An Old Maid, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter III

Mademoiselle Cormon

In nearly all the second-class prefectures of France there exists one salon which is the meeting-ground of those considerable and well-considered persons of the community who are, nevertheless, not the cream of the best society. The master and mistress of such an establishment are counted among the leading persons of the town; they are received wherever it may please them to visit; no fete is given, no formal or diplomatic dinner takes place, to which they are not invited. But the chateau people, heads of families possessing great estates, in short, the highest personages in the department, do not go to their houses; social intercourse between them is carried on by cards from one to the other, and a dinner or soiree accepted and returned.

This salon, in which the lesser nobility, the clergy, and the magistracy meet together, exerts a great influence. The judgment and mind of the region reside in that solid, unostentatious society, where each man knows the resources of his neighbor, where complete indifference is shown to luxury and dress — pleasures which are thought childish in comparison to that of obtaining ten or twelve acres of pasture land — a purchase coveted for years, which has probably given rise to endless diplomatic combinations. Immovable in its prejudices, good or evil, this social circle follows a beaten track, looking neither before it nor behind it. It accepts nothing from Paris without long examination and trial; it rejects cashmeres as it does investments on the Grand–Livre; it scoffs at fashions and novelties; reads nothing, prefers ignorance, whether of science, literature, or industrial inventions. It insists on the removal of a prefect when that official does not suit it; and if the administration resists, it isolates him, after the manner of bees who wall up a snail in wax when it gets into their hive.

In this society gossip is often turned into solemn verdicts. Young women are seldom seen there; when they come it is to seek approbation of their conduct — a consecration of their self-importance. This supremacy granted to one house is apt to wound the sensibilities of other natives of the region, who console themselves by adding up the cost it involves, and by which they profit. If it so happens that there is no fortune large enough to keep open house in this way, the big-wigs of the place choose a place of meeting, as they did at Alencon, in the house of some inoffensive person, whose settled life and character and position offers no umbrage to the vanities or the interests of any one.

For some years the upper classes of Alencon had met in this way at the house of an old maid, whose fortune was, unknown to herself, the aim and object of Madame Granson, her second cousin, and of the two old bachelors whose secret hopes in that direction we have just unveiled. This lady lived with her maternal uncle, a former grand-vicar of the bishopric of Seez, once her guardian, and whose heir she was. The family of which Rose–Marie-Victoire Cormon was the present representative had been in earlier days among the most considerable in the province. Though belonging to the middle classes, she consorted with the nobility, among whom she was more or less allied, her family having furnished, in past years, stewards to the Duc d’Alencon, many magistrates to the long robe, and various bishops to the clergy. Monsieur de Sponde, the maternal grandfather of Mademoiselle Cormon, was elected by the Nobility to the States–General, and Monsieur Cormon, her father, by the Tiers–Etat, though neither accepted the mission. For the last hundred years the daughters of the family had married nobles belonging to the provinces; consequently, this family had thrown out so many suckers throughout the duchy as to appear on nearly all the genealogical trees. No bourgeois family had ever seemed so like nobility.

The house in which Mademoiselle Cormon lived, build in Henri IV.‘s time, by Pierre Cormon, the steward of the last Duc d’Alencon, had always belonged to the family; and among the old maid’s visible possessions this one was particularly stimulating to the covetous desires of the two old lovers. Yet, far from producing revenue, the house was a cause of expense. But it is so rare to find in the very centre of a provincial town a private dwelling without unpleasant surroundings, handsome in outward structure and convenient within, that Alencon shared the envy of the lovers.

This old mansion stands exactly in the middle of the rue du Val–Noble. It is remarkable for the strength of its construction — a style of building introduced by Marie de’ Medici. Though built of granite — a stone which is hard to work — its angles, and the casings of the doors and windows, are decorated with corner blocks cut into diamond facets. It has only one clear story above the ground-floor; but the roof, rising steeply, has several projecting windows, with carved spandrels rather elegantly enclosed in oaken frames, and externally adorned with balustrades. Between each of these windows is a gargoyle presenting the fantastic jaws of an animal without a body, vomiting the rain-water upon large stones pierced with five holes. The two gables are surmounted by leaden bouquets — a symbol of the bourgeoisie; for nobles alone had the privilege in former days of having weather-vanes. To right of the courtyard are the stables and coach-house; to left, the kitchen, wood-house, and laundry.

