An Old Maid, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter VI

Final Disappointment and its First Result

The next day, Mademoiselle Cormon, packed into the old carriole with Josette, and looking like a pyramid on a vast sea of parcels, drove up the rue Saint–Blaise on her way to Prebaudet, where she was overtaken by an event which hurried on her marriage — an event entirely unlooked for by either Madame Granson, du Bousquier, Monsieur de Valois, or Mademoiselle Cormon himself. Chance is the greatest of all artificers.

The day after her arrival at Prebaudet, she was innocently employed, about eight o’clock in the morning, in listening, as she breakfasted, to the various reports of her keeper and her gardener, when Jacquelin made a violent irruption into the dining-room.

“Mademoiselle,” he cried, out of breath, “Monsieur l’abbe sends you an express, the son of Mere Grosmort, with a letter. The lad left Alencon before daylight, and he has just arrived; he ran like Penelope! Can’t I give him a glass of wine?”

“What can have happened, Josette? Do you think my uncle can be-”

“He couldn’t write if he were,” said Josette, guessing her mistress’s fears.

“Quick! quick!” cried Mademoiselle Cormon, as soon as she had read the first lines. “Tell Jacquelin to harness Penelope — Get ready, Josette; pack up everything in half an hour. We must go back to town —”

“Jacquelin!” called Josette, excited by the sentiment she saw on her mistress’s face.

Jacquelin, informed by Josette, came in to say —

“But, mademoiselle, Penelope is eating her oats.”

“What does that signify? I must start at once.”

“But, mademoiselle, it is going to rain.”

“Then we shall get wet.”

“The house is on fire!” muttered Josette, piqued at the silence her mistress kept as to the contents of the letter, which she read and reread.

“Finish your coffee, at any rate, mademoiselle; don’t excite your blood; just see how red you are.”

“Am I red, Josette?” she said, going to a mirror, from which the quicksilver was peeling, and which presented her features to her upside down.

“Good heavens!” thought Mademoiselle Cormon, “suppose I should look ugly! Come, Josette; come, my dear, dress me at once; I want to be ready before Jacquelin has harnessed Penelope. If you can’t pack my things in time, I will leave them here rather than lose a single minute.”

If you have thoroughly comprehended the positive monomania to which the desire of marriage had brought Mademoiselle Cormon, you will share her emotion. The worthy uncle announced in this sudden missive that Monsieur de Troisville, of the Russian army during the Emigration, grandson of one of his best friends, was desirous of retiring to Alencon, and asked his, the abbe’s hospitality, on the ground of his friendship for his grandfather, the Vicomte de Troisville. The old abbe, alarmed at the responsibility, entreated his niece to return instantly and help him to receive this guest, and do the honors of the house; for the viscount’s letter had been delayed, and he might descend upon his shoulders that very night.

After reading this missive could there be a question of the demands of Prebaudet? The keeper and the gardener, witnesses to Mademoiselle Cormon’s excitement, stood aside and awaited her orders. But when, as she was about to leave the room, they stopped her to ask for instructions, for the first time in her life the despotic old maid, who saw to everything at Prebaudet with her own eyes, said, to their stupefaction, “Do what you like.” This from a mistress who carried her administration to the point of counting her fruits, and marking them so as to order their consumption according to the number and condition of each!

“I believe I’m dreaming,” thought Josette, as she saw her mistress flying down the staircase like an elephant to which God has given wings.

Presently, in spite of a driving rain, Mademoiselle Cormon drove away from Prebaudet, leaving her factotums with the reins on their necks. Jacquelin dared not take upon himself to hasten the usual little trot of the peaceable Penelope, who, like the beautiful queen whose name she bore, had an appearance of making as many steps backward as she made forward. Impatient with the pace, mademoiselle ordered Jacquelin in a sharp voice to drive at a gallop, with the whip, if necessary, to the great astonishment of the poor beast, so afraid was she of not having time to arrange the house suitably to receive Monsieur de Troisville. She calculated that the grandson of her uncle’s friend was probably about forty years of age; a soldier just from service was undoubtedly a bachelor; and she resolved, her uncle aiding, not to let Monsieur de Troisville quit their house in the condition he entered it. Though Penelope galloped, Mademoiselle Cormon, absorbed in thoughts of her trousseau and the wedding-day, declared again and again that Jacquelin made no way at all. She twisted about in the carriole without replying to Josette’s questions, and talked to herself like a person who is mentally revolving important designs.

The carriole at last arrived in the main street of Alencon, called the rue Saint–Blaise at the end toward Montagne, but near the hotel du More it takes the name of the rue de la Porte-deSeez, and becomes the rue du Bercail as it enters the road to Brittany. If the departure of Mademoiselle Cormon made a great noise in Alencon, it is easy to imagine the uproar caused by her sudden return on the following day, in a pouring rain which beat her face without her apparently minding it. Penelope at a full gallop was observed by every one, and Jacquelin’s grin, the early hour, the parcels stuffed into the carriole topsy-turvy, and the evident impatience of Mademoiselle Cormon were all noted.

