A Daughter of Eve, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter V

Florine

Between the rue Basse-du-Rempart and the rue Neuve-des-Mathurins, Raoul had, on the third floor of an ugly and narrow house, in the Passage Sandrie, a poor enough lodging, cold and bare, where he lived ostensibly for the general public, for literary neophytes, and for his creditors, duns, and other annoying persons whom he kept on the threshold of private life. His real home, his fine existence, his presentation of himself before his friends, was in the house of Mademoiselle Florine, a second-class comedy actress, where, for ten years, the said friends, journalists, certain authors, and writers in general disported themselves in the society of equally illustrious actresses. For ten years Raoul had attached himself so closely to this woman that he passed more than half his life with her; he took all his meals at her house unless he had some friend to invite, or an invitation to dinner elsewhere.

To consummate corruption, Florine added a lively wit, which intercourse with artists had developed and practice sharpened day by day. Wit is thought to be a quality rare in comedians. It is so natural to suppose that persons who spend their lives in showing things on the outside have nothing within. But if we reflect on the small number of actors and actresses who live in each century, and also on how many dramatic authors and fascinating women this population has supplied relatively to its numbers, it is allowable to refute that opinion, which rests, and apparently will rest forever, on a criticism made against dramatic artists — namely, that their personal sentiments are destroyed by the plastic presentation of passions; whereas, in fact, they put into their art only their gifts of mind, memory, and imagination. Great artists are beings who, to quote Napoleon, can cut off at will the connection which Nature has put between the senses and thought. Moliere and Talma, in their old age, were more in love than ordinary men in all their lives.

Accustomed to listen to journalists, who guess at most things, putting two and two together, to writers, who foresee and tell all that they see; accustomed also to the ways of certain political personages, who watched one another in her house, and profited by all admissions, Florine presented in her own person a mixture of devil and angel, which made her peculiarly fitted to receive these roues. They delighted in her cool self-possession; her anomalies of mind and heart entertained them prodigiously. Her house, enriched by gallant tributes, displayed the exaggerated magnificence of women who, caring little about the cost of things, care only for the things themselves, and give them the value of their own caprices — women who will break a fan or a smelling-bottle fit for queens in a moment of passion, and scream with rage if a servant breaks a ten-franc saucer from which their poodle drinks.

Florine’s dining-room, filled with her most distinguished offerings, will give a fair idea of this pell-mell of regal and fantastic luxury. Throughout, even on the ceilings, it was panelled in oak, picked out, here and there, by dead-gold lines. These panels were framed in relief with figures of children playing with fantastic animals, among which the light danced and floated, touching here a sketch by Bixiou, that maker of caricatures, there the cast of an angel holding a vessel of holy water (presented by Francois Souchet), farther on a coquettish painting of Joseph Bridau, a gloomy picture of a Spanish alchemist by Hippolyte Schinner, an autograph of Lord Byron to Lady Caroline Lamb, framed in carved ebony, while, hanging opposite as a species of pendant, was a letter from Napoleon to Josephine. All these things were placed about without the slightest symmetry, but with almost imperceptible art. On the chimney-piece, of exquisitely carved oak, there was nothing except a strange, evidently Florentine, ivory statuette attributed to Michael Angelo, representing Pan discovering a woman under the skin of a young shepherd, the original of which is in the royal palace of Vienna. On either side were candelabra of Renaissance design. A clock, by Boule, on a tortoise-shell stand, inlaid with brass, sparkled in the centre of one panel between two statuettes, undoubtedly obtained from the demolition of some abbey. In the corners of the room, on pedestals, were lamps of royal magnificence, as to which a manufacturer had made strong remonstrance against adapting his lamps to Japanese vases. On a marvellous sideboard was displayed a service of silver plate, the gift of an English lord, also porcelains in high relief; in short, the luxury of an actress who has no other property than her furniture.