One side of the porte-cochere, being left open, allowed the passers in the street to see in the midst of the vast courtyard a flower-bed, the raised earth of which was held in place by a low privet hedge. A few monthly roses, pinkes, lilies, and Spanish broom filled this bed, around which in the summer season boxes of paurestinus, pomegranates, and myrtle were placed. Struck by the scrupulous cleanliness of the courtyard and its dependencies, a stranger would at once have divined that the place belonged to an old maid. The eye which presided there must have been an unoccupied, ferreting eye; minutely careful, less from nature than for want of something to do. An old maid, forced to employ her vacant days, could alone see to the grass being hoed from between the paving stones, the tops of the walls kept clean, the broom continually going, and the leather curtains of the coach-house always closed. She alone would have introduced, out of busy idleness, a sort of Dutch cleanliness into a house on the confines of Bretagne and Normandie — a region where they take pride in professing an utter indifference to comfort.

Never did the Chevalier de Valois, or du Bousquier, mount the steps of the double stairway leading to the portico of this house without saying to himself, one, that it was fit for a peer of France, the other, that the mayor of the town ought to live there.

A glass door gave entrance from this portico into an antechamber, a species of gallery paved in red tiles and wainscoted, which served as a hospital for the family portraits — some having an eye put out, others suffering from a dislocated shoulder; this one held his hat in a hand that no longer existed; that one was a case of amputation at the knee. Here were deposited the cloaks, clogs, overshoes, umbrellas, hoods, and pelisses of the guests. It was an arsenal where each arrival left his baggage on arriving, and took it up when departing. Along each wall was a bench for the servants who arrived with lanterns, and a large stove, to counteract the north wind, which blew through this hall from the garden to the courtyard.

The house was divided in two equal parts. On one side, toward the courtyard, was the well of the staircase, a large dining-room looking to the garden, and an office or pantry which communicated with the kitchen. On the other side was the salon, with four windows, beyond which were two smaller rooms — one looking on the garden, and used as a boudoir, the other lighted from the courtyard, and used as a sort of office.

The upper floor contained a complete apartment for a family household, and a suite of rooms where the venerable Abbe de Sponde had his abode. The garrets offered fine quarters to the rats and mice, whose nocturnal performances were related by Mademoiselle Cormon to the Chevalier de Valois, with many expressions of surprise at the inutility of her efforts to get rid of them. The garden, about half an acre in size, is margined by the Brillante, so named from the particles of mica which sparkle in its bed elsewhere than in the Val–Noble, where its shallow waters are stained by the dyehouses, and loaded with refuse from the other industries of the town. The shore opposite to Mademoiselle Cormon’s garden is crowded with houses where a variety of trades are carried on; happily for her, the occupants are quiet people — a baker, a cleaner, an upholsterer, and several bourgeois. The garden, full of common flowers, ends in a natural terrace, forming a quay, down which are several steps leading to the river. Imagine on the balustrade of this terrace a number of tall vases of blue and white pottery, in which are gilliflowers; and to right and left, along the neighboring walls, hedges of linden closely trimmed in, and you will gain an idea of the landscape, full of tranquil chastity, modest cheerfulness, but commonplace withal, which surrounded the venerable edifice of the Cormon family. What peace! what tranquillity! nothing pretentious, but nothing transitory; all seems eternal there!

The ground-floor is devoted wholly to the reception-rooms. The old, unchangeable provincial spirit pervades them. The great square salon has four windows, modestly cased in woodwork painted gray. A single oblong mirror is placed above the fireplace; the top of its frame represented the Dawn led by the Hours, and painted in camaieu (two shades of one color). This style of painting infested the decorative art of the day, especially above door-frames, where the artist displayed his eternal Seasons, and made you, in most houses in the centre of France, abhor the odious Cupids, endlessly employed in skating, gleaning, twirling, or garlanding one another with flowers. Each window was draped in green damask curtains, looped up by heavy cords, which made them resemble a vast dais. The furniture, covered with tapestry, the woodwork, painted and varnished, and remarkable for the twisted forms so much the fashion in the last century, bore scenes from the fables of La Fontaine on the chair-backs; some of this tapestry had been mended. The ceiling was divided at the centre of the room by a huge beam, from which depended an old chandelier of rock-crystal swathed in green gauze. On the fireplace were two vases in Sevres blue, and two old girandoles attached to the frame of the mirror, and a clock, the subject of which, taken from the last scene of the “Deserteur,” proved the enormous popularity of Sedaine’s work. This clock, of bronze-gilt, bore eleven personages upon it, each about four inches tall. At the back the Deserter was seen issuing from prison between the soldiers; in the foreground the young woman lay fainting, and pointing to his pardon. On the walls of this salon were several of the more recent portraits of the family — one or two by Rigaud, and three pastels by Latour. Four card tables, a backgammon board, and a piquet table occupied the vast room, the only one in the house, by the bye, which was ceiled.