The property of the house of Troisville lay between Alencon and Mortagne. Josette knew the various branches of the family. A word dropped by mademoiselle as they entered Alencon had put Josette on the scent of the affair; and a discussion having started between them, it was settled that the expected de Troisville must be between forty and forty-two years of age, a bachelor, and neither rich nor poor. Mademoiselle Cormon beheld herself speedily Vicomtesse de Troisville.

“And to think that my uncle told me nothing! thinks of nothing! inquires nothing! That’s my uncle all over. He’d forget his own nose if it wasn’t fastened to his face.”

Have you never remarked that, under circumstances such as these, old maids become, like Richard III., keen-witted, fierce, bold, promissory — if one may so use the word — and, like inebriate clerks, no longer in awe of anything?

Immediately the town of Alencon, speedily informed from the farther end of the rue de Saint–Blaise to the gate of Seez of this precipitate return, accompanied by singular circumstances, was perturbed throughout its viscera, both public and domestic. Cooks, shopkeepers, street passengers, told the news from door to door; thence it rose to the upper regions. Soon the words: “Mademoiselle Cormon has returned!” burst like a bombshell into all households. At that moment Jacquelin was descending from his wooden seat (polished by a process unknown to cabinet-makers), on which he perched in front of the carriole. He opened the great green gate, round at the top, and closed in sign of mourning; for during Mademoiselle Cormon’s absence the evening assemblies did not take place. The faithful invited the Abbe de Sponde to their several houses; and Monsieur de Valois paid his debt by inviting him to dine at the Marquis d’Esgrignon’s. Jacquelin, having opened the gate, called familiarly to Penelope, whom he had left in the middle of the street. That animal, accustomed to this proceeding, turned in of herself, and circled round the courtyard in a manner to avoid injuring the flower-bed. Jacquelin then took her bridle, and led the carriage to the portico.

“Mariette!” cried Mademoiselle Cormon.

“Mademoiselle!” exclaimed Mariette, who was occupied in closing the gate.

“Has the gentleman arrived?”

“No, mademoiselle.”

“Where’s my uncle?”

“He is at church, mademoiselle.”

Jacquelin and Josette were by this time on the first step of the portico, holding out their hands to manoeuvre the exit of their mistress from the carriole as she pulled herself up by the sides of the vehicle and clung to the curtains. Mademoiselle then threw herself into their arms; because for the last two years she dared not risk her weight on the iron step, affixed to the frame of the carriage by a horrible mechanism of clumsy bolts.

When Mademoiselle Cormon reached the level of the portico she looked about her courtyard with an air of satisfaction.

“Come, come, Mariette, leave that gate alone; I want you.”

“There’s something in the wind,” whispered Jacquelin, as Mariette passed the carriole.

“Mariette, what provisions have you in the house?” asked Mademoiselle Cormon, sitting down on the bench in the long antechamber like a person overcome with fatigue.

“I haven’t anything,” replied Mariette, with her hands on her hips. “Mademoiselle knows very well that during her absence Monsieur l’abbe dines out every day. Yesterday I went to fetch him from Mademoiselle Armande’s.”

“Where is he now?”

“Monsieur l’abbe? Why, at church; he won’t be in before three o’clock.”

“He thinks of nothing! he ought to have told you to go to market. Mariette, go at once; and without wasting money, don’t spare it; get all there is that is good and delicate. Go to the diligence office and see if you can send for pates; and I want shrimps from the Brillante. What o’clock is it?”

“A quarter to nine.”

“Good heavens! Mariette, don’t stop to chatter. The person my uncle expects may arrive at any moment. If we had to give him breakfast, where should we be with nothing in the house?”

Mariette turned back to Penelope in a lather, and looked at Jacquelin as if she would say, “Mademoiselle has put her hand on a husband this time.”

“Now, Josette,” continued the old maid, “let us see where we had better put Monsieur de Troisville to sleep.”

With what joy she said the words, “Put Monsieur de Troisville” (pronounced Treville) “to sleep.” How many ideas in those few words! The old maid was bathed in hope.

“Will you put him in the green chamber?”

“The bishop’s room? No; that’s too near mine,” said Mademoiselle Cormon. “All very well for monseigneur; he’s a saintly man.”

“Give him your uncle’s room.”

“Oh, that’s so bare; it is actually indecent.”

“Well, then, mademoiselle, why not arrange a bed in your boudoir? It is easily done; and there’s a fire-place. Moreau can certainly find in his warerooms a bed to match the hangings.”

“You are right, Josette. Go yourself to Moreau; consult with him what to do; I authorize you to get what is wanted. If the bed could be put up to-night without Monsieur de Troisville observing it (in case Monsieur de Troisville arrives while Moreau is here), I should like it. If Moreau won’t engage to do this, then I must put Monsieur de Troisville in the green room, although Monsieur de Troisville would be so very near to me.”

Josette was departing when her mistress recalled her.

“Stop! explain the matter to Jacquelin,” she cried, in a loud nervous tone. “Tell him to go to Moreau; I must be dressed! Fancy if Monsieur de Troisville surprised me as I am now! and my uncle not here to receive him! Oh, uncle, uncle! Come, Josette; come and dress me at once.”

“But Penelope?” said Josette, imprudently.

“Always Penelope! Penelope this, Penelope that! Is Penelope the mistress of this house?”

