By Honore De Balzac
Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley
To Puttinati, Milanese Sculptor.
CHAPTER I. PROLOGUE
In the year 1800, toward the close of October, a foreigner, accompanied by a woman and a little girl, was standing for a long time in front of the palace of the Tuileries, near the ruins of a house recently pulled down, at the point where in our day the wing begins which was intended to unite the chateau of Catherine de Medici with the Louvre of the Valois.
The man stood there with folded arms and a bowed head, which he sometimes raised to look alternately at the consular palace and at his wife, who was sitting near him on a stone. Though the woman seemed wholly occupied with the little girl of nine or ten years of age, whose long black hair she amused herself by handling, she lost not a single glance of those her companion cast on her. Some sentiment other than love united these two beings, and inspired with mutual anxiety their movements and their thoughts. Misery is, perhaps, the most powerful of all ties.
The stranger had one of those broad, serious heads, covered with thick hair, which we see so frequently in the pictures of the Caracci. The jet black of the hair was streaked with white. Though noble and proud, his features had a hardness which spoiled them. In spite of his evident strength, and his straight, erect figure, he looked to be over sixty years of age. His dilapidated clothes were those of a foreign country. Though the faded and once beautiful face of the wife betrayed the deepest sadness, she forced herself to smile, assuming a calm countenance whenever her husband looked at her.
The little girl was standing, though signs of weariness were on the youthful face, which was tanned by the sun. She had an Italian cast of countenance and bearing, large black eyes beneath their well arched brows, a native nobleness, and candid grace. More than one of those who passed them felt strongly moved by the mere aspect of this group, who made no effort to conceal a despair which seemed as deep as the expression of it was simple. But the flow of this fugitive sympathy, characteristic of Parisians, was dried immediately; for as soon as the stranger saw himself the object of attention, he looked at his observer with so savage an air that the boldest lounger hurried his step as though he had trod upon a serpent.
After standing for some time undecided, the tall stranger suddenly passed his hand across his face to brush away, as it were, the thoughts that were ploughing furrows in it. He must have taken some desperate resolution. Casting a glance upon his wife and daughter, he drew a dagger from his breast and gave it to his companion, saying in Italian:—
"I will see if the Bonapartes remember us."
Then he walked with a slow, determined step toward the entrance of the palace, where he was, naturally, stopped by a soldier of the consular guard, with whom he was not permitted a long discussion. Seeing this man's obstinate determination, the sentinel presented his bayonet in the form of an ultimatum. Chance willed that the guard was changed at that moment, and the corporal very obligingly pointed out to the stranger the spot where the commander of the post was standing.
"Let Bonaparte know that Bartolomeo di Piombo wishes to speak with him," said the Italian to the captain on duty.
In vain the officer represented to Bartolomeo that he could not see the First Consul without having previously requested an audience in writing; the Italian insisted that the soldier should go to Bonaparte. The officer stated the rules of the post, and refused to comply with the order of this singular visitor. Bartolomeo frowned heavily, casting a terrible look at the captain, as if he made him responsible for the misfortunes that this refusal might occasion. Then he kept silence, folded his arms tightly across his breast, and took up his station under the portico which serves as an avenue of communication between the garden and the court-yard of the Tuileries. Persons who will things intensely are very apt to be helped by chance. At the moment when Bartolomeo di Piombo seated himself on one of the stone posts which was near the entrance, a carriage drew up, from which Lucien Bonaparte, minister of the interior, issued.
"Ah, Loucian, it is lucky for me I have met you!" cried the stranger.
These words, said in the Corsican patois, stopped Lucien at the moment when he was springing under the portico. He looked at his compatriot, and recognized him. At the first word that Bartolomeo said in his ear, he took the Corsican away with him.
Murat, Lannes, and Rapp were at that moment in the cabinet of the First Consul. As Lucien entered, followed by a man so singular in appearance as Piombo, the conversation ceased. Lucien took Napoleon by the arm and led him into the recess of a window. After exchanging a few words with his brother, the First Consul made a sign with his hand, which Murat and Lannes obeyed by retiring. Rapp pretended not to have seen it, in order to remain where he was. Bonaparte then spoke to him sharply, and the aide-de-camp, with evident unwillingness, left the room. The First Consul, who listened for Rapp's step in the adjoining salon, opened the door suddenly, and found his aide-de-camp close to the wall of the cabinet.
"Do you choose not to understand me?" said the First Consul. "I wish to be alone with my compatriot."
"A Corsican!" replied the aide-de-camp. "I distrust those fellows too much to—"
The First Consul could not restrain a smile as he pushed his faithful officer by the shoulders.
"Well, what has brought you here, my poor Bartolomeo?" said Napoleon.
"To ask asylum and protection from you, if you are a true Corsican," replied Bartolomeo, roughly.
"What ill fortune drove you from the island? You were the richest, the most—"
"I have killed all the Portas," replied the Corsican, in a deep voice, frowning heavily.
The First Consul took two steps backward in surprise.
"Do you mean to betray me?" cried Bartolomeo, with a darkling look at Bonaparte. "Do you know that there are still four Piombos in Corsica?"
Lucien took an arm of his compatriot and shook it.
"Did you come here to threaten the savior of France?" he said.
Bonaparte made a sign to Lucien, who kept silence. Then he looked at Piombo and said:—
"Why did you kill the Portas?"
"We had made friends," replied the man; "the Barbantis reconciled us. The day after we had drunk together to drown our quarrels, I left home because I had business at Bastia. The Portas remained in my house, and set fire to my vineyard at Longone. They killed my son Gregorio. My daughter Ginevra and my wife, having taken the sacrament that morning, escaped; the Virgin protected them. When I returned I found no house; my feet were in its ashes as I searched for it. Suddenly they struck against the body of Gregorio; I recognized him in the moonlight. 'The Portas have dealt me this blow,' I said; and, forthwith, I went to the woods, and there I called together all the men whom I had ever served,—do you hear me, Bonaparte?—and we marched to the vineyard of the Portas. We got there at five in the morning; at seven they were all before God. Giacomo declares that Eliza Vanni saved a child, Luigi. But I myself bound him to his bed before setting fire to the house. I have left the island with my wife and child without being able to discover whether, indeed, Luigi Porta is alive."
Bonaparte looked with curiosity at Bartolomeo, but without surprise.
"How many were there?" asked Lucien.
"Seven," replied Piombo. "All of them were your persecutors in the olden times."
These words roused no expression of hatred on the part of the two brothers.
"Ha! you are no longer Corsicans!" cried Piombo, with a sort of despair. "Farewell. In other days I protected you," he added, in a reproachful tone. "Without me, your mother would never have reached Marseille," he said, addressing himself to Bonaparte, who was silent and thoughtful, his elbow resting on a mantel-shelf.
"As a matter of duty, Piombo," said Napoleon at last, "I cannot take you under my wing. I have become the leader of a great nation; I command the Republic; I am bound to execute the laws."
"Ha! ha!" said Bartolomeo, scornfully.
"But I can shut my eyes," continued Bonaparte. "The tradition of the Vendetta will long prevent the reign of law in Corsica," he added, as if speaking to himself. "But it must be destroyed, at any cost."
Bonaparte was silent for a few moments, and Lucien made a sign to Piombo not to speak. The Corsican was swaying his head from right to left in deep disapproval.
"Live here, in Paris," resumed the First Consul, addressing Bartolomeo; "we will know nothing of this affair. I will cause your property in Corsica to be bought, to give you enough to live on for the present. Later, before long, we will think of you. But, remember, no more vendetta! There are no woods here to fly to. If you play with daggers, you must expect no mercy. Here, the law protects all citizens; and no one is allowed to do justice for himself."
"He has made himself the head of a singular nation," said Bartolomeo, taking Lucien's hand and pressing it. "But you have both recognized me in misfortune, and I am yours, henceforth, for life or death. You may dispose as you will of the Piombos."
With these words his Corsican brow unbent, and he looked about him in satisfaction.
"You are not badly off here," he said, smiling, as if he meant to lodge there himself. "You are all in red, like a cardinal."
"Your success depends upon yourself; you can have a palace, also," said Bonaparte, watching his compatriot with a keen eye. "It will often happen that I shall need some faithful friend in whom I can confide."
A sigh of joy heaved the vast chest of the Corsican, who held out his hand to the First Consul, saying:—
"The Corsican is in you still."
Bonaparte smiled. He looked in silence at the man who brought, as it were, a waft of air from his own land,—from that isle where he had been so miraculously saved from the hatred of the "English party"; the land he was never to see again. He made a sign to his brother, who then took Piombo away. Lucien inquired with interest as to the financial condition of the former protector of their family. Piombo took him to a window and showed him his wife and Ginevra, seated on a heap of stones.