The dining-room, paved in black and white stone, not ceiled, and its beams painted, was furnished with one of those enormous sideboards with marble tops, required by the war waged in the provinces against the human stomach. The walls, painted in fresco, represented a flowery trellis. The seats were of varnished cane, and the doors of natural wood. All things about the place carried out the patriarchal air which emanated from the inside as well as the outside of the house. The genius of the provinces preserved everything; nothing was new or old, neither young nor decrepit. A cold precision made itself felt throughout.

Tourists in Normandy, Brittany, Maine, and Anjou must all have seen in the capitals of those provinces many houses which resemble more or less that of the Cormons; for it is, in its way, an archetype of the burgher houses in that region of France, and it deserves a place in this history because it serves to explain manners and customs, and represents ideas. Who does not already feel that life must have been calm and monotonously regular in this old edifice? It contained a library; but that was placed below the level of the river. The books were well bound and shelved, and the dust, far from injuring them, only made them valuable. They were preserved with the care given in these provinces deprived of vineyards to other native products, desirable for their antique perfume, and issued by the presses of Bourgogne, Touraine, Gascogne, and the South. The cost of transportation was too great to allow any but the best products to be imported.

The basis of Mademoiselle Cormon’s society consisted of about one hundred and fifty persons; some went at times to the country; others were occasionally ill; a few travelled about the department on business; but certain of the faithful came every night (unless invited elsewhere), and so did certain others compelled by duties or by habit to live permanently in the town. All the personages were of ripe age; few among them had ever travelled; nearly all had spent their lives in the provinces, and some had taken part in the chouannerie. The latter were beginning to speak fearlessly of that war, now that rewards were being showered on the defenders of the good cause. Monsieur de Valois, one of the movers in the last uprising (during which the Marquis de Montauran, betrayed by his mistress, perished in spite of the devotion of Marche-a-Terre, now tranquilly raising cattle for the market near Mayenne) — Monsieur de Valois had, during the last six months, given the key to several choice stratagems practised upon an old republican named Hulot, the commander of a demi-brigade stationed at Alencon from 1798 to 1800, who had left many memories in the place. [See “The Chouans.”]

The women of this society took little pains with their dress, except on Wednesdays, when Mademoiselle Cormon gave a dinner, on which occasion the guests invited on the previous Wednesday paid their “visit of digestion.” Wednesdays were gala days: the assembly was numerous; guests and visitors appeared in fiocchi; some women brought their sewing, knitting, or worsted work; the young girls were not ashamed to make patterns for the Alencon point lace, with the proceeds of which they paid for their personal expenses. Certain husbands brought their wives out of policy, for young men were few in that house; not a word could be whispered in any ear without attracting the attention of all; there was therefore no danger, either for young girls or wives, of love-making.

Every evening, at six o’clock, the long antechamber received its furniture. Each habitue brought his cane, his cloak, his lantern. All these persons knew each other so well, and their habits and ways were so familiarly patriarchal, that if by chance the old Abbe de Sponde was lying down, or Mademoiselle Cormon was in her chamber, neither Josette, the maid, nor Jacquelin, the man-servant, nor Mariette, the cook, informed them. The first comer received the second; then, when the company were sufficiently numerous for whist, piquet, or boston, they began the game without awaiting either the Abbe de Sponde or mademoiselle. If it was dark, Josette or Jacquelin would hasten to light the candles as soon as the first bell rang. Seeing the salon lighted up, the abbe would slowly hurry to come down. Every evening the backgammon and the piquet tables, the three boston tables, and the whist table were filled — which gave occupation to twenty-five or thirty persons; but as many as forty were usually present. Jacquelin would then light the candles in the other rooms.

Between eight and nine o’clock the servants began to arrive in the antechamber to accompany their masters home; and, short of a revolution, no one remained in the salon at ten o’clock. At that hour the guests were departing in groups along the street, discoursing on the game, or continuing conversations on the land they were covetous of buying, on the terms of some one’s will, on quarrels among heirs, on the haughty assumption of the aristocratic portion of the community. It was like Paris when the audience of a theatre disperses.