“But she is all of a lather, and she hasn’t had time to eat her oats.”

“Then let her starve!” cried Mademoiselle Cormon; “provided I marry,” she thought to herself.

Hearing these words, which seemed to her like homicide, Josette stood still for a moment, speechless. Then, at a gesture from her mistress, she ran headlong down the steps of the portico.

“The devil is in her, Jacquelin,” were the first words she uttered.

Thus all things conspired on this fateful day to produce the great scenic effect which decided the future life of Mademoiselle Cormon. The town was already topsy-turvy in mind, as a consequence of the five extraordinary circumstances which accompanied Mademoiselle Cormon’s return; to wit, the pouring rain; Penelope at a gallop, in a lather, and blown; the early hour; the parcels half-packed; and the singular air of the excited old maid. But when Mariette made an invasion of the market, and bought all the best things; when Jacquelin went to the principal upholsterer in Alencon, two doors from the church, in search of a bed — there was matter for the gravest conjectures. These extraordinary events were discussed on all sides; they occupied the minds of every one, even Mademoiselle Armande herself, with whom was Monsieur de Valois. Within two days the town of Alencon had been agitated by such startling events that certain good women were heard to remark that the world was coming to an end. This last news, however, resolved itself into a single question, “What is happening at the Cormons?”

The Abbe de Sponde, adroitly questioned when he left Saint–Leonard’s to take his daily walk with the Abbe Couturier, replied with his usual kindliness that he expected the Vicomte de Troisville, a nobleman in the service of Russia during the Emigration, who was returning to Alencon to settle there. From two to five o’clock a species of labial telegraphy went on throughout the town; and all the inhabitants learned that Mademoiselle Cormon had at last found a husband by letter, and was about to marry the Vicomte de Troisville. Some said, “Moreau has sold them a bed.” The bed was six feet wide in that quarter; it was four feet wide at Madame Granson’s, in the rue du Bercail; but it was reduced to a simple couch at Monsieur du Ronceret’s, where du Bousquier was dining. The lesser bourgeoisie declared that the cost was eleven hundred francs. But generally it was thought that, as to this, rumor was counting the chickens before they were hatched. In other quarters it was said that Mariette had made such a raid on the market that the price of carp had risen. At the end of the rue Saint–Blaise, Penelope had dropped dead. This decease was doubted in the house of the receiver-general; but at the Prefecture it was authenticated that the poor beast had expired as she turned into the courtyard of the hotel Cormon, with such velocity had the old maid flown to meet her husband. The harness-maker, who lived at the corner of the rue de Seez, was bold enough to call at the house and ask if anything had happened to Mademoiselle Cormon’s carriage, in order to discover whether Penelope was really dead. From the end of the rue Saint–Blaise to the end of the rue du Bercail, it was then made known that, thanks to Jacquelin’s devotion, Penelope, that silent victim of her mistress’s impetuosity, still lived, though she seemed to be suffering.

Along the road to Brittany the Vicomte de Troisville was stated to be a younger son without a penny, for the estates in Perche belonged to the Marquis de Troisville, peer of France, who had children; the marriage would be, therefore, an enormous piece of luck for a poor emigre. The aristocracy along that road approved of the marriage; Mademoiselle Cormon could not do better with her money. But among the Bourgeoisie, the Vicomte de Troisville was a Russian general who had fought against France, and was now returning with a great fortune made at the court of Saint–Petersburg; he was a foreigner; one of those allies so hated by the liberals; the Abbe de Sponde had slyly negotiated this marriage. All the persons who had a right to call upon Mademoiselle Cormon determined to do so that very evening.

During this transurban excitement, which made that of Suzanne almost a forgotten affair, Mademoiselle was not less agitated; she was filled with a variety of novel emotions. Looking about her salon, dining-room, and boudoir, cruel apprehensions took possession of her. A species of demon showed her with a sneer her old-fashioned luxury. The handsome things she had admired from her youth up she suddenly suspected of age and absurdity. In short, she felt that fear which takes possession of nearly all authors when they read over a work they have hitherto thought proof against every exacting or blase critic: new situations seem timeworn; the best-turned and most highly polished phrases limp and squint; metaphors and images grin or contradict each other; whatsoever is false strikes the eye. In like manner this poor woman trembled lest she should see on the lips of Monsieur de Troisville a smile of contempt for this episcopal salon; she dreaded the cold look he might cast over that ancient dining-room; in short, she feared the frame might injure and age the portrait. Suppose these antiquities should cast a reflected light of old age upon herself? This question made her flesh creep. She would gladly, at that moment, spend half her savings on refitting her house if some fairy wand could do it in a moment. Where is the general who has not trembled on the eve of a battle? The poor woman was now between her Austerlitz and her Waterloo.

“Madame la Vicomtesse de Troisville,” she said to herself; “a noble name! Our property will go to a good family, at any rate.”

She fell a prey to an irritation which made every fibre of her nerves quiver to all their papillae, long sunk in flesh. Her blood, lashed by this new hope, was in motion. She felt the strength to converse, if necessary, with Monsieur de Troisville.