The bedroom, all in violet, was a dream that Florine had indulged from her debut, the chief features of which were curtains of violet velvet lined with white silk, and looped over tulle; a ceiling of white cashmere with violet satin rays, an ermine carpet beside the bed; in the bed, the curtains of which resembled a lily turned upside down was a lantern by which to read the newspaper plaudits or criticisms before they appeared in the morning. A yellow salon, its effect heightened by trimmings of the color of Florentine bronze, was in harmony with the rest of these magnificences, a further description of which would make our pages resemble the posters of an auction sale. To find comparisons for all these fine things, it would be necessary to go to a certain house that was almost next door, belonging to a Rothschild.

Sophie Grignault, surnamed Florine by a form of baptism common in theatres, had made her first appearances, in spite of her beauty, on very inferior boards. Her success and her money she owed to Raoul Nathan. This association of their two fates, usual enough in the dramatic and literary world, did no harm to Raoul, who kept up the outward conventions of a man of the world. Moreover, Florine’s actual means were precarious; her revenues came from her salary and her leaves of absence, and barely sufficed for her dress and her household expenses. Nathan gave her certain perquisites which he managed to levy as critic on several of the new enterprises of industrial art. But although he was always gallant and protecting towards her, that protection had nothing regular or solid about it.

This uncertainty, and this life on a bough, as it were, did not alarm Florine; she believed in her talent, and she believed in her beauty. Her robust faith was somewhat comical to those who heard her staking her future upon it, when remonstrances were made to her.

“I can have income enough when I please,” she was wont to say; “I have invested fifty francs on the Grand-livre.”

No one could ever understand how it happened that Florine, handsome as she was, had remained in obscurity for seven years; but the fact is, Florine was enrolled as a supernumerary at thirteen years of age, and made her debut two years later at an obscure boulevard theatre. At fifteen, neither beauty nor talent exist; a woman is simply all promise.

She was now twenty-eight — the age at which the beauties of a French woman are in their glory. Painters particularly admired the lustre of her white shoulders, tinted with olive tones about the nape of the neck, and wonderfully firm and polished, so that the light shimmered over them as it does on watered silk. When she turned her head, superb folds formed about her neck, the admiration of sculptors. She carried on this triumphant neck the small head of a Roman empress, the delicate, round, and self-willed head of Pompeia, with features of elegant correctness, and the smooth forehead of a woman who drives all care away and all reflection, who yields easily, but is capable of balking like a mule, and incapable at such times of listening to reason. That forehead, turned, as it were, with one cut of the chisel, brought out the beauty of the golden hair, which was raised in front, after the Roman fashion, in two equal masses, and twisted up behind the head to prolong the line of the neck, and enhance that whiteness by its beautiful color. Black and delicate eyebrows, drawn by a Chinese brush, encircled the soft eyelids, which were threaded with rosy fibres. The pupils of the eyes, extremely bright, though striped with brown rays, gave to her glance the cruel fixity of a beast of prey, and betrayed the cold maliciousness of the courtesan. The eyes were gray, fringed with black lashes — a charming contrast, which made their expression of calm and contemplative voluptuousness the more observable; the circle round the eyes showed marks of fatigue, but the artistic manner in which she could turn her eyeballs, right and left, or up and down, to observe, or seem to mediate, the way in which she could hold them fixed, casting out their vivid fire without moving her head, without taking from her face its absolute immovability (a manoeuvre learned upon the stage), and the vivacity of their glance, as she looked about a theatre in search of a friend, made her eyes the most terrible, also the softest, in short, the most extraordinary eyes in the world. Rouge had destroyed by this time the diaphanous tints of her cheeks, the flesh of which was still delicate; but although she could no longer blush or turn pale, she had a thin nose with rosy, passionate nostrils, made to express irony — the mocking irony of Moliere’s women-servants. Her sensual mouth, expressive of sarcasm and love of dissipation, was adorned with a deep furrow that united the upper lip with the nose. Her chin, white and rather fat, betrayed the violence of passion. Her hands and arms were worthy of a sovereign.

But she had one ineradicable sign of low birth — her foot was short and fat. No inherited quality ever caused greater distress. Florine had tried everything, short of amputation, to get rid of it. The feet were obstinate, like the Breton race from which she came; they resisted all treatment. Florine now wore long boots stuffed with cotton, to give length, and the semblance of an instep. Her figure was of medium height, threatened with corpulence, but still well-balanced, and well-made.