Certain persons who talk much of poesy and know nothing about it, declaim against the habits of life in the provinces. But put your forehead in your left hand, rest one foot on the fender, and your elbow on your knee; then, if you compass the idea of this quiet and uniform scene, this house and its interior, this company and its interests, heightened by the pettiness of its intellect like goldleaf beaten between sheets of parchment, ask yourself, What is human life? Try to decide between him who scribbles jokes on Egyptian obelisks, and him who has “bostoned” for twenty years with Du Bousquier, Monsieur de Valois, Mademoiselle Cormon, the judge of the court, the king’s attorney, the Abbe de Sponde, Madame Granson, and tutti quanti. If the daily and punctual return of the same steps to the same path is not happiness, it imitates happiness so well that men driven by the storms of an agitated life to reflect upon the blessings of tranquillity would say that here was happiness enough.

To reckon the importance of Mademoiselle Cormon’s salon at its true value, it will suffice to say that the born statistician of the society, du Bousquier, had estimated that the persons who frequented it controlled one hundred and thirty-one votes in the electoral college, and mustered among themselves eighteen hundred thousand francs a year from landed estate in the neighborhood.

The town of Alencon, however, was not entirely represented by this salon. The higher aristocracy had a salon of their own; moreover, that of the receiver-general was like an administration inn kept by the government, where society danced, plotted, fluttered, loved, and supped. These two salons communicated by means of certain mixed individuals with the house of Cormon, and vice-versa; but the Cormon establishment sat severely in judgment on the two other camps. The luxury of their dinners was criticised; the ices at their balls were pondered; the behavior of the women, the dresses, and “novelties” there produced were discussed and disapproved.

Mademoiselle Cormon, a species of firm, as one might say, under whose name was comprised an imposing coterie, was naturally the aim and object of two ambitious men as deep and wily as the Chevalier de Valois and du Bousquier. To the one as well as to the other, she meant election as deputy, resulting, for the noble, in the peerage, for the purveyor, in a receiver-generalship. A leading salon is a difficult thing to create, whether in Paris or the provinces, and here was one already created. To marry Mademoiselle Cormon was to reign in Alencon. Athanase Granson, the only one of the three suitors for the hand of the old maid who no longer calculated profits, now loved her person as well as her fortune.

To employ the jargon of the day, is there not a singular drama in the situation of these four personages? Surely there is something odd and fantastic in three rivalries silently encompassing a woman who never guessed their existence, in spite of an eager and legitimate desire to be married. And yet, though all these circumstances make the spinsterhood of this old maid an extraordinary thing, it is not difficult to explain how and why, in spite of her fortune and her three lovers, she was still unmarried. In the first place, Mademoiselle Cormon, following the custom and rule of her house, had always desired to marry a nobleman; but from 1788 to 1798 public circumstances were very unfavorable to such pretensions. Though she wanted to be a woman of condition, as the saying is, she was horribly afraid of the Revolutionary tribunal. The two sentiments, equal in force, kept her stationary by a law as true in ethics as it is in statics. This state of uncertain expectation is pleasing to unmarried women as long as they feel themselves young, and in a position to choose a husband. France knows that the political system of Napoleon resulted in making many widows. Under that regime heiresses were entirely out of proportion in numbers to the bachelors who wanted to marry. When the Consulate restored internal order, external difficulties made the marriage of Mademoiselle Cormon as difficult to arrange as it had been in the past. If, on the one hand, Rose–Marie-Victoire refused to marry an old man, on the other, the fear of ridicule forbade her to marry a very young one.

In the provinces, families marry their sons early to escape the conscription. In addition to all this, she was obstinately determined not to marry a soldier: she did not intend to take a man and then give him up to the Emperor; she wanted him for herself alone. With these views, she found it therefore impossible, from 1804 to 1815, to enter the lists with young girls who were rivalling each other for suitable matches.

Besides her predilection for the nobility, Mademoiselle Cormon had another and very excusable mania: that of being loved for herself. You could hardly believe the lengths to which this desire led her. She employed her mind on setting traps for her possible lovers, in order to test their real sentiments. Her nets were so well laid that the luckless suitors were all caught, and succumbed to the test she applied to them without their knowledge. Mademoiselle Cormon did not study them; she watched them. A single word said heedlessly, a joke (that she often was unable to understand), sufficed to make her reject an aspirant as unworthy: this one had neither heart nor delicacy; that one told lies, and was not religious; a third only wanted to coin money under the cloak of marriage; another was not of a nature to make a woman happy; here she suspected hereditary gout; there certain immoral antecedents alarmed her. Like the Church, she required a noble priest at her altar; she even wanted to be married for imaginary ugliness and pretended defects, just as other women wish to be loved for the good qualities they have not, and for imaginary beauties. Mademoiselle Cormon’s ambition took its rise in the most delicate and sensitive feminine feeling; she longed to reward a lover by revealing to him a thousand virtues after marriage, as other women then betray the imperfections they have hitherto concealed. But she was ill understood. The noble woman met with none but common souls in whom the reckoning of actual interests was paramount, and who knew nothing of the nobler calculations of sentiment.