It is useless to relate the activity with which Josette, Jacquelin, Mariette, Moreau, and his agents went about their functions. It was like the busyness of ants about their eggs. All that daily care had already rendered neat and clean was again gone over and brushed and rubbed and scrubbed. The china of ceremony saw the light; the damask linen marked “A, B, C” was drawn from depths where it lay under a triple guard of wrappings, still further defended by formidable lines of pins. Above all, Mademoiselle Cormon sacrificed on the altar of her hopes three bottles of the famous liqueurs of Madame Amphoux, the most illustrious of all the distillers of the tropics — a name very dear to gourmets. Thanks to the devotion of her lieutenants, mademoiselle was soon ready for the conflict. The different weapons — furniture, cookery, provisions, in short, all the various munitions of war, together with a body of reserve forces — were ready along the whole line. Jacquelin, Mariette, and Josette received orders to appear in full dress. The garden was raked. The old maid regretted that she couldn’t come to an understanding with the nightingales nesting in the trees, in order to obtain their finest trilling.

At last, about four o’clock, at the very moment when the Abbe de Sponde returned home, and just as mademoiselle began to think she had set the table with the best plate and linen and prepared the choicest dishes to no purpose, the click-clack of a postilion was heard in the Val–Noble.

“’Tis he!” she said to herself, the snap of the whip echoing in her heart.

True enough; heralded by all this gossip, a post-chaise, in which was a single gentleman, made so great a sensation coming down the rue Saint–Blaise and turning into the rue du Cours that several little gamains and some grown persons followed it, and stood in groups about the gate of the hotel Cormon to see it enter. Jacquelin, who foresaw his own marriage in that of his mistress, had also heard the click-clack in the rue Saint–Blaise, and had opened wide the gates into the courtyard. The postilion, a friend of his, took pride in making a fine turn-in, and drew up sharply before the portico. The abbe came forward to greet his guest, whose carriage was emptied with a speed that highwaymen might put into the operation; the chaise itself was rolled into the coach-house, the gates closed, and in a few moments all signs of Monsieur de Troisville’s arrival had disappeared. Never did two chemicals blend into each other with greater rapidity than the hotel Cormon displayed in absorbing the Vicomte de Troisville.

Mademoiselle, whose heart was beating like a lizard caught by a herdsman, sat heroically still on her sofa, beside the fire in the salon. Josette opened the door; and the Vicomte de Troisville, followed by the Abbe de Sponde, presented himself to the eyes of the spinster.

“Niece, this is Monsieur le Vicomte de Troisville, the grandson of one of my old schoolmates; Monsieur de Troisville, my niece, Mademoiselle Cormon.”

“Ah! that good uncle; how well he does it!” thought Rose–Marie-Victoire.

The Vicomte de Troisville was, to paint him in two words, du Bousquier ennobled. Between the two men there was precisely the difference which separates the vulgar style from the noble style. If they had both been present, the most fanatic liberal would not have denied the existence of aristocracy. The viscount’s strength had all the distinction of elegance; his figure had preserved its magnificent dignity. He had blue eyes, black hair, an olive skin, and looked to be about forty-six years of age. You might have thought him a handsome Spaniard preserved in the ice of Russia. His manner, carriage, and attitude, all denoted a diplomat who had seen Europe. His dress was that of a well-bred traveller. As he seemed fatigued, the abbe offered to show him to his room, and was much amazed when his niece threw open the door of the boudoir, transformed into a bedroom.

Mademoiselle Cormon and her uncle then left the noble stranger to attend to his own affairs, aided by Jacquelin, who brought up his luggage, and went themselves to walk beside the river until their guest had made his toilet. Although the Abbe de Sponde chanced to be even more absent-minded than usual, Mademoiselle Cormon was not less preoccupied. They both walked on in silence. The old maid had never before met any man as seductive as this Olympean viscount. She might have said to herself, as the Germans do, “This is my ideal!” instead of which she felt herself bound from head to foot, and could only say, “Here’s my affair!” Then she flew to Mariette to know if the dinner could be put back a while without loss of excellence.

“Uncle, your Monsieur de Troisville is very amiable,” she said, on returning.

“Why, niece, he hasn’t as yet said a word.”

“But you can see it in his ways, his manners, his face. Is he a bachelor?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” replied the abbe, who was thinking of a discussion on mercy, lately begun between the Abbe Couturier and himself. “Monsieur de Troisville wrote me that he wanted to buy a house here. If he was married, he wouldn’t come alone on such an errand,” added the abbe, carelessly, not conceiving the idea that his niece could be thinking of marriage.

“Is he rich?”

“He is a younger son of the younger branch,” replied her uncle. “His grandfather commanded a squadron, but the father of this young man made a bad marriage.”

“Young man!” exclaimed the old maid. “It seems to me, uncle, that he must be at least forty-five.” She felt the strongest desire to put their years on a par.

“Yes,” said the abbe; “but to a poor priest of seventy, Rose, a man of forty seems a youth.”

All Alencon knew by this time that Monsieur de Troisville had arrived at the Cormons. The traveller soon rejoined his hosts, and began to admire the Brillante, the garden, and the house.

“Monsieur l’abbe,” he said, “my whole ambition is to have a house like this.” The old maid fancied a declaration lurked in that speech, and she lowered her eyes. “You must enjoy it very much, mademoiselle,” added the viscount.