Morally, she was an adept in all the attitudinizing, quarrelling, alluring, and cajoling of her business; and she gave to those actions a savor of their own by playing childlike innocence, and slipping in among her artless speeches philosophical malignities. Apparently ignorant and giddy, she was very strong on money-matters and commercial law — for the reason that she had gone through so much misery before attaining to her present precarious success. She had come down, story by story, from the garret to the first floor, through so many vicissitudes! She knew life, from that which begins in Brie cheese and ends at pineapples; from that which cooks and washes in the corner of a garret on an earthenware stove, to that which convokes the tribes of pot-bellied chefs and saucemakers. She had lived on credit and not killed it; she was ignorant of nothing that honest women ignore; she spoke all languages: she was one of the populace by experience; she was noble by beauty and physical distinction. Suspicious as a spy, or a judge, or an old statesman, she was difficult to impose upon, and therefore the more able to see clearly into most matters. She knew the ways of managing tradespeople, and how to evade their snares, and she was quite as well versed in the prices of things as a public appraiser. To see her lying on her sofa, like a young bride, fresh and white, holding her part in her hand and learning it, you would have thought her a child of sixteen, ingenuous, ignorant, and weak, with no other artifice about her but her innocence. Let a creditor contrive to enter, and she was up like a startled fawn, and swearing a good round oath.

“Hey! my good fellow; your insolence is too dear an interest on the money I owe you,” she would say. “I am sick of seeing you. Send the sheriff here; I’d prefer him to your silly face.”

Florine gave charming dinners, concerts, and well-attended soirees, where play ran high. Her female friends were all handsome; no old woman had ever appeared within her precincts. She was not jealous; in fact, she would have thought jealousy an admission of inferiority. She had known Coralie and La Torpille in their lifetimes, and now knew Tullia, Euphrasie, Aquilina, Madame du Val–Noble, Mariette — those women who pass through Paris like gossamer through the atmosphere, without our knowing where they go nor whence they came; today queens, tomorrow slaves. She also knew the actresses, her rivals, and all the prima-donnas; in short, that whole exceptional feminine society, so kindly, so graceful in its easy “sans-souci,” which absorbs into its own Bohemian life all who allow themselves to be caught in the frantic whirl of its gay spirits, its eager abandonment, and its contemptuous indifference to the future.

Though this Bohemian life displayed itself in her house in tumultuous disorder, amid the laughter of artists of every description, the queen of the revels had ten fingers on which she knew better how to count than any of her guests. In that house secret saturnalias of literature and art, politics and finance were carried on; there, desire reigned a sovereign; there, caprice and fancy were as sacred as honor and virtue to a bourgeoise; thither came Blondet, Finot, Etienne Lousteau, Vernou the feuilletonist, Couture, Bixiou, Rastignac in his earlier days, Claude Vignon the critic, Nucingen the banker, du Tillet, Conti the composer — in short, that whole devil-may-care legion of selfish materialists of all kinds; friends of Florine and of the singers, actresses and “danseuses” collected about her. They all hated or liked one another according to circumstances.

This Bohemian resort, to which celebrity was the only ticket of admission, was a Hades of the mind, the galleys of the intellect. No one could enter there without having legally conquered fortune, done ten years of misery, strangled two or three passions, acquired some celebrity, either by books or waistcoats, by dramas or fine equipages; plots were hatched there, means of making fortune scrutinized, all things were discussed and weighed. But every man, on leaving it, resumed the livery of his own opinions; there he could, without compromising himself, criticise his own party, admit the knowledge and good play of his adversaries, formulate thoughts that no one admits thinking — in short, say all, as if ready to do all. Paris is the only place in the world where such eclectic houses exist; where all tastes, all vices, all opinions are received under decent guise. Therefore it is not yet certain that Florine will remain to the end of her career a second-class actress.

