An Old Maid, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter III

Athanase

Madame Granson, widow of a lieutenant-colonel of artillery killed at Jena, possessed, as her whole means of livelihood, a meagre pension of nine hundred francs a year, and three hundred francs from property of her own, plus a son whose support and education had eaten up all her savings. She occupied, in the rue du Bercail, one of those melancholy ground-floor apartments which a traveller passing along the principal street of a little provincial town can look through at a glance. The street door opened at the top of three steep steps; a passage led to an interior courtyard, at the end of which was the staircase covered by a wooden gallery. On one side of the passage was the dining-room and the kitchen; on the other side, a salon put to many uses, and the widow’s bedchamber.

Athanase Granson, a young man twenty-three years of age, who slept in an attic room above the second floor of the house, added six hundred francs to the income of his poor mother, by the salary of a little place which the influence of his relation, Mademoiselle Cormon, had obtained for him in the mayor’s office, where he was placed in charge of the archives.

From these indications it is easy to imagine Madame Granson in her cold salon with its yellow curtains and Utrecht velvet furniture, also yellow, as she straightened the round straw mats which were placed before each chair, that visitors might not soil the red-tiled floor while they sat there; after which she returned to her cushioned armchair and little work-table placed beneath the portrait of the lieutenant-colonel of artillery between two windows — a point from which her eye could rake the rue du Bercail and see all comers. She was a good woman, dressed with bourgeois simplicity in keeping with her wan face furrowed by grief. The rigorous humbleness of poverty made itself felt in all the accessories of this household, the very air of which was charged with the stern and upright morals of the provinces. At this moment the son and mother were together in the dining-room, where they were breakfasting with a cup of coffee, with bread and butter and radishes. To make the pleasure which Suzanne’s visit was to give to Madame Granson intelligible, we must explain certain secret interests of the mother and son.

Athanase Granson was a thin and pale young man, of medium height, with a hollow face in which his two black eyes, sparkling with thoughts, gave the effect of bits of coal. The rather irregular lines of his face, the curve of his lips, a prominent chin, the fine modelling of his forehead, his melancholy countenance, caused by a sense of his poverty warring with the powers that he felt within him, were all indications of repressed and imprisoned talent. In any other place than the town of Alencon the mere aspect of his person would have won him the assistance of superior men, or of women who are able to recognize genius in obscurity. If his was not genius, it was at any rate the form and aspect of it; if he had not the actual force of a great heart, the glow of such a heart was in his glance. Although he was capable of expressing the highest feeling, a casing of timidity destroyed all the graces of his youth, just as the ice of poverty kept him from daring to put forth all his powers. Provincial life, without an opening, without appreciation, without encouragement, described a circle about him in which languished and died the power of thought — a power which as yet had scarcely reached its dawn. Moreover, Athanase possessed that savage pride which poverty intensifies in noble minds, exalting them in their struggle with men and things; although at their start in life it is an obstacle to their advancement. Genius proceeds in two ways: either it takes its opportunity — like Napoleon, like Moliere — the moment that it sees it, or it waits to be sought when it has patiently revealed itself. Young Granson belonged to that class of men of talent who distrust themselves and are easily discouraged. His soul was contemplative. He lived more by thought than by action. Perhaps he might have seemed deficient or incomplete to those who cannot conceive of genius without the sparkle of French passion; but he was powerful in the world of mind, and he was liable to reach, through a series of emotions imperceptible to common souls, those sudden determinations which make fools say of a man, “He is mad.”