“How could it be otherwise? It has been in our family since 1574, the period at which one of our ancestors, steward to the Duc d’Alencon, acquired the land and built the house,” replied Mademoiselle Cormon. “It is built on piles,” she added.

Jacquelin announced dinner. Monsieur de Troisville offered his arm to the happy woman, who endeavored not to lean too heavily upon it; she feared, as usual, to seem to make advances.

“Everything is so harmonious here,” said the viscount, as he seated himself at table.

“Yes, our trees are full of birds, which give us concerts for nothing; no one ever frightens them; and the nightingales sing at night,” said Mademoiselle Cormon.

“I was speaking of the interior of the house,” remarked the viscount, who did not trouble himself to observe Mademoiselle Cormon, and therefore did not perceive the dulness of her mind. “Everything is so in keeping — the tones of color, the furniture, the general character.”

“But it costs a great deal; taxes are enormous,” responded the excellent woman.

“Ah! taxes are high, are they?” said the viscount, preoccupied with his own ideas.

“I don’t know,” replied the abbe. “My niece manages the property of each of us.”

“Taxes are not of much importance to the rich,” said Mademoiselle Cormon, not wishing to be thought miserly. “As for the furniture, I shall leave it as it is, and change nothing — unless I marry; and then, of course, everything here must suit the husband.”

“You have noble principles, mademoiselle,” said the viscount, smiling. “You will make one happy man.”

“No one ever made to me such a pretty speech,” thought the old maid.

The viscount complimented Mademoiselle Cormon on the excellence of her service and the admirable arrangements of the house, remarking that he had supposed the provinces behind the age in that respect; but, on the contrary, he found them, as the English say, “very comfortable.”

“What can that word mean?” she thought. “Oh, where is the chevalier to explain it to me? ‘Comfortable,’— there seem to be several words in it. Well, courage!” she said to herself. “I can’t be expected to answer a foreign language — But,” she continued aloud, feeling her tongue untied by the eloquence which nearly all human creatures find in momentous circumstances, “we have a very brilliant society here, monsieur. It assembles at my house, and you shall judge of it this evening, for some of my faithful friends have no doubt heard of my return and your arrival. Among them is the Chevalier de Valois, a seigneur of the old court, a man of infinite wit and taste; then there is Monsieur le Marquis d’Esgrignon and Mademoiselle Armande, his sister” (she bit her tongue with vexation) — “a woman remarkable in her way,” she added. “She resolved to remain unmarried in order to leave all her fortune to her brother and nephew.”

“Ah!” exclaimed the viscount. “Yes, the d’Esgrignons — I remember them.”

“Alencon is very gay,” continued the old maid, now fairly launched. “There’s much amusement: the receiver-general gives balls; the prefect is an amiable man; and Monseigneur the bishop sometimes honors us with a visit —”

“Well, then,” said the viscount, smiling, “I have done wisely to come back, like the hare, to die in my form.”

“Yes,” she said. “I, too, attach myself or I die.”

The viscount smiled.

“Ah!” thought the old maid, “all is well; he understands me.”

The conversation continued on generalities. By one of those mysterious unknown and undefinable faculties, Mademoiselle Cormon found in her brain, under the pressure of her desire to be agreeable, all the phrases and opinions of the Chevalier de Valois. It was like a duel in which the devil himself pointed the pistol. Never was any adversary better aimed at. The viscount was far too well-bred to speak of the excellence of the dinner; but his silence was praise. As he drank the delicious wines which Jacquelin served to him profusely, he seemed to feel he was with friends, and to meet them with pleasure; for the true connoisseur does not applaud, he enjoys. He inquired the price of land, of houses, of estates; he made Mademoiselle Cormon describe at length the confluence of the Sarthe and the Brillante; he expressed surprise that the town was placed so far from the river, and seemed to be much interested in the topography of the place.

The silent abbe left his niece to throw the dice of conversation; and she truly felt that she pleased Monsieur de Troisville, who smiled at her gracefully, and committed himself during this dinner far more than her most eager suitors had ever done in ten days. Imagine, therefore, the little attentions with which he was petted; you might have thought him a cherished lover, whose return brought joy to the household. Mademoiselle foresaw the moment when the viscount wanted bread; she watched his every look; when he turned his head she adroitly put upon his plate a portion of some dish he seemed to like; had he been a gourmand, she would almost have killed him; but what a delightful specimen of the attentions she would show to a husband! She did not commit the folly of depreciating herself; on the contrary, she set every sail bravely, ran up all her flags, assumed the bearing of the queen of Alencon, and boasted of her excellent preserves. In fact, she fished for compliments in speaking of herself, for she saw that she pleased the viscount; the truth being that her eager desire had so transformed her that she became almost a woman.

At dessert she heard, not without emotions of delight, certain sounds in the antechamber and salon which denoted the arrival of her usual guests. She called the attention of her uncle and Monsieur de Troisville to this prompt attendance as a proof of the affection that was felt for her; whereas it was really the result of the poignant curiosity which had seized upon the town. Impatient to show herself in all her glory, Mademoiselle Cormon told Jacquelin to serve coffee and liqueurs in the salon, where he presently set out, in view of the whole company, a magnificent liqueur-stand of Dresden china which saw the light only twice a year. This circumstance was taken note of by the company, standing ready to gossip over the merest trifle:—

“The deuce!” muttered du Bousquier. “Actually Madame Amphoux’s liqueurs, which they only serve at the four church festivals!”