"We came from Fontainebleau on foot; we have not a single penny," he said.
Lucien gave his purse to his compatriot, telling him to come to him the next day, that arrangements might be made to secure the comfort of the family. The value of Piombo's property in Corsica, if sold, would scarcely maintain him honorably in Paris.
Fifteen years elapsed between the time of Piombo's arrival with his family in Paris and the following event, which would be scarcely intelligible to the reader without this narrative of the foregoing circumstances.
CHAPTER II. THE STUDIO
Servin, one of our most distinguished artists, was the first to conceive of the idea of opening a studio for young girls who wished to take lessons in painting.
About forty years of age, a man of the purest morals, entirely given up to his art, he had married from inclination the dowerless daughter of a general. At first the mothers of his pupils bought their daughters themselves to the studio; then they were satisfied to send them alone, after knowing the master's principles and the pains he took to deserve their confidence.
It was the artist's intention to take no pupils but young ladies belonging to rich families of good position, in order to meet with no complaints as to the composition of his classes. He even refused to take girls who wished to become artists; for to them he would have been obliged to give certain instructions without which no talent could advance in the profession. Little by little his prudence and the ability with which he initiated his pupils into his art, the certainty each mother felt that her daughter was in company with none but well-bred young girls, and the fact of the artist's marriage, gave him an excellent reputation as a teacher in society. When a young girl wished to learn to draw, and her mother asked advice of her friends, the answer was, invariably: "Send her to Servin's."
Servin became, therefore, for feminine art, a specialty; like Herbault for bonnets, Leroy for gowns, and Chevet for eatables. It was recognized that a young woman who had taken lessons from Servin was capable of judging the paintings of the Musee conclusively, of making a striking portrait, copying an ancient master, or painting a genre picture. The artist thus sufficed for the educational needs of the aristocracy. But in spite of these relations with the best families in Paris, he was independent and patriotic, and he maintained among them that easy, brilliant, half-ironical tone, and that freedom of judgment which characterize painters.
He had carried his scrupulous precaution into the arrangements of the locality where his pupils studied. The entrance to the attic above his apartments was walled up. To reach this retreat, as sacred as a harem, it was necessary to go up a small spiral staircase made within his own rooms. The studio, occupying nearly the whole attic floor under the roof, presented to the eye those vast proportions which surprise inquirers when, after attaining sixty feet above the ground-floor, they expect to find an artist squeezed into a gutter.
This gallery, so to speak, was profusely lighted from above, through enormous panes of glass furnished with those green linen shades by means of which all artists arrange the light. A quantity of caricatures, heads drawn at a stroke, either in color or with the point of a knife, on walls painted in a dark gray, proved that, barring a difference in expression, the most distinguished young girls have as much fun and folly in their minds as men. A small stove with a large pipe, which described a fearful zigzag before it reached the upper regions of the roof, was the necessary and infallible ornament of the room. A shelf ran round the walls, on which were models in plaster, heterogeneously placed, most of them covered with gray dust. Here and there, above this shelf, a head of Niobe, hanging to a nail, presented her pose of woe; a Venus smiled; a hand thrust itself forward like that of a pauper asking alms; a few "ecorches," yellowed by smoke, looked like limbs snatched over-night from a graveyard; besides these objects, pictures, drawings, lay figures, frames without paintings, and paintings without frames gave to this irregular apartment that studio physiognomy which is distinguished for its singular jumble of ornament and bareness, poverty and riches, care and neglect. The vast receptacle of an "atelier," where all seems small, even man, has something of the air of an Opera "coulisse"; here lie ancient garments, gilded armor, fragments of stuffs, machinery. And yet there is something mysteriously grand, like thought, in it; genius and death are there; Diana and Apollo beside a skull or skeleton, beauty and destruction, poesy and reality, colors glowing in the shadows, often a whole drama, motionless and silent. Strange symbol of an artist's head!
At the moment when this history begins, a brilliant July sun was illuminating the studio, and two rays striking athwart it lengthwise, traced diaphanous gold lines in which the dust was shimmering. A dozen easels raised their sharp points like masts in a port. Several young girls were animating the scene by the variety of their expressions, their attitudes, and the differences in their toilets. The strong shadows cast by the green serge curtains, arranged according to the needs of each easel, produced a multitude of contrasts, and the piquant effects of light and shade. This group was the prettiest of all the pictures in the studio.
A fair young girl, very simply dressed, sat at some distance from her companions, working bravely and seeming to be in dread of some mishap. No one looked at her, or spoke to her; she was much the prettiest, the most modest, and, apparently, the least rich among them. Two principal groups, distinctly separated from each other, showed the presence of two sets or cliques, two minds even here, in this studio, where one might suppose that rank and fortune would be forgotten.
But, however that might be, these young girls, sitting or standing, in the midst of their color-boxes, playing with their brushes or preparing them, handling their dazzling palettes, painting, laughing, talking, singing, absolutely natural, and exhibiting their real selves, composed a spectacle unknown to man. One of them, proud, haughty, capricious, with black hair and beautiful hands, was casting the flame of her glance here and there at random; another, light-hearted and gay, a smile upon her lips, with chestnut hair and delicate white hands, was a typical French virgin, thoughtless, and without hidden thoughts, living her natural real life; a third was dreamy, melancholy, pale, bending her head like a drooping flower; her neighbor, on the contrary, tall, indolent, with Asiatic habits, long eyes, moist and black, said but little, and reflected, glancing covertly at the head of Antinous.
Among them, like the "jocoso" of a Spanish play, full of wit and epigrammatic sallies, another girl was watching the rest with a comprehensive glance, making them laugh, and tossing up her head, too lively and arch not to be pretty. She appeared to rule the first group of girls, who were the daughters of bankers, notaries, and merchants,—all rich, but aware of the imperceptible though cutting slights which another group belonging to the aristocracy put upon them. The latter were led by the daughter of one of the King's ushers, a little creature, as silly as she was vain, proud of being the daughter of a man with "an office at court." She was a girl who always pretended to understand the remarks of the master at the first word, and seemed to do her work as a favor to him. She used an eyeglass, came very much dressed, and always late, and entreated her companions to speak low.
In this second group were several girls with exquisite figures and distinguished features, but there was little in their glance or expression that was simple and candid. Though their attitudes were elegant and their movements graceful, their faces lacked frankness; it was easy to see that they belonged to a world where polite manners form the character from early youth, and the abuse of social pleasures destroys sentiment and develops egotism.
But when the whole class was here assembled, childlike heads were seen among this bevy of young girls, ravishingly pure and virgin, faces with lips half-opened, through which shone spotless teeth, and on which a virgin smile was flickering. The studio then resembled not a studio, but a group of angels seated on a cloud in ether.
By mid-day, on this occasion, Servin had not appeared. For some days past he had spent most of his time in a studio which he kept elsewhere, where he was giving the last touches to a picture for the Exposition. All of a sudden Mademoiselle Amelie Thirion, the leader of the aristocrats, began to speak in a low voice, and very earnestly, to her neighbor. A great silence fell on the group of patricians, and the commercial party, surprised, were equally silent, trying to discover the subject of this earnest conference. The secret of the young ultras was soon revealed.
Amelie rose, took an easel which stood near hers, carried it to a distance from the noble group, and placed it close to a board partition which separated the studio from the extreme end of the attic, where all broken casts, defaced canvases and the winter supply of wood were kept. Amelie's action caused a murmur of surprise, which did not prevent her from accomplishing the change by rolling hastily to the side of the easel the stool, the box of colors, and even the picture by Prudhon, which the absent pupil was copying. After this coup d'etat the Right began to work in silence, but the Left discoursed at length.
"What will Mademoiselle Piombo say to that?" asked a young girl of Mademoiselle Matilde Roguin, the lively oracle of the banking group.
"She's not a girl to say anything," was the reply; "but fifty years hence she'll remember the insult as if it were done to her the night before, and revenge it cruelly. She is a person that I, for one, don't want to be at war with."
"The slight these young ladies mean to put upon her is all the more unkind," said another young girl, "because yesterday, Mademoiselle Ginevra was very sad. Her father, they say, has just resigned. They ought not to add to her trouble, for she was very considerate of them during the Hundred Days. Never did she say a word to wound them. On the contrary, she avoided politics. But I think our ultras are acting more from jealousy than from party spite."
"I have a great mind to go and get Mademoiselle Piombo's easel and place it next to mine," said Matilde Roguin. She rose, but second thoughts made her sit down again.
"With a character like hers," she said, "one can't tell how she would take a civility; better wait events."
"Ecco la," said the young girl with the black eyes, languidly.
The steps of a person coming up the narrow stairway sounded through the studio. The words: "Here she comes!" passed from mouth to mouth, and then the most absolute silence reigned.