The farther she advanced towards that fatal epoch so adroitly called the “second youth,” the more her distrust increased. She affected to present herself in the most unfavorable light, and played her part so well that the last wooers hesitated to link their fate to that of a person whose virtuous blind-man’s-buff required an amount of penetration that men who want the virtuous ready-made would not bestow upon it. The constant fear of being married for her money rendered her suspicious and uneasy beyond all reason. She turned to the rich men; but the rich are in search of great marriages; she feared the poor men, in whom she denied the disinterestedness she sought so eagerly. After each disappointment in marriage, the poor lady, led to despise mankind, began to see them all in a false light. Her character acquired, necessarily, a secret misanthropy, which threw a tinge of bitterness into her conversation, and some severity into her eyes. Celibacy gave to her manners and habits a certain increasing rigidity; for she endeavored to sanctify herself in despair of fate. Noble vengeance! she was cutting for God the rough diamond rejected by man. Before long public opinion was against her; for society accepts the verdict an independent woman renders on herself by not marrying, either through losing suitors or rejecting them. Everybody supposed that these rejections were founded on secret reasons, always ill interpreted. One said she was deformed; another suggested some hidden fault; but the poor girl was really as pure as a saint, as healthy as an infant, and full of loving kindness; Nature had intended her for all the pleasures, all the joys, and all the fatigues of motherhood.

Mademoiselle Cormon did not possess in her person an obliging auxiliary to her desires. She had no other beauty than that very improperly called la beaute du diable, which consists of a buxom freshness of youth that the devil, theologically speaking, could never have — though perhaps the expression may be explained by the constant desire that must surely possess him to cool and refresh himself. The feet of the heiress were broad and flat. Her leg, which she often exposed to sight by her manner (be it said without malice) of lifting her gown when it rained, could never have been taken for the leg of a woman. It was sinewy, with a thick projecting calf like a sailor’s. A stout waist, the plumpness of a wet-nurse, strong dimpled arms, red hands, were all in keeping with the swelling outlines and the fat whiteness of Norman beauty. Projecting eyes, undecided in color, gave to her face, the rounded outline of which had no dignity, an air of surprise and sheepish simplicity, which was suitable perhaps for an old maid. If Rose had not been, as she was, really innocent, she would have seemed so. An aquiline nose contrasted curiously with the narrowness of her forehead; for it is rare that that form of nose does not carry with it a fine brow. In spite of her thick red lips, a sign of great kindliness, the forehead revealed too great a lack of ideas to allow of the heart being guided by intellect; she was evidently benevolent without grace. How severely we reproach Virtue for its defects, and how full of indulgence we all are for the pleasanter qualities of Vice!

Chestnut hair of extraordinary length gave to Rose Cormon’s face a beauty which results from vigor and abundance — the physical qualities most apparent in her person. In the days of her chief pretensions, Rose affected to hold her head at the three-quarter angle, in order to exhibit a very pretty ear, which detached itself from the blue-veined whiteness of her throat and temples, set off, as it was, by her wealth of hair. Seen thus in a ball-dress, she might have seemed handsome. Her protuberant outlines and her vigorous health did, in fact, draw from the officers of the Empire the approving exclamation —

“What a fine slip of a girl!”

But, as years rolled on, this plumpness, encouraged by a tranquil, wholesome life, had insensibly so ill spread itself over the whole of Mademoiselle Cormon’s body that her primitive proportions were destroyed. At the present moment, no corset could restore a pair of hips to the poor lady, who seemed to have been cast in a single mould. The youthful harmony of her bosom existed no longer; and its excessive amplitude made the spectator fear that if she stooped its heavy masses might topple her over. But nature had provided against this by giving her a natural counterpoise, which rendered needless the deceitful adjunct of a bustle; in Rose Cormon everything was genuine. Her chin, as it doubled, reduced the length of her neck, and hindered the easy carriage of her head. Rose had no wrinkles, but she had folds of flesh; and jesters declared that to save chafing she powdered her skin as they do an infant’s.