The contempt which the world pours out on poverty was death to Athanase; the enervating heat of solitude, without a breath or current of air, relaxed the bow which ever strove to tighten itself; his soul grew weary in this painful effort without results. Athanase was a man who might have taken his place among the glories of France; but, eagle as he was, cooped in a cage without his proper nourishment, he was about to die of hunger after contemplating with an ardent eye the fields of air and the mountain heights where genius soars. His work in the city library escaped attention, and he buried in his soul his thoughts of fame, fearing that they might injure him; but deeper than all lay buried within him the secret of his heart — a passion which hollowed his cheeks and yellowed his brow. He loved his distant cousin, this very Mademoiselle Cormon whom the Chevalier de Valois and du Bousquier, his hidden rivals, were stalking. This love had had its origin in calculation. Mademoiselle Cormon was thought to be one of the richest persons in the town: the poor lad had therefore been led to love her by desires for material happiness, by the hope, long indulged, of gilding with comfort his mother’s last years, by eager longing for the ease of life so needful to men who live by thought; but this most innocent point of departure degraded his passion in his own eyes. Moreover, he feared the ridicule the world would cast upon the love of a young man of twenty-three for an old maid of forty.

And yet his passion was real; whatever may seem false about such a love elsewhere, it can be realized as a fact in the provinces, where, manners and morals being without change or chance or movement or mystery, marriage becomes a necessity of life. No family will accept a young man of dissolute habits. However natural the liaison of a young man, like Athanase, with a handsome girl, like Suzanne, for instance, might seem in a capital, it alarms provincial parents, and destroys the hopes of marriage of a poor young man when possibly the fortune of a rich one might cause such an unfortunate antecedent to be overlooked. Between the depravity of certain liaisons and a sincere love, a man of honor and no fortune will not hesitate: he prefers the misfortunes of virtue to the evils of vice. But in the provinces women with whom a young man call fall in love are rare. A rich young girl he cannot obtain in a region where all is calculation; a poor young girl he is prevented from loving; it would be, as provincials say, marrying hunger and thirst. Such monkish solitude is, however, dangerous to youth.

These reflections explain why provincial life is so firmly based on marriage. Thus we find that ardent and vigorous genius, forced to rely on the independence of its own poverty, quits these cold regions where thought is persecuted by brutal indifference, where no woman is willing to be a sister of charity to a man of talent, of art, of science.

Who will really understand Athanase Granson’s love for Mademoiselle Cormon? Certainly neither rich men — those sultans of society who fill their harems — nor middle-class men, who follow the well-beaten high-road of prejudices; nor women who, not choosing to understand the passions of artists, impose the yoke of their virtues upon men of genius, imagining that the two sexes are governed by the same laws.

Here, perhaps, we should appeal to those young men who suffer from the repression of their first desires at the moment when all their forces are developing; to artists sick of their own genius smothering under the pressure of poverty; to men of talent, persecuted and without influence, often without friends at the start, who have ended by triumphing over that double anguish, equally agonizing, of soul and body. Such men will well understand the lancinating pains of the cancer which was now consuming Athanase; they have gone through those long and bitter deliberations made in presence of some grandiose purpose they had not the means to carry out; they have endured those secret miscarriages in which the fructifying seed of genius falls on arid soil. Such men know that the grandeur of desires is in proportion to the height and breadth of the imagination. The higher they spring, the lower they fall; and how can it be that ties and bonds should not be broken by such a fall? Their piercing eye has seen — as did Athanase — the brilliant future which awaited them, and from which they fancied that only a thin gauze parted them; but that gauze through which their eyes could see is changed by Society into a wall of iron. Impelled by a vocation, by a sentiment of art, they endeavor again and again to live by sentiments which society as incessantly materializes. Alas! the provinces calculate and arrange marriage with the one view of material comfort, and a poor artist or man of science is forbidden to double its purpose and make it the saviour of his genius by securing to him the means of subsistence!

Moved by such ideas, Athanase Granson first thought of marriage with Mademoiselle Cormon as a means of obtaining a livelihood which would be permanent. Thence he could rise to fame, and make his mother happy, knowing at the same time that he was capable of faithfully loving his wife. But soon his own will created, although he did not know it, a genuine passion. He began to study the old maid, and, by dint of the charm which habit gives, he ended by seeing only her beauties and ignoring her defects.

