“I promised you this tale of the past, and here it is,” said Camille. “The person from whom I received that letter yesterday, and who may be here tomorrow, is the Marquise de Rochefide. The old marquis (whose family is not as old as yours), after marrying his eldest daughter to a Portuguese grandee, was anxious to find an alliance among the higher nobility for his son, in order to obtain for him the peerage he had never been able to get for himself. The Comtesse de Montcornet told him of a young lady in the department of the Orne, a Mademoiselle Beatrix–Maximilienne-Rose de Casteran, the youngest daughter of the Marquis de Casteran, who wished to marry his two daughters without dowries in order to reserve his whole fortune for the Comte de Casteran, his son. The Casterans are, it seems, of the bluest blood. Beatrix, born and brought up at the chateau de Casteran, was twenty years old at the time of her marriage in 1828. She was remarkable for what you provincials call originality, which is simply independence of ideas, enthusiasm, a feeling for the beautiful, and a certain impulse and ardor toward the things of Art. You may believe a poor woman who has allowed herself to be drawn along the same lines, there is nothing more dangerous for a woman. If she follows them, they lead her where you see me, and where the marquise came — to the verge of abysses. Men alone have the staff on which to lean as they skirt those precipices, — a force which is lacking to most women, but which, if we do possess it, makes abnormal beings of us. Her old grandmother, the dowager de Casteran, was well pleased to see her marry a man to whom she was superior in every way. The Rochefides were equally satisfied with the Casterans, who connected them with the Verneuils, the d’Esgrignons, the Troisvilles, and gave them a peerage for their son in that last big batch of peers made by Charles X., but revoked by the revolution of July. The first days of marriage are perilous for little minds as well as for great loves. Rochefide, being a fool, mistook his wife’s ignorance for coldness; he classed her among frigid, lymphatic women, and made that an excuse to return to his bachelor life, relying on the coldness of the marquise, her pride, and the thousand barriers that the life of a great lady sets up about a woman in Paris. You’ll know what I mean when you go there. People said to Rochefide: ‘You are very lucky to possess a cold wife who will never have any but head passions. She will always be content if she can shine; her fancies are purely artistic, her desires will be satisfied if she can make a salon, and collect about her distinguished minds; her debauches will be in music and her orgies literary.’ Rochefide, however, is not an ordinary fool; he has as much conceit and vanity as a clever man, which gives him a mean and squinting jealousy, brutal when it comes to the surface, lurking and cowardly for six months, and murderous the seventh. He thought he was deceiving his wife, and yet he feared her, — two causes for tyranny when the day came on which the marquise let him see that she was charitably assuming indifference to his unfaithfulness. I analyze all this in order to explain her conduct. Beatrix had the keenest admiration for me; there is but one step, however, from admiration to jealousy. I have one of the most remarkable salons in Paris; she wished to make herself another; and in order to do so she attempted to draw away my circle. I don’t know how to keep those who wish to leave me. She obtained the superficial people who are friends with every one from mere want of occupation, and whose object is to get out of a salon as soon as they have entered it; but she did not have time to make herself a real society. In those days I thought her consumed with a desire for celebrity of one kind or another. Nevertheless, she has really much grandeur of soul, a regal pride, distinct ideas, and a marvellous facility for apprehending and understanding all things; she can talk metaphysics and music, theology and painting. You will see her, as a mature woman, what the rest of us saw her as a bride. And yet there is something of affectation about her in all this. She has too much the air of knowing abstruse things, — Chinese, Hebrew, hieroglyphics perhaps, or the papyrus that they wrapped round mummies. Personally, Beatrix is one of those blondes beside whom Eve the fair would seem a Negress. She is slender and straight and white as a church taper; her face is long and pointed; the skin is capricious, today like cambric, tomorrow darkened with little speckles beneath its surface, as if her blood had left a deposit of dust there during the night. Her forehead is magnificent, though rather daring. The pupils of her eyes are pale sea-green, floating on their white balls under thin lashes and lazy eyelids. Her eyes have dark rings around them often; her nose, which describes one-quarter of a circle, is pinched about the nostrils; very shrewd and clever, but supercilious. She has an Austrian mouth; the upper lip has more character than the lower, which drops disdainfully. Her pale cheeks have no color unless some very keen emotion moves her. Her chin is rather fat; mine is not thin, and perhaps I do wrong to tell you that women with fat chins are exacting in love. She has one of the most exquisite waists I ever saw; the shoulders are beautiful, but the bust has not developed as well, and the arms are thin. She has, however, an easy carriage and manner, which redeems all such defects and sets her beauties in full relief. Nature has given her that princess air which can never be acquired; it becomes her, and reveals at sudden moments the woman of high birth. Without being faultlessly beautiful, or prettily pretty, she produces, when she chooses, ineffaceable impressions. She has only to put on a gown of cherry velvet with clouds of lace, and wreathe with roses that angelic hair of hers, which resembles floods of light, and she becomes divine. If, on some excuse or other, she could wear the costume of the time when women had long, pointed bodices, rising, slim and slender, from voluminous brocaded skirts with folds so heavy that they stood alone, and could hide her arms in those wadded sleeves with ruffles, from which the hand comes out like a pistil from a calyx, and could fling back the curls of her head into the jewelled knot behind her head, Beatrix would hold her own victoriously with ideal beauties like that —”
And Felicite showed Calyste a fine copy of a picture by Mieris, in which was a woman robed in white satin, standing with a paper in her hand, and singing with a Brabancon seigneur, while a Negro beside them poured golden Spanish wine into a goblet, and the old housekeeper in the background arranged some biscuits.
