SCENES FROM A COURTESAN'S LIFE
By Honore De Balzac
Translated by James Waring
PREPARER'S NOTE: The story of Lucien de Rubempre begins in the Lost Illusions trilogy which consists of Two Poets, A Distinguished Provincial at Paris, and Eve and David. The action in Scenes From A Courtesan's Life commences directly after the end of Eve and David.
To His Highness Prince Alfonso Serafino di Porcia.
Allow me to place your name at the beginning of an essentially Parisian work, thought out in your house during these latter days. Is it not natural that I should offer you the flowers of rhetoric that blossomed in your garden, watered with the regrets I suffered from home-sickness, which you soothed, as I wandered under the boschetti whose elms reminded me of the Champs-Elysees? Thus, perchance, may I expiate the crime of having dreamed of Paris under the shadow of the Duomo, of having longed for our muddy streets on the clean and elegant flagstones of Porta-Renza. When I have some book to publish which may be dedicated to a Milanese lady, I shall have the happiness of finding names already dear to your old Italian romancers among those of women whom we love, and to whose memory I would beg you to recall your sincerely affectionate
DE BALZAC. July 1838.
SCENES FROM A COURTESAN'S LIFE
ESTHER HAPPY; OR, HOW A COURTESAN CAN LOVE
In 1824, at the last opera ball of the season, several masks were struck by the beauty of a youth who was wandering about the passages and greenroom with the air of a man in search of a woman kept at home by unexpected circumstances. The secret of this behavior, now dilatory and again hurried, is known only to old women and to certain experienced loungers. In this immense assembly the crowd does not trouble itself much to watch the crowd; each one's interest is impassioned, and even idlers are preoccupied.
The young dandy was so much absorbed in his anxious quest that he did not observe his own success; he did not hear, he did not see the ironical exclamations of admiration, the genuine appreciation, the biting gibes, the soft invitations of some of the masks. Though he was so handsome as to rank among those exceptional persons who come to an opera ball in search of an adventure, and who expect it as confidently as men looked for a lucky coup at roulette in Frascati's day, he seemed quite philosophically sure of his evening; he must be the hero of one of those mysteries with three actors which constitute an opera ball, and are known only to those who play a part in them; for, to young wives who come merely to say, "I have seen it," to country people, to inexperienced youths, and to foreigners, the opera house must on those nights be the palace of fatigue and dulness. To these, that black swarm, slow and serried—coming, going, winding, turning, returning, mounting, descending, comparable only to ants on a pile of wood—is no more intelligible than the Bourse to a Breton peasant who has never heard of the Grand livre.
With a few rare exceptions, men wear no masks in Paris; a man in a domino is thought ridiculous. In this the spirit of the nation betrays itself. Men who want to hide their good fortune can enjoy the opera ball without going there; and masks who are absolutely compelled to go in come out again at once. One of the most amusing scenes is the crush at the doors produced as soon as the dancing begins, by the rush of persons getting away and struggling with those who are pushing in. So the men who wear masks are either jealous husbands who come to watch their wives, or husbands on the loose who do not wish to be watched by them—two situations equally ridiculous.
Now, our young man was followed, though he knew it not, by a man in a mask, dogging his steps, short and stout, with a rolling gait, like a barrel. To every one familiar with the opera this disguise betrayed a stock-broker, a banker, a lawyer, some citizen soul suspicious of infidelity. For in fact, in really high society, no one courts such humiliating proofs. Several masks had laughed as they pointed this preposterous figure out to each other; some had spoken to him, a few young men had made game of him, but his stolid manner showed entire contempt for these aimless shafts; he went on whither the young man led him, as a hunted wild boar goes on and pays no heed to the bullets whistling about his ears, or the dogs barking at his heels.
Though at first sight pleasure and anxiety wear the same livery—the noble black robe of Venice—and though all is confusion at an opera ball, the various circles composing Parisian society meet there, recognize, and watch each other. There are certain ideas so clear to the initiated that this scrawled medley of interests is as legible to them as any amusing novel. So, to these old hands, this man could not be here by appointment; he would infallibly have worn some token, red, white, or green, such as notifies a happy meeting previously agreed on. Was it a case of revenge?
Seeing the domino following so closely in the wake of a man apparently happy in an assignation, some of the gazers looked again at the handsome face, on which anticipation had set its divine halo. The youth was interesting; the longer he wandered, the more curiosity he excited. Everything about him proclaimed the habits of refined life. In obedience to a fatal law of the time we live in, there is not much difference, physical or moral, between the most elegant and best bred son of a duke and peer and this attractive youth, whom poverty had not long since held in its iron grip in the heart of Paris. Beauty and youth might cover him in deep gulfs, as in many a young man who longs to play a part in Paris without having the capital to support his pretensions, and who, day after day, risks all to win all, by sacrificing to the god who has most votaries in this royal city, namely, Chance. At the same time, his dress and manners were above reproach; he trod the classic floor of the opera house as one accustomed there. Who can have failed to observe that there, as in every zone in Paris, there is a manner of being which shows who you are, what you are doing, whence you come, and what you want?
"What a handsome young fellow; and here we may turn round to look at him," said a mask, in whom accustomed eyes recognized a lady of position.
"Do you not remember him?" replied the man on whose arm she was leaning. "Madame du Chatelet introduced him to you——"
"What, is that the apothecary's son she fancied herself in love with, who became a journalist, Mademoiselle Coralie's lover?"
"I fancied he had fallen too low ever to pull himself up again, and I cannot understand how he can show himself again in the world of Paris," said the Comte Sixte du Chatelet.
"He has the air of a prince," the mask went on, "and it is not the actress he lived with who could give it to him. My cousin, who understood him, could not lick him into shape. I should like to know the mistress of this Sargine; tell me something about him that will enable me to mystify him."
This couple, whispering as they watched the young man, became the object of study to the square-shouldered domino.
"Dear Monsieur Chardon," said the Prefet of the Charente, taking the dandy's hand, "allow me to introduce you to some one who wishes to renew acquaintance with you——"
"Dear Comte Chatelet," replied the young man, "that lady taught me how ridiculous was the name by which you address me. A patent from the king has restored to me that of my mother's family—the Rubempres. Although the fact has been announced in the papers, it relates to so unimportant a person that I need not blush to recall it to my friends, my enemies, and those who are neither——You may class yourself where you will, but I am sure you will not disapprove of a step to which I was advised by your wife when she was still only Madame de Bargeton."
This neat retort, which made the Marquise smile, gave the Prefet of la Charente a nervous chill. "You may tell her," Lucien went on, "that I now bear gules, a bull raging argent on a meadow vert."
"Raging argent," echoed Chatelet.
"Madame la Marquise will explain to you, if you do not know, why that old coat is a little better than the chamberlain's key and Imperial gold bees which you bear on yours, to the great despair of Madame Chatelet, nee Negrepelisse d'Espard," said Lucien quickly.
"Since you recognize me, I cannot puzzle you; and I could never tell you how much you puzzle me," said the Marquise d'Espard, amazed at the coolness and impertinence to which the man had risen whom she had formerly despised.
"Then allow me, madame, to preserve my only chance of occupying your thoughts by remaining in that mysterious twilight," said he, with the smile of a man who does not wish to risk assured happiness.
"I congratulate you on your changed fortunes," said the Comte du Chatelet to Lucien.
"I take it as you offer it," replied Lucien, bowing with much grace to the Marquise.
"What a coxcomb!" said the Count in an undertone to Madame d'Espard. "He has succeeded in winning an ancestry."
"With these young men such coxcombry, when it is addressed to us, almost always implies some success in high places," said the lady; "for with you older men it means ill-fortune. And I should very much like to know which of my grand lady friends has taken this fine bird under her patronage; then I might find the means of amusing myself this evening. My ticket, anonymously sent, is no doubt a bit of mischief planned by a rival and having something to do with this young man. His impertinence is to order; keep an eye on him. I will take the Duc de Navarrein's arm. You will be able to find me again."
Just as Madame d'Espard was about to address her cousin, the mysterious mask came between her and the Duke to whisper in her ear:
"Lucien loves you; he wrote the note. Your Prefet is his greatest foe; how can he speak in his presence?"
The stranger moved off, leaving Madame d'Espard a prey to a double surprise. The Marquise knew no one in the world who was capable of playing the part assumed by this mask; she suspected a snare, and went to sit down out of sight. The Comte Sixte du Chatelet—whom Lucien had abridged of his ambitious du with an emphasis that betrayed long meditated revenge—followed the handsome dandy, and presently met a young man to whom he thought he could speak without reserve.
"Well, Rastignac, have you seen Lucien? He has come out in a new skin."
"If I were half as good looking as he is, I should be twice as rich," replied the fine gentleman, in a light but meaning tone, expressive of keen raillery.
"No!" said the fat mask in his ear, repaying a thousand ironies in one by the accent he lent the monosyllable.
Rastignac, who was not the man to swallow an affront, stood as if struck by lightning, and allowed himself to be led into a recess by a grasp of iron which he could not shake off.
