Beatrix, by Honoré de Balzac

XXIII

One of the Diseases of the Age

Such conduct implied a plan, and Madame Schontz had, as you may well believe, a plan. Jealous for the last two years of Madame du Bruel, she was consumed with the ambition to be married by church and mayor. All social positions have their forbidden fruit, some little thing magnified by desire until it has become the weightiest thing in life. This ambition of course involved a second Arthur; but no espial on the part of those about her had as yet discovered Rochefide’s secret rival. Bixiou fancied he saw the favored one in Leon de Lora; the painter saw him in Bixiou, who had passed his fortieth year and ought to be making himself a fate of some kind. Suspicions were also turned on Victor de Vernisset, a poet of the school of Canalis, whose passion for Madame Schontz was desperate; but the poet accused Stidmann, a young sculptor, of being his fortune rival. This artist, a charming lad, worked for jewellers, for manufacturers in bronze and silver-smiths; he longed to be another Benvenuto Cellini. Claude Vignon, the young Comte de la Palferine, Gobenheim, Vermanton a cynical philosopher, all frequenters of this amusing salon, were severally suspected, and proved innocent. No one had fathomed Madame Schontz, certainly not Rochefide, who thought she had a penchant for the young and witty La Palferine; she was virtuous from self-interest and was wholly bent on making a good marriage.

Only one man of equivocal reputation was ever seen in Madame Schontz’s salon, namely Couture, who had more than once made his brother speculators howl; but Couture had been one of Madame Schontz’s earliest friends, and she alone remained faithful to him. The false alarm of 1840 swept away the last vestige of this stock-gambler’s credit; Aurelie, seeing his run of ill-luck, made Rochefide play, as we have seen, in the other direction. Thankful to find a place for himself at Aurelie’s table, Couture, to whom Finot, the cleverest or, if you choose, the luckiest of all parvenus, occasionally gave a note of a thousand francs, was alone wise and calculating enough to offer his hand and name to madame Schontz, who studied him to see if the bold speculator had sufficient power to make his way in politics and enough gratitude not to desert his wife. Couture, a man about forty-three years of age, half worn-out, did not redeem the unpleasant sonority of his name by birth; he said little of the authors of his days.

Madame Schontz was bemoaning to herself the rarity of eligible men, when Couture presented to her a provincial, supplied with the two handles by which women take hold of such pitchers when they wish to keep them. To sketch this person will be to paint a portion of the youth of the day. The digression is history.

In 1838, Fabien du Ronceret, son of a chief-justice of the Royal court at Caen (who had lately died), left his native town of Alencon, resigning his judgeship (a position in which his father had compelled him, he said, to waste his time), and came to Paris, with the intention of making a noise there — a Norman idea, difficult to realize, for he could scarcely scrape together eight thousand francs a year; his mother still being alive and possessing a life-interest in a valuable estate in Alencon. This young man had already, during previous visits to Paris, tried his rope, like an acrobat, and had recognized the great vice of the social replastering of 1830. He meant to turn it to his own profit, following the example of the longest heads of the bourgeoisie. This requires a rapid glance on one of the effects of the new order of things.

Modern equality, unduly developed in our day, has necessarily developed in private life, on a line parallel with political life, the three great divisions of the social I; namely, pride, conceit, and vanity. Fools wish to pass for wits; wits want to be thought men of talent; men of talent wish to be treated as men of genius; as for men of genius, they are more reasonable; they consent to be only demigods. This tendency of the public mind of these days, which, in the Chamber, makes the manufacturer jealous of the statesman, and the administrator jealous of the writer, leads fools to disparage wits, wits to disparage men of talent, men of talent to disparage those who outstrip them by an inch or two, and the demigods to threaten institutions, the throne, or whatever does not adore them unconditionally. So soon as a nation has, in a very unstatesmanlike spirit, pulled down all recognized social superiorities, she opens the sluice through which rushes a torrent of secondary ambitions, the meanest of which resolves to lead. She had, so democrats declare, an evil in her aristocracy; but a defined and circumscribed evil; she exchanges it for a dozen armed and contending aristocracies — the worst of all situations. By proclaiming the equality of all, she has promulgated a declaration of the rights of Envy. We inherit today the saturnalias of the Revolution transferred to the domain, apparently peaceful, of the mind, of industry, of politics; it now seems that reputations won by toil, by services rendered, by talent, are privileges granted at the expense of the masses. Agrarian law will spread to the field of glory. Never, in any age, have men demanded the affixing of their names on the nation’s posters for reasons more puerile. Distinction is sought at any price, by ridicule, by an affectation of interest in the cause of Poland, in penitentiaries, in the future of liberated galley-slaves, in all the little scoundrels above and below twelve years, and in every other social misery. These diverse manias create fictitious dignities, presidents, vice-presidents, and secretaries of societies, the number of which is greater than that of the social questions they seek to solve. Society on its grand scale has been demolished to make a million of little ones in the image of the defunct. These parasitic organizations reveal decomposition; are they not the swarming of maggots in the dead body? All these societies are the daughters of one mother, Vanity. It is not thus that Catholic charity or true beneficence proceeds; they study evils in wounds and cure them; they don’t perorate in public meetings upon deadly ills for the pleasure of perorating.