To understand the importance of the ostracism imposed by the act of Amelie Thirion, it is necessary to add that this scene took place toward the end of the month of July, 1815. The second return of the Bourbons had shaken many friendships which had held firm under the first Restoration. At this moment families, almost all divided in opinion, were renewing many of the deplorable scenes which stain the history of all countries in times of civil or religious wars. Children, young girls, old men shared the monarchial fever to which the country was then a victim. Discord glided beneath all roofs; distrust dyed with its gloomy colors the words and the actions of the most intimate friends.
Ginevra Piombo loved Napoleon to idolatry; how, then, could she hate him? The emperor was her compatriot and the benefactor of her father. The Baron di Piombo was among those of Napoleon's devoted servants who had co-operated most effectually in the return from Elba. Incapable of denying his political faith, anxious even to confess it, the old baron remained in Paris in the midst of his enemies. Ginevra Piombo was all the more open to condemnation because she made no secret of the grief which the second Restoration caused to her family. The only tears she had so far shed in life were drawn from her by the twofold news of Napoleon's captivity on the "Bellerophon," and Labedoyere's arrest.
The girls of the aristocratic group of pupils belonged to the most devoted royalist families in Paris. It would be difficult to give an idea of the exaggerations prevalent at this epoch, and of the horror inspired by the Bonapartists. However insignificant and petty Amelie's action may now seem to be, it was at that time a very natural expression of the prevailing hatred. Ginevra Piombo, one of Servin's first pupils, had occupied the place that was now taken from her since the first day of her coming to the studio. The aristocratic circle had gradually surrounded her. To drive her from a place that in some sense belonged to her was not only to insult her, but to cause her a species of artistic pain; for all artists have a spot of predilection where they work.
Nevertheless, political prejudice was not the chief influence on the conduct of the Right clique of the studio. Ginevra, much the ablest of Servin's pupils, was an object of intense jealousy. The master testified as much admiration for the talents as for the character of his favorite pupil, who served as a conclusion to all his comparisons. In fact, without any one being able to explain the ascendancy which this young girl obtained over all who came in contact with her, she exercised over the little world around her a prestige not unlike that of Bonaparte upon his soldiers.
The aristocracy of the studio had for some days past resolved upon the fall of this queen, but no one had, as yet, ventured to openly avoid the Bonapartist. Mademoiselle Thirion's act was, therefore, a decisive stroke, intended by her to force the others into becoming, openly, the accomplices of her hatred. Though Ginevra was sincerely loved by several of these royalists, nearly all of whom were indoctrinated at home with their political ideas, they decided, with the tactics peculiar to women, that they should do best to keep themselves aloof from the quarrel.
On Ginevra's arrival she was received, as we have said, in profound silence. Of all the young women who had, so far, come to Servin's studio, she was the handsomest, the tallest, and the best made. Her carriage and demeanor had a character of nobility and grace which commanded respect. Her face, instinct with intelligence, seemed to radiate light, so inspired was it with the enthusiasm peculiar to Corsicans,—which does not, however, preclude calmness. Her long hair and her black eyes and lashes expressed passion; the corners of her mouth, too softly defined, and the lips, a trifle too marked, gave signs of that kindliness which strong beings derive from the consciousness of their strength.
By a singular caprice of nature, the charm of her face was, in some degree, contradicted by a marble forehead, on which lay an almost savage pride, and from which seemed to emanate the moral instincts of a Corsican. In that was the only link between herself and her native land. All the rest of her person, her simplicity, the easy grace of her Lombard beauty, was so seductive that it was difficult for those who looked at her to give her pain. She inspired such keen attraction that her old father caused her, as matter of precaution, to be accompanied to and from the studio. The only defect of this truly poetic creature came from the very power of a beauty so fully developed; she looked a woman. Marriage she had refused out of love to her father and mother, feeling herself necessary to the comfort of their old age. Her taste for painting took the place of the passions and interests which usually absorb her sex.
"You are very silent to-day, mesdemoiselles," she said, after advancing a little way among her companions. "Good-morning, my little Laure," she added, in a soft, caressing voice, approaching the young girl who was painting apart from the rest. "That head is strong,—the flesh tints a little too rosy, but the drawing is excellent."
Laure raised her head and looked tenderly at Ginevra; their faces beamed with the expression of a mutual affection. A faint smile brightened the lips of the young Italian, who seemed thoughtful, and walked slowly to her easel, glancing carelessly at the drawings and paintings on her way, and bidding good-morning to each of the young girls of the first group, not observing the unusual curiosity excited by her presence. She was like a queen in the midst of her court; she paid no attention to the profound silence that reigned among the patricians, and passed before their camp without pronouncing a single word. Her absorption seemed so great that she sat down before her easel, opened her color-box, took up her brushes, drew on her brown sleeves, arranged her apron, looked at her picture, examined her palette, without, apparently, thinking of what she was doing. All heads in the group of the bourgeoises were turned toward her. If the young ladies in the Thirion camp did not show their impatience with the same frankness, their sidelong glances were none the less directed on Ginevra.
"She hasn't noticed it!" said Mademoiselle Roguin.
At this instant Ginevra abandoned the meditative attitude in which she had been contemplating her canvas, and turned her head toward the group of aristocrats. She measured, at a glance, the distance that now separated her from them; but she said nothing.
"It hasn't occurred to her that they meant to insult her," said Matilde; "she neither colored nor turned pale. How vexed these girls will be if she likes her new place as well as the old! You are out of bounds, mademoiselle," she added, aloud, addressing Ginevra.
The Italian pretended not to hear; perhaps she really did not hear. She rose abruptly; walked with a certain deliberation along the side of the partition which separated the adjoining closet from the studio, and seemed to be examining the sash through which her light came,—giving so much importance to it that she mounted a chair to raise the green serge, which intercepted the light, much higher. Reaching that height, her eye was on a level with a slight opening in the partition, the real object of her efforts, for the glance that she cast through it can be compared only to that of a miser discovering Aladdin's treasure. Then she sprang down hastily and returned to her place, changed the position of her picture, pretended to be still dissatisfied with the light, pushed a table close to the partition, on which she placed a chair, climbed lightly to the summit of this erection, and again looked through the crevice. She cast but one glance into the space beyond, which was lighted through a skylight; but what she saw produced so strong an effect upon her that she tottered.
"Take care, Mademoiselle Ginevra, you'll fall!" cried Laure.
All the young girls gazed at the imprudent climber, and the fear of their coming to her gave her courage; she recovered her equilibrium, and replied, as she balanced herself on the shaking chair:—
"Pooh! it is more solid than a throne!"
She then secured the curtain and came down, pushed the chair and table as far as possible from the partition, returned to her easel, and seemed to be arranging it to suit the volume of light she had now thrown upon it. Her picture, however, was not in her mind, which was wholly bent on getting as near as possible to the closet, against the door of which she finally settled herself. Then she began to prepare her palette in the deepest silence. Sitting there, she could hear, distinctly, a sound which had strongly excited her curiosity the evening before, and had whirled her young imagination across vast fields of conjecture. She recognized the firm and regular breathing of a man whom she had just seen asleep. Her curiosity was satisfied beyond her expectations, but at the same time she felt saddled by an immense responsibility. Through the opening in the wall she had seen the Imperial eagle; and upon the flock bed, faintly lighted from above, lay the form of an officer of the Guard. She guessed all. Servin was hiding a proscribed man!
She now trembled lest any of her companions should come near here to examine her picture, when the regular breathing or some deeper breath might reveal to them, as it had to her, the presence of this political victim. She resolved to keep her place beside that door, trusting to her wits to baffle all dangerous chances that might arise.
"Better that I should be here," thought she, "to prevent some luckless accident, than leave that poor man at the mercy of a heedless betrayal."
This was the secret of the indifference which Ginevra had apparently shown to the removal of her easel. She was inwardly enchanted, because the change had enabled her to gratify her curiosity in a natural manner; besides, at this moment, she was too keenly preoccupied to perceive the reason of her removal.
Nothing is more mortifying to young girls, or, indeed, to all the world, than to see a piece of mischief, an insult, or a biting speech, miss its effect through the contempt or the indifference of the intended victim. It seems as if hatred to an enemy grows in proportion to the height that enemy is raised above us. Ginevra's behavior was an enigma to all her companions; her friends and enemies were equally surprised; for the former claimed for her all good qualities, except that of forgiveness of injuries. Though, of course, the occasions for displaying that vice of nature were seldom afforded to Ginevra in the life of a studio, still, the specimens she had now and then given of her vindictive disposition had left a strong impression on the minds of her companions.
After many conjectures, Mademoiselle Roguin came to the conclusion that the Italian's silence showed a grandeur of soul beyond all praise; and the banking circle, inspired by her, formed a project to humiliate the aristocracy. They succeeded in that aim by a fire of sarcasms which presently brought down the pride of the Right coterie.
