The Vendetta, by Honoré de Balzac

CHAPTER VI

RETRIBUTION

At the beginning of the year 1819 the picture-dealers requested Ginevra to give them something beside copies; for competition had so increased that they could no longer sell her work to advantage. Madame Porta then perceived the mistake she had made in not exercising her talent for “genre” painting, which might, by this time, have brought her reputation. She now attempted portrait-painting. But here she was forced to compete against a crowd of artists in greater need of money than herself. However, as Luigi and Ginevra had laid by a few savings, they were not, as yet, uneasy about the future.

Toward the end of the winter of that year Luigi worked without intermission. He, too, was struggling against competitors. The payment for writing had so decreased that he found it impossible to employ assistance; he was forced, therefore, to work a much longer time himself to obtain the same emolument. His wife had finished several pictures which were not without merit; but the dealers were scarcely buying those of artists with reputations; consequently, her paintings had little chance. Ginevra offered them for almost nothing, but without success.

The situation of the household now began to be alarming. The souls of the husband and wife floated on the ocean of their happiness, love overwhelmed them with its treasures, while poverty rose, like a skeleton, amid their harvest of joy. Yet, all the while, they hid from each other their secret anxiety. When Ginevra felt like weeping as she watched Luigi’s worn and suffering face, she redoubled her caresses; and Luigi, keeping his dark forebodings in the depths of his soul, expressed to his Ginevra the tenderest love. They sought a compensation for their troubles in exalting their feelings; and their words, their joys, their caresses became suffused, as it were, with a species of frenzy. They feared the future. What feeling can be compared in strength with that of a passion which may cease on the morrow, killed by death or want? When they talked together of their poverty each felt the necessity of deceiving the other, and they fastened with mutual ardor on the slightest hope.

One night Ginevra woke and missed Luigi from her side. She rose in terror. A faint light shining on the opposite wall of the little court-yard revealed to her that her husband was working in his study at night. Luigi was now in the habit of waiting till his wife was asleep, and then going up to his garret to write. Four o’clock struck. Ginevra lay down again, and pretended to sleep. Presently Luigi returned, overcome with fatigue and drowsiness. Ginevra looked sadly on the beautiful, worn face, where toil and care were already drawing lines of wrinkles.

“It is for me he spends his nights in writing,” she said to herself, weeping.

A thought dried her tears. She would imitate Luigi. That same day she went to a print-shop, and, by help of a letter of recommendation she had obtained from Elie Magus, one of her picture-dealers, she obtained an order for the coloring of lithographs. During the day she painted her pictures and attended to the cares of the household; then, when night came, she colored the engravings. This loving couple entered their nuptial bed only to deceive each other; both feigned sleep, and left it — Luigi, as soon as he thought his wife was sleeping, Ginevra as soon as he had gone.

One night Luigi, burning with a sort of fever, induced by a toil under which his strength was beginning to give way, opened the casement of his garret to breathe the morning air, and shake off, for a moment, the burden of his care. Happening to glance downward, he saw the reflection of Ginevra’s lamp on the opposite wall, and the poor fellow guessed the truth. He went down, stepping softly, and surprised his wife in her studio, coloring engravings.

“Oh, Ginevra!” he cried.

She gave a convulsive bound in her chair, and blushed.

“Could I sleep while you were wearing yourself out with toil?” she said.

“But to me alone belongs the right to work in this way,” he answered.

“Could I be idle,” she asked, her eyes filling with tears, “when I know that every mouthful we eat costs a drop of your blood? I should die if I could not add my efforts to yours. All should be in common between us: pains and pleasures, both.”

“She is cold!” cried Luigi, in despair. “Wrap your shawl closer round you, my own Ginevra; the night is damp and chilly.”

They went to the window, the young wife leaning on the breast of her beloved, who held her round the waist, and, together, in deep silence, they gazed upward at the sky, which the dawn was slowly brightening. Clouds of a grayish hue were moving rapidly; the East was growing luminous.

“See!” said Ginevra. “It is an omen. We shall be happy.”

“Yes, in heaven,” replied Luigi, with a bitter smile. “Oh, Ginevra! you who deserved all the treasures upon earth —”

“I have your heart,” she said, in tones of joy.

“Ah! I complain no more!” he answered, straining her tightly to him, and covering with kisses the delicate face, which was losing the freshness of youth, though its expression was still so soft, so tender that he could not look at it and not be comforted.

“What silence!” said Ginevra, presently. “Dear friend, I take great pleasure in sitting up. The majesty of Night is so contagious, it awes, it inspires. There is I know not what great power in the thought: all sleep, I wake.”

“Oh, my Ginevra,” he cried, “it is not to-night alone I feel how delicately moulded is your soul. But see, the dawn is shining — come and sleep.”