“Undoubtedly the marriage was arranged a year ago by letter,” said the chief-justice du Ronceret. “The postmaster tells me his office has received letters postmarked Odessa for more than a year.”

Madame Granson trembled. The Chevalier de Valois, though he had dined with the appetite of four men, turned pale even to the left section of his face. Feeling that he was about to betray himself, he said hastily —

“Don’t you think it is very cold today? I am almost frozen.”

“The neighborhood of Russia, perhaps,” said du Bousquier.

The chevalier looked at him as if to say, “Well played!”

Mademoiselle Cormon appeared so radiant, so triumphant, that the company thought her handsome. This extraordinary brilliancy was not the effect of sentiment only. Since early morning her blood had been whirling tempestuously within her, and her nerves were agitated by the presentiment of some great crisis. It required all these circumstances combined to make her so unlike herself. With what joy did she now make her solemn presentation of the viscount to the chevalier, the chevalier to the viscount, and all Alencon to Monsieur de Troisville, and Monsieur de Troisville to all Alencon!

By an accident wholly explainable, the viscount and chevalier, aristocrats by nature, came instantly into unison; they recognized each other at once as men belonging to the same sphere. Accordingly, they began to converse together, standing before the fireplace. A circle formed around them; and their conversation, though uttered in a low voice, was listened to in religious silence. To give the effect of this scene it is necessary to dramatize it, and to picture Mademoiselle Cormon occupied in pouring out the coffee of her imaginary suitor, with her back to the fireplace.

Monsieur de Valois. “Monsieur le vicomte has come, I am told, to settle in Alencon?”

Monsieur de Troisville. “Yes, monsieur, I am looking for a house.” [Mademoiselle Cormon, cup in hand, turns round.] “It must be a large house” [Mademoiselle Cormon offers him the cup] “to lodge my whole family.” [The eyes of the old maid are troubled.]

Monsieur de Valois. “Are you married?”

Monsieur de Troisville. “Yes, for the last sixteen years, to a daughter of the Princess Scherbellof.”

Mademoiselle Cormon fainted; du Bousquier, who saw her stagger, sprang forward and received her in his arms; some one opened the door and allowed him to pass out with his enormous burden. The fiery republican, instructed by Josette, found strength to carry the old maid to her bedroom, where he laid her out on the bed. Josette, armed with scissors, cut the corset, which was terribly tight. Du Bousquier flung water on Mademoiselle Cormon’s face and bosom, which, released from the corset, overflowed like the Loire in flood. The poor woman opened her eyes, saw du Bousquier, and gave a cry of modesty at the sight of him. Du Bousquier retired at once, leaving six women, at the head of whom was Madame Granson, radiant with joy, to take care of the invalid.

What had the Chevalier de Valois been about all this time? Faithful to his system, he had covered the retreat.

“That poor Mademoiselle Cormon,” he said to Monsieur de Troisville, gazing at the assembly, whose laughter was repressed by his cool aristocratic glances, “her blood is horribly out of order; she wouldn’t be bled before going to Prebaudet (her estate) — and see the result!”

“She came back this morning in the rain,” said the Abbe de Sponde, “and she may have taken cold. It won’t be anything; it is only a little upset she is subject to.”

“She told me yesterday she had not had one for three months, adding that she was afraid it would play her a trick at last,” said the chevalier.

“Ha! so you are married?” said Jacquelin to himself as he looked at Monsieur de Troisville, who was quietly sipping his coffee.

The faithful servant espoused his mistress’s disappointment; he divined it, and he promptly carried away the liqueurs of Madame Amphoux, which were offered to a bachelor, and not to the husband of a Russian woman.

All these details were noticed and laughed at. The Abbe de Sponde knew the object of Monsieur de Troisville’s journey; but, absent-minded as usual, he forgot it, not supposing that his niece could have the slightest interest in Monsieur de Troisville’s marriage. As for the viscount, preoccupied with the object of his journey, and, like many husbands, not eager to talk about his wife, he had had no occasion to say he was married; besides, he would naturally suppose that Mademoiselle Cormon knew it.

Du Bousquier reappeared, and was questioned furiously. One of the six women came down soon after, and announced that Mademoiselle Cormon was much better, and that the doctor had come. She intended to stay in bed, as it was necessary to bleed her. The salon was now full. Mademoiselle Cormon’s absence allowed the ladies present to discuss the tragi-comic scene — embellished, extended, historified, embroidered, wreathed, colored, and adorned — which had just taken place, and which, on the morrow, was destined to occupy all Alencon.

“That good Monsieur du Bousquier! how well he carried you!” said Josette to her mistress. “He was really pale at the sight of you; he loves you still.”

That speech served as closure to this solemn and terrible evening.

