Works, by Guy de Maupassant

A Fashionable Woman

It can easily be proved that Austria is far richer in talented men in every domain, than North Germany, but while men are systematically drilled there for the vocation which they choose, like the Prussian soldiers are, with us they lack the necessary training, especially technical training, and consequently very few of them get beyond mere diletantism. Leo Wolfram was one of those intellectual diletantes, and the more pleasure one took in his materials and characters, which were usually boldly taken from real life, and in a certain political, and what is still more, in a plastic plot, the more he was obliged to regret that he had never learnt to compose or to mold his characters, or to write; in one word, that he had never become a literary artist, but how greatly he had in himself the materials for a master of narration, his “Dissolving Views,” and still more his Goldkind,1 prove.

1 Golden Child.]

This Goldkind is a striking type of our modern society, and the novel of that name contains all the elements of a classic novel, although of course in a crude, unfinished state. What an exact reflection of our social circumstances Leo Wolfram gave in that story our present reminiscences will show, in which a lady of that race plays the principal part.

It may be ten years ago, that every day four very stylishly dressed persons went to dine in a corner of the small dining-room of one of the best hotels in Vienna, who, both there and elsewhere, gave occasion for a great amount of talk. They were an Austrian landowner, his charming wife, and two young diplomatists, one of whom came from the North, while the other was a pure son of the South. There was no doubt that the lady came in for the greatest share of the general interest in every respect.

The practiced observer and discerner of human nature easily recognized in her one of those characters which Goethe has so aptly named “problematical,” for she was one of those individuals who are always dissatisfied and at variance with themselves and with the world, who are a riddle to themselves, and who can never be relied on, and with the interesting and captivating, though unfortunate contradictions in her nature, she made a strong impression on everybody, even by her mere outward appearance. She was one of those women who are called beautiful, without their being really so. Her face, as well as her figure, was wanting in æsthetic lines, but there was no doubt that, in spite of that, or perhaps on that very account, she was the most dangerous, infatuating woman that one could imagine.

She was tall and thin, and there was a certain hardness about her figure, which became a charm through the vivacity and grace of her movements; her features harmonized with her figure, for she had a high, clever, cold forehead, a strong mouth with sensual lips, and an angular, sharp chin, the effect of which was, however, diminished by her slightly turned-up, small nose, her beautifully arched eyebrows, and her large, animated, swimming blue eyes.

In her face, which was almost too full of expression for a woman, there was as much feeling, kindness and candor as there was calculation, coolness and deceit, and when she was angry and drew her upper lip up, so as to show her dazzlingly white teeth, it had even a devilish look of wickedness and cruelty, and at that time, when women still wore their own hair, the beauty of her long, chestnut plaits, which she fastened on the top of her head like a crown, was very striking. Besides this, she was remarkable for her elegant, tasteful dresses, and a bearing which united to the dignity of a lady of rank that undefinable something which makes actresses and women who belong to the higher classes of the demi-monde so interesting to us.

In Paris she would have been taken for a kept woman, but in Vienna the best drawing-rooms were open to her, and she was not looked upon as more respectable or as less respectable than any other aristocratic beauties.

Her husband decidedly belonged to that class of men whom that witty writer, Balzac, so delightfully calls les hommes prédestinés in his Physiologie du Mariage. Without doubt, he was a very good-looking man, but he bore that stamp of insignificance which so often conceals coarseness and vulgarity, and was one of those men who, in the long run, become unendurable to a woman of refined tastes. He had a good private income, but his wife understood the art of enjoying life, and so a deficit in the yearly accounts of the young couple became the rule, without causing the lively lady to check her noble passion in the least on that account; she kept horses and carriages, rode with the greatest boldness, had her box at the opera, and gave beautiful little suppers, which at that time was the highest aim of a Viennese woman of her class.

One of the two young diplomats who accompanied her, a young Count, belonging to a well-known family in North Germany, and who was a perfect gentleman in the highest sense of the word, was looked upon as her adorer, while the other, who was his most intimate friend, yet, in spite of his ancient name and his position as attaché to a foreign legation, gave people that distinct impression that he was an adventurer, which makes the police keep such a careful eye on some persons, and he had the reputation of being an unscrupulous and dangerous duellist. Short, thin, with a yellow complexion, with strongly-marked but engaging features, an aquiline nose and bright, dark eyes, he was the typical picture of a man who seduces women and kills men.

The handsome woman appeared to be in love with the Count, and to take an interest in his friend; at least, that was the construction that the others in the dining-room put upon the situation, as far as it could be made out from the behavior and looks of the people concerned, and especially from their looks, for it was strange how devotedly and ardently the beautiful woman’s blue eyes rested on the Count, and with what wild, diabolical sympathy she gazed at the Italian from time to time, and it was hard to guess whether there was most love or hatred in that glance. None of the four, however, who were then dining and chatting so gaily together, had any presentiment at the time that they were amusing themselves over a mine, which might explode at any moment, and bury them all.