“Yes,” replied Ginevra, “if I do not sleep alone. I suffered too much that night I first discovered that you were waking while I slept.”

The courage with which these two young people fought with misery received for a while its due reward; but an event which usually crowns the happiness of a household to them proved fatal. Ginevra had a son, who was, to use the popular expression, “as beautiful as the day.” The sense of motherhood doubled the strength of the young wife. Luigi borrowed money to meet the expenses of Ginevra’s confinement. At first she did not feel the fresh burden of their situation; and the pair gave themselves wholly up to the joy of possessing a child. It was their last happiness.

Like two swimmers uniting their efforts to breast a current, these two Corsican souls struggled courageously; but sometimes they gave way to an apathy which resembled the sleep that precedes death. Soon they were obliged to sell their jewels. Poverty appeared to them suddenly, — not hideous, but plainly clothed, almost easy to endure; its voice had nothing terrifying; with it came neither spectres, nor despair, nor rags; but it made them lose the memory and the habits of comfort; it dried the springs of pride. Then, before they knew it, came want, — want in all its horror, indifferent to its rags, treading underfoot all human sentiments.

Seven or eight months after the birth of the little Bartolomeo, it would have been hard to see in the mother who suckled her sickly babe the original of the beautiful portrait, the sole remaining ornament of the squalid home. Without fire through a hard winter, the graceful outlines of Ginevra’s figure were slowly destroyed; her cheeks grew white as porcelain, and her eyes dulled as though the springs of life were drying up within her. Watching her shrunken, discolored child, she felt no suffering but for that young misery; and Luigi had no courage to smile upon his son.

“I have wandered over Paris,” he said, one day. “I know no one; can I ask help of strangers? Vergniaud, my old sergeant, is concerned in a conspiracy, and they have put him in prison; besides, he has already lent me all he could spare. As for our landlord, it is over a year since he asked me for any rent.”

“But we are not in want,” replied Ginevra, gently, affecting calmness.

“Every hour brings some new difficulty,” continued Luigi, in a tone of terror.

Another day Luigi took Ginevra’s pictures, her portrait, and the few articles of furniture which they could still exist without, and sold them for a miserable sum, which prolonged the agony of the hapless household for a time. During these days of wretchedness Ginevra showed the sublimity of her nature and the extent of her resignation.

Stoically she bore the strokes of misery; her strong soul held her up against all woes; she worked with unfaltering hand beside her dying son, performed her household duties with marvellous activity, and sufficed for all. She was even happy, still, when she saw on Luigi’s lips a smile of surprise at the cleanliness she produced in the one poor room where they had taken refuge.

“Dear, I kept this bit of bread for you,” she said, one evening, when he returned, worn-out.

“And you?”

“I? I have dined, dear Luigi; I want nothing more.”

And the tender look on her beseeching face urged him more than her words to take the food of which she had deprived herself.

Luigi kissed her, with one of those kisses of despair that were given in 1793 between friends as they mounted the scaffold. In such supreme moments two beings see each other, heart to heart. The hapless Luigi, comprehending suddenly that his wife was starving, was seized with the fever which consumed her. He shuddered, and went out, pretending that some business called him; for he would rather have drunk the deadliest poison than escape death by eating that last morsel of bread that was left in his home.

He wandered wildly about Paris; amid the gorgeous equipages, in the bosom of that flaunting luxury that displays itself everywhere; he hurried past the windows of the money-changers where gold was glittering; and at last he resolved to sell himself to be a substitute for military service, hoping that this sacrifice would save Ginevra, and that her father, during his absence, would take her home.

He went to one of those agents who manage these transactions, and felt a sort of happiness in recognizing an old officer of the Imperial guard.

“It is two days since I have eaten anything,” he said to him in a slow, weak voice. “My wife is dying of hunger, and has never uttered one word of complaint; she will die smiling, I think. For God’s sake, comrade,” he added, bitterly, “buy me in advance; I am robust; I am no longer in the service, and I—”

The officer gave Luigi a sum on account of that which he promised to procure for him. The wretched man laughed convulsively as he grasped the gold, and ran with all his might, breathless, to his home, crying out at times:—

“Ginevra! Oh, my Ginevra!”

It was almost night when he reached his wretched room. He entered very softly, fearing to cause too strong an emotion to his wife, whom he had left so weak. The last rays of the sun, entering through the garret window, were fading from Ginevra’s face as she sat sleeping in her chair, and holding her child upon her breast.

“Wake, my dear one,” he said, not observing the infant, which shone, at that moment, with supernatural light.

Hearing that voice, the poor mother opened her eyes, met Luigi’s look, and smiled; but Luigi himself gave a cry of horror; he scarcely recognized his wife, now half mad. With a gesture of savage energy he showed her the gold. Ginevra began to laugh mechanically; but suddenly she cried, in a dreadful voice:—

“The child, Luigi, he is cold!”

