagine the perplexity of this novice in the matter of adventures when he saw himself placed between the danger of losing what seemed to be a delightful opportunity, and the fear of finding a serpent amid the beautiful flowers that were offered to his grasp. Too marked a reserve, too lukewarm an eagerness, might wound the self-love of that beautiful foreigner, and quench the spring from which he seemed invited to draw. On the other hand, suppose that appearance of interest were only a snare? Suppose this kindness (ill-explained, as it seemed to him), of which he was so suddenly the object, had no other purpose than to entice him into a step which might be used to compromise him with the Thuilliers? What a blow to his reputation for shrewdness, and what a role to play!—that of the dog letting go the meat for the shadow!
We know that la Peyrade was trained in the school of Tartuffe, and the frankness with which that great master declares to Elmire that without receiving a few of the favors to which he aspired he could not trust in her tender advances, seemed to the barrister a suitable method to apply to the present case, adding, however, a trifle more softness to the form.
"Madame la comtesse," he said, "you have turned me into a man who is much to be pitied. I was cheerfully advancing to this marriage, and you take all faith in it away from me. Suppose I break it off, what use can I—with that great capacity you see in me—make of the liberty I thus recover?"
"La Bruyere, if I am not mistaken, said that nothing freshens the blood so much as to avoid committing a folly."
"That may be; but it is, you must admit, a negative benefit; and I am of an age and in a position to desire more serious results. The interest that you deign to show to me cannot, I think, stop short at the idea of merely putting an end to my present prospects. I love Mademoiselle Colleville with a love, it is true, which has nothing imperative about it; but I certainly love her, her hand is promised to me, and before renouncing it—"
"So," said the countess, hastily, "in a given case you would not be averse to a rupture? And," she added, in a more decided tone, "there would be some chance of making you see that in taking your first opportunity you cut yourself off from a better future, in which a more suitable marriage may present itself?"
"But, at least, madame, I must be enabled to foresee it definitely."
This persistence in demanding pledges seemed to irritate the countess.
"Faith," she said, "is only a virtue when it believes without seeing. You doubt yourself, and that is another form of stupidity. I am not happy, it seems, in my selection of those I desire to benefit."
"But, madame, it cannot be indiscreet to ask to know in some remote way at least, what future your kind good-will has imagined for me."
"It is very indiscreet," replied the countess, coldly, "and it shows plainly that you offer me only a conditional confidence. Let us say no more. You are certainly far advanced with Mademoiselle Colleville; she suits you, you say, in many ways; therefore marry her. I say again, you will no longer find me in your way."
"But does Mademoiselle Colleville really suit me?" resumed la Peyrade; "that is the very point on which you have lately raised my doubts. Do you not think there is something cruel in casting me first in one direction and then in the other without affording me any ground to go upon?"
"Ah!" said the countess, in a tone of impatience, "you want my opinion on the premises! Well, monsieur, there is one very conclusive fact to which I can bring proof: Celeste does not love you."
"So I have thought," said la Peyrade, humbly. "I felt that I was making a marriage of mere convenience."
"And she cannot love you, because," continued Madame de Godollo, with animation, "she cannot comprehend you. Her proper husband is that blond little man, insipid as herself; from the union of those two natures without life or heat will result in that lukewarm existence which, in the opinion of the world where she was born and where she has lived, is the ne plus ultra of conjugal felicity. Try to make that little simpleton understand that when she had a chance to unite herself with true talent she ought to have felt highly honored! But, above all, try to make her miserable, odious family and surroundings understand it! Enriched bourgeois, parvenus! there's the roof beneath which you think to rest from your cruel labor and your many trials! And do you believe that you will not be made to feel, twenty times a day, that your share in the partnership is distressingly light in the scale against their money? On one side, the Iliad, the Cid, Der Freyschutz, and the frescos of the Vatican; on the other, three hundred thousand francs in good, ringing coin! Tell me which side they will trust and admire! The artist, the man of imagination who falls into the bourgeois atmosphere—shall I tell you to what I compare him? To Daniel cast into the lion's den, less the miracle of Holy Writ."
This invective against the bourgeoisie was uttered in a tone of heated conviction which could scarcely fail to be communicated.
"Ah! madame," cried la Peyrade, "how eloquently you say things which again and again have entered my troubled and anxious mind! But I have felt myself lashed to that most cruel fate, the necessity of gaining a position—"
"Necessity! position!" interrupted the countess, again raising the temperature of her speech,—"words void of meaning! which have not even sound to able men, though they drive back fools as though they were formidable barriers. Necessity! does that exist for noble natures, for those who know how to will? A Gascon minister uttered a saying which ought to be engraved on the doors of all careers: 'All things come to him who knows how to wait.' Are you ignorant that marriage, to men of a high stamp, is either a chain which binds them to the lowest vulgarities of existence, or a wing on which to rise to the highest summits of the social world? The wife you need, monsieur,—and she would not be long wanting to your career if you had not, with such incredible haste, accepted the first 'dot' that was offered you,—the wife you should have chosen is a woman capable of understanding you, able to divine your intellect; one who could be to you a fellow-worker, an intellectual confidant, and not a mere embodiment of the 'pot-au-feu'; a woman capable of being now your secretary, but soon the wife of a deputy, a minister, an ambassador; one, in short, who could offer you her heart as a mainspring, her salon for a stage, her connections for a ladder, and who, in return for all she would give you of ardor and strength, asks only to shine beside your throne in the rays of the glory she predicts for you!"
Intoxicated, as it were, with the flow of her own words, the countess was really magnificent; her eyes sparkled, her nostrils dilated; the prospect her vivid eloquence thus unrolled she seemed to see, and touch with her quivering fingers. For a moment, la Peyrade was dazzled by this sunrise which suddenly burst upon his life.
However, as he was a man most eminently prudent, who had made it his rule of life never to lend except on sound and solvent security, he was still impelled to weigh the situation.
"Madame la comtesse," he said, "you reproached me just now for speaking like a bourgeois, and I, in return, am afraid that you are talking like a goddess. I admire you, I listen to you, but I am not convinced. Such devotions, such sublime abnegations may be met with in heaven, but in this low world who can hope to be the object of them?"
"You are mistaken, monsieur," replied the countess, with solemnity; "such devotions are rare, but they are neither impossible nor incredible; only, it is necessary to have the heart to find them, and, above all, the hand to take them when they are offered to you."
So saying, the countess rose majestically.
La Peyrade saw that he had ended by displeasing her, and he felt that she dismissed him. He rose himself, bowed respectfully, and asked to be received again.
"Monsieur," said Madame de Godollo, "we Hungarians, primitive people and almost savages that we are, have a saying that when our door is open both sides of it are opened wide; when we close it it is double-locked and bolted."
That dignified and ambiguous speech was accompanied by a slight inclination of the head. Bewildered, confounded by this behavior, to him so new, which bore but little resemblance to that of Flavie, Brigitte, and Madame Minard, la Peyrade left the house, asking himself again and again whether he had played his game properly.