“Fair women, blonds,” said Camille, “have the advantage over us poor brown things of a precious diversity; there are a hundred ways for a blonde to charm, and only one for a brunette. Besides, blondes are more womanly; we are too like men, we French brunettes — Well, well!” she cried, “pray don’t fall in love with Beatrix from the portrait I am making of her, like that prince, I forget his name, in the Arabian Nights. You would be too late, my dear boy.”
These words were said pointedly. The admiration depicted on the young man’s face was more for the picture than for the painter whose faire was failing of its purpose. As she spoke, Felicite was employing all the resources of her eloquent physiognomy.
“Blond as she is, however,” she went on, “Beatrix has not the grace of her color; her lines are severe; she is elegant, but hard; her face has a harsh contour, though at times it reveals a soul with Southern passions; an angel flashes out and then expires. Her eyes are thirsty. She looks best when seen full face; the profile has an air of being squeezed between two doors. You will see if I am mistaken. I will tell you now what made us intimate friends. For three years, from 1828 to 1831, Beatrix, while enjoying the last fetes of the Restoration, making the round of the salons, going to court, taking part in the fancy-balls of the Elysee–Bourbon, was all the while judging men, and things, events, and life itself, from the height of her own thought. Her mind was busy. These first years of the bewilderment the world caused her prevented her heart from waking up. From 1830 to 1831 she spent the time of the revolutionary disturbance at her husband’s country-place, where she was bored like a saint in paradise. On her return to Paris she became convinced, perhaps justly, that the revolution of July, in the minds of some persons purely political, would prove to be a moral revolution. The social class to which she belonged, not being able, during its unhoped-for triumph in the fifteen years of the Restoration to reconstruct itself, was about to go to pieces, bit by bit, under the battering-ram of the bourgeoisie. She heard the famous words of Monsieur Laine: ‘Kings are departing!’ This conviction, I believe was not without its influence on her conduct. She took an intellectual part in the new doctrines, which swarmed, during the three years succeeding July, 1830, like gnats in the sunshine, and turned some female heads. But, like all nobles, Beatrix, while thinking these novel ideals superb, wanted always to protect the nobility. Finding before long that there was no place in this new regime for individual superiority, seeing that the higher nobility were beginning once more the mute opposition it had formerly made to Napoleon — which was, in truth, its wisest course under an empire of deeds and facts, but which in an epoch of moral causes was equivalent to abdication — she chose personal happiness rather than such eclipse. About the time we were all beginning to breathe again, Beatrix met at my house a man with whom I had expected to end my days, — Gennaro Conti, the great composer, a man of Neapolitan origin, though born in Marseilles. Conti has a brilliant mind; as a composer he has talent, though he will never attain to the first rank. Without Rossini, without Meyerbeer, he might perhaps have been taken for a man of genius. He has one advantage over those men — he is in vocal music what Paganini is on the violin, Liszt on the piano, Taglioni in the ballet, and what the famous Garat was; at any rate he recalls that great singer to those who knew him. His is not a voice, my friend, it is a soul. When its song replies to certain ideas, certain states of feeling difficult to describe in which a woman sometimes finds herself, that woman is lost. The marquise conceived the maddest passion for him, and took him from me. The act was provincial, I allow, but it was all fair play. She won my esteem and friendship by the way she behaved to me. She thought me a woman who was likely to defend her own; she did not know that to me the most ridiculous thing in the world is such a struggle. She came to see me. That woman, proud as she is, was so in love that she told me her secret and made me the arbiter of her destiny. She was really adorable, and she kept her place as woman and as marquise in my eyes. I must tell you, dear friend, that while women are sometimes bad, they have hidden grandeurs in their souls that men can never appreciate. Well, as I seem to be making my last will and testament like a woman on the verge of old age, I shall tell you that I was ever faithful to Conti, and should have been till death, and yet I know him. His nature is charming, apparently, and detestable beneath its surface. He is a charlatan in matters of the heart. There are some men, like Nathan, of whom I have already spoken to you, who are charlatans externally, and yet honest. Such men lie to themselves. Mounted on their stilts, they think they are on their feet, and perform their jugglery with a sort of innocence; their humbuggery is in their blood; they are born comedians, braggarts; extravagant in form as a Chinese vase; perhaps they even laugh at themselves. Their personality is generous; like Murat’s kingly garments, it attracts danger. But Conti’s duplicity will be known only to the women who love him. In his art he has that deep Italian jealousy which led the Carlone to murder Piola, and stuck a stiletto into Paesiello. That terrible envy lurks beneath the warmest comradeship. Conti has not the courage of his vice; he smiles