In a young man of twenty-three the senses count for much in love; their fire produces a sort of prism between his eyes and the woman. From this point of view the clasp with which Beaumarchis’ Cherubin seizes Marceline is a stroke of genius. But when we reflect that in the utter isolation to which poverty condemned poor Athanase, Mademoiselle Cormon was the only figure presented to his gaze, that she attracted his eye incessantly, that all the light he had was concentrated on her, surely his love may be considered natural.

This sentiment, so carefully hidden, increased from day to day. Desires, sufferings, hopes, and meditations swelled in quietness and silence the lake widening ever in the young man’s breast, as hour by hour added its drop of water to the volume. And the wider this inward circle, drawn by the imagination, aided by the senses, grew, the more imposing Mademoiselle Cormon appeared to Athanase, and the more his own timidity increased.

The mother had divined the truth. Like all provincial mothers, she calculated candidly in her own mind the advantages of the match. She told herself that Mademoiselle Cormon would be very lucky to secure a husband in a young man of twenty-three, full of talent, who would always be an honor to his family and the neighborhood; at the same time the obstacles which her son’s want of fortune and Mademoiselle Cormon’s age presented to the marriage seemed to her almost insurmountable; she could think of nothing but patience as being able to vanquish them. Like du Bousquier, like the Chevalier de Valois, she had a policy of her own; she was on the watch for circumstances, awaiting the propitious moment for a move with the shrewdness of maternal instinct. Madame Granson had no fears at all as to the chevalier, but she did suppose that du Bousquier, although refused, retained certain hopes. As an able and underhand enemy to the latter, she did him much secret harm in the interests of her son; from whom, by the bye, she carefully concealed all such proceedings.

After this explanation it is easy to understand the importance which Suzanne’s lie, confided to Madame Granson, was about to acquire. What a weapon put into the hands of this charitable lady, the treasurer of the Maternity Society! How she would gently and demurely spread the news while collecting assistance for the chaste Suzanne!

At the present moment Athanase, leaning pensively on his elbow at the breakfast table, was twirling his spoon in his empty cup and contemplating with a preoccupied eye the poor room with its red brick floor, its straw chairs, its painted wooden buffet, its pink and white curtains chequered like a backgammon board, which communicated with the kitchen through a glass door. As his back was to the chimney which his mother faced, and as the chimney was opposite to the door, his pallid face, strongly lighted from the window, framed in beautiful black hair, the eyes gleaming with despair and fiery with morning thoughts, was the first object which met the eyes of the incoming Suzanne. The grisette, who belonged to a class which certainly has the instinct of misery and the sufferings of the heart, suddenly felt that electric spark, darting from Heaven knows where, which can never be explained, which some strong minds deny, but the sympathetic stroke of which has been felt by many men and many women. It is at once a light which lightens the darkness of the future, a presentiment of the sacred joys of a shared love, the certainty of mutual comprehension. Above all, it is like the touch of a firm and able hand on the keyboard of the senses. The eyes are fascinated by an irresistible attraction; the heart is stirred; the melodies of happiness echo in the soul and in the ears; a voice cries out, “It is he!” Often reflection casts a douche of cold water on this boiling emotion, and all is over.

In a moment, as rapid as the flash of the lightning, Suzanne received the broadside of this emotion in her heart. The flame of a real love burned up the evil weeds fostered by a libertine and dissipated life. She saw how much she was losing of decency and value by accusing herself falsely. What had seemed to her a joke the night before became to her eyes a serious charge against herself. She recoiled at her own success. But the impossibility of any result; the poverty of the young man; a vague hope of enriching herself, of going to Paris, and returning with full hands to say, “I love you! here are the means of happiness!” or mere fate, if you will have it so, dried up the next moment this beneficent dew.