Florine’s life was by no means an idle one, or a life to be envied. Many persons, misled by the magnificent pedestal that the stage gives to a woman, suppose her in the midst of a perpetual carnival. In the dark recesses of a porter’s lodge, beneath the tiles of an attic roof, many a poor girl dreams, on returning from the theatre, of pearls and diamonds, gold-embroidered gowns and sumptuous girdles; she fancies herself adored, applauded, courted; but little she knows of that treadmill life, in which the actress is forced to rehearsals under pain of fines, to the reading of new pieces, to the constant study of new roles. At each representation Florine changes her dress at least two or three times; often she comes home exhausted and half-dead; but before she can rest, she must wash off with various cosmetics the white and the red she has applied, and clean all the powder from her hair, if she has played a part from the eighteenth century. She scarcely has time for food. When she plays, an actress can live no life of her own; she can neither dress, nor eat, nor talk. Florine often has no time to sup. On returning from a play, which lasts, in these days, till after midnight, she does not get to bed before two in the morning; but she must rise early to study her part, order her dresses, try them on, breakfast, read her love-letters, answer them, discuss with the leader of the “claque” the place for the plaudits, pay for the triumphs of the last month in solid cash, and bespeak those of the month ahead. In the days of Saint–Genest, the canonized comedian who fulfilled his duties in a pious manner and wore a hair shirt, we must suppose that an actor’s life did not demand this incessant activity. Sometimes Florine, seized with a bourgeois desire to get out into the country and gather flowers, pretends to the manager that she is ill.

But even these mechanical operations are nothing in comparison with the intrigues to be carried on, the pains of wounded vanity to be endured — preferences shown by authors, parts taken away or given to others, exactions of the male actors, spite of rivals, naggings of the stage manager, struggles with journalists; all of which require another twelve hours to the day. But even so far, nothing has been said of the art of acting, the expression of passion, the practice of positions and gesture, the minute care and watchfulness required on the stage, where a thousand opera-glasses are ready to detect a flaw, — labors which consumed the life and thought of Talma, Lekain, Baron, Contat, Clairon, Champmesle. In these infernal “coulisses” self-love has no sex; the artist who triumphs, be it man or woman, has all the other men and women against him or her. Then, as to money, however many engagements Florine may have, her salary does not cover the costs of her stage toilet, which, in addition to its costumes, requires an immense variety of long gloves, shoes, and frippery; and all this exclusive of her personal clothing. The first third of such a life is spent in struggling and imploring; the next third, in getting a foothold; the last third, in defending it. If happiness is frantically grasped, it is because it is so rare, so long desired, and found at last only amid the odious fictitious pleasures and smiles of such a life.

As for Florine, Raoul’s power in the press was like a protecting sceptre; he spared her many cares and anxieties; she clung to him less as a lover than a prop; she took care of him like a father, she deceived him like a husband; but she would readily have sacrificed all she had to him. Raoul could, and did do everything for her vanity as an actress, for the peace of her self-love, and for her future on the stage. Without the intervention of a successful author, there is no successful actress; Champmesle was due to Racine, like Mars to Monvel and Andrieux. Florine could do nothing in return for Raoul, though she would gladly have been useful and necessary to him. She reckoned on the charms of habit to keep him by her; she was always ready to open her salons and display the luxury of her dinners and suppers for his friends, and to further his projects. She desired to be for him what Madame de Pompadour was to Louis XV. All actresses envied Florine’s position, and some journalists envied that of Raoul.

Those to whom the inclination of the human mind towards chance, opposition, and contrasts is known, will readily understand that after ten years of this lawless Bohemian life, full of ups and downs, of fetes and sheriffs, of orgies and forced sobrieties, Raoul was attracted to the idea of another love — to the gentle, harmonious house and presence of a great lady, just as the Comtesse Felix instinctively desired to introduce the torture of great emotions into a life made monotonous by happiness. This law of life is the law of all arts, which exist only by contrasts. A work done without this incentive is the loftiest expression of genius, just as the cloister is the highest expression of the Christian life.