"You young cockerel, hatched in Mother Vauquer's coop—you, whose heart failed you to clutch old Taillefer's millions when the hardest part of the business was done—let me tell you, for your personal safety, that if you do not treat Lucien like the brother you love, you are in our power, while we are not in yours. Silence and submission! or I shall join your game and upset the skittles. Lucien de Rubempre is under the protection of the strongest power of the day—the Church. Choose between life and death—Answer."
Rastignac felt giddy, like a man who has slept in a forest and wakes to see by his side a famishing lioness. He was frightened, and there was no one to see him; the boldest men yield to fear under such circumstances.
"No one but HE can know—or would dare——" he murmured to himself.
The mask clutched his hand tighter to prevent his finishing his sentence.
"Act as if I were he," he said.
Rastignac then acted like a millionaire on the highroad with a brigand's pistol at his head; he surrendered.
"My dear Count," said he to du Chatelet, to whom he presently returned, "if you care for your position in life, treat Lucien de Rubempre as a man whom you will one day see holding a place far above where you stand."
The mask made a imperceptible gesture of approbation, and went off in search of Lucien.
"My dear fellow, you have changed your opinion of him very suddenly," replied the Prefet with justifiable surprise.
"As suddenly as men change who belong to the centre and vote with the right," replied Rastignac to the Prefet-Depute, whose vote had for a few days failed to support the Ministry.
"Are there such things as opinions nowadays? There are only interests," observed des Lupeaulx, who had heard them. "What is the case in point?"
"The case of the Sieur de Rubempre, whom Rastignac is setting up as a person of consequence," said du Chatelet to the Secretary-General.
"My dear Count," replied des Lupeaulx very seriously, "Monsieur de Rubempre is a young man of the highest merit, and has such good interest at his back that I should be delighted to renew my acquaintance with him."
"There he is, rushing into the wasps' nest of the rakes of the day," said Rastignac.
The three speakers looked towards a corner where a group of recognized wits had gathered, men of more or less celebrity, and several men of fashion. These gentlemen made common stock of their jests, their remarks, and their scandal, trying to amuse themselves till something should amuse them. Among this strangely mingled party were some men with whom Lucien had had transactions, combining ostensibly kind offices with covert false dealing.
"Hallo! Lucien, my boy, why here we are patched up again—new stuffing and a new cover. Where have we come from? Have we mounted the high horse once more with little offerings from Florine's boudoir? Bravo, old chap!" and Blondet released Finot to put his arm affectionately around Lucien and press him to his heart.
Andoche Finot was the proprietor of a review on which Lucien had worked for almost nothing, and to which Blondet gave the benefit of his collaboration, of the wisdom of his suggestions and the depth of his views. Finot and Blondet embodied Bertrand and Raton, with this difference—that la Fontaine's cat at last showed that he knew himself to be duped, while Blondet, though he knew that he was being fleeced, still did all he could for Finot. This brilliant condottiere of the pen was, in fact, long to remain a slave. Finot hid a brutal strength of will under a heavy exterior, under polish of wit, as a laborer rubs his bread with garlic. He knew how to garner what he gleaned, ideas and crown-pieces alike, in the fields of the dissolute life led by men engaged in letters or in politics.
Blondet, for his sins, had placed his powers at the service of Finot's vices and idleness. Always at war with necessity, he was one of the race of poverty-stricken and superior men who can do everything for the fortune of others and nothing for their own, Aladdins who let other men borrow their lamp. These excellent advisers have a clear and penetrating judgment so long as it is not distracted by personal interest. In them it is the head and not the arm that acts. Hence the looseness of their morality, and hence the reproach heaped upon them by inferior minds. Blondet would share his purse with a comrade he had affronted the day before; he would dine, drink, and sleep with one whom he would demolish on the morrow. His amusing paradoxes excused everything. Accepting the whole world as a jest, he did not want to be taken seriously; young, beloved, almost famous and contented, he did not devote himself, like Finot, to acquiring the fortune an old man needs.
The most difficult form of courage, perhaps, is that which Lucien needed at this moment to get rid of Blondet as he had just got rid of Madame d'Espard and Chatelet. In him, unfortunately, the joys of vanity hindered the exercise of pride—the basis, beyond doubt, of many great things. His vanity had triumphed in the previous encounter; he had shown himself as a rich man, happy and scornful, to two persons who had scorned him when he was poor and wretched. But how could a poet, like an old diplomate, run the gauntlet with two self-styled friends, who had welcomed him in misery, under whose roof he had slept in the worst of his troubles? Finot, Blondet, and he had groveled together; they had wallowed in such orgies as consume something more than money. Like soldiers who find no market for their courage, Lucien had just done what many men do in Paris: he had still further compromised his character by shaking Finot's hand, and not rejecting Blondet's affection.
Every man who has dabbled, or still dabbles, in journalism is under the painful necessity of bowing to men he despises, of smiling at his dearest foe, of compounding the foulest meanness, of soiling his fingers to pay his aggressors in their own coin. He becomes used to seeing evil done, and passing it over; he begins by condoning it, and ends by committing it. In the long run the soul, constantly strained by shameful and perpetual compromise, sinks lower, the spring of noble thoughts grows rusty, the hinges of familiarity wear easy, and turn of their own accord. Alceste becomes Philinte, natures lose their firmness, talents are perverted, faith in great deeds evaporates. The man who yearned to be proud of his work wastes himself in rubbishy articles which his conscience regards, sooner or later, as so many evil actions. He started, like Lousteau or Vernou, to be a great writer; he finds himself a feeble scrivener. Hence it is impossible to honor too highly men whose character stands as high as their talent—men like d'Arthez, who know how to walk surefooted across the reefs of literary life.
Lucien could make no reply to Blondet's flattery; his wit had an irresistible charm for him, and he maintained the hold of the corrupter over his pupil; besides, he held a position in the world through his connection with the Comtesse de Montcornet.
"Has an uncle left you a fortune?" said Finot, laughing at him.
"Like you, I have marked some fools for cutting down," replied Lucien in the same tone.
"Then Monsieur has a review—a newspaper of his own?" Andoche Finot retorted, with the impertinent presumption of a chief to a subordinate.
"I have something better," replied Lucien, whose vanity, nettled by the assumed superiority of his editor, restored him to the sense of his new position.
"What is that, my dear boy?"
"I have a party."
"There is a Lucien party?" said Vernou, smiling
"Finot, the boy has left you in the lurch; I told you he would. Lucien is a clever fellow, and you never were respectful to him. You used him as a hack. Repent, blockhead!" said Blondet.
Blondet, as sharp as a needle, could detect more than one secret in Lucien's air and manner; while stroking him down, he contrived to tighten the curb. He meant to know the reasons of Lucien's return to Paris, his projects, and his means of living.
"On your knees to a superiority you can never attain to, albeit you are Finot!" he went on. "Admit this gentleman forthwith to be one of the great men to whom the future belongs; he is one of us! So witty and so handsome, can he fail to succeed by your quibuscumque viis? Here he stands, in his good Milan armor, his strong sword half unsheathed, and his pennon flying!—Bless me, Lucien, where did you steal that smart waistcoat? Love alone can find such stuff as that. Have you an address? At this moment I am anxious to know where my friends are domiciled; I don't know where to sleep. Finot has turned me out of doors for the night, under the vulgar pretext of 'a lady in the case.'"
"My boy," said Lucien, "I put into practice a motto by which you may secure a quiet life: Fuge, late, tace. I am off."
"But I am not off till you pay me a sacred debt—that little supper, you know, heh?" said Blondet, who was rather too much given to good cheer, and got himself treated when he was out of funds.
"What supper?" asked Lucien with a little stamp of impatience.
"You don't remember? In that I recognize my prosperous friend; he has lost his memory."
"He knows what he owes us; I will go bail for his good heart," said Finot, taking up Blondet's joke.
"Rastignac," said Blondet, taking the young dandy by the arm as he came up the room to the column where the so-called friends were standing. "There is a supper in the wind; you will join us—unless," he added gravely, turning to Lucien, "Monsieur persists in ignoring a debt of honor. He can."
"Monsieur de Rubempre is incapable of such a thing; I will answer for him," said Rastignac, who never dreamed of a practical joke.
"And there is Bixiou, he will come too," cried Blondet; "there is no fun without him. Without him champagne cloys my tongue, and I find everything insipid, even the pepper of satire."
"My friends," said Bixiou, "I see you have gathered round the wonder of the day. Our dear Lucien has revived the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Just as the gods used to turn into strange vegetables and other things to seduce the ladies, he has turned the Chardon (the Thistle) into a gentleman to bewitch—whom? Charles X.!—My dear boy," he went on, holding Lucien by his coat button, "a journalist who apes the fine gentleman deserves rough music. In their place," said the merciless jester, as he pointed to Finot and Vernou, "I should take you up in my society paper; you would bring in a hundred francs for ten columns of fun."
"Bixiou," said Blondet, "an Amphitryon is sacred for twenty-four hours before a feast and twelve hours after. Our illustrious friend is giving us a supper."