Throughout the morning of the next day every circumstance of the late comedy was known in the household of Alencon, and — let us say it to the shame of that town — they caused inextinguishable laughter. But on that day Mademoiselle Cormon (much benefited by the bleeding) would have seemed sublime even to the boldest scoffers, had they witnessed the noble dignity, the splendid Christian resignation which influenced her as she gave her arm to her involuntary deceiver to go into breakfast. Cruel jesters! why could you not have seen her as she said to the viscount —

“Madame de Troisville will have difficulty in finding a suitable house; do me the favor, monsieur, of accepting the use of mine during the time you are in search of yours.”

“But, mademoiselle, I have two sons and two daughters; we should greatly inconvenience you.”

“Pray do not refuse me,” she said earnestly.

“I made you the same offer in the answer I wrote to your letter,” said the abbe; “but you did not receive it.”

“What, uncle! then you knew —”

The poor woman stopped. Josette sighed. Neither the viscount nor the abbe observed anything amiss. After breakfast the Abbe de Sponde carried off his guest, as agreed upon the previous evening, to show him the various houses in Alencon which could be bought, and the lots of lands on which he might build.

Left alone in the salon, Mademoiselle Cormon said to Josette, with a deeply distressed air, “My child, I am now the talk of the whole town.”

“Well, then, mademoiselle, you should marry.”

“But I am not prepared to make a choice.”

“Bah! if I were in your place, I should take Monsieur du Bousquier.”

“Josette, Monsieur de Valois says he is so republican.”

“They don’t know what they say, your gentlemen: sometimes they declare that he robbed the republic; he couldn’t love it if he did that,” said Josette, departing.

“That girl has an amazing amount of sense,” thought Mademoiselle Cormon, who remained alone, a prey to her perplexities.

She saw plainly that a prompt marriage was the only way to silence the town. This last checkmate, so evidently mortifying, was of a nature to drive her into some extreme action; for persons deficient in mind find difficulty in getting out of any path, either good or evil, into which they have entered.

Each of the two old bachelors had fully understood the situation in which Mademoiselle Cormon was about to find herself; consequently, each resolved to call in the course of that morning to ask after her health, and take occasion, in bachelor language, to “press his point.” Monsieur de Valois considered that such an occasion demanded a painstaking toilet; he therefore took a bath and groomed himself with extraordinary care. For the first and last time Cesarine observed him putting on with incredible art a suspicion of rouge. Du Bousquier, on the other hand, that coarse republican, spurred by a brisk will, paid no attention to his dress, and arrived the first.

Such little things decide the fortunes of men, as they do of empires. Kellerman’s charge at Marengo, Blucher’s arrival at Waterloo, Louis XIV.‘s disdain for Prince Eugene, the rector of Denain — all these great causes of fortune or catastrophe history has recorded; but no one ever profits by them to avoid the small neglects of their own life. Consequently, observe what happens: the Duchesse de Langeais (see “History of the Thirteen”) makes herself a nun for the lack of ten minutes’ patience; Judge Popinot (see “Commission in Lunacy”) puts off till the morrow the duty of examining the Marquis d’Espard; Charles Grandet (see “Eugenie Grandet”) goes to Paris from Bordeaux instead of returning by Nantes; and such events are called chance or fatality! A touch of rouge carefully applied destroyed the hopes of the Chevalier de Valois; could that nobleman perish in any other way? He had lived by the Graces, and he was doomed to die by their hand. While the chevalier was giving this last touch to his toilet the rough du Bousquier was entering the salon of the desolate old maid. This entrance produced a thought in Mademoiselle Cormon’s mind which was favorable to the republican, although in all other respects the Chevalier de Valois held the advantages.

“God wills it!” she said piously, on seeing du Bousquier.

“Mademoiselle, you will not, I trust, think my eagerness importunate. I could not trust to my stupid Rene to bring news of your condition, and therefore I have come myself.”

“I am perfectly recovered,” she replied, in a tone of emotion. “I thank you, Monsieur du Bousquier,” she added, after a slight pause, and in a significant tone of voice, “for the trouble you have taken, and for that which I gave you yesterday —”

She remembered having been in his arms, and that again seemed to her an order from heaven. She had been seen for the first time by a man with her laces cut, her treasures violently bursting from their casket.

“I carried you with such joy that you seemed to me light.”

Here Mademoiselle Cormon looked at du Bousquier as she had never yet looked at any man in the world. Thus encouraged, the purveyor cast upon the old maid a glance which reached her heart.

“I would,” he said, “that that moment had given me the right to keep you as mine forever” [she listened with a delighted air]; “as you lay fainting upon that bed, you were enchanting. I have never in my life seen a more beautiful person — and I have seen many handsome women. Plump ladies have this advantage: they are superb to look upon; they have only to show themselves and they triumph.”

“I fear you are making fun of me,” said the old maid, “and that is not kind when all the town will probably misinterpret what happened to me yesterday.”

“As true as my name is du Bousquier, mademoiselle, I have never changed in my feelings toward you; and your first refusal has not discouraged me.”

The old maid’s eyes were lowered. There was a moment of cruel silence for du Bousquier, and then Mademoiselle Cormon decided on her course. She raised her eyelids; tears flowed from her eyes, and she gave du Bousquier a tender glance.