This ample person offered to a young man full of ardent desires like Athanase an attraction to which he had succumbed. Young imaginations, essentially eager and courageous, like to rove upon these fine living sheets of flesh. Rose was like a plump partridge attracting the knife of a gourmet. Many an elegant deep in debt would very willingly have resigned himself to make the happiness of Mademoiselle Cormon. But, alas! the poor girl was now forty years old. At this period, after vainly seeking to put into her life those interests which make the Woman, and finding herself forced to be still unmarried, she fortified her virtue by stern religious practices. She had recourse to religion, the great consoler of oppressed virginity. A confessor had, for the last three years, directed Mademoiselle Cormon rather stupidly in the path of maceration; he advised the use of scourging, which, if modern medical science is to be believed, produces an effect quite the contrary to that expected by the worthy priest, whose hygienic knowledge was not extensive.

These absurd practices were beginning to shed a monastic tint over the face of Rose Cormon, who now saw with something like despair her white skin assuming the yellow tones which proclaim maturity. A slight down on her upper lip, about the corners, began to spread and darken like a trail of smoke; her temples grew shiny; decadence was beginning! It was authentic in Alencon that Mademoiselle Cormon suffered from rush of blood to the head. She confided her ills to the Chevalier de Valois, enumerating her foot-baths, and consulting him as to refrigerants. On such occasions the shrewd old gentleman would pull out his snuff-box, gaze at the Princess Goritza, and say, by way of conclusion:—

“The right composing draught, my dear lady, is a good and kind husband.”

“But whom can one trust?” she replied.

The chevalier would then brush away the snuff which had settled in the folds of his waistcoat or his paduasoy breeches. To the world at large this gesture would have seemed very natural; but it always gave extreme uneasiness to the poor woman.

The violence of this hope without an object was so great that Rose was afraid to look a man in the face lest he should perceive in her eyes the feelings that filled her soul. By a wilfulness, which was perhaps only the continuation of her earlier methods, though she felt herself attracted toward the men who might still suit her, she was so afraid of being accused of folly that she treated them ungraciously. Most persons in her society, being incapable of appreciating her motives, which were always noble, explained her manner towards her cocelibates as the revenge of a refusal received or expected. When the year 1815 began, Rose had reached that fatal age which she dared not avow. She was forty-two years old. Her desire for marriage then acquired an intensity which bordered on monomania, for she saw plainly that all chance of progeny was about to escape her; and the thing which in her celestial ignorance she desired above all things was the possession of children. Not a person in all Alencon ever attributed to this virtuous woman a single desire for amorous license. She loved, as it were, in bulk without the slightest imagination of love. Rose was a Catholic Agnes, incapable of inventing even one of the wiles of Moliere’s Agnes.

For some months past she had counted on chance. The disbandment of the Imperial troops and the reorganization of the Royal army caused a change in the destination of many officers, who returned, some on half-pay, others with or without a pension, to their native towns, — all having a desire to counteract their luckless fate, and to end their life in a way which might to Rose Cormon be a happy beginning of hers. It would surely be strange if, among those who returned to Alencon or its neighborhood, no brave, honorable, and, above all, sound and healthy officer of suitable age could be found, whose character would be a passport among Bonaparte opinions; or some ci-devant noble who, to regain his lost position, would join the ranks of the royalists. This hope kept Mademoiselle Cormon in heart during the early months of that year. But, alas! all the soldiers who thus returned were either too old or too young; too aggressively Bonapartist, or too dissipated; in short, their several situations were out of keeping with the rank, fortune, and morals of Mademoiselle Cormon, who now grew daily more and more desperate. The poor woman in vain prayed to God to send her a husband with whom she could be piously happy: it was doubtless written above that she should die both virgin and martyr; no man suitable for a husband presented himself. The conversations in her salon every evening kept her informed of the arrival of all strangers in Alencon, and of the facts of their fortunes, rank, and habits. But Alencon is not a town which attracts visitors; it is not on the road to any capital; even sailors, travelling from Brest to Paris, never stop there. The poor woman ended by admitting to herself that she was reduced to the aborigines. Her eye now began to assume a certain savage expression, to which the malicious chevalier responded by a shrewd look as he drew out his snuff-box and gazed at the Princess Goritza. Monsieur de Valois was well aware that in the feminine ethics of love fidelity to a first attachment is considered a pledge for the future.