"What then!" cried Bixiou; "what is more imperative than the duty of saving a great name from oblivion, of endowing the indigent aristocracy with a man of talent? Lucien, you enjoy the esteem of the press of which you were a distinguished ornament, and we will give you our support.—Finot, a paragraph in the 'latest items'!—Blondet, a little butter on the fourth page of your paper!—We must advertise the appearance of one of the finest books of the age, l'Archer de Charles IX.! We will appeal to Dauriat to bring out as soon as possible les Marguerites, those divine sonnets by the French Petrarch! We must carry our friend through on the shield of stamped paper by which reputations are made and unmade."
"If you want a supper," said Lucien to Blondet, hoping to rid himself of this mob, which threatened to increase, "it seems to me that you need not work up hyperbole and parable to attack an old friend as if he were a booby. To-morrow night at Lointier's——" he cried, seeing a woman come by, whom he rushed to meet.
"Oh! oh! oh!" said Bixiou on three notes, with a mocking glance, and seeming to recognize the mask to whom Lucien addressed himself. "This needs confirmation."
He followed the handsome pair, got past them, examined them keenly, and came back, to the great satisfaction of all the envious crowd, who were eager to learn the source of Lucien's change of fortune.
"Friends," said Bixiou, "you have long known the goddess of the Sire de Rubempre's fortune: She is des Lupeaulx's former 'rat.'"
A form of dissipation, now forgotten, but still customary at the beginning of this century, was the keeping of "rats." The "rat"—a slang word that has become old-fashioned—was a girl of ten or twelve in the chorus of some theatre, more particularly at the opera, who was trained by young roues to vice and infamy. A "rat" was a sort of demon page, a tomboy who was forgiven a trick if it were but funny. The "rat" might take what she pleased; she was to be watched like a dangerous animal, and she brought an element of liveliness into life, like Scapin, Sganarelle, and Frontin in old-fashioned comedy. But a "rat" was too expensive; it made no return in honor, profit, or pleasure; the fashion of rats so completely went out, that in these days few people knew anything of this detail of fashionable life before the Restoration till certain writers took up the "rat" as a new subject.
"What! after having seen Coralie killed under him, Lucien means to rob us of La Torpille?" (the torpedo fish) said Blondet.
As he heard the name the brawny mask gave a significant start, which, though repressed, was understood by Rastignac.
"It is out of the question," replied Finot; "La Torpille has not a sou to give away; Nathan tells me she borrowed a thousand francs of Florine."
"Come, gentlemen, gentlemen!" said Rastignac, anxious to defend Lucien against so odious an imputation.
"Well," cried Vernou, "is Coralie's kept man likely to be so very particular?"
"Oh!" replied Bixiou, "those thousand francs prove to me that our friend Lucien lives with La Torpille——"
"What an irreparable loss to literature, science, art, and politics!" exclaimed Blondet. "La Torpille is the only common prostitute in whom I ever found the stuff for a superior courtesan; she has not been spoiled by education—she can neither read nor write, she would have understood us. We might have given to our era one of those magnificent Aspasias without which there can be no golden age. See how admirably Madame du Barry was suited to the eighteenth century, Ninon de l'Enclos to the seventeenth, Marion Delorme to the sixteenth, Imperia to the fifteenth, Flora to Republican Rome, which she made her heir, and which paid off the public debt with her fortune! What would Horace be without Lydia, Tibullus without Delia, Catullus without Lesbia, Propertius without Cynthia, Demetrius without Lamia, who is his glory at this day?"
"Blondet talking of Demetrius in the opera house seems to me rather too strong of the Debats," said Bixiou in his neighbor's ears.
"And where would the empire of the Caesars have been but for these queens?" Blondet went on; "Lais and Rhodope are Greece and Egypt. They all indeed are the poetry of the ages in which they lived. This poetry, which Napoleon lacked—for the Widow of his Great Army is a barrack jest, was not wanting to the Revolution; it had Madame Tallien! In these days there is certainly a throne to let in France which is for her who can fill it. We among us could make a queen. I should have given La Torpille an aunt, for her mother is too decidedly dead on the field of dishonor; du Tillet would have given her a mansion, Lousteau a carriage, Rastignac her footmen, des Lupeaulx a cook, Finot her hats"—Finot could not suppress a shrug at standing the point-blank fire of this epigram—"Vernou would have composed her advertisements, and Bixiou her repartees! The aristocracy would have come to enjoy themselves with our Ninon, where we would have got artists together, under pain of death by newspaper articles. Ninon the second would have been magnificently impertinent, overwhelming in luxury. She would have set up opinions. Some prohibited dramatic masterpiece should have been read in her drawing-room; it should have been written on purpose if necessary. She would not have been liberal; a courtesan is essentially monarchical. Oh, what a loss! She ought to have embraced her whole century, and she makes love with a little young man! Lucien will make a sort of hunting-dog of her."
"None of the female powers of whom you speak ever trudged the streets," said Finot, "and that pretty little 'rat' has rolled in the mire."
"Like a lily-seed in the soil," replied Vernou, "and she has improved in it and flowered. Hence her superiority. Must we not have known everything to be able to create the laughter and joy which are part of everything?"
"He is right," said Lousteau, who had hitherto listened without speaking; "La Torpille can laugh and make others laugh. That gift of all great writers and great actors is proper to those who have investigated every social deep. At eighteen that girl had already known the greatest wealth, the most squalid misery—men of every degree. She bears about her a sort of magic wand by which she lets loose the brutal appetites so vehemently suppressed in men who still have a heart while occupied with politics or science, literature or art. There is not in Paris another woman who can say to the beast as she does: 'Come out!' And the beast leaves his lair and wallows in excesses. She feeds you up to the chin, she helps you to drink and smoke. In short, this woman is the salt of which Rabelais writes, which, thrown on matter, animates it and elevates it to the marvelous realms of art; her robe displays unimagined splendor, her fingers drop gems as her lips shed smiles; she gives the spirit of the occasion to every little thing; her chatter twinkles with bright sayings, she has the secret of the quaintest onomatopoeia, full of color, and giving color; she——"
"You are wasting five francs' worth of copy," said Bixiou, interrupting Lousteau. "La Torpille is something far better than all that; you have all been in love with her more or less, not one of you can say that she ever was his mistress. She can always command you; you will never command her. You may force your way in and ask her to do you a service——"
"Oh, she is more generous than a brigand chief who knows his business, and more devoted than the best of school-fellows," said Blondet. "You may trust her with your purse or your secrets. But what made me choose her as queen is her Bourbon-like indifference for a fallen favorite."
"She, like her mother, is much too dear," said des Lupeaulx. "The handsome Dutch woman would have swallowed up the income of the Archbishop of Toledo; she ate two notaries out of house and home——"
"And kept Maxime de Trailles when he was a court page," said Bixiou.
"La Torpille is too dear, as Raphael was, or Careme, or Taglioni, or Lawrence, or Boule, or any artist of genius is too dear," said Blondet.
"Esther never looked so thoroughly a lady," said Rastignac, pointing to the masked figure to whom Lucien had given his arm. "I will bet on its being Madame de Serizy."
"Not a doubt of it," cried du Chatelet, "and Monsieur du Rubempre's fortune is accounted for."
"Ah, the Church knows how to choose its Levites; what a sweet ambassador's secretary he will make!" remarked des Lupeaulx.
"All the more so," Rastignac went on, "because Lucien is a really clever fellow. These gentlemen have had proof of it more than once," and he turned to Blondet, Finot, and Lousteau.
"Yes, the boy is cut out of the right stuff to get on," said Lousteau, who was dying of jealousy. "And particularly because he has what we call independent ideas..."
"It is you who trained him," said Vernou.
"Well," replied Bixiou, looking at des Lupeaulx, "I trust to the memory of Monsieur the Secretary-General and Master of Appeals—that mask is La Torpille, and I will stand a supper on it."
"I will hold the stakes," said du Chatelet, curious to know the truth.
"Come, des Lupeaulx," said Finot, "try to identify your rat's ears."
"There is no need for committing the crime of treason against a mask," replied Bixiou. "La Torpille and Lucien must pass us as they go up the room again, and I pledge myself to prove that it is she."
"So our friend Lucien has come above water once more," said Nathan, joining the group. "I thought he had gone back to Angoumois for the rest of his days. Has he discovered some secret to ruin the English?"
"He has done what you will not do in a hurry," retorted Rastignac; "he has paid up."
The burly mask nodded in confirmation.
"A man who has sown his wild oats at his age puts himself out of court. He has no pluck; he puts money in the funds," replied Nathan.
"Oh, that youngster will always be a fine gentleman, and will always have such lofty notions as will place him far above many men who think themselves his betters," replied Rastignac.
At this moment journalists, dandies, and idlers were all examining the charming subject of their bet as horse-dealers examine a horse for sale. These connoisseurs, grown old in familiarity with every form of Parisian depravity, all men of superior talent each his own way, equally corrupt, equally corrupting, all given over to unbridled ambition, accustomed to assume and to guess everything, had their eyes centered on a masked woman, a woman whom no one else could identify. They, and certain habitual frequenters of the opera balls, could alone recognize under the long shroud of the black domino, the hood and falling ruff which make the wearer unrecognizable, the rounded form, the individuality of figure and gait, the sway of the waist, the carriage of the head—the most intangible trifles to ordinary eyes, but to them the easiest to discern.