Fabien du Ronceret, without being a superior man, had divined, by the exercise of that greedy common-sense peculiar to a Norman, the gain he could derive from this public vice. Every epoch has its character which clever men make use of. Fabien’s mind, though not clever, was wholly bent on making himself talked about.

“My dear fellow, a man must make himself talked about, if he wants to be anything,” he said, on parting from the king of Alencon, a certain du Bousquier, a friend of his father. “In six months I shall be better known than you are!”

It was thus that Fabien interpreted the spirit of his age; he did not rule it, he obeyed it. He made his debut in Bohemia, a region in the moral topography of Paris where he was known as “The Heir” by reason of certain premeditated prodigalities. Du Ronceret had profited by Couture’s follies for the pretty Madame Cadine, for whom, during his ephemeral opulence, he had arranged a delightful ground-floor apartment with a garden in the rue Blanche. The Norman, who wanted his luxury ready-made, bought Couture’s furniture and all the improvements he was forced to leave behind him — a kiosk in the garden, where he smoked, a gallery in rustic wood, with India mattings and adorned with potteries, through which to reach the kiosk if it rained. When the Heir was complimented on his apartment, he called it his den. The provincial took care not to say that Grindot, the architect, had bestowed his best capacity upon it, as did Stidmann on the carvings, and Leon de Lora on the paintings, for Fabien’s crowning defect was the vanity which condescends to lie for the sake of magnifying the individual self.

The Heir complimented these magnificences by a greenhouse which he built along a wall with a southern exposure — not that he loved flowers, but he meant to attack through horticulture the public notice he wanted to excite. At the present moment he had all but attained his end. Elected vice-president of some sort of floral society presided over by the Duc de Vissembourg, brother of the Prince de Chiavari, youngest son of the late Marechal Vernon, he adorned his coat with the ribbon of the Legion of honor on the occasion of an exhibition of products, the opening speech at which, delivered by him, and bought of Lousteau for five hundred francs, was boldly pronounced to be his own brew. He also made himself talked about by a flower, given to him by old Blondet of Alencon, father of Emile Blondet, which he presented to the horticultural world as the product of his own greenhouse.

But this success was nothing. The Heir, who wished to be accepted as a wit, had formed a plan of consorting with clever celebrities and so reflecting their fame — a plan somewhat hard to execute on a basis of an exchequer limited to eight thousand francs a year. With this end in view, Fabien du Ronceret had addressed himself again and again, without success, to Bixiou, Stidmann, and Leon de Lora, asking them to present him to Madame Schontz, and allow him to take part in that menageria of lions of all kinds. Failing in those directions he applied to Couture, for whose dinners he had so often paid that the late speculator felt obliged to prove categorically to Madame Schontz that she ought to acquire such an original, if it was only to make him one of those elegant footmen without wages whom the mistresses of households employ to do errands, when servants are lacking.

In the course of three evenings Madame Schontz read Fabien like a book and said to herself —

“If Couture does not suit me, I am certain of saddling that one. My future can go on two legs now.”

This queer fellow whom everybody laughed at was really the chosen one, — chosen, however, with an intention which made such preference insulting. The choice escaped all public suspicion by its very improbability. Madame Schontz intoxicated Fabien with smiles given secretly, with little scenes played on the threshold when she bade him good-night, if Monsieur de Rochefide stayed behind. She often made Fabien a third with Arthur in her opera-box and at first representations; this she excused by saying he had done her such or such a service and she did not know how else to repay him. Men have a natural conceit as common to them as to women — that of being loved exclusively. Now of all flattering passions there is none more prized than that of a Madame Schontz, for the man she makes the object of a love she calls “from the heart,” in distinction from another sort of love. A woman like Madame Schontz, who plays the great lady, and whose intrinsic value is real, was sure to be an object of pride to Fabien, who fell in love with her to the point of never presenting himself before her eyes except in full dress, varnished boots, lemon-kid gloves, embroidered shirt and frill, waistcoat more or less variegated — in short, with all the external symptoms of profound worship.

A month before the conference of the duchess and her confessor, Madame Schontz had confided the secret of her birth and her real name to Fabien, who did not in the least understand the motive of the confidence. A fortnight later, Madame Schontz, surprised at this want of intelligence, suddenly exclaimed to herself:—

“Heavens! how stupid I am! he expects me to love him for himself.”

Accordingly the next day she took the Heir in her caleche to the Bois, for she now had two little carriages, drawn by two horses. In the course of this public tete-a-tete she opened the question of her future, and declared that she wished to marry.

“I have seven hundred thousand francs,” she said, “and I admit to you that if I could find a man full of ambition, who knew how to understand my character, I would change my position; for do you know what is the dream of my life? To become a true bourgeoise, enter an honorable family, and make my husband and children truly happy.”

The Norman would fain be “distinguished” by Madame Schontz, but as for marrying her, that folly seemed debatable to a bachelor of thirty-eight whom the revolution of July had made a judge. Seeing his hesitation, Madame Schontz made the Heir the butt of her wit, her jests, and her disdain, and turned to Couture. Within a week, the latter, whom she put upon the scent of her fortune, had offered his hand, and heart, and future — three things of about the same value.

The manoeuvres of Madame Schontz had reached this stage of proceeding, when Madame de Grandlieu began her inquiries into the life and habits of the Beatrix of the Place Saint–Georges.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31