at Meyerbeer and flatters him, when he fain would tear him to bits. He knows his weakness, and cultivates an appearance of sincerity; his vanity still further leads him to play at sentiments which are far indeed from his real heart. He represents himself as an artist who receives his inspirations from heaven; Art is something saintly and sacred to him; he is fanatic; he is sublime in his contempt for worldliness; his eloquence seems to come from the deepest convictions. He is a seer, a demon, a god, an angel. Calyste, although I warn you about him, you will be his dupe. That Southern nature, that impassioned artist is cold as a well-rope. Listen to him: the artist is a missionary. Art is a religion, which has its priests and ought to have its martyrs. Once started on that theme, Gennaro reaches the most dishevelled pathos that any German professor of philosophy ever spluttered to his audience. You admire his convictions, but he hasn’t any. Bearing his hearers to heaven on a song which seems a mysterious fluid shedding love, he casts an ecstatic glance upon them; he is examining their enthusiasm; he is asking himself: ‘Am I really a god to them?’ and he is also thinking: ‘I ate too much macaroni today.’ He is insatiable of applause, and he wins it. He delights, he is beloved; he is admired whensoever he will. He owes his success more to his voice than to his talent as a composer, though he would rather be a man of genius like Rossini than a performer like Rubini. I had committed the folly of attaching myself to him, and I was determined and resigned to deck this idol to the end. Conti, like a great many artists, is dainty in all his ways; he likes his ease, his enjoyments; he is always carefully, even elegantly dressed. I do respect his courage; he is brave; bravery, they say, is the only virtue into which hypocrisy cannot enter. While we were travelling I saw his courage tested; he risked the life he loved; and yet, strange contradiction! I have seen him, in Paris, commit what I call the cowardice of thought. My friend, all this was known to me. I said to the poor marquise: ‘You don’t know into what a gulf you are plunging. You are the Perseus of a poor Andromeda; you release me from my rock. If he loves you, so much the better! but I doubt it; he loves no one but himself.’ Gennaro was transported to the seventh heaven of pride. I was not a marquise, I was not born a Casteran, and he forgot me in a day. I then gave myself the savage pleasure of probing that nature to the bottom. Certain of the result, I wanted to see the twistings and turnings Conti would perform. My dear child, I saw in one week actual horrors of sham sentiment, infamous buffooneries of feeling. I will not tell you about them; you shall see the man here in a day or two. He now knows that I know him, and he hates me accordingly. If he could stab me with safety to himself I shouldn’t be alive two seconds. I have never said one word of all this to Beatrix. The last and constant insult Geranno offers me is to suppose that I am capable of communicating my sad knowledge of him to her; but he has no belief in the good feeling of any human being. Even now he is playing a part with me; he is posing as a man who is wretched at having left me. You will find what I may call the most penetrating cordiality about him; he is winning; he is chivalrous. To him, all women are madonnas. One must live with him long before we get behind the veil of this false chivalry and learn the invisible signs of his humbug. His tone of conviction about himself might almost deceive the Deity. You will be entrapped, my dear child, by his catlike manners, and you will never believe in the profound and rapid arithmetic of his inmost thought. But enough; let us leave him. I pushed indifference so far as to receive them together in my house. This circumstance kept that most perspicacious of all societies, the great world of Paris, ignorant of the affair. Though intoxicated with pride, Gennaro was compelled to dissimulate; and he did it admirably. But violent passions will have their freedom at any cost. Before the end of the year, Beatrix whispered in my ear one evening: ‘My dear Felicite, I start tomorrow for Italy with Conti.’ I was not surprised; she regarded herself as united for life to Gennaro, and she suffered from the restraints imposed upon her; she escaped one evil by rushing into a greater. Conti was wild with happiness — the happiness of vanity alone. ‘That’s what it is to love truly,’ he said to me. ‘How many women are there who would sacrifice their lives, their fortune, their reputation?’—‘Yes, she loves you,’ I replied, ‘but you do not love her.’ He was furious, and made me a scene; he stormed, he declaimed, he depicted his love, declaring that he had never supposed it possible to love as much. I remained impassible, and lent him money for his journey, which, being unexpected, found him unprepared. Beatrix left a letter for her husband and started the next day for Italy. There she has remained two years; she has written to me several times, and her letters are enchanting. The poor child attaches herself to me as the only woman who will comprehend her. She says she adores me. Want of money has compelled Gennaro to accept an offer to write a French opera; he does not find in Italy the pecuniary gains which composers obtain in Paris. Here’s the letter I received yesterday from Beatrix. Take it and read it; you can now understand it — that is, if it is possible, at your age, to analyze the things of the heart.”
So saying, she held out the letter to him.