In spite of this shapeless wrapper they could watch the most appealing of dramas, that of a woman inspired by a genuine passion. Were she La Torpille, the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, or Madame de Serizy, on the lowest or highest rung of the social ladder, this woman was an exquisite creature, a flash from happy dreams. These old young men, like these young old men, felt so keen an emotion, that they envied Lucien the splendid privilege of working such a metamorphosis of a woman into a goddess. The mask was there as though she had been alone with Lucien; for that woman the thousand other persons did not exist, nor the evil and dust-laden atmosphere; no, she moved under the celestial vault of love, as Raphael's Madonnas under their slender oval glory. She did not feel herself elbowed; the fire of her glance shot from the holes in her mask and sank into Lucien's eyes; the thrill of her frame seemed to answer to every movement of her companion. Whence comes this flame that radiates from a woman in love and distinguishes her above all others? Whence that sylph-like lightness which seems to negative the laws of gravitation? Is the soul become ambient? Has happiness a physical effluence?
The ingenuousness of a girl, the graces of a child were discernible under the domino. Though they walked apart, these two beings suggested the figures of Flora and Zephyr as we see them grouped by the cleverest sculptors; but they were beyond sculpture, the greatest of the arts; Lucien and his pretty domino were more like the angels busied with flowers or birds, which Gian Bellini has placed beneath the effigies of the Virgin Mother. Lucien and this girl belonged to the realm of fancy, which is as far above art as cause is above effect.
When the domino, forgetful of everything, was within a yard of the group, Bixiou exclaimed:
The unhappy girl turned her head quickly at hearing herself called, recognized the mischievous speaker, and bowed her head like a dying creature that has drawn its last breath.
A sharp laugh followed, and the group of men melted among the crowd like a knot of frightened field-rats whisking into their holes by the roadside. Rastignac alone went no further than was necessary, just to avoid making any show of shunning Lucien's flashing eye. He could thus note two phases of distress equally deep though unconfessed; first, the hapless Torpille, stricken as by a lightning stroke, and then the inscrutable mask, the only one of the group who had remained. Esther murmured a word in Lucien's ear just as her knees gave way, and Lucien, supporting her, led her away.
Rastignac watched the pretty pair, lost in meditation.
"How did she get her name of La Torpille?" asked a gloomy voice that struck to his vitals, for it was no longer disguised.
"He again—he has made his escape!" muttered Rastignac to himself.
"Be silent or I murder you," replied the mask, changing his voice. "I am satisfied with you, you have kept your word, and there is more than one arm ready to serve you. Henceforth be as silent as the grave; but, before that, answer my question."
"Well, the girl is such a witch that she could have magnetized the Emperor Napoleon; she could magnetize a man more difficult to influence—you yourself," replied Rastignac, and he turned to go.
"One moment," said the mask; "I will prove to you that you have never seen me anywhere."
The speaker took his mask off; for a moment Rastignac hesitated, recognizing nothing of the hideous being he had known formerly at Madame Vauquer's.
"The devil has enabled you to change in every particular, excepting your eyes, which it is impossible to forget," said he.
The iron hand gripped his arm to enjoin eternal secrecy.
At three in the morning des Lupeaulx and Finot found the elegant Rastignac on the same spot, leaning against the column where the terrible mask had left him. Rastignac had confessed to himself; he had been at once priest and pentient, culprit and judge. He allowed himself to be led away to breakfast, and reached home perfectly tipsy, but taciturn.
The Rue de Langlade and the adjacent streets are a blot on the Palais Royal and the Rue de Rivoli. This portion of one of the handsomest quarters of Paris will long retain the stain of foulness left by the hillocks formed of the middens of old Paris, on which mills formerly stood. These narrow streets, dark and muddy, where such industries are carried on as care little for appearances wear at night an aspect of mystery full of contrasts. On coming from the well-lighted regions of the Rue Saint-Honore, the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, and the Rue de Richelieu, where the crowd is constantly pushing, where glitter the masterpieces of industry, fashion, and art, every man to whom Paris by night is unknown would feel a sense of dread and melancholy, on finding himself in the labyrinth of little streets which lie round that blaze of light reflected even from the sky. Dense blackness is here, instead of floods of gaslight; a dim oil-lamp here and there sheds its doubtful and smoky gleam, and many blind alleys are not lighted at all. Foot passengers are few, and walk fast. The shops are shut, the few that are open are of a squalid kind; a dirty, unlighted wineshop, or a seller of underclothing and eau-de-Cologne. An unwholesome chill lays a clammy cloak over your shoulders. Few carriages drive past. There are sinister places here, especially the Rue de Langlade, the entrance to the Passage Saint-Guillaume, and the turnings of some streets.
The municipal council has not yet been to purge this vast lazar-place, for prostitution long since made it its headquarters. It is, perhaps, a good thing for Paris that these alleys should be allowed to preserve their filthy aspect. Passing through them by day, it is impossible to imagine what they become by night; they are pervaded by strange creatures of no known world; white, half-naked forms cling to the walls—the darkness is alive. Between the passenger and the wall a dress steals by—a dress that moves and speaks. Half-open doors suddenly shout with laughter. Words fall on the ear such as Rabelais speaks of as frozen and melting. Snatches of songs come up from the pavement. The noise is not vague; it means something. When it is hoarse it is a voice; but if it suggests a song, there is nothing human about it, it is more like a croak. Often you hear a sharp whistle, and then the tap of boot-heels has a peculiarly aggressive and mocking ring. This medley of things makes you giddy. Atmospheric conditions are reversed there—it is warm in winter and cool in summer.
Still, whatever the weather, this strange world always wears the same aspect; it is the fantastic world of Hoffmann of Berlin. The most mathematical of clerks never thinks of it as real, after returning through the straits that lead into decent streets, where there are passengers, shops, and taverns. Modern administration, or modern policy, more scornful or more shamefaced than the queens and kings of past ages, no longer dare look boldly in the face of this plague of our capitals. Measures, of course, must change with the times, and such as bear on individuals and on their liberty are a ticklish matter; still, we ought, perhaps, to show some breadth and boldness as to merely material measures—air, light, and construction. The moralist, the artist, and the sage administrator alike must regret the old wooden galleries of the Palais Royal, where the lambs were to be seen who will always be found where there are loungers; and is it not best that the loungers should go where they are to be found? What is the consequence? The gayest parts of the Boulevards, that delightfulest of promenades, are impossible in the evening for a family party. The police has failed to take advantage of the outlet afforded by some small streets to purge the main street.
The girl whom we have seen crushed by a word at the opera ball had been for the last month or two living in the Rue de Langlade, in a very poor-looking house. This structure, stuck on to the wall of an enormously large one, badly stuccoed, of no depth, and immensely high, has all its windows on the street, and bears some resemblance to a parrot's perch. On each floor are two rooms, let as separate flats. There is a narrow staircase clinging to the wall, queerly lighted by windows which mark its ascent on the outer wall, each landing being indicated by a stink, one of the most odious peculiarities of Paris. The shop and entresol at that time were tenanted by a tinman; the landlord occupied the first floor; the four upper stories were rented by very decent working girls, who were treated by the portress and the proprietor with some consideration and an obligingness called forth by the difficulty of letting a house so oddly constructed and situated. The occupants of the quarter are accounted for by the existence there of many houses of the same character, for which trade has no use, and which can only be rented by the poorer kinds of industry, of a precarious or ignominious nature.
At three in the afternoon the portress, who had seen Mademoiselle Esther brought home half dead by a young man at two in the morning, had just held council with the young woman of the floor above, who, before setting out in a cab to join some party of pleasure, had expressed her uneasiness about Esther; she had not heard her move. Esther was, no doubt, still asleep, but this slumber seemed suspicious. The portress, alone in her cell, was regretting that she could not go to see what was happening on the fourth floor, where Mademoiselle Esther lodged.
Just as she had made up her mind to leave the tinman's son in charge of her room, a sort of den in a recess on the entresol floor, a cab stopped at the door. A man stepped out, wrapped from head to foot in a cloak evidently intended to conceal his dress or his rank in life, and asked for Mademoiselle Esther. The portress at one felt relieved; this accounted for Esther's silence and quietude. As the stranger mounted the stairs above the portress' room, she noticed silver buckles in his shoes, and fancied she caught sight of the black fringe of a priest's sash; she went downstairs and catechised the driver, who answered without speech, and again the woman understood.
