Beatrix, by Honoré de Balzac

IV

A Normal Evening

Mouche is a game played with five cards dealt to each player, and one turned over. The turned-over card is trumps. At each round the player is at liberty to run his chances or to abstain from playing his card. If he abstains he loses nothing but his own stake, for as long as there are no forfeits in the basket each player puts in a trifling sum. If he plays and wins a trick he is paid pro rata to the stake; that is, if there are five sous in the basket, he wins one sou. The player who fails to win a trick is made mouche; he has to pay the whole stake, which swells the basket for the next game. Those who decline to play throw down their cards during the game; but their play is held to be null. The players can exchange their cards with the remainder of the pack, as in ecarte, but only by order of sequence, so that the first and second players may, and sometimes do, absorb the remainder of the pack between them. The turned-over trump card belongs to the dealer, who is always the last; he has the right to exchange it for any card in his own hand. One powerful card is of more importance than all the rest; it is called Mistigris. Mistigris is the knave of clubs.

This game, simple as it is, is not lacking in interest. The cupidity natural to mankind develops in it; so does diplomatic wiliness; also play of countenance. At the hotel du Guenic, each of the players took twenty counters, representing five sous; which made the sum total of the stake for each game five farthings, a large amount in the eyes of this company. Supposing some extraordinary luck, fifty sous might be won — more capital than any person in Guerande spent in the course of any one day. Consequently Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel put into this game (the innocence of which is only surpassed in the nomenclature of the Academy by that of La Bataille) a passion corresponding to that of the hunters after big game. Mademoiselle Zephirine, who went shares in the game with the baroness, attached no less importance to it. To put up one farthing for the chance of winning five, game after game, was to this confirmed hoarder a mighty financial operation, into which she put as much mental action as the most eager speculator at the Bourse expends during the rise and fall of consols.

By a certain diplomatic convention, dating from September, 1825, when Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel lost thirty-five sous, the game was to cease as soon as a person losing ten sous should express the wish to retire. Politeness did not allow the rest to give the retiring player the pain of seeing the game go on without him. But, as all passions have their Jesuitism, the chevalier and the baron, those wily politicians, had found a means of eluding this charter. When all the players but one were anxious to continue an exciting game, the daring sailor, du Halga, one of those rich fellows prodigal of costs they do not pay, would offer ten counters to Mademoiselle Zephirine or Mademoiselle Jacqueline, when either of them, or both of them, had lost their five sous, on condition of reimbursement in case they won. An old bachelor could allow himself such gallantries to the sex. The baron also offered ten counters to the old maids, but under the honest pretext of continuing the game. The miserly maidens accepted, not, however, without some pressing, as is the use and wont of maidens. But, before giving way to this vast prodigality the baron and the chevalier were required to have won; otherwise the offer would have been taken as an insult.

Mouche became a brilliant affair when a Demoiselle de Kergarouet was in transit with her aunt. We use the single name, for the Kergarouets had never been able to induce any one to call them Kergarouet–Pen-Hoel — not even their servants, although the latter had strict orders so to do. At these times the aunt held out to the niece as a signal treat the mouche at the du Guenics. The girl was ordered to look amiable, an easy thing to do in the presence of the beautiful Calyste, whom the four Kergarouet young ladies all adored. Brought up in the midst of modern civilization, these young persons cared little for five sous a game, and on such occasions the stakes went higher. Those were evenings of great emotion to the old blind sister. The baroness would give her sundry hints by pressing her foot a certain number of times, according to the size of the stake it was safe to play. To play or not to play, if the basket were full, involved an inward struggle, where cupidity fought with fear. If Charlotte de Kergarouet, who was usually called giddy, was lucky in her bold throws, her aunt on their return home (if she had not won herself), would be cold and disapproving, and lecture the girl: she had too much decision in her character; a young person should never assert herself in presence of her betters; her manner of taking the basket and beginning to play was really insolent; the proper behavior of a young girl demanded much more reserve and greater modesty; etc.