Madame Servin's arrival put a stop to the struggle. With the shrewdness that usually accompanies malice, Amelie Thirion had noticed, analyzed, and mentally commented on the extreme preoccupation of Ginevra's mind, which prevented her from even hearing the bitterly polite war of words of which she was the object. The vengeance Mademoiselle Roguin and her companions were inflicting on Mademoiselle Thirion and her group had, therefore, the fatal effect of driving the young ultras to search for the cause of the silence so obstinately maintained by Ginevra di Piombo. The beautiful Italian became the centre of all glances, and she was henceforth watched by friends and foes alike.
It is very difficult to hide even a slight emotion or sentiment from fifteen inquisitive and unoccupied young girls, whose wits and mischief ask for nothing better than secrets to guess, schemes to create or baffle, and who know how to find too many interpretations for each gesture, glance, and word, to fail in discovering the right one.
At this moment, however, the presence of Madame Servin produced an interlude in the drama thus played below the surface in these various young hearts, the sentiments, ideas, and progress of which were expressed by phrases that were almost allegorical, by mischievous glances, by gestures, by silence even, more intelligible than words. As soon as Madame Servin entered the studio, her eyes turned to the door near which Ginevra was seated. Under present circumstances the fact of this glance was not lost. Though at first none of the pupils took notice of it, Mademoiselle Thirion recollected it later, and it explained to her the doubt, fear, and mystery which now gave something wild and frightened to Madame Servin's eyes.
"Mesdemoiselles," she said, "Monsieur Servin cannot come to-day."
Then she went round complimenting each young girl, receiving in return a volume of those feminine caresses which are given as much by the tones of the voice and by looks as by gestures. She presently reached Ginevra, under the influence of an uneasiness she tried in vain to disguise. They nodded to each other in a friendly way, but said nothing; one painted, the other stood looking at the painting. The breathing of the soldier in the closet could be distinctly heard, but Madame Servin appeared not to notice it; her feigned ignorance was so obvious that Ginevra recognized it at once for wilful deafness. Presently the unknown man turned on his pallet.
The Italian then looked fixedly at Madame Servin, who said, without the slightest change of face:—
"Your copy is as fine as the original; if I had to choose between the two I should be puzzled."
"Monsieur Servin has not taken his wife into his confidence as to this mystery," thought Ginevra, who, after replying to the young wife's speech with a gentle smile of incredulity, began to hum a Corsican "canzonetta" to cover the noise that was made by the prisoner.
It was so unusual a thing to hear the studious Italian sing, that all the other young girls looked up at her in surprise. Later, this circumstance served as proof to the charitable suppositions of jealousy.
Madame Servin soon went away, and the session ended without further events; Ginevra allowed her companions to depart, and seemed to intend to work later. But, unconsciously to herself, she betrayed her desire to be left alone by impatient glances, ill-disguised, at the pupils who were slow in leaving. Mademoiselle Thirion, a cruel enemy to the girl who excelled her in everything, guessed by the instinct of jealousy that her rival's industry hid some purpose. By dint of watching her she was struck by the attentive air with which Ginevra seemed to be listening to sounds that no one else had heard. The expression of impatience she now detected in her companion's eyes was like a flash of light to her.
Amelie was the last of the pupils to leave the studio; from there she went down to Madame Servin's apartment and talked with her for a moment; then she pretended to have left her bag, ran softly back to the studio, and found Ginevra once more mounted on her frail scaffolding, and so absorbed in the contemplation of an unknown object that she did not hear the slight noise of her companion's footsteps. It is true that, to use an expression of Walter Scott, Amelie stepped as if on eggs. She hastily withdrew outside the door and coughed. Ginevra quivered, turned her head, saw her enemy, blushed, hastened to alter the shade to give meaning to her position, and came down from her perch leisurely. She soon after left the studio, bearing with her, in her memory, the image of a man's head, as beauteous as that of the Endymion, a masterpiece of Girodet's which she had lately copied.
"To banish so young a man! Who can he be? for he is not Marshal Ney—"
These two sentences are the simplest expression of the many ideas that Ginevra turned over in her mind for two days. On the third day, in spite of her haste to be first at the studio, she found Mademoiselle Thirion already there, having come in a carriage.
Ginevra and her enemy observed each other for a long time, but they made their faces impenetrable. Amelie had seen the handsome head of the mysterious man, but, fortunately, and unfortunately also, the Imperial eagles and uniform were so placed that she did not see them through the crevice in the partition. She was lost in conjectures. Suddenly Servin came in, much earlier than usual.
"Mademoiselle Ginevra," he said, after glancing round the studio, "why have you placed yourself there? The light is bad. Come nearer to the rest of the young ladies and pull down that curtain a little."
Then he sat down near Laure, whose work deserved his most cordial attention.
"Well, well!" he cried; "here, indeed, is a head extremely well done. You'll be another Ginevra."
The master then went from easel to easel, scolding, flattering, jesting, and making, as usual, his jests more dreaded than his reprimands. Ginevra had not obeyed the professor's order, but remained at her post, firmly resolved not to quit it. She took a sheet of paper and began to sketch in sepia the head of the hidden man. A work done under the impulse of an emotion has always a stamp of its own. The faculty of giving to representations of nature or of thought their true coloring constitutes genius, and often, in this respect, passion takes the place of it. So, under the circumstances in which Ginevra now found herself, the intuition which she owed to a powerful effect upon her memory, or, possibly, to necessity, that mother of great things, lent her, for the moment, a supernatural talent. The head of the young officer was dashed upon the paper in the midst of an awkward trembling which she mistook for fear, and in which a physiologist would have recognized the fire of inspiration. From time to time she glanced furtively at her companions, in order to hide the sketch if any of them came near her. But in spite of her watchfulness, there was a moment when she did not see the eyeglass of the pitiless Amelie turned full upon the drawing from the shelter of a great portfolio. Mademoiselle Thirion, recognizing the portrait of the mysterious man, showed herself abruptly, and Ginevra hastily covered the sheet of paper.
"Why do you stay there in spite of my advice, mademoiselle?" asked the professor, gravely.
The pupil turned her easel so that no one but the master could see the sketch, which she placed upon it, and said, in an agitated voice:—
"Do you not think, as I do, that the light is very good? Had I not better remain here?"
Servin turned pale. As nothing escapes the piercing eyes of malice, Mademoiselle Thirion became, as it were, a sharer in the sudden emotion of master and pupil.
"You are right," said Servin; "but really," he added, with a forced laugh, "you will soon come to know more than I do."
A pause followed, during which the professor studied the drawing of the officer's head.
"It is a masterpiece! worthy of Salvator Rosa!" he exclaimed, with the energy of an artist.
All the pupils rose on hearing this, and Mademoiselle Thirion darted forward with the velocity of a tiger on its prey. At this instant, the prisoner, awakened, perhaps, by the noise, began to move. Ginevra knocked over her stool, said a few incoherent sentences, and began to laugh; but she had thrown the portrait into her portfolio before Amelie could get to her. The easel was now surrounded; Servin descanted on the beauty of the copy which his favorite pupil was then making, and the whole class was duped by this stratagem, except Amelie, who, slipping behind her companions, attempted to open the portfolio where she had seen Ginevra throw the sketch. But the latter took it up without a word, and placed it in front of her. The two young girls then looked at each other fixedly, in silence.
"Come, mesdemoiselles, take your places," said Servin. "If you wish to do as well as Mademoiselle di Piombo, you mustn't be always talking fashions and balls, and trifling away your time as you do."
When they were all reseated before their easels, Servin sat down beside Ginevra.
"Was it not better that I should be the one to discover the mystery rather than the others?" asked the girl, in a low voice.
"Yes," replied the painter, "you are one of us, a patriot; but even if you were not, I should still have confided the matter to you."
Master and pupil understood each other, and Ginevra no longer feared to ask:—
"Who is he?"
"An intimate friend of Labedoyere, who contributed more than any other man, except the unfortunate colonel, to the union of the 7th regiment with the grenadiers of Elba. He was a major in the Imperial guard and was at Waterloo."
"Why not have burned his uniform and shako, and supplied him with citizen's clothes?" said Ginevra, impatiently.
"He will have them to-night."
"You ought to have closed the studio for some days."
"He is going away."
"Then they'll kill him," said the girl. "Let him stay here with you till the present storm is over. Paris is still the only place in France where a man can be hidden safely. Is he a friend of yours?" she asked.
"No; he has no claim upon me but that of his ill-luck. He came into my hands in this way. My father-in-law, who returned to the army during the campaign, met this young fellow, and very cleverly rescued him from the claws of those who captured Labedoyere. He came here to defend the general, foolish fellow!"