At this moment Claude Vignon entered the room. At his unexpected apparition Calyste and Felicite were both silent for a moment — she from surprise, he from a vague uneasiness. The vast forehead, broad and high, of the new-comer, who was bald at the age of thirty-seven, now seemed darkened by annoyance. His firm, judicial mouth expressed a habit of chilling sarcasm. Claude Vignon is imposing, in spite of the precocious deteriorations of a face once magnificent, and now grown haggard. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five he strongly resembled the divine Raffaelle. But his nose, that feature of the human face that changes most, is growing to a point; the countenance is sinking into mysterious depressions, the outlines are thickening; leaden tones predominate in the complexion, giving tokens of weariness, although the fatigues of this young man are not apparent; perhaps some bitter solitude has aged him, or the abuse of his gift of comprehension. He scrutinizes the thought of every one, yet without definite aim or system. The pickaxe of his criticism demolishes, it never constructs. Thus his lassitude is that of a mechanic, not of an architect. The eyes, of a pale blue, once brilliant, are clouded now by some hidden pain, or dulled by gloomy sadness. Excesses have laid dark tints above the eyelids; the temples have lost their freshness. The chin, of incomparable distinction, is getting doubled, but without dignity. His voice, never sonorous, is weakening; without being either hoarse or extinct, it touches the confines of hoarseness and extinction. The impassibility of that fine head, the fixity of that glance, cover irresolution and weakness, which the keenly intelligent and sarcastic smile belies. The weakness lies wholly in action, not in thought; there are traces of an encyclopedic comprehension on that brow, and in the habitual movement of a face that is childlike and splendid both. The man is tall, slightly bent already, like all those who bear the weight of a world of thought. Such long, tall bodies are never remarkable for continuous effort or creative activity. Charlemagne, Belisarious, and Constantine are noted exceptions to this rule.
Certainly Claude Vignon presents a variety of mysteries to be solved. In the first place, he is very simple and very wily. Though he falls into excesses with the readiness of a courtesan, his powers of thought remain untouched. Yet his intellect, which is competent to criticise art, science, literature, and politics, is incompetent to guide his external life. Claude contemplates himself within the domain of his intellectual kingdom, and abandons his outer man with Diogenic indifference. Satisfied to penetrate all, to comprehend all by thought, he despises materialities; and yet, if it becomes a question of creating, doubt assails him; he sees obstacles, he is not inspired by beauties, and while he is debating means, he sits with his arms pendant, accomplishing nothing. He is the Turk of the intellect made somnolent by meditation. Criticism is his opium; his harem of books to read disgusts him with real work. Indifferent to small things as well as great things, he is sometimes compelled, by the very weight of his head, to fall into a debauch, and abdicate for a few hours the fatal power of omnipotent analysis. He is far too preoccupied with the wrong side of genius, and Camille Maupin’s desire to put him back on the right side is easily conceivable. The task was an attractive one. Claude Vignon thinks himself a great politician as well as a great writer; but this unpublished Machiavelli laughs within himself at all ambitions; he knows what he can do; he has instinctively taken the measure of his future on his faculties; he sees his greatness, but he also sees obstacles, grows alarmed or disgusted, lets the time roll by, and does not go to work. Like Etienne Lousteau the feuilletonist, like Nathan the dramatic author, like Blondet, another journalist, he came from the ranks of the bourgeoisie, to which we owe the greater number of our writers.
“Which way did you come?” asked Mademoiselle des Touches, coloring with either pleasure or surprise.’
“By the door,” replied Claude Vignon, dryly.
“Oh,” she cried, shrugging her shoulders, “I am aware that you are not a man to climb in by a window.”
“Scaling a window is a badge of honor for a beloved woman.”
“Enough!” said Felicite.
“Am I in the way?” asked Claude.
“Monsieur,” said Calyste, artlessly, “this letter —”
“Pray keep it; I ask no questions; at our age we understand such affairs,” he answered, interrupting Calyste with a sardonic air.
“But, monsieur,” began Calyste, much provoked.
“Calm yourself, young man; I have the utmost indulgence for sentiments.”
“My dear Calyste,” said Camille, wishing to speak.
“‘Dear’?” said Vignon, interrupting her.
“Claude is joking,” said Camille, continuing her remarks to Calyste. “He is wrong to do it with you, who know nothing of Parisian ways.”
“I did not know that I was joking,” said Claude Vignon, very gravely.
“Which way did you come?” asked Felicite again. “I have been watching the road to Croisic for the last two hours.”
“Not all the time,” replied Vignon.
“You are too bad to jest in this way.”
“Am I jesting?”
“Why should you go so soon? You are certainly at your ease here,” said Vignon.
“Quite the contrary,” replied the angry young Breton, to whom Camille Maupin stretched out a hand, which he took and kissed, dropping a tear upon it, after which he took his leave.
“I should like to be that little young man,” said the critic, sitting down, and taking one end of the hookah. “How he will love!”