“If that is so, monsieur,” she said, in a trembling voice, “promise me to live in a Christian manner, and not oppose my religious customs, but to leave me the right to select my confessors, and I will grant you my hand”; as she said the words, she held it out to him.

Du Bousquier seized the good fat hand so full of money, and kissed it solemnly.

“But,” she said, allowing him to kiss it, “one thing more I must require of you.”

“If it is a possible thing, it is granted,” replied the purveyor.

“Alas!” returned the old maid. “For my sake, I must ask you to take upon yourself a sin which I feel to be enormous — for to lie is one of the capital sins. But you will confess it, will you not? We will do penance for it together” [they looked at each other tenderly]. “Besides, it may be one of those lies which the Church permits as necessary —”

“Can she be as Suzanne says she is?” thought du Bousquier. “What luck! Well, mademoiselle, what is it?” he said aloud.

“That you will take upon yourself to —”

“What?”

“To say that this marriage has been agreed upon between us for the last six months.”

“Charming woman,” said the purveyor, in the tone of a man willing to devote himself, “such sacrifices can be made only for a creature adored these ten years.”

“In spite of my harshness?” she said.

“Yes, in spite of your harshness.”

“Monsieur du Bousquier, I have misjudged you.”

Again she held out the fat red hand, which du Bousquier kissed again.

At this moment the door opened; the betrothed pair, looking round to see who entered, beheld the delightful, but tardy Chevalier de Valois.

“Ah!” he said, on entering, “I see you are about to be up, fair queen.”

She smiled at the chevalier, feeling a weight upon her heart. Monsieur de Valois, remarkably young and seductive, had the air of a Lauzun reentering the apartments of the Grande Mademoiselle in the Palais–Royal.

“Hey! dear du Bousquier,” said he, in a jaunty tone, so sure was he of success, “Monsieur de Troisville and the Abbe de Sponde are examining your house like appraisers.”

“Faith!” said du Bousquier, “if the Vicomte de Troisville wants it, it it is his for forty thousand francs. It is useless to me now. If mademoiselle will permit — it must soon be known — Mademoiselle, may I tell it? — Yes! Well, then, be the first, my dear Chevalier, to hear” [Mademoiselle Cormon dropped her eyes] “of the honor that mademoiselle has done me, the secret of which I have kept for some months. We shall be married in a few days; the contract is already drawn, and we shall sign it tomorrow. You see, therefore, that my house in the rue du Cygne is useless to me. I have been privately looking for a purchaser for some time; and the Abbe de Sponde, who knew that fact, has naturally taken Monsieur de Troisville to see the house.”

This falsehood bore such an appearance of truth that the chevalier was taken in by it. That “my dear chevalier” was like the revenge taken by Peter the Great on Charles XII. at Pultawa for all his past defeats. Du Bousquier revenged himself deliciously for the thousand little shafts he had long borne in silence; but in his triumph he made a lively youthful gesture by running his hands through his hair, and in so doing he — knocked aside his false front.

“I congratulate you both,” said the chevalier, with an agreeable air; “and I wish that the marriage may end like a fairy tale: They were happy ever after, and had — many — children!” So saying, he took a pinch of snuff. “But, monsieur,” he added satirically, “you forget — that you are wearing a false front.”

Du Bousquier blushed. The false front was hanging half a dozen inches from his skull. Mademoiselle Cormon raised her eyes, saw that skull in all its nudity, and lowered them, abashed. Du Bousquier cast upon the chevalier the most venomous look that toad ever darted on its prey.

“Dogs of aristocrats who despise me,” thought he, “I’ll crush you some day.”

The chevalier thought he had recovered his advantage. But Mademoiselle Cormon was not a woman to understand the connection which the chevalier intimated between his congratulatory wish and the false front. Besides, even if she had comprehended it, her word was passed, her hand given. Monsieur de Valois saw at once that all was lost. The innocent woman, with the two now silent men before her, wished, true to her sense of duty, to amuse them.

“Why not play a game of piquet together?” she said artlessly, without the slightest malice.

Du Bousquier smiled, and went, as the future master of the house, to fetch the piquet table. Whether the Chevalier de Valois lost his head, or whether he wanted to stay and study the causes of his disaster and remedy it, certain it is that he allowed himself to be led like a lamb to the slaughter. He had received the most violent knock-down blow that ever struck a man; any nobleman would have lost his senses for less.

The Abbe de Sponde and the Vicomte de Troisville soon returned. Mademoiselle Cormon instantly rose, hurried into the antechamber, and took her uncle apart to tell him her resolution. Learning that the house in the rue du Cygne exactly suited the viscount, she begged her future husband to do her the kindness to tell him that her uncle knew it was for sale. She dared not confide that lie to the abbe, fearing his absent-mindedness. The lie, however, prospered better than if it had been a virtuous action. In the course of that evening all Alencon heard the news. For the last four days the town had had as much to think of as during the fatal days of 1814 and 1815. Some laughed; others admitted the marriage. These blamed it; those approved it. The middle classes of Alencon rejoiced; they regarded it as a victory. The next day, among friends, the Chevalier de Valois said a cruel thing:—

“The Cormons end as they began; there’s only a hand’s breadth between a steward and a purveyor.”

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