A Daughter of Eve, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter VIII

A Lover Saved and Lost

Du Tillet had heard some talk even in financial circles of the more or less possible adoration of his sister-inlaw for Nathan; but he was one of those who denied it, thinking it incompatible with Raoul’s known relations with Florine. The actress would certainly drive off the countess, or vice versa. But when, on coming home that evening, he found his sister-inlaw with a perturbed face, in consultation with his wife about money, it occurred to him that Raoul had, in all probability, confided to her his situation. The countess must therefore love him; she had doubtless come to obtain from her sister the sum due to old Gigonnet. Madame du Tillet, unaware, of course, of the reasons for her husband’s apparently supernatural penetration, had shown such stupefaction when he told her the sum wanted, that du Tillet’s suspicions became certainties. He was sure now that he held the thread of all Nathan’s possible manoeuvres.

No one knew that the unhappy man himself was in bed in a small hotel in the rue du Mail, under the name of the office watchman, to whom Marie had promised five hundred francs if he kept silence as to the events of the preceding night and morning. Thus bribed, the man, whose name was Francois Quillet, went back to the office and left word with the portress that Monsieur Nathan had been taken ill in consequence of overwork, and was resting. Du Tillet was therefore not surprised at Raoul’s absence. It was natural for the journalist to hide under any such pretence to avoid arrest. When the sheriff’s spies made inquiries they learned that a lady had carried him away in a public coach early in the morning; but it took three days to ferret out the number of the coach, question the driver, and find the hotel where the debtor was recovering his strength. Thus Marie’s prompt action had really gained for Nathan a truce of four days.

Both sisters passed a cruel night. Such a catastrophe casts the lurid gleams of its charcoal over the whole of life, showing reefs, pools, depths, where the eye has hitherto seen only summits and grandeurs. Struck by the horrible picture of a young man lying back in his chair to die, with the last proofs of his paper before him, containing in type his last thoughts, poor Madame du Tillet could think of nothing else than how to save him and restore a life so precious to her sister. It is the nature of our mind to see effects before we analyze their causes. Eugenie recurred to her first idea of consulting Madame Delphine de Nucingen, with whom she was to dine, and she resolved to make the attempt, not doubting of success. Generous, like all persons who are not bound in the polished steel armor of modern society, Madame du Tillet resolved to take the whole matter upon herself.

The countess, on the other hand, happy in the thought that she had saved Raoul’s life, spent the night in devising means to obtain the forty thousand francs. In emergencies like these women are sublime; they find contrivances which would astonish thieves, business men, and usurers, if those three classes of industrials were capable of being astonished. First, the countess sold her diamonds and decided on wearing paste; then she resolved to ask the money from Vandenesse on her sister’s account; but these were dishonorable means, and her soul was too noble not to recoil at them; she merely conceived them, and cast them from her. Ask money of Vandenesse to give to Nathan! She bounded in her bed with horror at such baseness. Wear false diamonds to deceive her husband! Next she thought of borrowing the money from the Rothschilds, who had so much, or from the archbishop of Paris, whose mission it was to help persons in distress; darting thus from thought to thought, seeking help in all. She deplored belonging to a class opposed to the government. Formerly, she could easily have borrowed the money on the steps of the throne. She thought of appealing to her father, the Comte de Granville. But that great magistrate had a horror of illegalities; his children knew how little he sympathized with the trials of love; he was now a misanthrope and held all affairs of the heart in horror. As for the Comtesse de Granville, she was living a retired life on one of her estates in Normandy, economizing and praying, ending her days between priests and money-bags, cold as ever to her dying moment. Even supposing that Marie had time to go to Bayeux and implore her, would her mother give her such a sum unless she explained why she wanted it? Could she say she had debts? Yes, perhaps her mother would be softened by the wants of her favorite child. Well, then! in case all other means failed, she would go to Normandy. The dreadful sight of the morning, the effects she had made to revive Nathan, the hours passed beside his pillow, his broken confession, the agony of a great soul, a vast genius stopped in its upward flight by a sordid vulgar obstacle — all these things rushed into her memory and stimulated her love. She went over and over her emotions, and felt her love to be deeper in these days of misery than in those of Nathan’s fame and grandeur. She felt the nobility of his last words said to her in Lady Dudley’s boudoir. What sacredness in that farewell! What grandeur in the immolation of a selfish happiness which would have been her torture! The countess had longed for emotions, and now she had them — terrible, cruel, and yet most precious. She lived a deeper life in pain than in pleasure. With what delight she said to herself: “I have saved him once, and I will save him again.” She heard him cry out when he felt her lips upon his forehead, “Many a poor wretch does not know what love is!”