But Mademoiselle Cormon — we must admit it — was wanting in intellect, and did not understand the snuff-box performance. She redoubled her vigilance against “the evil spirit”; her rigid devotion and fixed principles kept her cruel sufferings hidden among the mysteries of private life. Every evening, after the company had left her, she thought of her lost youth, her faded bloom, the hopes of thwarted nature; and, all the while immolating her passions at the feet of the Cross (like poems condemned to stay in a desk), she resolved firmly that if, by chance, any suitor presented himself, to subject him to no tests, but to accept him at once for whatever he might be. She even went so far as to think of marrying a sub-lieutenant, a man who smoked tobacco, whom she proposed to render, by dint of care and kindness, one of the best men in the world, although he was hampered with debts.

But it was only in the silence of night watches that these fantastic marriages, in which she played the sublime role of guardian angel, took place. The next day, though Josette found her mistress’ bed in a tossed and tumbled condition, Mademoiselle Cormon had recovered her dignity, and could only think of a man of forty, a land-owner, well preserved, and a quasi-young man.

The Abbe de Sponde was incapable of giving his niece the slightest aid in her matrimonial manoeuvres. The worthy soul, now seventy years of age, attributed the disasters of the French Revolution to the design of Providence, eager to punish a dissolute Church. He had therefore flung himself into the path, long since abandoned, which anchorites once followed in order to reach heaven: he led an ascetic life without proclaiming it, and without external credit. He hid from the world his works of charity, his continual prayers, his penances; he thought that all priests should have acted thus during the days of wrath and terror, and he preached by example. While presenting to the world a calm and smiling face, he had ended by detaching himself utterly from earthly interests; his mind turned exclusively to sufferers, to the needs of the Church, and to his own salvation. He left the management of his property to his niece, who gave him the income of it, and to whom he paid a slender board in order to spend the surplus in secret alms and gifts to the Church.

All the abbe’s affections were concentrated on his niece, who regarded him as a father, but an abstracted father, unable to conceive the agitations of the flesh, and thanking God for maintaining his dear daughter in a state of celibacy; for he had, from his youth up, adopted the principles of Saint John Chrysostom, who wrote that “the virgin state is as far above the marriage state as the angel is above humanity.” Accustomed to reverence her uncle, Mademoiselle Cormon dared not initiate him into the desires which filled her soul for a change of state. The worthy man, accustomed, on his side, to the ways of the house, would scarcely have liked the introduction of a husband. Preoccupied by the sufferings he soothed, lost in the depths of prayer, the Abbe de Sponde had periods of abstraction which the habitues of the house regarded as absent-mindedness. In any case, he talked little; but his silence was affable and benevolent. He was a man of great height and spare, with grave and solemn manners, though his face expressed all gentle sentiments and an inward calm; while his mere presence carried with it a sacred authority. He was very fond of the Voltairean chevalier. Those two majestic relics of the nobility and clergy, though of very different habits and morals, recognized each other by their generous traits. Besides, the chevalier was as unctuous with the abbe as he was paternal with the grisettes.

Some persons may fancy that Mademoiselle Cormon used every means to attain her end; and that among the legitimate lures of womanhood she devoted herself to dress, wore low-necked gowns, and employed the negative coquetries of a magnificent display of arms. Not at all! She was as heroic and immovable in her high-necked chemisette as a sentry in his box. Her gowns, bonnets, and chiffons were all cut and made by the dressmaker and the milliner of Alencon, two hump-backed sisters, who were not without some taste. In spite of the entreaties of these artists, Mademoiselle Cormon refused to employ the airy deceits of elegance; she chose to be substantial in all things, flesh and feathers. But perhaps the heavy fashion of her gowns was best suited to her cast of countenance. Let those laugh who will at this poor girl; you would have thought her sublime, O generous souls! who care but little what form true feeling takes, but admire it where it is.