It was the husband of the beautiful woman who provided the tinder. One day he told her that she must make up her mind to the most rigid retrenchment, give up her box at the opera, and sell her carriage and horses, if she did not wish to risk her whole position in society. Her creditors had lost all patience, and were threatening to distrain on her property, and even to put her in prison. She made no reply to this revelation, but during dinner she said to the Count, in a whisper, that she must speak to him later, and would, therefore, come to see him at his house. When it was dark, she came thickly veiled, and after she had responded to his demonstrations of affection for some time, with more patience than amiableness, she began. Their conversation is extracted from his diary.

“You are so unconcerned and happy, while misery and disgrace are threatening me!” “Please explain what you mean!” “I have incurred some debts.” “Again?” he said reproachfully, “why do you not come to me at once, for you must do it in the end, and then at least you would avoid any exposure?” “Please do not take me to task,” she replied; “you know it only makes me angry. I want some money; can you give me some?” “How much do you want?” She hesitated, for she had not the courage to name the real amount, but at last she said, in a low voice: “Five thousand florins.”2 It was evidently only a small portion of what she really required, so he replied: “I am sure you want more than that!” “No.” “Really not?” “Do not make me angry.”

2 About £500, nominally.]

He shrugged his shoulders, went to his strong box and gave her the money, whereupon she nodded, and giving him her hand, she said: “You are always kind, and as long as I have you, I am not afraid; but if I were to lose you, I should be the most unhappy woman in the world.” “You always have the same fears; but I shall never leave you; it would be impossible for me to separate from you,” the Count exclaimed. “And if you die?” she interrupted him hastily. “If I die?” the Count said, with a peculiar smile. “I have provided for you in that eventuality also.” “Do you mean to say” . . . she stammered, flushed, and her large, lovely eyes rested on her lover with an indescribable expression in them. He, however, opened a drawer in his writing-table, and took out a document, which he gave her. It was his will. She opened it with almost indecent haste, and when she saw the amount — thirty thousand florins — she grew pale to her very lips.

It was a moment in which the germs of a crime were sown in her breast, but one of those crimes which cannot be touched by the Criminal Code. A few days after she had paid her visit to the Count, she herself received one from the Italian. In the course of conversation he took a jewel case out of his breast pocket and asked her opinion of the ornaments, as she was well-known for her taste in such matters, telling her at the same time, that it was intended as a present for an actress, with whom he was on intimate terms. — “It is a magnificent set!” she said, as she looked at it. “You have made an excellent selection.” Then she suddenly became absorbed in thought, while her nostrils began to quiver, and that touch of cold cruelty played on her lips.

“Do you think that the lady for whom this ornament is intended will be pleased with it?” the Italian asked. “Certainly,” she replied; “I myself would give a great deal to have it.” “Then may I venture to offer it to you?” the Italian said.

She blushed, but did not refuse it, but the same evening she rushed into her lover’s room in a state of the greatest excitement. “I am beside myself,” she stammered; “I have been most deeply insulted.” “By whom?” the Count asked, excitedly. “By your friend, who has dared to send me some jewelry today. I suppose he looks upon me as a lost woman; perhaps I am already looked upon as belonging to the demi-monde, and this I owe to you, to you alone, and to my mad love for you, to which I have sacrificed my honor and everything. Everything!” She threw herself down and sobbed, and would not be pacified until the Count gave her his word of honor that he would set aside every consideration for his friend, and obtain satisfaction for her at any price. He met the Italian the same evening at a card party and questioned him.

“I did not, in the first place, send the lady the jewelry, but I gave it to her myself, not, however, until she had asked me to do so.” “That is a shameful lie!” the Count shouted, furiously. Unfortunately, there were others present, and his friend took the matter seriously, so the next morning he sent his seconds to the Count.

Some of their real friends tried to settle the matter in another way, but his bad angel, his mistress, who required thirty thousand florins, drove the Count to his death. He was found in the Prater, with his friend’s bullet in his chest. A letter in his pocket spoke of suicide, but the police did not doubt for a moment that a duel had taken place. Suspicion soon fell on the Italian, but when they went to arrest him, he had already made his escape.

The husband of the beautiful, problematical woman, called on the broken-hearted father of the man who had been killed in the duel, and who had hastened to Vienna on receipt of a telegraphic message, a few hours after his arrival, and demanded the money. “My wife was your son’s most intimate friend,” he stammered, in embarrassment, in order to justify his action as well as he could. “Oh! I know that,” the old Count replied, “and female friends of that kind want to be paid immediately, and in full. Here are the thirty thousand florins.”

And our Goldkind? She paid her debts, and then withdrew from the scene for a while. She had been compromised, certainly, but then, she had risen in value in the eyes of those numerous men who can only adore and sacrifice themselves for a woman when her foot is on the threshold of vice and crime.

I saw her last during the Franco–German war, in the beautiful Mirabell-garden at Salzburg. She did not seem to feel any qualms of conscience, for she had become considerably stouter, which made her more attractive, more beautiful, and consequently, more dangerous, than she was before.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/maupassant/guy/works/chapter123.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09