On returning to his lodging from Lady Dudley’s ball, Raoul found a note from Florine, brought by her maid, which an invincible sleepiness prevented him from reading at that moment. He fell asleep, dreaming of a gentle love that his life had so far lacked. Some hours later he opened the note, and found in it important news, which neither Rastignac nor de Marsay had allowed to transpire. The indiscretion of a member of the government had revealed to the actress the coming dissolution of the Chamber after the present session. Raoul instantly went to Florine’s house and sent for Blondet. In the actress’s boudoir, with their feet on the fender, Emile and Raoul analyzed the political situation of France in 1834. On which side lay the best chance of fortune? They reviewed all parties and all shades of party, — pure republicans, presiding republicans, republicans without a republic, constitutionals without a dynasty, ministerial conservatives, ministerial absolutists; also the Right, the aristocratic Right, the legitimist, henriquinquist Right, and the carlest Right. Between the party of resistance and that of action there was no discussion; they might as well have hesitated between life and death.

At this period a flock of newspapers, created to represent all shades of opinion, produced a fearful pell-mell of political principles. Blondet, the most judicious mind of the day — judicious for others, never for himself, like some great lawyers unable to manage their own affairs — was magnificent in such a discussion. The upshot was that he advised Nathan not to apostatize too suddenly.

“Napoleon said it; you can’t make young republics of old monarchies. Therefore, my dear fellow, become the hero, the support, the creator of the Left Centre in the new Chamber, and you’ll succeed. Once admitted into political ranks, once in the government, you can be what you like — of any opinion that triumphs.”

Nathan was bent on creating a daily political journal and becoming the absolute master of an enterprise which should absorb into it the countless little papers then swarming from the press, and establish ramifications with a review. He had seen so many fortunes made all around him by the press that he would not listen to Blondet, who warned him not to trust to such a venture, declaring that the plan was unsound, so great was the present number of newspapers, all fighting for subscribers. Raoul, relying on his so-called friends and his own courage, was all for daring it; he sprang up eagerly and said, with a proud gesture —

“I shall succeed.”

“But you haven’t a sou.”

“I will write a play.”

“It will fail.”

“Let it fail!” replied Nathan.

He rushed through the various rooms of Florine’s apartment, followed by Blondet, who thought him crazy, looking with a greedy eye upon the wealth displayed there. Blondet understood that look.

“There’s a hundred and more thousand francs in them,” he remarked.

“Yes,” said Raoul, sighing, as he looked at Florine’s sumptuous bedstead; “but I’d rather be a pedler all my life on the boulevard, and live on fried potatoes, than sell one item of this apartment.”

“Not one item,” said Blondet; “sell all. Ambition is like death; it takes all or nothing.”

“No, a hundred times no! I would take anything from my new countess; but rob Florine of her shell? no.”

“Upset our money-box, break one’s balance-pole, smash our refuge, — yes, that would be serious,” said Blondet with a tragic air.

“It seems to me from what I hear that you want to play politics instead of comedies,” said Florine, suddenly appearing.

“Yes, my dear, yes,” said Raoul, affectionately taking her by the neck and kissing her forehead. “Don’t make faces at that; you won’t lose anything. A minister can do better than a journalist for the queen of the boards. What parts and what holidays you shall have!”

“Where will you get the money?” she said.

“From my uncle,” replied Raoul.

Florine knew Raoul’s “uncle.” The word meant usury, as in popular parlance “aunt” means pawn.

“Don’t worry yourself, my little darling,” said Blondet to Florine, tapping her shoulder. “I’ll get him the assistance of Massol, a lawyer who wants to be deputy; also Finot, who has never yet got beyond his ‘petit-journal,’ and Pantin, who wants to be master of petitions, and who dabbles in reviews. Yes, I’ll save him from himself; we’ll convoke here to supper Etienne Lousteau, who can do the feuilleton; Claude Vignon for criticisms; Felicien Vernou as general care-taker; the lawyer will work, and du Tillet may take charge of the Bourse, the money article, and all industrial questions. We’ll see where these various talents and slaves united will land the enterprise.”

“In a hospital or a ministry — where all men ruined in body or mind are apt to go,” said Raoul, laughing.

“Where and when shall we invite them?”

“Here, five days hence.”

“Tell me the sum you want,” said Florine, simply.