She looked at her son and swooned. The little Bartolomeo was dead. Luigi took his wife in his arms, without removing the child, which she clasped with inconceivable force; and after laying her on the bed he went out to seek help.

“Oh! my God!” he said, as he met his landlord on the stairs. “I have gold, gold, and my child has died of hunger, and his mother is dying, too! Help me!”

He returned like one distraught to his wife, leaving the worthy mason, and also the neighbors who heard him to gather a few things for the needs of so terrible a want, hitherto unknown, for the two Corsicans had carefully hidden it from a feeling of pride.

Luigi had cast his gold upon the floor and was kneeling by the bed on which lay his wife.

“Father! take care of my son, who bears your name,” she was saying in her delirium.

“Oh, my angel! be calm,” said Luigi, kissing her; “our good days are coming back to us.”

“My Luigi,” she said, looking at him with extraordinary attention, “listen to me. I feel that I am dying. My death is natural; I suffered too much; besides, a happiness so great as mine has to be paid for. Yes, my Luigi, be comforted. I have been so happy that if I were to live again I would again accept our fate. I am a bad mother; I regret you more than I regret my child — My child!” she added, in a hollow voice.

Two tears escaped her dying eyes, and suddenly she pressed the little body she had no power to warm.

“Give my hair to my father, in memory of his Ginevra,” she said. “Tell him I have never blamed him.”

Her head fell upon her husband’s arm.

“No, you cannot die!” cried Luigi. “The doctor is coming. We have food. Your father will take you home. Prosperity is here. Stay with us, angel!”

But the faithful heart, so full of love, was growing cold. Ginevra turned her eyes instinctively to him she loved, though she was conscious of nought else. Confused images passed before her mind, now losing memory of earth. She knew that Luigi was there, for she clasped his icy hand tightly, and more tightly still, as though she strove to save herself from some precipice down which she feared to fall.

“Dear,” she said, at last, “you are cold; I will warm you.”

She tried to put his hand upon her heart, but died.

Two doctors, a priest, and several neighbors came into the room, bringing all that was necessary to save the poor couple and calm their despair. These strangers made some noise in entering; but after they had entered, an awful silence filled the room.

While that scene was taking place, Bartolomeo and his wife were sitting in their antique chairs, each at a corner of the vast fireplace, where a glowing fire scarcely warmed the great spaces of their salon. The clock told midnight.

For some time past the old couple had lost the ability to sleep. At the present moment they sat there silent, like two persons in their dotage, gazing about them at things they did not see. Their deserted salon, so filled with memories to them, was feebly lighted by a single lamp which seemed expiring. Without the sparkling of the flame upon the hearth, they might soon have been in total darkness.

A friend had just left them; and the chair on which he had been sitting, remained where he left it, between the two Corsicans. Piombo was casting glances at that chair — glances full of thoughts, crowding one upon another like remorse — for the empty chair was Ginevra’s. Elisa Piombo watched the expressions that now began to cross her husband’s pallid face. Though long accustomed to divine his feelings from the changeful agitations of his face, they seemed to-night so threatening, and anon so melancholy that she felt she could no longer read a soul that was now incomprehensible, even to her.

Would Bartolomeo yield, at last, to the memories awakened by that chair? Had he been shocked to see a stranger in that chair, used for the first time since his daughter left him? Had the hour of his mercy struck — that hour she had vainly prayed and waited for till now?

These reflections shook the mother’s heart successively. For an instant her husband’s countenance became so terrible that she trembled at having used this simple means to bring about a mention of Ginevra’s name. The night was wintry; the north wind drove the snowflakes so sharply against the blinds that the old couple fancied that they heard a gentle rustling. Ginevra’s mother dropped her head to hide her tears. Suddenly a sigh burst from the old man’s breast; his wife looked at him; he seemed to her crushed. Then she risked speaking — for the second time in three long years — of his daughter.

“Ginevra may be cold,” she said, softly.

Piombo quivered.

“She may be hungry,” she continued.

The old man dropped a tear.

“Perhaps she has a child and cannot suckle it; her milk is dried up!” said the mother, in accents of despair.

“Let her come! let her come to me!” cried Piombo. “Oh! my precious child, thou hast conquered me.”

The mother rose as if to fetch her daughter. At that instant the door opened noisily, and a man, whose face no longer bore the semblance of humanity, stood suddenly before them.

“Dead! Our two families were doomed to exterminate each other. Here is all that remains of her,” he said, laying Ginevra’s long black hair upon the table.

The old people shook and quivered as if a stroke of lightning had blasted them.

Luigi no longer stood before them.

“He has spared me a shot, for he is dead,” said Bartolomeo, slowly, gazing on the ground at his feet.

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