It can easily be imagined that these games, carried on nightly for twenty years, were interrupted now and then by narratives of events in the town, or by discussions on public events. Sometimes the players would sit for half an hour, their cards held fan-shape on their stomachs, engaged in talking. If, as a result of these inattentions, a counter was missing from the basket, every one eagerly declared that he or she had put in their proper number. Usually the chevalier made up the deficiency, being accused by the rest of thinking so much of his buzzing ears, his chilly chest, and other symptoms of invalidism that he must have forgotten his stake. But no sooner did he supply the missing counter than Zephirine and Jacqueline were seized with remorse; they imagined that, possibly, they themselves had forgotten their stake; they believed — they doubted — but, after all, the chevalier was rich enough to bear such a trifling misfortune. These dignified and noble personages had the delightful pettiness of suspecting each other. Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel would almost invariably accuse the rector of cheating when he won the basket.

“It is singular,” he would reply, “that I never cheat except when I win the trick.”

Often the baron would forget where he was when the talk fell on the misfortunes of the royal house. Sometimes the evening ended in a manner that was quite unexpected to the players, who all counted on a certain gain. After a certain number of games and when the hour grew late, these excellent people would be forced to separate without either loss or gain, but not without emotion. On these sad evenings complaints were made of mouche itself; it was dull, it was long; the players accused their mouche as Negroes stone the moon in the water when the weather is bad. On one occasion, after an arrival of the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Kergarouet, there was talk of whist and boston being games of more interest than mouche. The baroness, who was bored by mouche, encouraged the innovation, and all the company — but not without reluctance — adopted it. But it proved impossible to make them really understand the new games, which, on the departure of the Kergarouets, were voted head-splitters, algebraic problems, and intolerably difficult to play. All preferred their mouche, their dear, agreeable mouche. Mouche accordingly triumphed over modern games, as all ancient things have ever triumphed in Brittany over novelties.

While the rector was dealing the cards the baroness was asking the Chevalier du Halga the same questions which she had asked him the evening before about his health. The chevalier made it a point of honor to have new ailments. Inquiries might be alike, but the nautical hero had singular advantages in the way of replies. To-day it chanced that his ribs troubled him. But here’s a remarkable thing! never did the worthy chevalier complain of his wounds. The ills that were really the matter with him he expected, he knew them and he bore them; but his fancied ailments, his headaches, the gnawings in his stomach, the buzzing in his ears, and a thousand other fads and symptoms made him horribly uneasy; he posed as incurable — and not without reason, for doctors up to the present time have found no remedy for diseases that don’t exist.

“Yesterday the trouble was, I believe, in your legs,” said the rector.

“It moves about,” replied the chevalier.

“Legs to ribs?” asked Mademoiselle Zephirine.

“Without stopping on the way?” said Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel, smiling.

The chevalier bowed gravely, making a negative gesture which was not a little droll, and proved to an observer that in his youth the sailor had been witty and loving and beloved. Perhaps his fossil life at Guerande hid many memories. When he stood, solemnly planted on his two heron-legs in the sunshine on the mall, gazing at the sea or watching the gambols of his little dog, perhaps he was living again in some terrestrial paradise of a past that was rich in recollections.

“So the old Duc de Lenoncourt is dead,” said the baron, remembering the paragraph of the “Quotidienne,” where his wife had stopped reading. “Well, the first gentleman of the Bedchamber followed his master soon. I shall go next.”

“My dear, my dear!” said his wife, gently tapping the bony calloused hand of her husband.

“Let him say what he likes, sister,” said Zephirine; “as long as I am above ground he can’t be under it; I am the elder.”

A gay smile played on the old woman’s lips. Whenever the baron made reflections of that kind, the players and the visitors present looked at each other with emotion, distressed by the sadness of the king of Guerande; and after they had left the house they would say, as they walked home: “Monsieur du Guenic was sad to-night. Did you notice how he slept?” And the next day the whole town would talk of the matter. “The Baron du Guenic fails,” was a phrase that opened the conversation in many houses.

“How is Thisbe?” asked Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel of the chevalier, as soon as the cards were dealt.

“The poor little thing is like her master,” replied the chevalier; “she has some nervous trouble, she goes on three legs constantly. See, like this.”

In raising and crooking his arm to imitate the dog, the chevalier exposed his hand to his cunning neighbor, who wanted to see if he had Mistigris or the trump — a first wile to which he succumbed.

“Oh!” said the baroness, “the end of Monsieur le cure’s nose is turning white; he has Mistigris.”

The pleasure of having Mistigris was so great to the rector — as it was to the other players — that the poor priest could not conceal it. In all human faces there is a spot where the secret emotions of the heart betray themselves; and these companions, accustomed for years to observe each other, had ended by finding out that spot on the rector’s face: when he had Mistigris the tip of his nose grew pale.