“Well, the lawyer, du Tillet, and Raoul will each have to put up a hundred thousand francs before they embark on the affair,” replied Blondet. “Then the paper can run eighteen months; about long enough for a rise and fall in Paris.”

Florine gave a little grimace of approval. The two friends jumped into a cabriolet to go about collecting guests and pens, ideas and self-interests.

Florine meantime sent for certain dealers in old furniture, bric-a-brac, pictures, and jewels. These men entered her sanctuary and took an inventory of every article, precisely as if Florine were dead. She declared she would sell everything at public auction if they did not offer her a proper price. She had had the luck to please, she said, an English lord, and she wanted to get rid of all her property and look poor, so that he might give her a fine house and furniture, fit to rival the Rothschilds. But in spite of these persuasions and subterfuges, all the dealers would offer her for a mass of belongings worth a hundred and fifty thousand was seventy thousand. Florine thereupon offered to deliver over everything in eight days for eighty thousand — “To take or leave,” she said — and the bargain was concluded. After the men had departed she skipped for joy, like the hills of King David, and performed all manner of follies, not having thought herself so rich.

When Raoul came back she made him a little scene, pretending to be hurt; she declared that he abandoned her; that she had reflected; men did not pass from one party to another, from the stage to the Chamber, without some reason; there was a woman at the bottom; she had a rival! In short, she made him swear eternal fidelity. Five days later she gave a splendid feast. The new journal was baptized in floods of wine and wit, with oaths of loyalty, fidelity, and good-fellowship. The name, forgotten now like those of the Liberal, Communal, Departmental, Garde National, Federal, Impartial, was something in “al” that was equally imposing and evanescent. At three in the morning Florine could undress and go to bed as if alone, though no one had left the house; these lights of the epoch were sleeping the sleep of brutes. And when, early in the morning, the packers and vans arrived to remove Florine’s treasures she laughed to see the porters moving the bodies of the celebrated men like pieces of furniture that lay in their way. “Sic transit” all her fine things! all her presents and souvenirs went to the shops of the various dealers, where no one on seeing them would know how those flowers of luxury had been originally paid for. It was agreed that a few little necessary articles should be left, for Florine’s personal convenience until evening — her bed, a table, a few chairs, and china enough to give her guests their breakfast.

Having gone to sleep beneath the draperies of wealth and luxury, these distinguished men awoke to find themselves within bare walls, full of nail-holes, degraded into abject poverty.

“Why, Florine! — The poor girl has been seized for debt!” cried Bixiou, who was one of the guests. “Quick! a subscription for her!”

On this they all roused up. Every pocket was emptied and produced a total of thirty-seven francs, which Raoul carried in jest to Florine’s bedside. She burst out laughing and lifted her pillow, beneath which lay a mass of bank-notes to which she pointed.

Raoul called to Blondet.

“Ah! I see!” cried Blondet. “The little cheat has sold herself out without a word to us. Well done, you little angel!”

Thereupon, the actress was borne in triumph into the dining-room where most of the party still remained. The lawyer and du Tillet had departed.

That evening Florine had an ovation at the theatre; the story of her sacrifice had circulated among the audience.

“I’d rather be applauded for my talent,” said her rival in the green-room.

“A natural desire in an actress who has never been applauded at all,” remarked Florine.

During the evening Florine’s maid installed her in Raoul’s apartment in the Passage Sandrie. Raoul himself was to encamp in the house where the office of the new journal was established.

Such was the rival of the innocent Madame de Vandenesse. Raoul was the connecting link between the actress and the countess — a knot severed by a duchess in the days of Louis XV. by the poisoning of Adrienne Lecouvreur; a not inconceivable vengeance, considering the offence.

Florine, however, was not in the way of Raoul’s dawning passion. She foresaw the lack of money in the difficult enterprise he had undertaken, and she asked for leave of absence from the theatre. Raoul conducted the negotiation in a way to make himself more than ever valuable to her. With the good sense of the peasant in La Fontaine’s fable, who makes sure of a dinner while the patricians talk, the actress went into the provinces to cut faggots for her celebrated man while he was employed in hunting power.

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