Here some light-minded person may exclaim against the truth of this statement; they will say that there is not in all France a girl so silly as to be ignorant of the art of angling for men; that Mademoiselle Cormon is one of those monstrous exceptions which commonsense should prevent a writer from using as a type; that the most virtuous and also the silliest girl who desires to catch her fish knows well how to bait the hook. But these criticisms fall before the fact that the noble catholic, apostolic, and Roman religion is still erect in Brittany and in the ancient duchy of Alencon. Faith and piety admit of no subtleties. Mademoiselle Cormon trod the path of salvation, preferring the sorrows of her virginity so cruelly prolonged to the evils of trickery and the sin of a snare. In a woman armed with a scourge virtue could never compromise; consequently both love and self-interest were forced to seek her, and seek her resolutely. And here let us have the courage to make a cruel observation, in days when religion is nothing more than a useful means to some, and a poesy to others. Devotion causes a moral ophthalmia. By some providential grace, it takes from souls on the road to eternity the sight of many little earthly things. In a word, pious persons, devotes, are stupid on various points. This stupidity proves with what force they turn their minds to celestial matters; although the Voltairean Chevalier de Valois declared that it was difficult to decide whether stupid people became naturally pious, or whether piety had the effect of making intelligent young women stupid. But reflect upon this carefully: the purest catholic virtue, with its loving acceptance of all cups, with its pious submission to the will of God, with its belief in the print of the divine finger on the clay of all earthly life, is the mysterious light which glides into the innermost folds of human history, setting them in relief and magnifying them in the eyes of those who still have Faith. Besides, if there be stupidity, why not concern ourselves with the sorrows of stupidity as well as with the sorrows of genius? The former is a social element infinitely more abundant than the latter.

So, then, Mademoiselle Cormon was guilty in the eyes of the world of the divine ignorance of virgins. She was no observer, and her behavior with her suitors proved it. At this very moment, a young girl of sixteen, who had never opened a novel, would have read a hundred chapters of a love story in the eyes of Athanase Granson, where Mademoiselle Cormon saw absolutely nothing. Shy herself, she never suspected shyness in others; she did not recognize in the quavering tones of his speech the force of a sentiment he could not utter. Capable of inventing those refinements of sentimental grandeur which hindered her marriage in her early years, she yet could not recognize them in Athanase. This moral phenomenon will not seem surprising to persons who know that the qualities of the heart are as distinct from those of the mind as the faculties of genius are from the nobility of soul. A perfect, all-rounded man is so rare that Socrates, one of the noblest pearls of humanity, declared (as a phrenologist of that day) that he was born to be a scamp, and a very bad one. A great general may save his country at Zurich, and take commissions from purveyors. A great musician may conceive the sublimest music and commit a forgery. A woman of true feeling may be a fool. In short, a devote may have a sublime soul and yet be unable to recognize the tones of a noble soul beside her. The caprices produced by physical infirmities are equally to be met with in the mental and moral regions.

This good creature, who grieved at making her yearly preserves for no one but her uncle and herself, was becoming almost ridiculous. Those who felt a sympathy for her on account of her good qualities, and others on account of her defects, now made fun of her abortive marriages. More than one conversation was based on what would become of so fine a property, together with the old maid’s savings and her uncle’s inheritance. For some time past she had been suspected of being au fond, in spite of appearances, an “original.” In the provinces it was not permissible to be original: being original means having ideas that are not understood by others; the provinces demand equality of mind as well as equality of manners and customs.

The marriage of Mademoiselle Cormon seemed, after 1804, a thing so problematical that the saying “married like Mademoiselle Cormon” became proverbial in Alencon as applied to ridiculous failures. Surely the sarcastic mood must be an imperative need in France, that so excellent a woman should excite the laughter of Alencon. Not only did she receive the whole society of the place at her house, not only was she charitable, pious, incapable of saying an unkind thing, but she was fully in accord with the spirit of the place and the habits and customs of the inhabitants, who liked her as the symbol of their lives; she was absolutely inlaid into the ways of the provinces; she had never quitted them; she imbibed all their prejudices; she espoused all their interests; she adored them.

In spite of her income of eighteen thousand francs from landed property, a very considerable fortune in the provinces, she lived on a footing with families who were less rich. When she went to her country-place at Prebaudet, she drove there in an old wicker carriole, hung on two straps of white leather, drawn by a wheezy mare, and scarcely protected by two leather curtains rusty with age. This carriole, known to all the town, was cared for by Jacquelin as though it were the finest coupe in all Paris. Mademoiselle valued it; she had used it for twelve years — a fact to which she called attention with the triumphant joy of happy avarice. Most of the inhabitants of the town were grateful to Mademoiselle Cormon for not humiliating them by the luxury she could have displayed; we may even believe that had she imported a caleche from Paris they would have gossiped more about that than about her various matrimonial failures. The most brilliant equipage would, after all, have only taken her, like the old carriole, to Prebaudet. Now the provinces, which look solely to results, care little about the beauty or elegance of the means, provided they are efficient.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/balzac/old_maid/chapter4.html

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