The priest knocked, received no answer, heard a slight gasp, and forced the door open with a thrust of his shoulder; charity, no doubt lent him strength, but in any one else it would have been ascribed to practice. He rushed to the inner room, and there found poor Esther in front of an image of the Virgin in painted plaster, kneeling, or rather doubled up, on the floor, her hands folded. The girl was dying. A brazier of burnt charcoal told the tale of that dreadful morning. The domino cloak and hood were lying on the ground. The bed was undisturbed. The unhappy creature, stricken to the heart by a mortal thrust, had, no doubt, made all her arrangements on her return from the opera. A candle-wick, collapsed in the pool of grease that filled the candle-sconce, showed how completely her last meditations had absorbed her. A handkerchief soaked with tears proved the sincerity of the Magdalen's despair, while her classic attitude was that of the irreligious courtesan. This abject repentance made the priest smile.
Esther, unskilled in dying, had left the door open, not thinking that the air of two rooms would need a larger amount of charcoal to make it suffocating; she was only stunned by the fumes; the fresh air from the staircase gradually restored her to a consciousness of her woes.
The priest remained standing, lost in gloomy meditation, without being touched by the girl's divine beauty, watching her first movements as if she had been some animal. His eyes went from the crouching figure to the surrounding objects with evident indifference. He looked at the furniture in the room; the paved floor, red, polished, and cold, was poorly covered with a shabby carpet worn to the string. A little bedstead, of painted wood and old-fashioned shape, was hung with yellow cotton printed with red stars, one armchair and two small chairs, also of painted wood, and covered with the same cotton print of which the window-curtains were also made; a gray wall-paper sprigged with flowers blackened and greasy with age; a fireplace full of kitchen utensils of the vilest kind, two bundles of fire-logs; a stone shelf, on which lay some jewelry false and real, a pair of scissors, a dirty pincushion, and some white scented gloves; an exquisite hat perched on the water-jug, a Ternaux shawl stopping a hole in the window, a handsome gown hanging from a nail; a little hard sofa, with no cushions; broken clogs and dainty slippers, boots that a queen might have coveted; cheap china plates, cracked or chipped, with fragments of a past meal, and nickel forks—the plate of the Paris poor; a basket full of potatoes and dirty linen, with a smart gauze cap on the top; a rickety wardrobe, with a glass door, open and empty, and on the shelves sundry pawn-tickets,—this was the medley of things, dismal or pleasing, abject and handsome, that fell on his eye.
These relics of splendor among the potsherds, these household belongings—so appropriate to the bohemian existence of the girl who knelt stricken in her unbuttoned garments, like a horse dying in harness under the broken shafts entangled in the reins—did the whole strange scene suggest any thoughts to the priest? Did he say to himself that this erring creature must at least be disinterested to live in such poverty when her lover was young and rich? Did he ascribe the disorder of the room to the disorder of her life? Did he feel pity or terror? Was his charity moved?
To see him, his arms folded, his brow dark, his lips set, his eye harsh, any one must have supposed him absorbed in morose feelings of hatred, considerations that jostled each other, sinister schemes. He was certainly insensible to the soft roundness of a bosom almost crushed under the weight of the bowed shoulders, and to the beautiful modeling of the crouching Venus that was visible under the black petticoat, so closely was the dying girl curled up. The drooping head which, seen from behind, showed the white, slender, flexible neck and the fine shoulders of a well-developed figure, did not appeal to him. He did not raise Esther, he did not seem to hear the agonizing gasps which showed that she was returning to life; a fearful sob and a terrifying glance from the girl were needed before he condescended to lift her, and he carried her to the bed with an ease that revealed enormous strength.
"Lucien!" she murmured.
"Love is there, the woman is not far behind," said the priest with some bitterness.
The victim of Parisian depravity then observed the dress worn by her deliverer, and said, with a smile like a child's when it takes possession of something longed for:
"Then I shall not die without being reconciled to Heaven?"
"You may yet expiate your sins," said the priest, moistening her forehead with water, and making her smell at a cruet of vinegar he found in a corner.
"I feel that life, instead of departing, is rushing in on me," said she, after accepting the Father's care and expressing her gratitude by simple gestures. This engaging pantomime, such as the Graces might have used to charm, perfectly justified the nickname given to this strange girl.
"Do you feel better?" said the priest, giving her a glass of sugar and water to drink.
This man seemed accustomed to such queer establishments; he knew all about it. He was quite at home there. This privilege of being everywhere at home is the prerogative of kings, courtesans, and thieves.
"When you feel quite well," this strange priest went on after a pause, "you must tell me the reasons which prompted you to commit this last crime, this attempted suicide."
"My story is very simple, Father," replied she. "Three months ago I was living the evil life to which I was born. I was the lowest and vilest of creatures; now I am only the most unhappy. Excuse me from telling you the history of my poor mother, who was murdered——"
"By a Captain, in a house of ill-fame," said the priest, interrupting the penitent. "I know your origin, and I know that if a being of your sex can ever be excused for leading a life of shame, it is you, who have always lacked good examples."
"Alas! I was never baptized, and have no religious teaching."
"All may yet be remedied then," replied the priest, "provided that your faith, your repentance, are sincere and without ulterior motive."
"Lucien and God fill my heart," said she with ingenuous pathos.
"You might have said God and Lucien," answered the priest, smiling. "You remind me of the purpose of my visit. Omit nothing that concerns that young man."
"You have come from him?" she asked, with a tender look that would have touched any other priest! "Oh, he thought I should do it!"
"No," replied the priest; "it is not your death, but your life that we are interested in. Come, explain your position toward each other."
"In one word," said she.
The poor child quaked at the priest's stern tone, but as a woman quakes who has long ceased to be surprised at brutality.
"Lucien is Lucien," said she, "the handsomest young man, the kindest soul alive; if you know him, my love must seem to you quite natural. I met him by chance, three months ago, at the Porte-Saint-Martin theatre, where I went one day when I had leave, for we had a day a week at Madame Meynardie's, where I then was. Next day, you understand, I went out without leave. Love had come into my heart, and had so completely changed me, that on my return from the theatre I did not know myself: I had a horror of myself. Lucien would never have known. Instead of telling him what I was, I gave him my address at these rooms, where a friend of mine was then living, who was so kind as to give them up to me. I swear on my sacred word——"
"You must not swear."
"Is it swearing to give your sacred word?—Well, from that day I have worked in this room like a lost creature at shirt-making at twenty-eight sous apiece, so as to live by honest labor. For a month I have had nothing to eat but potatoes, that I might keep myself a good girl and worthy of Lucien, who loves me and respects me as a pattern of virtue. I have made my declaration before the police to recover my rights, and submitted to two years' surveillance. They are ready enough to enter your name on the lists of disgrace, but make every difficulty about scratching it out again. All I asked of Heaven was to enable me to keep my resolution.
"I shall be nineteen in the month of April; at my age there is still a chance. It seems to me that I was never born till three months ago.—I prayed to God every morning that Lucien might never know what my former life had been. I bought that Virgin you see there, and I prayed to her in my own way, for I do not know any prayers; I cannot read nor write, and I have never been into a church; I have never seen anything of God excepting in processions, out of curiosity."
"And what do you say to the Virgin?"
"I talk to her as I talk to Lucien, with all my soul, till I make him cry."
"Oh, so he cries?"
"With joy," said she eagerly, "poor dear boy! We understand each other so well that we have but one soul! He is so nice, so fond, so sweet in heart and mind and manners! He says he is a poet; I say he is god.—Forgive me! You priests, you see, don't know what love is. But, in fact, only girls like me know enough of men to appreciate such as Lucien. A Lucien, you see, is as rare as a woman without sin. When you come across him you can love no one else; so there! But such a being must have his fellow; so I want to be worthy to be loved by my Lucien. That is where my trouble began. Last evening, at the opera, I was recognized by some young men who have no more feeling than a tiger has pity—for that matter, I could come round the tiger! The veil of innocence I had tried to wear was worn off; their laughter pierced my brain and my heart. Do not think you have saved me; I shall die of grief."
"Your veil of innocence?" said the priest. "Then you have treated Lucien with the sternest severity?"
"Oh, Father, how can you, who know him, ask me such a question!" she replied with a smile. "Who can resist a god?"
"Do not be blasphemous," said the priest mildly. "No one can be like God. Exaggeration is out of place with true love; you had not a pure and genuine love for your idol. If you had undergone the conversion you boast of having felt, you would have acquired the virtues which are a part of womanhood; you would have known the charm of chastity, the refinements of modesty, the two virtues that are the glory of a maiden.—You do not love."
Esther's gesture of horror was seen by the priest, but it had no effect on the impassibility of her confessor.
"Yes; for you love him for yourself and not for himself, for the temporal enjoyments that delight you, and not for love itself. If he has thus taken possession of you, you cannot have felt that sacred thrill that is inspired by a being on whom God has set the seal of the most adorable perfections. Has it never occurred to you that you would degrade him by your past impurity, that you would corrupt a child by the overpowering seductions which earned you your nickname glorious in infamy? You have been illogical with yourself, and your passion of a day——"
"Of a day?" she repeated, raising her eyes.
"By what other name can you call a love that is not eternal, that does not unite us in the future life of the Christian, to the being we love?"
"Ah, I will be a Catholic!" she cried in a hollow, vehement tone, that would have earned her the mercy of the Lord.