“Are you ill?” said her husband, coming into her room to take her to breakfast.

“I am dreadfully worried about a matter that is happening at my sister’s,” she replied, without actually telling a lie.

“Your sister has fallen into bad hands,” replied Felix. “It is a shame for any family to have a du Tillet in it — a man without honor of any kind. If disaster happened to her she would get no pity from him.”

“What woman wants pity?” said the countess, with a convulsive motion. “A man’s sternness is to us our only pardon.”

“This is not the first time that I read your noble heart,” said the count. “A woman who thinks as you do needs no watching.”

“Watching!” she said; “another shame that recoils on you.”

Felix smiled, but Marie blushed. When women are secretly to blame they often show ostensibly the utmost womanly pride. It is a dissimulation of mind for which we ought to be obliged to them. The deception is full of dignity, if not of grandeur. Marie wrote two lines to Nathan under the name of Monsieur Quillet, to tell him that all went well, and sent them by a street porter to the hotel du Mail. That night, at the Opera, Felix thought it very natural that she should wish to leave her box and go to that of her sister, and he waited till du Tillet had left his wife to give Marie his arm and take her there. Who can tell what emotions agitated her as she went through the corridors and entered her sister’s box with a face that was outwardly serene and calm!

“Well?” she said, as soon as they were alone.

Eugenie’s face was an answer; it was bright with a joy which some persons might have attributed to the satisfaction of vanity.

“He can be saved, dear; but for three months only; during which time we must plan some other means of doing it permanently. Madame de Nucingen wants four notes of hand, each for ten thousand francs, endorsed by any one, no matter who, so as not to compromise you. She explained to me how they were made, but I couldn’t understand her. Monsieur Nathan, however, can make them for us. I thought of Schmucke, our old master. I am sure he could be very useful in this emergency; he will endorse the notes. You must add to the four notes a letter in which you guarantee their payment to Madame de Nucingen, and she will give you the money tomorrow. Do the whole thing yourself; don’t trust it to any one. I feel sure that Schmucke will make no objection. To divert all suspicion I told Madame de Nucingen you wanted to oblige our old music-master who was in distress, and I asked her to keep the matter secret.”

“You have the sense of angels! I only hope Madame de Nucingen won’t tell of it until after she gives me the money,” said the countess.

“Schmucke lives in the rue de Nevers on the quai Conti; don’t forget the address, and go yourself.”

“Thanks!” said the countess, pressing her sister’s hand. “Ah! I’d give ten years of life —”

“Out of your old age —”

“If I could put an end to these anxieties,” said the countess, smiling at the interruption.

The persons who were at that moment levelling their opera-glasses at the two sisters might well have supposed them engaged in some light-hearted talk; but any observer who had come to the Opera more for the pleasure of watching faces than for mere idle amusement might have guessed them in trouble, from the anxious look which followed the momentary smiles on their charming faces. Raoul, who did not fear the bailiffs at night, appeared, pale and ashy, with anxious eye and gloomy brow, on the step of the staircase where he regularly took his stand. He looked for the Countess in her box and, finding it empty, buried his face in his hands, leaning his elbows on the balustrade.

“Can she be here!” he thought.

“Look up, unhappy hero,” whispered Mme. du Tillet.