The ambitious grisette asked with a timid air for a moment’s interview with Madame Granson, who took her at once into her bedchamber. When Suzanne came out she looked again at Athanase; he was still in the same position, and the tears came into her eyes. As for Madame Granson, she was radiant with joy. At last she had a weapon, and a terrible one, against du Bousquier; she could now deal him a mortal blow. She had of course promised the poor seduced girl the support of all charitable ladies and that of the members of the Maternity Society in particular; she foresaw a dozen visits which would occupy her whole day, and brew up a frightful storm on the head of the guilty du Bousquier. The Chevalier de Valois, while foreseeing the turn the affair would take, had really no idea of the scandal which would result from his own action.

“My dear child,” said Madame Granson to her son, “we are to dine, you know, with Mademoiselle Cormon; do take a little pains with your appearance. You are wrong to neglect your dress as you do. Put on that handsome frilled shirt and your green coat of Elbeuf cloth. I have my reasons,” she added slyly. “Besides, Mademoiselle Cormon is going to Prebaudet, and many persons will doubtless call to bid her good-bye. When a young man is marriageable he ought to take every means to make himself agreeable. If girls would only tell the truth, heavens! my dear boy, you’d be astonished at what makes them fall in love. Often it suffices for a man to ride past them at the head of a company of artillery, or show himself at a ball in tight clothes. Sometimes a mere turn of the head, a melancholy attitude, makes them suppose a man’s whole life; they’ll invent a romance to match the hero — who is often a mere brute, but the marriage is made. Watch the Chevalier de Valois: study him; copy his manners; see with what ease he presents himself; he never puts on a stiff air, as you do. Talk a little more; one would really think you didn’t know anything — you, who know Hebrew by heart.”

Athanase listened to his mother with a surprised but submissive air; then he rose, took his cap, and went off to the mayor’s office, saying to himself, “Can my mother suspect my secret?”

He passed through the rue du Val–Noble, where Mademoiselle Cormon lived — a little pleasure which he gave himself every morning, thinking, as usual, a variety of fanciful things:—

“How little she knows that a young man is passing before her house who loves her well, who would be faithful to her, who would never cause her any grief; who would leave her the entire management of her fortune without interference. Good God! what fatality! here, side by side, in the same town, are two persons in our mutual condition, and yet nothing can bring them together. Suppose I were to speak to her this evening?”

During this time Suzanne had returned to her mother’s house thinking of Athanase; and, like many other women who have longed to help an adored man beyond the limit of human powers, she felt herself capable of making her body a stepping-stone on which he could rise to attain his throne.

It is now necessary to enter the house of this old maid toward whom so many interests are converging, where the actors in this scene, with the exception of Suzanne, were all to meet this very evening. As for Suzanne, that handsome individual bold enough to burn her ships like Alexander at her start in life, and to begin the battle by a falsehood, she disappears from the stage, having introduced upon it a violent element of interest. Her utmost wishes were gratified. She quitted her native town a few days later, well supplied with money and good clothes, among which was a fine dress of green reps and a charming green bonnet lined with pink, the gift of Monsieur de Valois, — a present which she preferred to all the rest, even the money. If the chevalier had gone to Paris in the days of her future brilliancy, she would certainly have left every one for him. Like the chaste Susannah of the Bible, whom the Elders hardly saw, she established herself joyously and full of hope in Paris, while all Alencon was deploring her misfortunes, for which the ladies of two Societies (Charity and Maternity) manifested the liveliest sympathy. Though Suzanne is a fair specimen of those handsome Norman women whom a learned physician reckons as comprising one third of her fallen class whom our monstrous Paris absorbs, it must be stated that she remained in the upper and more decent regions of gallantry. At an epoch when, as Monsieur de Valois said, Woman no longer existed, she was simply “Madame du Val–Noble”; in other days she would have rivalled the Rhodopes, the Imperias, the Ninons of the past. One of the most distinguished writers of the Restoration has taken her under his protection; perhaps he may marry her. He is a journalist, and consequently above public opinion, inasmuch as he manufactures it afresh every year or two.

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