"Can a girl who has received neither the baptism of the Church nor that of knowledge; who can neither read, nor write, nor pray; who cannot take a step without the stones in the street rising up to accuse her; noteworthy only for the fugitive gift of beauty which sickness may destroy to-morrow; can such a vile, degraded creature, fully aware too of her degradation—for if you had been ignorant of it and less devoted, you would have been more excusable—can the intended victim to suicide and hell hope to be the wife of Lucien de Rubempre?"
Every word was a poniard thrust piercing the depths of her heart. At every word the louder sobs and abundant tears of the desperate girl showed the power with which light had flashed upon an intelligence as pure as that of a savage, upon a soul at length aroused, upon a nature over which depravity had laid a sheet of foul ice now thawed in the sunshine of faith.
"Why did I not die!" was the only thought that found utterance in the midst of a torrent of ideas that racked and ravaged her brain.
"My daughter," said the terrible judge, "there is a love which is unconfessed before men, but of which the secret is received by the angels with smiles of gladness."
"What is that?"
"Love without hope, when it inspires our life, when it fills us with the spirit of sacrifice, when it ennobles every act by the thought of reaching some ideal perfection. Yes, the angels approve of such love; it leads to the knowledge of God. To aim at perfection in order to be worthy of the one you love, to make for him a thousand secret sacrifices, adoring him from afar, giving your blood drop by drop, abnegating your self-love, never feeling any pride or anger as regards him, even concealing from him all knowledge of the dreadful jealousy he fires in your heart, giving him all he wishes were it to your own loss, loving what he loves, always turning your face to him to follow him without his knowing it—such love as that religion would have forgiven; it is no offence to laws human or divine, and would have led you into another road than that of your foul voluptuousness."
As she heard this horrible verdict, uttered in a word—and such a word! and spoken in such a tone!—Esther's spirit rose up in fairly legitimate distrust. This word was like a thunder-clap giving warning of a storm about to break. She looked at the priest, and felt the grip on her vitals which wrings the bravest when face to face with sudden and imminent danger. No eye could have read what was passing in this man's mind; but the boldest would have found more to quail at than to hope for in the expression of his eyes, once bright and yellow like those of a tiger, but now shrouded, from austerities and privations, with a haze like that which overhangs the horizon in the dog-days, when, though the earth is hot and luminous, the mist makes it indistinct and dim—almost invisible.
The gravity of a Spaniard, the deep furrows which the myriad scars of virulent smallpox made hideously like broken ruts, were ploughed into his face, which was sallow and tanned by the sun. The hardness of this countenance was all the more conspicuous, being framed in the meagre dry wig of a priest who takes no care of his person, a black wig looking rusty in the light. His athletic frame, his hands like an old soldier's, his broad, strong shoulders were those of the Caryatides which the architects of the Middle Ages introduced into some Italian palaces, remotely imitated in those of the front of the Porte-Saint-Martin theatre. The least clear-sighted observer might have seen that fiery passions or some unwonted accident must have thrown this man into the bosom of the Church; certainly none but the most tremendous shocks of lightning could have changed him, if indeed such a nature were susceptible of change.
Women who have lived the life that Esther had so violently repudiated come to feel absolute indifference as to the critics of our day, who may be compared with them in some respects, and who feel at last perfect disregard of the formulas of art; they have read so many books, they see so many pass away, they are so much accustomed to written pages, they have gone through so many plots, they have seen so many dramas, they have written so many articles without saying what they meant, and have so often been treasonable to the cause of Art in favor of their personal likings and aversions, that they acquire a feeling of disgust of everything, and yet continue to pass judgment. It needs a miracle to make such a writer produce sound work, just as it needs another miracle to give birth to pure and noble love in the heart of a courtesan.
The tone and manner of this priest, who seemed to have escaped from a picture by Zurbaran, struck this poor girl as so hostile, little as externals affected her, that she perceived herself to be less the object of his solitude than the instrument he needed for some scheme. Being unable to distinguish between the insinuating tongue of personal interest and the unction of true charity, for we must be acutely awake to recognize false coin when it is offered by a friend, she felt herself, as it were, in the talons of some fierce and monstrous bird of prey who, after hovering over her for long, had pounced down on her; and in her terror she cried in a voice of alarm:
"I thought it was a priest's duty to console us, and you are killing me!"
At this innocent outcry the priest started and paused; he meditated a moment before replying. During that instant the two persons so strangely brought together studied each other cautiously. The priest understood the girl, though the girl could not understand the priest.
He, no doubt, put aside some plan which had threatened the unhappy Esther, and came back to his first ideas.
"We are physicians of the soul," said he, in a mild voice, "and we know what remedies suit their maladies."
"Much must be forgiven to the wretched," said Esther.
She fancied she had been wrong; she slipped off the bed, threw herself at the man's feet, kissed his gown with deep humility, and looked up at him with eyes full of tears.
"I thought I had done so much!" she said.
"Listen, my child. Your terrible reputation has cast Lucien's family into grief. They are afraid, and not without reason, that you may lead him into dissipation, into endless folly——"
"That is true; it was I who got him to the ball to mystify him."
"You are handsome enough to make him wish to triumph in you in the eyes of the world, to show you with pride, and make you an object for display. And if he wasted money only!—but he will waste his time, his powers; he will lose his inclination for the fine future his friends can secure to him. Instead of being some day an ambassador, rich, admired and triumphant, he, like so many debauchees who choke their talents in the mud of Paris, will have been the lover of a degraded woman.
"As for you, after rising for a time to the level of a sphere of elegance, you will presently sink back to your former life, for you have not in you the strength bestowed by a good education to enable you to resist vice and think of the future. You would no more be able to break with the women of your own class than you have broken with the men who shamed you at the opera this morning. Lucien's true friends, alarmed by his passion for you, have dogged his steps and know all. Filled with horror, they have sent me to you to sound your views and decide your fate; but though they are powerful enough to clear a stumbling-stone out of the young man's way, they are merciful. Understand this, child: a girl whom Lucien loves has claims on their regard, as a true Christian worships the slough on which, by chance, the divine light falls. I came to be the instrument of a beneficent purpose;—still, if I had found you utterly reprobate, armed with effrontery and astuteness, corrupt to the marrow, deaf to the voice of repentance, I should have abandoned you to their wrath.
"The release, civil and political, which it is so hard to win, which the police is so right to withhold for a time in the interests of society, and which I heard you long for with all the ardor of true repentance—is here," said the priest, taking an official-looking paper out of his belt. "You were seen yesterday, this letter of release is dated to-day. You see how powerful the people are who take an interest in Lucien."
At the sight of this document Esther was so ingenuously overcome by the convulsive agitation produced by unlooked-for joy, that a fixed smile parted her lips, like that of a crazy creature. The priest paused, looking at the girl to see whether, when once she had lost the horrible strength which corrupt natures find in corruption itself, and was thrown back on her frail and delicate primitive nature, she could endure so much excitement. If she had been a deceitful courtesan, Esther would have acted a part; but now that she was innocent and herself once more, she might perhaps die, as a blind man cured may lose his sight again if he is exposed to too bright a light. At this moment this man looked into the very depths of human nature, but his calmness was terrible in its rigidity; a cold alp, snow-bound and near to heaven, impenetrable and frowning, with flanks of granite, and yet beneficent.
Such women are essentially impressionable beings, passing without reason from the most idiotic distrust to absolute confidence. In this respect they are lower than animals. Extreme in everything—in their joy and despair, in their religion and irreligion—they would almost all go mad if they were not decimated by the mortality peculiar to their class, and if happy chances did not lift one now and then from the slough in which they dwell. To understand the very depths of the wretchedness of this horrible existence, one must know how far in madness a creature can go without remaining there, by studying La Torpille's violent ecstasy at the priest's feet. The poor girl gazed at the paper of release with an expression which Dante has overlooked, and which surpassed the inventiveness of his Inferno. But a reaction came with tears. Esther rose, threw her arms round the priest's neck, laid her head on his breast, which she wetted with her weeping, kissing the coarse stuff that covered that heart of steel as if she fain would touch it. She seized hold of him; she covered his hands with kisses; she poured out in a sacred effusion of gratitude her most coaxing caresses, lavished fond names on him, saying again and again in the midst of her honeyed words, "Let me have it!" in a thousand different tones of voice; she wrapped him in tenderness, covered him with her looks with a swiftness that found him defenceless; at last she charmed away his wrath.
The priest perceived how well the girl had deserved her nickname; he understood how difficult it was to resist this bewitching creature; he suddenly comprehended Lucien's love, and just what must have fascinated the poet. Such a passion hides among a thousand temptations a dart-like hook which is most apt to catch the lofty soul of an artist. These passions, inexplicable to the vulgar, are perfectly accounted for by the thirst for ideal beauty, which is characteristic of a creative mind. For are we not, in some degree, akin to the angels, whose task it is to bring the guilty to a better mind? are we not creative when we purify such a creature? How delightful it is to harmonize moral with physical beauty! What joy and pride if we succeed! How noble a task is that which has no instrument but love!