As for Marie, at all risks she fixed on him that steady magnetic gaze, in which the will flashes from the eye, as rays of light from the sun. Such a look, mesmerizers say, penetrates to the person on whom it is directed, and certainly Raoul seemed as though struck by a magic wand. Raising his head, his eyes met those of the sisters. With that charming feminine readiness which is never at fault, Mme. de Vandenesse seized a cross, sparkling on her neck, and directed his attention to it by a swift smile, full of meaning. The brilliance of the gem radiated even upon Raoul’s forehead, and he replied with a look of joy; he had understood.

“Is it nothing then, Eugenie,” said the Countess, “thus to restore life to the dead?”

“You have a chance yet with the Royal Humane Society,” replied Eugenie, with a smile.”

“How wretched and depressed he looked when he came, and how happy he will go away!”

At this moment du Tillet, coming up to Raoul with every mark of friendliness, pressed his hand, and said:

“Well, old fellow, how are you?”

“As well as a man is likely to be who has just got the best possible news of the election. I shall be successful,” replied Raoul, radiant.

“Delighted,” said du Tillet. “We shall want money for the paper.”

“The money will be found,” said Raoul.

“The devil is with these women!” exclaimed du Tillet, still unconvinced by the words of Raoul, whom he had nicknamed Charnathan.

“What are you talking about?” said Raoul.

“My sister-inlaw is there with my wife, and they are hatching something together. You seem in high favor with the Countess; she is bowing to you right across the house.”

“Look,” said Mme. du Tillet to her sister, “they told us wrong. See how my husband fawns on M. Nathan, and it is he who they declared was trying to get him put in prison!”

“And men call us slanderers!” cried the Countess. “I will give him a warning.”

She rose, took the arm of Vandenesse, who was waiting in the passage, and returned jubilant to her box; by and by she left the Opera and ordered her carriage for the next morning before eight o’clock.

The next morning, by half-past eight, Marie had driven to the quai Conti, stopping at the hotel du Mail on her way. The carriage could not enter the narrow rue de Nevers; but as Schmucke lived in a house at the corner of the quai she was not obliged to walk up its muddy pavement, but could jump from the step of her carriage to the broken step of the dismal old house, mended like porter’s crockery, with iron rivets, and bulging out over the street in a way that was quite alarming to pedestrians. The old chapel-master lived on the fourth floor, and enjoyed a fine view of the Seine from the pont Neuf to the heights of Chaillot.

The good soul was so surprised when the countess’s footman announced the visit of his former scholar that in his stupefaction he let her enter without going down to receive her. Never did the countess suspect or imagine such an existence as that which suddenly revealed itself to her eyes, though she had long known Schmucke’s contempt for dress, and the little interest he held in the affairs of this world. But who could have believed in such complete indifference, in the utter laisser-aller of such a life? Schmucke was a musical Diogenes, and he felt no shame whatever in his untidiness; in fact, he was so accustomed to it that he would probably have denied its existence. The incessant smoking of a stout German pipe had spread upon the ceiling and over a wretched wall-paper, scratched and defaced by the cat, a yellowish tinge. The cat, a magnificently long-furred, fluffy animal, the envy of all portresses, presided there like the mistress of the house, grave and sedate, and without anxieties. On the top of an excellent Viennese piano he sat majestically, and cast upon the countess, as she entered, that coldly gracious look which a woman, surprised by the beauty of another woman, might have given. He did not move, and merely waved the two silver threads of his right whisker as he turned his golden eyes on Schmucke.

The piano, decrepit on its legs, though made of good wood painted black and gilded, was dirty, defaced, and scratched; and its keys, worn like the teeth of old horses, were yellowed with the fuliginous colors of the pipe. On the desk, a little heap of ashes showed that the night before Schmucke had bestrode the old instrument to some musical Walhalla. The floor, covered with dried mud, torn papers, tobacco-dust, fragments indescribable, was like that of a boy’s school-room, unswept for a week, on which a mound of things accumulate, half rags, half filth.