“You had company today,” said the chevalier to Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel.

“Yes, a cousin of my brother-inlaw. He surprised me by announcing the marriage of the Comtesse de Kergarouet, a Demoiselle de Fontaine.”

“The daughter of ‘Grand–Jacques,’” cried the chevalier, who had lived with the admiral during his stay in Paris.

“The countess is his heir; she has married an old ambassador. My visitor told me the strangest things about our neighbor, Mademoiselle des Touches — so strange that I can’t believe them. If they were true, Calyste would never be so constantly with her; he has too much good sense not to perceive such monstrosities —”

“Monstrosities?” said the baron, waked up by the word.

The baroness and the rector exchanged looks. The cards were dealt; Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel had Mistigris! Impossible to continue the conversation! But she was glad to hide her joy under the excitement caused by her last word.

“Your play, monsieur le baron,” she said, with an air of importance.

“My nephew is not one of those youths who like monstrosities,” remarked Zephirine, taking out her knitting-needle and scratching her head.

“Mistigris!” cried Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel, making no reply to her friend.

The rector, who appeared to be well-informed in the matter of Calyste and Mademoiselle des Touches, did not enter the lists.

“What does she do that is so extraordinary, Mademoiselle des Touches?” asked the baron.

“She smokes,” replied Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel.

“That’s very wholesome,” said the chevalier.

“About her property?” asked the baron.

“Her property?” continued the old maid. “Oh, she is running through it.”

“The game is mine!” said the baroness. “See, I have king, queen, knave of trumps, Mistigris, and a king. We win the basket, sister.”

This victory, gained at one stroke, without playing a card, horrified Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel, who ceased to concern herself about Calyste and Mademoiselle des Touches. By nine o’clock no one remained in the salon but the baroness and the rector. The four old people had gone to their beds. The chevalier, according to his usual custom, accompanied Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel to her house in the Place de Guerande, making remarks as they went along on the cleverness of the last play, on the joy with which Mademoiselle Zephirine engulfed her gains in those capacious pockets of hers — for the old blind woman no longer repressed upon her face the visible signs of her feelings. Madame du Guenic’s evident preoccupation was the chief topic of conversation, however. The chevalier had remarked the abstraction of the beautiful Irish woman. When they reached Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel’s door-step, and her page had gone in, the old lady answered, confidentially, the remarks of the chevalier on the strangely abstracted air of the baroness:—

“I know the cause. Calyste is lost unless we marry him promptly. He loves Mademoiselle des Touches, an actress!”

“In that case, send for Charlotte.”

“I have sent; my sister will receive my letter tomorrow,” replied Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel, bowing to the chevalier.

Imagine from this sketch of a normal evening the hubbub excited in Guerande homes by the arrival, the stay, the departure, or even the mere passage through the town, of a stranger.

When no sounds echoed from the baron’s chamber nor from that of his sister, the baroness looked at the rector, who was playing pensively with the counters.

“I see that you begin to share my anxiety about Calyste,” she said to him.

“Did you notice Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel’s displeased looks to-night?” asked the rector.

“Yes,” replied the baroness.

“She has, as I know, the best intentions about our dear Calyste; she loves him as though he were her son, his conduct in Vendee beside his father, the praises that MADAME bestowed upon his devotion, have only increased her affection for him. She intends to execute a deed of gift by which she gives her whole property at her death to whichever of her nieces Calyste marries. I know that you have another and much richer marriage in Ireland for your dear Calyste, but it is well to have two strings to your bow. In case your family will not take charge of Calyste’s establishment, Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel’s fortune is not to be despised. You can always find a match of seven thousand francs a year for the dear boy, but it is not often that you could come across the savings of forty years and landed property as well managed, built up, and kept in repair as that of Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel. That ungodly woman, Mademoiselle des Touches, has come here to ruin many excellent things. Her life is now known.”

“And what is it?” asked the mother.