Such alliances, made famous by the example of Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Alcibiades, Cethegus, and Pompey, and yet so monstrous in the eyes of the vulgar, are based on the same feeling that prompted Louis XIV. to build Versailles, or that makes men rush into any ruinous enterprise—into converting the miasma of a marsh into a mass of fragrance surrounded by living waters; placing a lake at the top of a hill, as the Prince de Conti did at Nointel; or producing Swiss scenery at Cassan, like Bergeret, the farmer-general. In short, it is the application of art in the realm of morals.
The priest, ashamed of having yielded to this weakness, hastily pushed Esther away, and she sat down quite abashed, for he said:
"You are still the courtesan." And he calmly replaced the paper in his sash.
Esther, like a child who has a single wish in its head, kept her eyes fixed on the spot where the document lay hidden.
"My child," the priest went on after a pause, "your mother was a Jewess, and you have not been baptized; but, on the other hand, you have never been taken to the synagogue. You are in the limbo where little children are——"
"Little children!" she echoed, in a tenderly pathetic tone.
"As you are on the books of the police, a cipher outside the pale of social beings," the priest went on, unmoved. "If love, seen as it swept past, led you to believe three months since that you were then born, you must feel that since that day you have been really an infant. You must, therefore, be led as if you were a child; you must be completely changed, and I will undertake to make you unrecognizable. To begin with, you must forget Lucien."
The words crushed the poor girl's heart; she raised her eyes to the priest and shook her head; she could not speak, finding the executioner in the deliverer again.
"At any rate, you must give up seeing him," he went on. "I will take you to a religious house where young girls of the best families are educated; there you will become a Catholic, you will be trained in the practice of Christian exercises, you will be taught religion. You may come out an accomplished young lady, chaste, pure, well brought up, if——" The man lifted up a finger and paused.
"If," he went on, "you feel brave enough to leave the 'Torpille' behind you here."
"Ah!" cried the poor thing, to whom each word had been like a note of some melody to which the gates of Paradise were slowly opening. "Ah! if it were possible to shed all my blood here and have it renewed!"
"Listen to me."
She was silent.
"Your future fate depends on your power of forgetting. Think of the extent to which you pledge yourself. A word, a gesture, which betrays La Torpille will kill Lucien's wife. A word murmured in a dream, an involuntary thought, an immodest glance, a gesture of impatience, a reminiscence of dissipation, an omission, a shake of the head that might reveal what you know, or what is known about you for your woes——"
"Yes, yes, Father," said the girl, with the exaltation of a saint. "To walk in shoes of red-hot iron and smile, to live in a pair of stays set with nails and maintain the grace of a dancer, to eat bread salted with ashes, to drink wormwood,—all will be sweet and easy!"
She fell again on her knees, she kissed the priest's shoes, she melted into tears that wetted them, she clasped his knees, and clung to them, murmuring foolish words as she wept for joy. Her long and beautiful light hair waved to the ground, a sort of carpet under the feet of the celestial messenger, whom she saw as gloomy and hard as ever when she lifted herself up and looked at him.
"What have I done to offend you?" cried she, quite frightened. "I have heard of a woman, such as I am, who washed the feet of Jesus with perfumes. Alas! virtue has made me so poor that I have nothing but tears to offer you."
"Have you not understood?" he answered, in a cruel voice. "I tell you, you must be able to come out of the house to which I shall take you so completely changed, physically and morally, that no man or woman you have ever known will be able to call you 'Esther' and make you look round. Yesterday your love could not give you strength enough so completely to bury the prostitute that she could never reappear; and again to-day she revives in adoration which is due to none but God."
"Was it not He who sent you to me?" said she.
"If during the course of your education you should even see Lucien, all would be lost," he went on; "remember that."
"Who will comfort him?" said she.
"What was it that you comforted him for?" asked the priest, in a tone in which, for the first time during this scene, there was a nervous quaver.
"I do not know; he was often sad when he came."
"Sad!" said the priest. "Did he tell you why?"
"Never," answered she.
"He was sad at loving such a girl as you!" exclaimed he.
"Alas! and well he might be," said she, with deep humility. "I am the most despicable creature of my sex, and I could find favor in his eyes only by the greatness of my love."
"That love must give you the courage to obey me blindly. If I were to take you straight from hence to the house where you are to be educated, everybody here would tell Lucien that you had gone away to-day, Sunday, with a priest; he might follow in your tracks. In the course of a week, the portress, not seeing me again, might suppose me to be what I am not. So, one evening—this day week—at seven o'clock, go out quietly and get into a cab that will be waiting for you at the bottom of the Rue des Frondeurs. During this week avoid Lucien, find excuses, have him sent from the door, and if he should come in, go up to some friend's room. I shall know if you have seen him, and in that event all will be at an end. I shall not even come back. These eight days you will need to make up some suitable clothing and to hide your look of a prostitute," said he, laying a purse on the chimney-shelf. "There is something in your manner, in your clothes—something indefinable which is well known to Parisians, and proclaims you what you are. Have you never met in the streets or on the Boulevards a modest and virtuous girl walking with her mother?"
"Oh yes, to my sorrow! The sight of a mother and daughter is one of our most cruel punishments; it arouses the remorse that lurks in the innermost folds of our hearts, and that is consuming us.—I know too well all I lack."
"Well, then, you know how you should look next Sunday," said the priest, rising.
"Oh!" said she, "teach me one real prayer before you go, that I may pray to God."
It was a touching thing to see the priest making this girl repeat Ave Maria and Paternoster in French.
"That is very fine!" said Esther, when she had repeated these two grand and universal utterances of the Catholic faith without making a mistake.
"What is your name?" she asked the priest when he took leave of her.
"Carlos Herrera; I am a Spaniard banished from my country."
Esther took his hand and kissed it. She was no longer the courtesan; she was an angel rising after a fall.
In a religious institution, famous for the aristocratic and pious teaching imparted there, one Monday morning in the beginning of March 1824 the pupils found their pretty flock increased by a newcomer, whose beauty triumphed without dispute not only over that of her companions, but over the special details of beauty which were found severally in perfection in each one of them. In France it is extremely rare, not to say impossible, to meet with the thirty points of perfection, described in Persian verse, and engraved, it is said, in the Seraglio, which are needed to make a woman absolutely beautiful. Though in France the whole is seldom seen, we find exquisite parts. As to that imposing union which sculpture tries to produce, and has produced in a few rare examples like the Diana and the Callipyge, it is the privileged possession of Greece and Asia Minor.
Esther came from that cradle of the human race; her mother was a Jewess. The Jews, though so often deteriorated by their contact with other nations, have, among their many races, families in which this sublime type of Asiatic beauty has been preserved. When they are not repulsively hideous, they present the splendid characteristics of Armenian beauty. Esther would have carried off the prize at the Seraglio; she had the thirty points harmoniously combined. Far from having damaged the finish of her modeling and the freshness of her flesh, her strange life had given her the mysterious charm of womanhood; it is no longer the close, waxy texture of green fruit and not yet the warm glow of maturity; there is still the scent of the flower. A few days longer spent in dissolute living, and she would have been too fat. This abundant health, this perfection of the animal in a being in whom voluptuousness took the place of thought, must be a remarkable fact in the eyes of physiologists. A circumstance so rare, that it may be called impossible in very young girls, was that her hands, incomparably fine in shape, were as soft, transparent, and white as those of a woman after the birth of her second child. She had exactly the hair and the foot for which the Duchesse de Berri was so famous, hair so thick that no hairdresser could gather it into his hand, and so long that it fell to the ground in rings; for Esther was of that medium height which makes a woman a sort of toy, to be taken up and set down, taken up again and carried without fatigue. Her skin, as fine as rice-paper, of a warm amber hue showing the purple veins, was satiny without dryness, soft without being clammy.
Esther, excessively strong though apparently fragile, arrested attention by one feature that is conspicuous in the faces in which Raphael has shown his most artistic feeling, for Raphael is the painter who has most studied and best rendered Jewish beauty. This remarkable effect was produced by the depth of the eye-socket, under which the eye moved free from its setting; the arch of the brow was so accurate as to resemble the groining of a vault. When youth lends this beautiful hollow its pure and diaphanous coloring, and edges it with closely-set eyebrows, when the light stealing into the circular cavity beneath lingers there with a rosy hue, there are tender treasures in it to delight a lover, beauties to drive a painter to despair. Those luminous curves, where the shadows have a golden tone, that tissue as firm as a sinew and as mobile as the most delicate membrane, is a crowning achievement of nature. The eye at rest within is like a miraculous egg in a nest of silken wings. But as time goes on this marvel acquires a dreadful melancholy, when passions have laid dark smears on those fine forms, when grief had furrowed that network of delicate veins. Esther's nationality proclaimed itself in this Oriental modeling of her eyes with their Turkish lids; their color was a slate-gray which by night took on the blue sheen of a raven's wing. It was only the extreme tenderness of her expression that could moderate their fire.