"Do you call him that!" cried Ginevra, casting a glance of astonishment at the painter, who was silent for a moment.
"My father-in-law is too closely watched to be able to keep him in his own house," he resumed. "So he brought him to me, by night, about a week ago. I hoped to keep him out of sight in this corner, the only spot in the house where he could be safe."
"If I can be useful to you, employ me," said Ginevra. "I know the Marechal de Feltre."
"Well, we'll see," replied the painter.
This conversation lasted too long not to be noticed by all the other girls. Servin left Ginevra, went round once more to each easel, and gave such long lessons that he was still there at the hour when the pupils were in the habit of leaving.
"You are forgetting your bag, Mademoiselle Thirion," said the professor, running after the girl, who was now condescending to the work of a spy to satisfy her jealousy.
The baffled pupil returned for the bag, expressing surprise at her carelessness; but this act of Servin's was to her fresh proof of the existence of a mystery, the importance of which was evident. She now ran noisily down the staircase, and slammed the door which opened into the Servins' apartment, to give an impression that she had gone; then she softly returned and stationed herself outside the door of the studio.
CHAPTER III. LABEDOYERE'S FRIEND
When the painter and Ginevra thought themselves alone, Servin rapped in a peculiar manner on the door of the dark garret, which turned at once on its rusty and creaking hinges. Ginevra then saw a tall and well-made young man, whose Imperial uniform set her heart to beating. The officer had one arm in a sling, and the pallor of his face revealed sharp suffering. Seeing an unknown woman, he recoiled.
Amelie, who was unable to look into the room, the door being closed, was afraid to stay longer; she was satisfied with having heard the opening of the garret door, and departed noiselessly.
"Fear nothing," said the painter to the officer. "Mademoiselle is the daughter of a most faithful friend of the Emperor, the Baron di Piombo."
The young soldier retained no doubts as to Ginevra's patriotism as soon as he saw her.
"You are wounded," she said.
"Oh! it is nothing, mademoiselle," he replied; "the wound is healing."
Just at this moment the loud cries of the vendors of newspapers came up from the street: "Condemned to death!" They all trembled, and the soldier was the first to hear a name that turned him pale.
"Labedoyere!" he cried, falling on a stool.
They looked at each other in silence. Drops gathered on the livid forehead of the young man; he seized the black tufts of his hair in one hand with a gesture of despair, and rested his elbow on Ginevra's easel.
"After all," he said, rising abruptly, "Labedoyere and I knew what we were doing. We were certain of the fate that awaited us, whether from triumph or defeat. He dies for the Cause, and here am I, hiding myself!"
He rushed toward the door of the studio; but, quicker than he, Ginevra reached it, and barred his way.
"Can you restore the Emperor?" she said. "Do you expect to raise that giant who could not maintain himself?"
"But what can I do?" said the young man, addressing the two friends whom chance had sent to him. "I have not a relation in the world. Labedoyere was my protector and my friend; without him, I am alone. To-morrow I myself may be condemned; my only fortune was my pay. I spent my last penny to come here and try to snatch Labedoyere from his fate; death is, therefore, a necessity for me. When a man decides to die he ought to know how to sell his life to the executioner. I was thinking just now that the life of an honest man is worth that of two traitors, and the blow of a dagger well placed may give immortality."
This spasm of despair alarmed the painter, and even Ginevra, whose own nature comprehended that of the young man. She admired his handsome face and his delightful voice, the sweetness of which was scarcely lessened by its tones of fury. Then, all of a sudden, she poured a balm upon the wounds of the unfortunate man:—
"Monsieur," she said, "as for your pecuniary distress, permit me to offer you my savings. My father is rich; I am his only child; he loves me, and I am sure he will never blame me. Have no scruple in accepting my offer; our property is derived from the Emperor; we do not own a penny that is not the result of his munificence. Is it not gratitude to him to assist his faithful soldiers? Take the sums you need as indifferently as I offer them. It is only money!" she added, in a tone of contempt. "Now, as for friends,—those you shall have."
She raised her head proudly, and her eyes shone with dazzling brilliancy.
"The head which falls to-morrow before a dozen muskets will save yours," she went on. "Wait till the storm is over; you can then escape and take service in foreign countries if you are not forgotten here; or in the French army, if you are."
In the comfort that women give there is always a delicacy which has something maternal, foreseeing, and complete about it. But when the words of hope and peace are said with grace of gesture and that eloquence of tone which comes from the heart, and when, above all, the benefactress is beautiful, a young man does not resist. The prisoner breathed in love through all his senses. A rosy tinge colored his white cheeks; his eyes lost something of the sadness that dulled them, and he said, in a peculiar tone of voice:—
"You are an angle of goodness—But Labedoyere!" he added. "Oh, Labedoyere!"
At this cry they all three looked at one another in silence, each comprehending the others' thoughts. No longer friends of twenty minutes only, they were friends of twenty years.
"Dear friend," said Servin, "can you save him?"
"I can avenge him."
Ginevra quivered. Though the stranger was handsome, his appearance had not influenced her; the soft pity in a woman's heart for miseries that are not ignoble had stifled in Ginevra all other emotions; but to hear a cry of vengeance, to find in that proscribed being an Italian soul, devotion to Napoleon, Corsican generosity!—ah! that was, indeed, too much for her. She looked at the officer with a respectful emotion which shook his heart. For the first time in her life a man had caused her a keen emotion. She now, like other women, put the soul of the stranger on a par with the noble beauty of his features and the happy proportions of his figure, which she admired as an artist. Led by accidental curiosity to pity, from pity to a powerful interest, she came, through that interest, to such profound sensations that she felt she was in danger if she stayed there longer.
"Until to-morrow, then," she said, giving the officer a gentle smile by way of a parting consolation.
Seeing that smile, which threw a new light on Ginevra's features, the stranger forgot all else for an instant.
"To-morrow," he said, sadly; "but to-morrow, Labedoyere—"
Ginevra turned, put a finger on her lips, and looked at him, as if to say: "Be calm, be prudent."
And the young man cried out in his own language:
"Ah! Dio! che non vorrei vivere dopo averla veduta?—who would not wish to live after seeing her?"
The peculiar accent with which he pronounced the words made Ginevra quiver.
"Are you Corsican?" she cried, returning toward him with a beating heart.
"I was born in Corsica," he replied; "but I was brought, while very young, to Genoa, and as soon as I was old enough for military service I enlisted."
The beauty of the young man, the mighty charm lent to him by his attachment to the Emperor, his wound, his misfortunes, his danger, all disappeared to Ginevra's mind, or, rather, all were blended in one sentiment,—a new and delightful sentiment. This persecuted man was a child of Corsica; he spoke its cherished language! She stood, for a moment, motionless; held by a magical sensation; before her eyes was a living picture, to which all human sentiments, united by chance, gave vivid colors. By Servin's invitation, the officer had seated himself on a divan, and the painter, after removing the sling which supported the arm of his guest, was undoing the bandages in order to dress the wound. Ginevra shuddered when she saw the long, broad gash made by the blade of a sabre on the young man's forearm, and a moan escaped her. The stranger raised his head and smiled to her. There was something touching which went to the soul, in the care with which Servin lifted the lint and touched the lacerated flesh, while the face of the wounded man, though pale and sickly, expressed, as he looked at the girl, more pleasure than suffering. An artist would have admired, involuntarily, this opposition of sentiments, together with the contrasts produced by the whiteness of the linen and the bared arm to the red and blue uniform of the officer.
At this moment a soft half-light pervaded the studio; but a parting ray of the evening sunlight suddenly illuminated the spot where the soldier sat, so that his noble, blanched face, his black hair, and his clothes were bathed in its glow. The effect was simple enough, but to the girl's Italian imagination it was a happy omen. The stranger seemed to her a celestial messenger, speaking the language of her own country. He thus unconsciously put her under the spell of childhood's memories, while in her heart there dawned another feeling as fresh, as pure as her own innocence. For a short, very short moment, she was motionless and dreamy, as though she were plunged in boundless thought. Then she blushed at having allowed her absorption to be noticed, exchanged one soft and rapid glance with the wounded man, and fled with the vision of him still before her eyes.
The next day was not a class-day, but Ginevra came to the studio, and the prisoner was free to sit beside her easel. Servin, who had a sketch to finish, played the part of mentor to the two young people, who talked to each other chiefly in Corsican. The soldier related the sufferings of the retreat from Moscow; for, at nineteen years of age, he had made the passage of the Beresins, and was almost the last man left of his regiment. He described, in words of fire, the great disaster of Waterloo. His voice was music itself to the Italian girl. Brought up as a Corsican, Ginevra was, in some sense, a child of Nature; falseness was a thing unknown to her; she gave herself up without reserve to her impressions; she acknowledged them, or, rather, allowed them to be seen without the affectations of petty and calculating coquetry, characteristic of Parisian girlhood. During this day she sat more than once with her palette in one hand, her brushes in another, without touching a color. With her eyes fastened on the officer, and her lips slightly apart, she listened, in the attitude of painting a stroke which was never painted. She was not surprised to see such softness in the eyes of the young man, for she felt that her own were soft in spite of her will to keep them stern and calm. After periods like this she painted diligently, without raising her head, for he was there, near her, watching her work. The first time he sat down beside her to contemplate her silently, she said, in a voice of some emotion, after a long pause:—
"Does it amuse you to see me paint?"