“Too much; for then he will not be loved in return,” replied Mademoiselle des Touches. “Madame de Rochefide is coming here,” she added.
“You don’t say so!” exclaimed Claude. “With Conti?”
“She will stay here alone, but he accompanies her.”
“Have they quarrelled?”
“Play me a sonata of Beethoven’s; I know nothing of the music he wrote for the piano.”
Claude began to fill the tube of the hookah with Turkish tobacco, all the while examining Camille much more attentively than she observed. A dreadful thought oppressed him; he fancied he was being used for a blind by this woman. The situation was a novel one.
Calyste went home thinking no longer of Beatrix de Rochefide and her letter; he was furious against Claude Vignon for what he considered the utmost indelicacy, and he pitied poor Felicite. How was it possible to be beloved by that sublime creature and not adore her on his knees, not believe her on the faith of a glance or a smile? He felt a desire to turn and rend that cold, pale spectre of a man. Ignorant he might be, as Felicite had told him, of the tricks of thought of the jesters of the press, but one thing he knew — Love was the human religion.
When his mother saw him entering the court-yard she uttered an exclamation of joy, and Zephirine whistled for Mariotte.
“Mariotte, the boy is coming! cook the fish!”
“I see him, mademoiselle,” replied the woman.
Fanny, uneasy at the sadness she saw on her son’s brow, picked up her worsted-work; the old aunt took out her knitting. The baron gave his arm-chair to his son and walked about the room, as if to stretch his legs before going out to take a turn in the garden. No Flemish or Dutch picture ever presented an interior in tones more mellow, peopled with faces and forms so harmoniously blending. The handsome young man in his black velvet coat, the mother, still so beautiful, and the aged brother and sister framed by that ancient hall, were a moving domestic harmony.
Fanny would fain have questioned Calyste, but he had already pulled a letter from his pocket — that letter of the Marquise Beatrix, which was, perhaps, destined to destroy the happiness of this noble family. As he unfolded it, Calyste’s awakened imagination showed him the marquise dressed as Camille Maupin had fancifully depicted her.
From the Marquise de Rochefide to Mademoiselle des Touches.
Genoa, July 2.
I have not written to you since our stay in Florence, my dear friend, for Venice and Rome have absorbed my time, and, as you know, happiness occupies a large part of life; so far, we have neither of us dropped from its first level. I am a little fatigued; for when one has a soul not easy to blaser, the constant succession of enjoyments naturally causes lassitude.
Our friend has had a magnificent triumph at the Scala and the Fenice, and now at the San Carlo. Three Italian operas in two years! You cannot say that love has made him idle. We have been warmly received everywhere — though I myself would have preferred solitude and silence. Surely that is the only suitable manner of life for women who have placed themselves in direct opposition to society? I expected such a life; but love, my dear friend, is a more exacting master than marriage — however, it is sweet to obey him; though I did not think I should have to see the world again, even by snatches, and the attentions I receive are so many stabs. I am no longer on a footing of equality with the highest rank of women; and the more attentions are paid to me, the more my inferiority is made apparent.
Gennaro could not comprehend this sensitiveness; but he has been so happy that it would ill become me not to have sacrificed my petty vanity to that great and noble thing — the life of an artist. We women live by love, whereas men live by love and action; otherwise they would not be men. Still, there are great disadvantages for a woman in the position in which I have put myself. You have escaped them; you continue to be a person in the eyes of the world, which has no rights over you; you have your own free will, and I have lost mine. I am speaking now of the things of the heart, not those of social life, which I have utterly renounced. You can be coquettish and self-willed, and have all the graces of a woman who loves, a woman who can give or refuse her love as she pleases; you have kept the right to have caprices, in the interests even of your love. In short, today you still possess your right of feeling, while I, I have no longer any liberty of heart, which I think precious to exercise in love, even though the love itself may be eternal. I have no right now to that privilege of quarrelling in jest to which so many women cling, and justly; for is it not the plummet line with which to sound the hearts of men? I have no threat at my command. I must draw my power henceforth from obedience, from unlimited gentleness; I must make myself imposing by the greatness of my love. I would rather die than leave Gennaro, and my pardon lies in the sanctity of my love. Between social dignity and my petty personal dignity, I did right not to hesitate. If at times I have a few melancholy feelings, like clouds that pass through a clear blue sky, and to which all women like to yield themselves, I keep silence about them; they might seem like regrets. Ah me! I have so fully understood the obligations of my position that I have armed myself with the utmost indulgence; but so far, Gennaro has not alarmed my susceptible jealousy. I don’t as yet see where that dear great genius may fail.
Dear angel, I am like those pious souls who argue with their God, for are not you my Providence? do I not owe my happiness to you? You must never doubt, therefore, that you are constantly in my thoughts.