A more practised eye than that of the countess would have seen certain other revelations of Schmucke’s mode of life — chestnut-peels, apple-parings, egg-shells dyed red in broken dishes smeared with sauer-kraut. This German detritus formed a carpet of dusty filth which crackled under foot, joining company near the hearth with a mass of cinders and ashes descending majestically from the fireplace, where lay a block of coal, before which two slender twigs made a show of burning. On the chimney-piece was a mirror in a painted frame, adorned with figures dancing a saraband; on one side hung the glorious pipe, on the other was a Chinese jar in which the musician kept his tobacco. Two arm-chairs bought at auction, a thin and rickety cot, a worm-eaten bureau without a top, a maimed table on which lay the remains of a frugal breakfast, made up a set of household belongings as plain as those of an Indian wigwam. A shaving-glass, suspended to the fastening of a curtainless window, and surmounted by a rag striped by many wipings of a razor, indicated the only sacrifices paid by Schmucke to the Graces and society. The cat, being the feebler and protected partner, had rather the best of the establishment; he enjoyed the comforts of an old sofa-cushion, near which could be seen a white china cup and plate. But what no pen can describe was the state into which Schmucke, the cat, and the pipe, that existing trinity, had reduced these articles. The pipe had burned the table. The cat and Schmucke’s head had greased the green Utrecht velvet of the two arm-chairs and reduced it to a slimy texture. If it had not been for the cat’s magnificent tail, which played a useful part in the household, the uncovered places on the bureau and the piano would never have been dusted. In one corner of the room were a pile of shoes which need an epic to describe them. The top of the bureau and that of the piano were encumbered by music-books with ragged backs and whitened corners, through which the pasteboard showed its many layers. Along the walls the names and addresses of pupils written on scraps of paper were stuck on by wafers — the number of wafers without paper indicating the number of pupils no longer taught. On the wall-papers were many calculations written with chalk. The bureau was decorated with beer-mugs used the night before, their newness appearing very brilliant in the midst of this rubbish of dirt and age. Hygiene was represented by a jug of water with a towel laid upon it, and a bit of common soap. Two ancient hats hung to their respective nails, near which also hung the self-same blue box-coat with three capes, in which the countess had always seen Schmucke when he came to give his lessons. On the window-sill were three pots of flowers, German flowers, no doubt, and near them a stout holly-wood stick.

Though Marie’s sight and smell were disagreeably affected, Schmucke’s smile and glance disguised these abject miseries by rays of celestial light which actually illuminated their smoky tones and vivified the chaos. The soul of this dear man, which saw and revealed so many things divine, shone like the sun. His laugh, so frank, so guileless at seeing one of his Saint–Cecilias, shed sparkles of youth and gaiety and innocence about him. The treasures he poured from the inner to the outer were like a mantle with which he covered his squalid life. The most supercilious parvenu would have felt it ignoble to care for the frame in which this glorious old apostle of the musical religion lived and moved and had his being.

“Hey! by what good luck do I see you here, dear Madame la comtesse?” he said. “Must I sing the canticle of Simeon at my age?” (This idea so tickled him that he laughed immoderately.) “Truly I’m ‘en bonne fortune.’” (And again he laughed like a merry child.) “But, ah!” he said, changing to melancholy, “you come for the music, and not for a poor old man like me. Yes, I know that; but come for what you will, I am yours, you know, body and soul and all I have!”

This was said in his unspeakable German accent, a rendition of which we spare the reader.

He took the countess’s hand, kissed it and left a tear there, for the worthy soul was always on the morrow of her benefit. Then he seized a bit of chalk, jumped on a chair in front of the piano, and wrote upon the wall in big letters, with the rapidity of a young man, “February 17th, 1835.” This pretty, artless action, done in such a passion of gratitude, touched the countess to tears.

“My sister will come too,” she said.

“The other, too! When? when? God grant it be before I die!”

“She will come to thank you for a great service I am now here to ask of you.”

“Quick! quick! tell me what it is,” cried Schmucke. “What must I do? go to the devil?”

“Nothing more than write the words ‘Accepted for ten thousand francs,’ and sign your name on each of these papers,” she said, taking from her muff four notes prepared for her by Nathan.