“Oh! that of a trollop,” replied the rector — “a woman of questionable morals, a writer for the stage; frequenting theatres and actors; squandering her fortune among pamphleteers, painters, musicians, a devilish society, in short. She writes books herself, and has taken a false name by which she is better known, they tell me, than by her own. She seems to be a sort of circus woman who never enters a church except to look at the pictures. She has spent quite a fortune in decorating Les Touches in a most improper fashion, making it a Mohammedan paradise where the houris are not women. There is more wine drunk there, they say, during the few weeks of her stay than the whole year round in Guerande. The Demoiselles Bougniol let their lodgings last year to men with beards, who were suspected of being Blues; they sang wicked songs which made those virtuous women blush and weep, and spent their time mostly at Les Touches. And this is the woman our dear Calyste adores! If that creature wanted to-night one of the infamous books in which the atheists of the present day scoff at holy things, Calyste would saddle his horse himself and gallop to Nantes for it. I am not sure that he would do as much for the Church. Moreover, this Breton woman is not a royalist! If Calyste were again called upon to strike a blow for the cause, and Mademoiselle des Touches — the Sieur Camille Maupin, that is her other name, as I have just remembered — if she wanted to keep him with her the chevalier would let his old father go to the field without him.”

“Oh, no!” said the baroness.

“I should not like to put him to the proof; you would suffer too much,” replied the rector. “All Guerande is turned upside down about Calyste’s passion for this amphibious creature, who is neither man nor woman, who smokes like an hussar, writes like a journalist, and has at this very moment in her house the most venomous of all writers — so the postmaster says, and he’s a juste-milieu man who reads the papers. They are even talking about her at Nantes. This morning the Kergarouet cousin who wants to marry Charlotte to a man with sixty thousand francs a year, went to see Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel, and filled her mind with tales about Mademoiselle des Touches which lasted seven hours. It is now striking a quarter to ten, and Calyste is not home; he is at Les Touches — perhaps he won’t come in all night.”

The baroness listened to the rector, who was substituting monologue for dialogue unconsciously as he looked at this lamb of his fold, on whose face could be read her anxiety. She colored and trembled. When the worthy man saw the tears in the beautiful eyes of the mother, he was moved to compassion.

“I will see Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel tomorrow,” he said. “Don’t be too uneasy. The harm may not be as great as they say it is. I will find out the truth. Mademoiselle Jacqueline has confidence in me. Besides, Calyste is our child, our pupil — he will never let the devil inveigle him; neither will he trouble the peace of his family or destroy the plans we have made for his future. Therefore, don’t weep; all is not lost, madame; one fault is not vice.”

“You are only informing me of details,” said the baroness. “Was not I the first to notice the change in my Calyste? A mother keenly feels the shock of finding herself second in the heart of her son. She cannot be deceived. This crisis in a man’s life is one of the trials of motherhood. I have prepared myself for it, but I did not think it would come so soon. I hoped, at least, that Calyste would take into his heart some noble and beautiful being — not a stage-player, a masquerader, a theatre woman, an author whose business it is to feign sentiments, a creature who will deceive him and make him unhappy! She has had adventures —”

“With several men,” said the rector. “And yet this impious creature was born in Brittany! She dishonors her land. I shall preach a sermon upon her next Sunday.”

“Don’t do that!” cried the baroness. “The peasants and the paludiers would be capable of rushing to Les Touches. Calyste is worthy of his name; he is Breton; some dreadful thing might happen to him, for he would surely defend her as he would the Blessed Virgin.”

“It is now ten o’clock; I must bid you good-night,” said the abbe, lighting the wick of his lantern, the glass of which was clear and the metal shining, which testified to the care his housekeeper bestowed on the household property. “Who could ever have told me, madame,” he added, “that a young man brought up by you, trained by me to Christian ideas, a fervent Catholic, a child who has lived as a lamb without spot, would plunge into such mire?”

“But is it certain?” said the mother. “How could any woman help loving Calyste?”

“What other proof is needed than her staying on at Les Touches. In all the twenty-four years since she came of age she has never stayed there so long as now; her visits to these parts, happily for us, were few and short.”

“A woman over forty years old!” exclaimed the baroness. “I have heard say in Ireland that a woman of this description is the most dangerous mistress a young man can have.”

“As to that, I have no knowledge,” replied the rector, “and I shall die in my ignorance.”

“And I, too, alas!” said the baroness, naively. “I wish now that I had loved with love, so as to understand and counsel and comfort Calyste.”

The rector did not cross the clean little court-yard alone; the baroness accompanied him to the gate, hoping to hear Calyste’s step coming through the town. But she heard nothing except the heavy tread of the rector’s cautious feet, which grew fainter in the distance, and finally ceased when the closing of the door of the parsonage echoed behind him.

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