That day she learned that his name was Luigi. Before separating, it was agreed between them that if, on class-days when they could not see each other, any important political event occurred, Ginevra was to inform him by singing certain Corsican melodies then agreed upon.
The following day Mademoiselle Thirion informed all the members of the class, under pledge of secrecy that Ginevra di Piombo had a lover, a young man who came during the hours for the lesson, and concealed himself in the garret beyond the studio.
"You, who take her part," she said to Mademoiselle Roguin, "watch her carefully, and you will see how she spends her time."
Ginevra was, therefore, observed with diabolical attention. They listened to her songs, they watched her glances. At times, when she supposed that no one saw her, a dozen pairs of eyes were furtively upon her. Thus enlightened, the girls were able to interpret truly the emotions that crossed the features of the beautiful Italian,—her gestures, the peculiar tones in which she hummed a tune, and the attention with which they saw her listen to sounds which only she could hear through the partition.
By the end of a week, Laure was the only one of Servin's fifteen pupils who had resisted the temptation of looking at Luigi through the crevice of the partition; and she, through an instinct of weakness, still defended her beautiful friend. Mademoiselle Roguin endeavored to make her wait on the staircase after the class dispersed, that she might prove to her the intimacy of Ginevra and the young man by entering the studio and surprising them together. But Laure refused to condescend to an act of espial which no curiosity could justify, and she consequently became the object of much reprobation.
Before long Mademoiselle Thirion made known that she thought it improper to attend the classes of a painter whose opinions were tainted with patriotism and Bonapartism (in those days the terms were synonymous), and she ceased her attendance at the studio. But, although she herself forgot Ginevra, the harm she had planted bore fruit. Little by little, the other young girls revealed to their mothers the strange events which were happening at the studio. One day Matilde Roguin did not come; the next day another girl was missing, and so on, till the last three or four who were left came no more. Ginevra and Laure, her little friend, were the sole occupants of the deserted studio for three or four days.
Ginevra did not observe this falling off, nor ask the cause of her companions' absence. As soon as she had invented means of communication with Luigi she lived in the studio in a delightful solitude, alone amid her own world, thinking only of the officer and the dangers that threatened him. Though a sincere admirer of noble characters that never betray their political faiths, she nevertheless urged Luigi to submit himself to the royal authority, that he might be released from his present life and remain in France. But to this he would not consent. If passions are born and nourished, as they say, under the influence of romantic causes, never did so many circumstances of that kind concur in uniting two young souls by one and the same sentiment. The friendship of Ginevra for Luigi and that of Luigi for Ginevra made more progress in a month than a friendship in society would make in ten years. Adversity is the touchstone of character. Ginevra was able, therefore, to study Luigi, to know him; and before long they mutually esteemed each other. The girl, who was older than Luigi, found a charm in being courted by a youth already so grand, so tried by fate,—a youth who joined to the experience of a man the graces of adolescence. Luigi, on his side, felt an unspeakable pleasure in allowing himself to be apparently protected by a woman, now twenty-five years of age. Was it not a proof of love? The union of gentleness and pride, strength and weakness in Ginevra were, to him, irresistible attractions, and he was utterly subjugated by her. In short, before long, they loved each other so profoundly that they felt no need of denying to each other their love, nor yet of telling it.
One day, towards evening, Ginevra heard the accustomed signal. Luigi scratched with a pin on the woodwork in a manner that produced no more noise than a spider might make as he fastened his thread. The signal meant that he wished to come out of his retreat.
Ginevra glanced around the studio, and not seeing Laure, opened the door; but as she did so Luigi caught sight of the little pupil and abruptly retired. Surprised at his action, Ginevra looked round, saw Laure, and said, as she went up to the girl's easel:—
"You are staying late, my dear. That head seems to me finished; you only want a high-light,—see! on that knot of hair."
"You would do me a great kindness," said Laure, in a trembling voice, "if you would give this copy a few touches; for then I could carry away with me something to remind me of you."
"Willingly," said Ginevra, painting a few strokes on the picture. "But I thought it was a long way from your home to the studio, and it is late."
"Oh! Ginevra, I am going away, never to return," cried the poor girl, sadly.
"You mean to leave Monsieur Servin!" exclaimed Ginevra, less affected, however, by this news than she would have been a month earlier.
"Haven't you noticed, Ginevra, that for some days past you and I have been alone in the studio?"
"True," said Ginevra, as if struck by a sudden recollection. "Are all those young ladies ill, or going to be married, or are their fathers on duty at court?"
"They have left Monsieur Servin," replied Laure.
"On your account, Ginevra."
"My account!" repeated the Corsican, springing up, with a threatening brow and her eyes flashing.
"Oh! don't be angry, my kind Ginevra," cried Laure, in deep distress. "My mother insists on my leaving the studio. The young ladies say that you have some intrigue, and that Monsieur Servin allows the young man whom you love to stay in the dark attic. I have never believed these calumnies nor said a word to my mother about them. But last night Madame Roguin met her at a ball and asked her if she still sent me here. When my mother answered yes, Madame Roguin told her the falsehoods of those young ladies. Mamma scolded me severely; she said I must have known it all, and that I had failed in proper confidence between mother and daughter by not telling her. Oh! my dear Ginevra! I, who took you for my model, oh! how grieved I am that I can't be your companion any longer."
"We shall meet again in life; girls marry—" said Ginevra.
"When they are rich," signed Laure.
"Come and see me; my father has a fortune—"
"Ginevra," continued Laure, tenderly. "Madame Roguin and my mother are coming to see Monsieur Servin to-morrow and reproach him; hadn't you better warn him."
A thunderbolt falling at Ginevra's feet could not have astonished her more than this revelation.
"What matter is it to them?" she asked, naively.
"Everybody thinks it very wrong. Mamma says it is immoral."
"And you, Laure, what do you say?"
The young girl looked up at Ginevra, and their thoughts united. Laure could no longer keep back her tears; she flung herself on her friend's breast and sobbed. At this moment Servin came into the studio.
"Mademoiselle Ginevra," he cried, with enthusiasm, "I have finished my picture! it is now being varnished. What have you been doing, meanwhile? Where are the young ladies; are they taking a holiday, or are they in the country?"
Laure dried her tears, bowed to Monsieur Servin, and went away.
"The studio has been deserted for some days," replied Ginevra, "and the young ladies are not coming back."
"Oh! don't laugh," said Ginevra. "Listen: I am the involuntary cause of the loss of your reputation—"
The artist smiled, and said, interrupting his pupil:—
"My reputation? Why, in a few days my picture will make it at the Exposition."
"That relates to your talent," replied the girl. "I am speaking of your morality. Those young ladies have told their mothers that Luigi was shut up here, and that you lent yourself—to—our love."
"There is some truth in that, mademoiselle," replied the professor. "The mothers of those young ladies are foolish women; if they had come straight to me I should have explained the matter. But I don't care a straw about it! Life is short, anyhow."
And the painter snapped his fingers above his head. Luigi, who had heard part of the conversation, came in.
"You have lost all your scholars," he cried. "I have ruined you!"
The artist took Luigi's hand and that of Ginevra, and joined them.
"Marry one another, my children," he said, with fatherly kindness.
They both dropped their eyes, and their silence was the first avowal they had made to each other of their love.
"You will surely be happy," said Servin. "There is nothing in life to equal the happiness of two beings like yourselves when bound together in love."
Luigi pressed the hand of his protector without at first being able to utter a word; but presently he said, in a voice of emotion:—
"To you I owe it all."
"Be happy! I bless and wed you," said the painter, with comic unction, laying his hands upon the heads of the lovers.
This little jest put an end to their strained emotion. All three looked at one another and laughed merrily. Ginevra pressed Luigi's hand in a strong clasp, with a simplicity of action worthy of the customs of her native land.
"Ah ca, my dear children," resumed Servin, "you think that all will go right now, but you are much mistaken."
The lovers looked at him in astonishment.
"Don't be anxious. I'm the only one that your romance will harm. But the fact is, Madame Servin is a little straitlaced; and I don't really see how we are to settle it with her."
"Heavens! and I forgot to tell you," exclaimed Ginevra, "that Madame Roguin and Laure's mother are coming here to-morrow to—"
"I understand," said the painter.