“Hey! that’s soon done,” replied the German, with the docility of a lamb; “only I’m sure I don’t know where my pens and ink are — Get away from there, Meinherr Mirr!” he cried to the cat, which looked composedly at him. “That’s my cat,” he said, showing him to the countess. “That’s the poor animal that lives with poor Schmucke. Hasn’t he fine fur?”

“Yes,” said the countess.

“Will you have him?” he cried.

“How can you think of such a thing?” she answered. “Why, he’s your friend!”

The cat, who hid the inkstand behind him, divined that Schmucke wanted it, and jumped to the bed.

“He’s as mischievous as a monkey,” said Schmucke. “I call him Mirr in honor of our great Hoffman of Berlin, whom I knew well.”

The good man signed the papers with the innocence of a child who does what his mother orders without question, so sure is he that all is right. He was thinking much more of presenting the cat to the countess than of the papers by which his liberty might be, according to the laws relating to foreigners, forever sacrificed.

“You assure me that these little papers with the stamps on them —”

“Don’t be in the least uneasy,” said the countess.

“I am not uneasy,” he said, hastily. “I only meant to ask if these little papers will give pleasure to Madame du Tillet.”

“Oh, yes,” she said, “you are doing her a service, as if you were her father.”

“I am happy, indeed, to be of any good to her — Come and listen to my music!” and leaving the papers on the table, he jumped to his piano.

The hands of this angel ran along the yellowing keys, his glance was rising to heaven, regardless of the roof; already the air of some blessed climate permeated the room and the soul of the old musician; but the countess did not allow the artless interpreter of things celestial to make the strings and the worn wood speak, like Raffaelle’s Saint Cecilia, to the listening angels. She quickly slipped the notes into her muff and recalled her radiant master from the ethereal spheres to which he soared, by laying her hand upon his shoulder.

“My good Schmucke —” she said.

“Going already?” he cried. “Ah! why did you come?”

He did not murmur, but he sat up like a faithful dog who listens to his mistress.

“My good Schmucke,” she repeated, “this is a matter of life and death; minutes can save tears, perhaps blood.”

“Always the same!” he said. “Go, angel! dry the tears of others. Your poor Schmucke thinks more of your visit than of your gifts.”

“But we must see each other often,” she said. “You must come and dine and play to me every Sunday, or we shall quarrel. Remember, I shall expect you next Sunday.”

“Really and truly?”

“Yes, I entreat you; and my sister will want you, too, for another day.”

“Then my happiness will be complete,” he said; “for I only see you now in the Champs Elysees as you pass in your carriage, and that is very seldom.”

This thought dried the tears in his eyes as he gave his arm to his beautiful pupil, who felt the old man’s heart beat violently.

“You think of us?” she said.

“Always as I eat my food,” he answered — “as my benefactresses; but chiefly as the first young girls worthy of love whom I ever knew.”

So respectful, faithful, and religious a solemnity was in this speech that the countess dared say no more. That smoky chamber, full of dirt and rubbish, was the temple of the two divinities.

“There we are loved — and truly loved,” she thought.

The emotion with which old Schmucke saw the countess get into her carriage and leave him she fully shared, and she sent him from the tips of her fingers one of those pretty kisses which women give each other from afar. Receiving it, the old man stood planted on his feet for a long time after the carriage had disappeared.

A few moments later the countess entered the court-yard of the hotel de Nucingen. Madame de Nucingen was not yet up; but anxious not to keep a woman of the countess’s position waiting, she hastily threw on a shawl and wrapper.

“My visit concerns a charitable action, madame,” said the countess, “or I would not disturb you at so early an hour.”

“But I am only too happy to be disturbed,” said the banker’s wife, taking the notes and the countess’s guarantee. She rang for her maid.

“Therese,” she said, “tell the cashier to bring me up himself, immediately, forty thousand francs.”

Then she locked into a table drawer the guarantee given by Madame de Vandenesse, after sealing it up.

“You have a delightful room,” said the countess.

“Yes, but Monsieur de Nucingen is going to take it from me. He is building a new house.”

“You will doubtless give this one to your daughter, who, I am told, is to marry Monsieur de Rastignac.”