Only those races that are native to deserts have in the eye the power of fascinating everybody, for any woman can fascinate some one person. Their eyes preserve, no doubt, something of the infinitude they have gazed on. Has nature, in her foresight, armed their retina with some reflecting background to enable them to endure the mirage of the sand, the torrents of sunshine, and the burning cobalt of the sky? or, do human beings, like other creatures, derive something from the surroundings among which they grow up, and preserve for ages the qualities they have imbibed from them? The great solution of this problem of race lies perhaps in the question itself. Instincts are living facts, and their cause dwells in past necessity. Variety in animals is the result of the exercise of these instincts.
To convince ourselves of this long-sought-for truth, it is enough to extend to the herd of mankind the observation recently made on flocks of Spanish and English sheep which, in low meadows where pasture is abundant, feed side by side in close array, but on mountains, where grass is scarce, scatter apart. Take these two kinds of sheep, transfer them to Switzerland or France; the mountain breeds will feed apart even in a lowland meadow of thick grass, the lowland sheep will keep together even on an alp. Hardly will a succession of generations eliminate acquired and transmitted instincts. After a century the highland spirit reappears in a refractory lamb, just as, after eighteen centuries of exile, the spirit of the East shone in Esther's eyes and features.
Her look had no terrible fascination; it shed a mild warmth, it was pathetic without being startling, and the sternest wills were melted in its flame. Esther had conquered hatred, she had astonished the depraved souls of Paris; in short, that look and the softness of her skin had earned her the terrible nickname which had just led her to the verge of the grave. Everything about her was in harmony with these characteristics of the Peri of the burning sands. Her forehead was firmly and proudly molded. Her nose, like that of the Arab race, was delicate and narrow, with oval nostrils well set and open at the base. Her mouth, fresh and red, was a rose unblemished by a flaw, dissipation had left no trace there. Her chin, rounded as though some amorous sculptor had polished its fulness, was as white as milk. One thing only that she had not been able to remedy betrayed the courtesan fallen very low: her broken nails, which needed time to recover their shape, so much had they been spoiled by the vulgarest household tasks.
The young boarders began by being jealous of these marvels of beauty, but they ended by admiring them. Before the first week was at an end they were all attached to the artless Jewess, for they were interested in the unknown misfortunes of a girl of eighteen who could neither read nor write, to whom all knowledge and instruction were new, and who was to earn for the Archbishop the triumph of having converted a Jewess to Catholicism and giving the convent a festival in her baptism. They forgave her beauty, finding themselves her superiors in education.
Esther very soon caught the manners, the accent, the carriage and attitudes of these highly-bred girls; in short, her first nature reasserted itself. The change was so complete that on his first visit Herrera was astonished as it would seem—and the Mother Superior congratulated him on his ward. Never in their existence as teachers had these sisters met with a more charming nature, more Christian meekness, true modesty, nor a greater eagerness to learn. When a girl has suffered such misery as had overwhelmed this poor child, and looks forward to such a reward as the Spaniard held out to Esther, it is hard if she does not realize the miracles of the early Church which the Jesuits revived in Paraguay.
"She is edifying," said the Superior, kissing her on the brow.
And this essentially Catholic word tells all.
In recreation hours Esther would question her companions, but discreetly, as to the simplest matters in fashionable life, which to her were like the first strange ideas of life to a child. When she heard that she was to be dressed in white on the day of her baptism and first Communion, that she should wear a white satin fillet, white bows, white shoes, white gloves, and white rosettes in her hair, she melted into tears, to the amazement of her companions. It was the reverse of the scene of Jephtha on the mountain. The courtesan was afraid of being understood; she ascribed this dreadful dejection to the joy with which she looked forward to the function. As there is certainly as wide a gulf between the habits she had given up and the habits she was acquiring as there is between the savage state and civilization, she had the grace and simplicity and depth which distinguished the wonderful heroine of the American Puritans. She had too, without knowing it, a love that was eating out her heart—a strange love, a desire more violent in her who knew everything than it can be in a maiden who knows nothing, though the two forms of desire have the same cause, and the same end in view.
During the first few months the novelty of a secluded life, the surprises of learning, the handiworks she was taught, the practices of religion, the fervency of a holy resolve, the gentle affections she called forth, and the exercise of the faculties of her awakened intelligence, all helped to repress her memory, even the effort she made to acquire a new one, for she had as much to unlearn as to learn. There is more than one form of memory: the body and mind have each their own; home-sickness, for instance, is a malady of the physical memory. Thus, during the third month, the vehemence of this virgin soul, soaring to Paradise on outspread wings, was not indeed quelled, but fettered by a dull rebellion, of which Esther herself did not know the cause. Like the Scottish sheep, she wanted to pasture in solitude, she could not conquer the instincts begotten of debauchery.
Was it that the foul ways of the Paris she had abjured were calling her back to them? Did the chains of the hideous habits she had renounced cling to her by forgotten rivets, and was she feeling them, as old soldiers suffer still, the surgeons tell us, in the limbs they have lost? Had vice and excess so soaked into her marrow that holy waters had not yet exorcised the devil lurking there? Was the sight of him for whom her angelic efforts were made, necessary to the poor soul, whom God would surely forgive for mingling human and sacred love? One had led to the other. Was there some transposition of the vital force in her involving her in inevitable suffering? Everything is doubtful and obscure in a case which science scorns to study, regarding the subject as too immoral and too compromising, as if the physician and the writer, the priest and the political student, were not above all suspicion. However, a doctor who was stopped by death had the courage to begin an investigation which he left unfinished.
Perhaps the dark depression to which Esther fell a victim, and which cast a gloom over her happy life, was due to all these causes; and perhaps, unable as she was to suspect them herself, she suffered as sick creatures suffer who know nothing of medicine or surgery.
The fact is strange. Wholesome and abundant food in the place of bad and inflammatory nourishment did not sustain Esther. A pure and regular life, divided between recreation and studies intentionally abridged, taking the place of a disorderly existence of which the pleasures and the pains were equally horrible, exhausted the convent-boarder. The coolest rest, the calmest nights, taking the place of crushing fatigue and the most torturing agitation, gave her low fever, in which the common symptoms were imperceptible to the nursing Sister's eye or finger. In fact, virtue and happiness following on evil and misfortune, security in the stead of anxiety, were as fatal to Esther as her past wretchedness would have been to her young companions. Planted in corruption, she had grown up in it. That infernal home still had a hold on her, in spite of the commands of a despotic will. What she loathed was life to her, what she loved was killing her.
Her faith was so ardent that her piety was a delight to those about her. She loved to pray. She had opened her spirit to the lights of true religion, and received it without an effort or a doubt. The priest who was her director was delighted with her. Still, at every turn her body resisted the spirit.
To please a whim of Madame de Maintenon's, who fed them with scraps from the royal table, some carp were taken out of a muddy pool and placed in a marble basin of bright, clean water. The carp perished. The animals might be sacrificed, but man could never infect them with the leprosy of flattery. A courtier remarked at Versailles on this mute resistance. "They are like me," said the uncrowned queen; "they pine for their obscure mud."
This speech epitomizes Esther's story.
At times the poor girl was driven to run about the splendid convent gardens; she hurried from tree to tree, she rushed into the darkest nooks—seeking? What? She did not know, but she fell a prey to the demon; she carried on a flirtation with the trees, she appealed to them in unspoken words. Sometimes, in the evening, she stole along under the walls, like a snake, without any shawl over her bare shoulders. Often in chapel, during the service, she remained with her eyes fixed on the Crucifix, melted to tears; the others admired her; but she was crying with rage. Instead of the sacred images she hoped to see, those glaring nights when she had led some orgy as Habeneck leads a Beethoven symphony at the Conservatoire—nights of laughter and lasciviousness, with vehement gestures, inextinguishable laughter, rose before her, frenzied, furious, and brutal. She was as mild to look upon as a virgin that clings to earth only by her woman's shape; within raged an imperial Messalina.
She alone knew the secret of this struggle between the devil and the angel. When the Superior reproved her for having done her hair more fashionably than the rule of the House allowed, she altered it with prompt and beautiful submission; she would have cut her hair off if the Mother had required it of her. This moral home-sickness was truly pathetic in a girl who would rather have perished than have returned to the depths of impurity. She grew pale and altered and thin. The Superior gave her shorter lessons, and called the interesting creature to her room to question her. But Esther was happy; she enjoyed the society of her companions; she felt no pain in any vital part; still, it was vitality itself that was attacked. She regretted nothing; she wanted nothing. The Superior, puzzled by her boarder's answers, did not know what to think when she saw her pining under consuming debility.
The doctor was called in when the girl's condition seemed serious; but this doctor knew nothing of Esther's previous life, and could not guess it; he found every organ sound, the pain could not be localized. The invalid's replies were such as to upset every hypothesis. There remained one way of clearing up the learned man's doubts, which now lighted on a frightful suggestion; but Esther obstinately refused to submit to a medical examination.
In this difficulty the Superior appealed to the Abbe Herrera. The Spaniard came, saw that Esther's condition was desperate, and took the physician aside for a moment. After this confidential interview, the man of science told the man of faith that the only cure lay in a journey to Italy. The Abbe would not hear of such a journey before Esther's baptism and first Communion.