"But you can easily justify yourself," continued the girl, with a proud movement of her head. "Monsieur Luigi," she added, turning to him with an arch look, "will no longer object to entering the royal service. Well, then," after receiving a smile from the young man, "to-morrow morning I will send a petition to one of the most influential persons at the ministry of War,—a man who will refuse nothing to the daughter of the Baron di Piombo. We shall obtain a 'tacit' pardon for Captain Luigi, for, of course, they will not allow him the rank of major. And then," she added, addressing Servin, "you can confound the mothers of my charitable companions by telling them the truth."
"You are an angel!" cried Servin.
While this scene was passing at the studio the father and mother of Ginevra were becoming impatient at her non-return.
"It is six o'clock, and Ginevra not yet home!" cried Bartolomeo.
"She was never so late before," said his wife.
The two old people looked at each other with an anxiety that was not usual with them. Too anxious to remain in one place, Bartolomeo rose and walked about the salon with an active step for a man who was over seventy-seven years of age. Thanks to his robust constitution, he had changed but little since the day of his arrival in Paris, and, despite his tall figure, he walked erect. His hair, now white and sparse, left uncovered a broad and protuberant skull, which gave a strong idea of his character and firmness. His face, seamed with deep wrinkles, had taken, with age, a nobler expression, preserving the pallid tones which inspire veneration. The ardor of passions still lived in the fire of his eyes, while the eyebrows, which were not wholly whitened, retained their terrible mobility. The aspect of the head was stern, but it conveyed the impression that Piombo had a right to be so. His kindness, his gentleness were known only to his wife and daughter. In his functions, or in presence of strangers, he never laid aside the majesty that time had impressed upon his person; and the habit of frowning with his heavy eyebrows, contracting the wrinkles of his face, and giving to his eyes a Napoleonic fixity, made his manner of accosting others icy.
During the course of his political life he had been so generally feared that he was thought unsocial, and it is not difficult to explain the causes of that opinion. The life, morals, and fidelity of Piombo made him obnoxious to most courtiers. In spite of the fact that delicate missions were constantly intrusted to his discretion which to any other man about the court would have proved lucrative, he possessed an income of not more than thirty thousand francs from an investment in the Grand Livre. If we recall the cheapness of government securities under the Empire, and the liberality of Napoleon towards those of his faithful servants who knew how to ask for it, we can readily see that the Baron di Piombo must have been a man of stern integrity. He owed his plumage as baron to the necessity Napoleon felt of giving him a title before sending him on missions to foreign courts.
Bartolomeo had always professed a hatred to the traitors with whom Napoleon surrounded himself, expecting to bind them to his cause by dint of victories. It was he of whom it is told that he made three steps to the door of the Emperor's cabinet after advising him to get rid of three men in France on the eve of Napoleon's departure for his celebrated and admirable campaign of 1814. After the second return of the Bourbons Bartolomeo ceased to wear the decoration of the Legion of honor. No man offered a finer image of those old Republicans, incorruptible friends to the Empire, who remained the living relics of the two most energetic governments the world has ever seen. Though the Baron di Piombo displeased mere courtiers, he had the Darus, Drouots, and Carnots with him as friends. As for the rest of the politicians, he cared not a whiff of his cigar's smoke for them, especially since Waterloo.
Bartolomeo di Piombo had bought, for the very moderate sum which Madame Mere, the Emperor's mother, had paid him for his estates in Corsica, the old mansion of the Portenduere family, in which he had made no changes. Lodged, usually, at the cost of the government, he did not occupy this house until after the catastrophe of Fontainebleau. Following the habits of simple persons of strict virtue, the baron and his wife gave no heed to external splendor; their furniture was that which they bought with the mansion. The grand apartments, lofty, sombre, and bare, the wide mirrors in gilded frames that were almost black, the furniture of the period of Louis XIV. were in keeping with Bartolomeo and his wife, personages worthy of antiquity.
Under the Empire, and during the Hundred Days, while exercising functions that were liberally rewarded, the old Corsican had maintained a great establishment, more for the purpose of doing honor to his office than from any desire to shine himself. His life and that of his wife were so frugal, so tranquil, that their modest fortune sufficed for all their wants. To them, their daughter Ginevra was more precious than the wealth of the whole world. When, therefore, in May, 1814, the Baron di Piombo resigned his office, dismissed his crowd of servants, and closed his stable door, Ginevra, quiet, simple and unpretending like her parents, saw nothing to regret in the change. Like all great souls, she found her luxury in strength of feeling, and derived her happiness from quietness and work. These three beings loved each other too well for the externals of existence to be of value in their eyes.
Often, and especially after the second dreadful fall of Napoleon, Bartolomeo and his wife passed delightful evenings alone with their daughter, listening while she sang and played. To them there was a vast secret pleasure in the presence, in the slightest word of that child; their eyes followed her with tender anxiety; they heard her step in the court-yard, lightly as she trod. Like lovers, the three would often sit silently together, understanding thus, better than by speech, the eloquence of their souls. This profound sentiment, the life itself of the two old people, animated their every thought. Here were not three existences, but one,—one only, which, like the flame on the hearth, divided itself into three tongues of fire. If, occasionally, some memory of Napoleon's benefits and misfortunes, if the public events of the moment distracted the minds of the old people from this source of their constant solicitude, they could always talk of those interests without affecting their community of thought, for Ginevra shared their political passions. What more natural, therefore, than the ardor with which they found a refuge in the heart of their only child?
Until now the occupations of public life had absorbed the energy of the Baron di Piombo; but after leaving those employments he felt the need of casting that energy into the last sentiment that remained to him. Apart from the ties of parentage, there may have been, unknown to these three despotic souls, another powerful reason for the intensity of their reciprocal love: it was love undivided. Ginevra's whole heart belonged to her father, as Piombo's whole heart belonged to his child; and if it be true that we are bound to one another more by our defects than by our virtues, Ginevra echoed in a marvellous manner the passions of her father. There lay the sole imperfection of this triple life. Ginevra was born unyielding of will, vindictive, and passionate, like her father in his youth.
The Corsican had taken pleasure in developing these savage sentiments in the heart of his daughter, precisely as a lion teaches the lion-cubs to spring upon their prey. But this apprenticeship to vengeance having no means of action in their family life, it came to pass that Ginevra turned the principle against her father; as a child she forgave him nothing, and he was forced to yield to her. Piombo saw nothing more than childish nonsense in these fictitious quarrels, but the child was all the while acquiring a habit of ruling her parents. In the midst, however, of the tempests which the father was fond of exciting, a look, a word of tenderness, sufficed to pacify their angry souls, and often they were never so near to a kiss as when they were threatening each other vehemently.
Nevertheless, for the last five years, Ginevra, grown wiser than her father, avoided such scenes. Her faithfulness, her devotion, the love which filled her every thought, and her admirable good sense had got the better of her temper. And yet, for all that, a very great evil had resulted from her training; Ginevra lived with her father and mother on the footing of an equality which is always dangerous.
Piombo and his wife, persons without education, had allowed Ginevra to study as she pleased. Following her caprices as a young girl, she had studied all things for a time, and then abandoned them,—taking up and leaving each train of thought at will, until, at last, painting had proved to be her dominant passion. Ginevra would have made a noble woman had her mother been capable of guiding her studies, of enlightening her mind, and bringing into harmony her gifts of nature; her defects came from the fatal education which the old Corsican had found delight in giving her.
After marching up and down the room for some time, Piombo rang the bell; a servant entered.
"Go and meet Mademoiselle Ginevra," said his master.
"I always regret our carriage on her account," remarked the baroness.
"She said she did not want one," replied Piombo, looking at his wife, who, accustomed for forty years to habits of obedience, lowered her eyes and said no more.
Already a septuagenarian, tall, withered, pale, and wrinkled, the baroness exactly resembled those old women whom Schnetz puts into the Italian scenes of his "genre" pictures. She was so habitually silent that she might have been taken for another Mrs. Shandy; but, occasionally, a word, look, or gesture betrayed that her feelings still retained all the vigor and the freshness of their youth. Her dress, devoid of coquetry, was often in bad taste. She usually sat passive, buried in a low sofa, like a Sultana Valide, awaiting or admiring her Ginevra, her pride, her life. The beauty, toilet, and grace of her daughter seemed to have become her own. All was well with her if Ginevra was happy. Her hair was white, and a few strands only were seen above her white and wrinkled forehead, or beside her hollow cheeks.
"It is now fifteen days," she said, "since Ginevra made a practice of being late."
"Jean is so slow!" cried the impatient old man, buttoning up his blue coat and seizing his hat, which he dashed upon his head as he took his cane and departed.
"You will not get far," said his wife, calling after him.