The cashier appeared at this moment with the money. Madame de Nucingen took the bank-bills and gave him the notes of hand.

“That balances,” she said.

“Except the discount,” replied the cashier. “Ha, Schmucke; that’s the musician of Anspach,” he added, examining the signatures in a suspicious manner that made the countess tremble.

“Who is doing this business?” said Madame de Nucingen, with a haughty glance at the cashier. “This is my affair.”

The cashier looked alternately at the two ladies, but he could discover nothing on their impenetrable faces.

“Go, leave us — Have the kindness to wait a few moments that the people in the bank may not connect you with this negotiation,” said Madame de Nucingen to the countess.

“I must ask you to add to all your other kindness that of keeping this matter secret,” said Madame de Vandenesse.

“Most assuredly, since it is for charity,” replied the baroness, smiling. “I will send your carriage round to the garden gate, so that no one will see you leave the house.”

“You have the thoughtful grace of a person who has suffered,” said the countess.

“I do not know if I have grace,” said the baroness; “but I have suffered much. I hope that your anxieties cost less than mine.”

When a man has laid a plot like that du Tillet was scheming against Nathan, he confides it to no man. Nucingen knew something of it, but his wife knew nothing. The baroness, however, aware that Raoul was embarrassed, was not the dupe of the two sisters; she guessed into whose hands that money was to go, and she was delighted to oblige the countess; moreover, she felt a deep compassion for all such embarrassments. Rastignac, so placed that he was able to fathom the manoeuvres of the two bankers, came to breakfast that morning with Madame de Nucingen.

Delphine and Rastignac had no secrets from each other; and the baroness related to him her scene with the countess. Eugene, who had never supposed that Delphine could be mixed up in the affair, which was only accessory to his eyes — one means among many others — opened her eyes to the truth. She had probably, he told her, destroyed du Tillet’s chances of selection, and rendered useless the intrigues and deceptions of the past year. In short, he put her in the secret of the whole affair, advising her to keep absolute silence as to the mistake she had just committed.

“Provided the cashier does not tell Nucingen,” she said.

A few moments after mid-day, while du Tillet was breakfasting, Monsieur Gigonnet was announced.

“Let him come in,” said the banker, though his wife was at table. “Well, my old Shylock, is our man locked up?”

“No.”

“Why not? Didn’t I give you the address, rue du Mail, hotel —”

“He has paid up,” said Gigonnet, drawing from his wallet a pile of bank-bills. Du Tillet looked furious. “You should never frown at money,” said his impassible associate; “it brings ill-luck.”

“Where did you get that money, madame?” said du Tillet, suddenly turning upon his wife with a look which made her color to the roots of her hair.

“I don’t know what your question means,” she said.

“I will fathom this mystery,” he cried, springing furiously up. “You have upset my most cherished plans.”

“You are upsetting your breakfast,” said Gigonnet, arresting the table-clock, which was dragged by the skirt of du Tillet’s dressing-gown.

Madame du Tillet rose to leave the room, for her husband’s words alarmed her. She rang the bell, and a footman entered.

“The carriage,” she said. “And call Virginie; I wish to dress.”

“Where are you going?” exclaimed du Tillet.

“Well-bred husbands do not question their wives,” she answered. “I believe that you lay claim to be a gentleman.”

“I don’t recognize you ever since you have seen more of your impertinent sister.”

“You ordered me to be impertinent, and I am practising on you,” she replied.

“Your servant, madame,” said Gigonnet, taking leave, not anxious to witness this family scene.

Du Tillet looked fixedly at his wife, who returned the look without lowering her eyes.

“What does all this mean?” he said.

“It means that I am no longer a little girl whom you can frighten,” she replied. “I am, and shall be, all my life, a good and loyal wife to you; you may be my master if you choose, my tyrant, never!”

Du Tillet left the room. After this effort Marie–Eugenie broke down.

“If it were not for my sister’s danger,” she said to herself, “I should never have dared to brave him thus; but, as the proverb says, ‘There’s some good in every evil.’”

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