I have seen Italy at last; seen it as you saw it, and as it ought to be seen — lighted to our souls by love, as it is by its own bright sun and its masterpieces. I pity those who, being moved to adoration at every step, have no hand to press, no heart in which to shed the exuberance of emotions which calm themselves when shared. These two years have been to me a lifetime, in which my memory has stored rich harvests. Have you made plans, as I do, to stay forever at Chiavari, to buy a palazzo in Venice, a summer-house at Sorrento, a villa in Florence? All loving women dread society; but I, who am cast forever outside of it, ought I not to bury myself in some beautiful landscape, on flowery slopes, facing the sea, or in a valley that equals a sea, like that of Fiesole?
But alas! we are only poor artists, and want of money is bringing these two bohemians back to Paris. Gennaro does not want me to feel that I have lost my luxury, and he wishes to put his new work, a grand opera, into rehearsal at once. You will understand, of course, my dearest, that I cannot set foot in Paris. I could not, I would not, even if it costs me my love, meet one of those glances of women, or of men, which would make me think of murder or suicide. Yes, I could hack in pieces whoever insulted me with pity; like Chateauneuf, who, in the time of Henri III., I think, rode his horse at the Provost of Paris for a wrong of that kind, and trampled him under hoof.
I write, therefore, to say that I shall soon pay you a visit at Les Touches. I want to stay there, in that Chartreuse, while awaiting the success of our Gennaro’s opera. You will see that I am bold with my benefactress, my sister; but I prove, at any rate, that the greatness of obligations laid upon me has not led me, as it does so many people, to ingratitude. You have told me so much of the difficulties of the land journey that I shall go to Croisic by water. This idea came to me on finding that there is a little Danish vessel now here, laden with marble, which is to touch at Croisic for a cargo of salt on its way back to the Baltic. I shall thus escape the fatigue and the cost of the land journey. Dear Felicite, you are the only person with whom I could be alone without Conti. Will it not be some pleasure to have a woman with you who understands your heart as fully as you do hers?
Adieu, a bientot. The wind is favorable, and I set sail, wafting you a kiss.
“Ah! she loves, too!” thought Calyste, folding the letter sadly.
That sadness flowed to the heart of the mother as if some gleam had lighted up a gulf to her. The baron had gone out; Fanny went to the door of the tower and pushed the bolt, then she returned, and leaned upon the back of her boy’s chair, like the sister of Dido in Guerin’s picture, and said —
“What is it, my Calyste? what makes you so sad? You promised to explain to me these visits to Les Touches; I am to bless its mistress, — at least, you said so.”
“Yes, indeed you will, dear mother,” he replied. “She has shown me the insufficiency of my education at an epoch when the nobles ought to possess a personal value in order to give life to their rank. I was as far from the age we live in as Guerande is from Paris. She has been, as it were, the mother of my intellect.”
“I cannot bless her for that,” said the baroness, with tears in her eyes.
“Mamma!” cried Calyste, on whose forehead those hot tears fell, two pearls of sorrowful motherhood, “mamma, don’t weep! Just now, when I wanted to do her a service, and search the country round, she said, ‘It will make your mother so uneasy.’”
“Did she say that? Then I can forgive her many things,” replied Fanny.
“Felicite thinks only of my good,” continued Calyste. “She often checks the lively, venturesome language of artists so as not to shake me in a faith which is, though she knows it not, unshakable. She has told me of the life in Paris of several young men of the highest nobility coming from their provinces, as I might do — leaving families without fortune, but obtaining in Paris, by the power of their will and their intellect, a great career. I can do what the Baron de Rastignac, now a minister of State, has done. Felicite has taught me; I read with her; she gives me lessons on the piano; she is teaching me Italian; she has initiated me into a thousand social secrets, about which no one in Guerande knows anything at all. She could not give me the treasures of her love, but she has given me those of her vast intellect, her mind, her genius. She does not want to be a pleasure, but a light to me; she lessens not one of my faiths; she herself has faith in the nobility, she loves Brittany, she —”
“She has changed our Calyste,” said his blind old aunt, interrupting him. “I do not understand one word he has been saying. You have a solid roof over your head, my good nephew; you have parents and relations who adore you, and faithful servants; you can marry some good little Breton girl, religious and accomplished, who will make you happy. Reserve your ambitions for your eldest son, who may be four times as rich as you, if you choose to live tranquilly, thriftily, in obscurity — but in the peace of God — in order to release the burdens on your estate. It is all as simple as a Breton heart. You will be, not so rapidly perhaps, but more solidly, a rich nobleman.”
“Your aunt is right, my darling; she plans for your happiness with as much anxiety as I do myself. If I do not succeed in marrying you to my niece, Margaret, the daughter of your uncle, Lord Fitzwilliam, it is almost certain that Mademoiselle de Pen–Hoel will leave her fortune to whichever of her nieces you may choose.”
“And besides, there’s a little gold to be found here,” added the old aunt in a low voice, with a mysterious glance about her.