As she spoke, the porte-cochere was opened and shut, and the old mother heard the steps of her Ginevra in the court-yard. Bartolomeo almost instantly reappeared, carrying his daughter, who struggled in his arms.
CHAPTER IV. LOVE
"Here she is, my Ginevra, Ginevrettina, Ginevrola, mia Ginevra bella!" cried the old man.
"Oh, father, you hurt me!"
Instantly Ginevra was put down with an air of respect. She nodded her head with a graceful movement at her mother, who was frightened by her cry, as if to say, "Don't be alarmed, it was only a trick to get away."
The pale, wan face of the baroness recovered its usual tones, and even assumed a look of gayety. Piombo rubbed his hands violently,—with him the surest symptom of joy; he had taken to this habit at court when he saw Napoleon becoming angry with those of his generals and ministers who served him ill or committed blunders. When, as now, the muscles of his face relaxed, every wrinkle on his forehead expressed benevolence. These two old people presented at this moment precisely the aspect of a drooping plant to which a little water has given fresh life after long dryness.
"Now, to dinner! to dinner!" cried the baron, offering his large hand to his daughter, whom he called "Signora Piombellina,"—another symptom of gayety, to which Ginevra replied by a smile.
"Ah ca!" said Piombo, as they left the table, "your mother has called my attention to the fact that for some weeks you have stayed much longer than usual at the studio. It seems that painting is more to you than your parents—"
"Ginevra is preparing some surprise for us, I think," said the mother.
"A picture of your own! will you bring us that?" cried the Corsican, clapping his hands.
"Yes, I am very much occupied at the studio," replied Ginevra, rather slowly.
"What is the matter, Ginevra? You are turning pale!" cried her mother.
"No!" exclaimed the young girl in a tone of resolution,—"no! it shall never be said that Ginevra Piombo acted a lie."
Hearing this singular exclamation, Piombo and his wife looked at their daughter in astonishment.
"I love a young man," she added, in a voice of emotion.
Then, not venturing to look at her parents, she lowered her large eyelids as if to veil the fire of her eyes.
"Is he a prince?" asked her father, ironically, in a tone of voice which made the mother quail.
"No, father," she said, gently, "he is a young man without fortune."
"Is he very handsome?"
"He is very unfortunate."
"What is he?"
"Labedoyere's comrade; he was proscribed, without a refuge; Servin concealed him, and—"
"Servin is a good fellow, who has done well," cried Piombo; "but you, my daughter, you do wrong to love any man, except your father."
"It does not depend on me to love, or not to love," replied Ginevra, still gently.
"I flattered myself," continued her father, "that my Ginevra would be faithful to me until I died; and that my love and that of her mother would suffice her till then; I did not expect that our tenderness would find a rival in her soul, and—"
"Did I ever reproach you for your fanaticism for Napoleon?" said Ginevra. "Have you never loved any one but me? Did you not leave me for months together when you went on missions. I bore your absence courageously. Life has necessities to which we must all submit."
"No, you don't love me for myself; your reproaches betray your intolerable egotism."
"You dare to blame your father's love!" exclaimed Piombo, his eyes flashing.
"Father, I don't blame you," replied Ginevra, with more gentleness than her trembling mother expected. "You have grounds for your egotism, as I have for my love. Heaven is my witness that no girl has ever fulfilled her duty to her parents better than I have done to you. I have never felt anything but love and happiness where others often see obligation. It is now fifteen years that I have never left your protecting wing, and it has been a most dear pleasure to me to charm your life. But am I ungrateful for all this in giving myself up to the joy of loving; is it ingratitude to desire a husband who will protect me hereafter?"
"What! do you reckon benefits with your father, Ginevra?" said Piombo, in a dangerous tone.
A dreadful pause then followed, during which no one dared to speak. Bartolomeo at last broke the silence by crying out in a heart-rending tone:—
"Oh! stay with us! stay with your father, your old father! I cannot have you love another man. Ginevra, you will not have long to await your liberty."
"But, father, remember that I need not leave you; we shall be two to love you; you will learn to know the man to whose care you bequeath me. You will be doubly cherished by me and by him,—by him who is my other self, by me who am all his."
"Oh! Ginevra, Ginevra!" cried the Corsican, clenching his fists; "why did you not marry when Napoleon brought me to accept the idea? Why did you not take the counts and dukes he presented to you?"
"They loved me to order," said the girl. "Besides, they would have made me live with them, and I did not wish to leave you alone."
"You don't wish to leave me alone," said Piombo, "and yet you marry!—that is leaving me alone. I know you, my daughter; in that case, you would cease to love us. Elisa," he added, looking at his wife, who remained motionless, and as if stupefied, "we have no longer a daughter; she wishes to marry."
The old man sat down, after raising his hands to heaven with a gesture of invoking the Divine power; then he bowed himself over as if weighed down with sorrow.
Ginevra saw his agitation, and the restraint which he put upon his anger touched her to the heart; she expected some violent crisis, some ungovernable fury; she had not armed her soul against paternal gentleness.
"Father," she said, in a tender voice, "no, you shall never be abandoned by your Ginevra. But love her a little for her own sake. If you know how he loves me! Ah! He would never make me unhappy!"
"Comparisons already!" cried Piombo, in a terrible voice. "No, I can never endure the idea of your marriage. If he loved you as you deserve to be loved he would kill me; if he did not love you, I should put a dagger through him."
The hands of the old man trembled, his lips trembled, his body trembled, but his eyes flashed lightnings. Ginevra alone was able to endure his glance, for her eyes flamed also, and the daughter was worthy of the sire.
"Oh! to love you! What man is worthy of such a life?" continued Piombo. "To love you as a father is paradise on earth; who is there worthy to be your husband?"
"He," said Ginevra; "he of whom I am not worthy."
"He?" repeated Piombo, mechanically; "who is he?"
"He whom I love."
"How can he know you enough to love you?"
"Father," said Ginevra, with a gesture of impatience, "whether he loves me or not, if I love him—"
"You love him?" cried Piombo.
Ginevra bent her head softly.
"You love him more than you love us?"
"The two feelings cannot be compared," she replied.
"Is one stronger than the other?"
"I think it is," said Ginevra.
"You shall not marry him," cried the Corsican, his voice shaking the window-panes.
"I shall marry him," replied Ginevra, tranquilly.
"Oh, God!" cried the mother, "how will this quarrel end? Santa Virgina! place thyself between them!"
The baron, who had been striding up and down the room, now seated himself; an icy sternness darkened his face; he looked fixedly at his daughter, and said to her, in a gentle, weakened voice,—
"Ginevra, no! you will not marry him. Oh! say nothing more to-night—let me think the contrary. Do you wish to see your father on his knees, his white hairs prostrate before you? I supplicate you—"
"Ginevra Piombo does not pass her word and break it," she replied. "I am your daughter."
"She is right," said the baroness. "We are sent into the world to marry."
"Do you encourage her in disobedience?" said the baron to his wife, who, terrified by the word, now changed to marble.
"Refusing to obey an unjust order is not disobedience," said Ginevra.
"No order can be unjust from the lips of your father, my daughter. Why do you judge my action? The repugnance that I feel is counsel from on high, sent, it may be, to protect you from some great evil."
"The only evil could be that he did not love me."
"Yes, always," she answered. "He is my life, my good, my thought. Even if I obeyed you he would be ever in my soul. To forbid me to marry him is to make me hate you."
"You love us not!" cried Piombo.
"Oh!" said Ginevra, shaking her head.
"Well, then, forget him; be faithful to us. After we are gone—you understand?"
"Father, do you wish me to long for your death?" cried Ginevra.
"I shall outlive you. Children who do not honor their parents die early," said the father, driven to exasperation.
"All the more reason why I should marry and be happy," she replied.
This coolness and power of argument increased Piombo's trouble; the blood rushed violently to his head, and his face turned purple. Ginevra shuddered; she sprang like a bird on her father's knee, threw her arms around his neck, and caressed his white hair, exclaiming, tenderly:—
"Oh, yes, yes, let me die first! I could never survive you, my father, my kind father!"
"Oh! my Ginevra, my own Ginevra!" replied Piombo, whose anger melted under this caress like snow beneath the rays of the sun.
"It was time you ceased," said the baroness, in a trembling voice.
"Ah! Ginevretta! mia bella Ginevra!"
And the father played with his daughter as though she were a child of six. He amused himself by releasing the waving volume of her hair, by dandling her on his knee; there was something of madness in these expressions of his love. Presently his daughter scolded while kissing him, and tried, by jesting, to obtain admission for Luigi; but her father, also jesting, refused. She sulked, then returned to coax once more, and sulked again, until, by the end of the evening, she was forced to be content with having impressed upon her father's mind both her love for Luigi and the idea of an approaching marriage.