“Marry! at my age!” he said, casting on his mother one of those looks which melt the arguments of mothers. “Am I to live without my beautiful fond loves? Must I never tremble or throb or fear or gasp, or lie beneath implacable looks and soften them? Am I never to know beauty in its freedom, the fantasy of the soul, the clouds that course through the azure of happiness, which the breath of pleasure dissipates? Ah! shall I never wander in those sweet by-paths moist with dew; never stand beneath the drenching of a gutter and not know it rains, like those lovers seen by Diderot; never take, like the Duc de Lorraine, a live coal in my hand? Are there no silken ladders for me, no rotten trellises to cling to and not fall? Shall I know nothing of woman but conjugal submission; nothing of love but the flame of its lamp-wick? Are my longings to be satisfied before they are roused? Must I live out my days deprived of that madness of the heart that makes a man and his power? Would you make me a married monk? No! I have eaten of the fruit of Parisian civilization. Do you not see that you have, by the ignorant morals of this family, prepared the fire that consumes me, that will consume me utterly, unless I can adore the divineness I see everywhere — in those sands gleaming in the sun, in the green foliage, in all the women, beautiful, noble, elegant, pictured in the books and in the poems I have read with Camille? Alas! there is but one such woman in Guerande, and it is you, my mother! The birds of my beautiful dream, they come from Paris, they fly from the pages of Scott, of Byron — Parisina, Effie, Minna! yes, and that royal duchess, whom I saw on the moors among the furze and the ferns, whose very aspect sent the blood to my heart.”
The baroness saw these thoughts flaming in the eyes of her son, clearer, more beautiful, more living than art can tell to those who read them. She grasped them rapidly, flung to her as they were in glances like arrows from an upset quiver. Without having read Beaumarchais, she felt, as other women would have felt, that it would be a crime to marry Calyste.
“Oh! my child!” she said, taking him in her arms, and kissing the beautiful hair that was still hers, “marry whom you will, and when you will, but be happy! My part in life is not to hamper you.”
Mariotte came to lay the table. Gasselin was out exercising Calyste’s horse, which the youth had not mounted for two months. The three women, mother, aunt, and Mariotte, shared in the tender feminine wiliness, which taught them to make much of Calyste when he dined at home. Breton plainness fought against Parisian luxury, now brought to the very doors of Guerande. Mariotte endeavored to wean her young master from the accomplished service of Camille Maupin’s kitchen, just as his mother and aunt strove to hold him in the net of their tenderness and render all comparison impossible.
“There’s a salmon-trout for dinner, Monsieur Calyste, and snipe, and pancakes such as I know you can’t get anywhere but here,” said Mariotte, with a sly, triumphant look as she smoothed the cloth, a cascade of snow.
After dinner, when the old aunt had taken up her knitting, and the rector and Monsieur du Halga had arrived, allured by their precious mouche, Calyste went back to Les Touches on the pretext of returning the letter.
Claude Vignon and Felicite were still at table. The great critic was something of a gourmand, and Felicite pampered the vice, knowing how indispensable a woman makes herself by such compliance. The dinner-table presented that rich and brilliant aspect which modern luxury, aided by the perfecting of handicrafts, now gives to its service. The poor and noble house of Guenic little knew with what an adversary it was attempting to compete, or what amount of fortune was necessary to enter the lists against the silverware, the delicate porcelain, the beautiful linen, the silver-gilt service brought from Paris by Mademoiselle des Touches, and the science of her cook. Calyste declined the liqueurs contained in one of those superb cases of precious woods, which are something like tabernacles.
“Here’s the letter,” he said, with innocent ostentation, looking at Claude, who was slowly sipping a glass of liqueur-des-iles.
“Well, what did you think of it?” asked Mademoiselle des Touches, throwing the letter across the table to Vignon, who began to read it, taking up and putting down at intervals his little glass.
“I thought — well, that Parisian women were very fortunate to have men of genius to adore who adore them.”
“Ah! you are still in your village,” said Felicite, laughing. “What! did you not see that she loves him less, and —”
“That is evident,” said Claude Vignon, who had only read the first page. “Do people reason on their situation when they really love; are they as shrewd as the marquise, as observing, as discriminating? Your dear Beatrix is held to Conti now by pride only; she is condemned to love him quand meme.”
“Poor woman!” said Camille.
Calyste’s eyes were fixed on the table; he saw nothing about him. The beautiful woman in the fanciful dress described that morning by Felicite appeared to him crowned with light; she smiled to him, she waved her fan; the other hand, issuing from its ruffle of lace, fell white and pure on the heavy folds of her crimson velvet robe.
“She is just the thing for you,” said Claude Vignon, smiling sardonically at Calyste.
The young man was deeply wounded by the words, and by the manner in which they were said.
“Don’t put such ideas into Calyste’s mind; you don’t know how dangerous such jokes may prove to be,” said Mademoiselle des Touches, hastily. “I know Beatrix, and there is something too grandiose in her nature to allow her to change. Besides, Conti will be here.”
“Ha!” said Claude Vignon, satirically, “a slight touch of jealousy, eh?”
“Can you really think so?” said Camille, haughtily.
“You are more perspicacious than a mother,” replied Claude Vignon, still sarcastically.
“But it would be impossible,” said Camille, looking at Calyste.
“They are very well matched,” remarked Vignon. “She is ten years older than he; and it is he who appears to be the girl —”
“A girl, monsieur,” said Calyste, waking from his reverie, “who has been twice under fire in La Vendee! If the Cause had had twenty thousand more such girls —”
“I was giving you some well-deserved praise, and that is easier than to give you a beard,” remarked Vignon.
“I have a sword for those who wear their beards too long,” cried Calyste.
“And I am very good at an epigram,” said the other, smiling. “We are Frenchmen; the affair can easily be arranged.”
Mademoiselle des Touches cast a supplicating look on Calyste, which calmed him instantly.
“Why,” said Felicite, as if to break up the discussion, “do young men like my Calyste, begin by loving women of a certain age?”
“I don’t know any sentiment more artless or more generous,” replied Vignon. “It is the natural consequence of the adorable qualities of youth. Besides, how would old women end if it were not for such love? You are young and beautiful, and will be for twenty years to come, so I can speak of this matter before you,” he added, with a keen look at Mademoiselle des Touches. “In the first place the semi-dowagers, to whom young men pay their first court, know much better how to make love than younger women. An adolescent youth is too like a young woman himself for a young woman to please him. Such a passion trenches on the fable of Narcissus. Besides that feeling of repugnance, there is, as I think, a mutual sense of inexperience which separates them. The reason why the hearts of young women are only understood by mature men, who conceal their cleverness under a passion real or feigned, is precisely the same (allowing for the difference of minds) as that which renders a woman of a certain age more adroit in attracting youth. A young man feels that he is sure to succeed with her, and the vanities of the woman are flattered by his suit. Besides, isn’t it natural for youth to fling itself on fruits? The autumn of a woman’s life offers many that are very toothsome — those looks, for instance, bold, and yet reserved, bathed with the last rays of love, so warm, so sweet; that all-wise elegance of speech, those magnificent shoulders, so nobly developed, the full and undulating outline, the dimpled hands, the hair so well arranged, so cared for, that charming nape of the neck, where all the resources of art are displayed to exhibit the contrast between the hair and the flesh-tones, and to set in full relief the exuberance of life and love. Brunettes themselves are fair at such times, with the amber colors of maturity. Besides, such women reveal in their smiles and display in their words a knowledge of the world; they know how to converse; they can call up the whole of social life to make a lover laugh; their dignity and their pride are stupendous; or, in other moods, they can utter despairing cries which touch his soul, farewells of love which they take care to render useless, and only make to intensify his passion. Their devotions are absolute; they listen to us; they love us; they catch, they cling to love as a man condemned to death clings to the veriest trifles of existence — in short, love, absolute love, is known only through them. I think such women can never be forgotten by a man, any more than he can forget what is grand and sublime. A young woman has a thousand distractions; these women have none. No longer have they self-love, pettiness, or vanity; their love — it is the Loire at its mouth, it is vast, it is swelled by all the illusions, all the affluents of life, and this is why — but my muse is dumb,” he added, observing the ecstatic attitude of Mademoiselle des Touches, who was pressing Calyste’s hand with all her strength, perhaps to thank him for having been the occasion of such a moment, of such an eulogy, so lofty that she did not see the trap that it laid for her.
During the rest of the evening Claude Vignon and Felicite sparkled with wit and happy sayings; they told anecdotes, and described Parisian life to Calyste, who was charmed with Claude, for mind has immense seductions for persons who are all heart.
“I shouldn’t be surprised to see the Marquise de Rochefide and Conti, who, of course, will accompany her, at the landing-place tomorrow,” said Claude Vignon, as the evening ended. “When I was at Croisic this afternoon, the fishermen were saying that they had seen a little vessel, Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian, in the offing.”
This speech brought a flush to the cheeks of the impassible Camille.
Again Madame du Guenic sat up till one o’clock that night, waiting for her son, unable to imagine why he should stay so late if Mademoiselle des Touches did not love him.
“He must be in their way,” said this adorable mother. “What were you talking about?” she asked, when at last he came in.
“Oh, mother, I have never before spent such a delightful evening. Genius is a great, a sublime thing! Why didn’t you give me genius? With genius we can make our lives, we can choose among all women the woman to love, and she must be ours.”
“How handsome you are, my Calyste!”
“Claude Vignon is handsome. Men of genius have luminous foreheads and eyes, through which the lightnings flash — but I, alas! I know nothing — only to love.”
“They say that suffices, my angel,” she said, kissing him on the forehead.
“Do you believe it?”
“They say so, but I have never known it.”
Calyste kissed his mother’s hand as if it was a sacred thing.
“I will love you for all those that would have adored you,” he said.
“Dear child! perhaps it is a little bit your duty to do so, for you inherit my nature. But, Calyste, do not be unwise, imprudent; try to love only noble women, if love you must.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05