Madame de Vandenesse, Marie–Angelique, who seemed to have broken down under a weight of troubles too heavy for her soul to bear, was lying back on the sofa with bent limbs, and her head tossing restlessly. She had rushed to her sister’s house after a brief appearance at the Opera. Flowers were still in her hair, but others were scattered upon the carpet, together with her gloves, her silk pelisse, and muff and hood. Tears were mingling with the pearls on her bosom; her swollen eyes appeared to make strange confidences. In the midst of so much luxury her distress was horrible, and she seemed unable to summon courage to speak.
“Poor darling!” said Madame du Tillet; “what a mistaken idea you have of my marriage if you think that I can help you!”
Hearing this revelation, dragged from her sister’s heart by the violence of the storm she herself had raised there, the countess looked with stupefied eyes at the banker’s wife; her tears stopped, and her eyes grew fixed.
“Are you in misery as well, my dearest?” she said, in a low voice.
“My griefs will not ease yours.”
“But tell them to me, darling; I am not yet too selfish to listen. Are we to suffer together once more, as we did in girlhood?”
“But alas! we suffer apart,” said the banker’s wife. “You and I live in two worlds at enmity with each other. I go to the Tuileries when you are not there. Our husbands belong to opposite parties. I am the wife of an ambitious banker — a bad man, my darling; while you have a noble, kind, and generous husband.”
“Oh! don’t reproach me!” cried the countess. “To understand my position, a woman must have borne the weariness of a vapid and barren life, and have entered suddenly into a paradise of light and love; she must know the happiness of feeling her whole life in that of another; of espousing, as it were, the infinite emotions of a poet’s soul; of living a double existence — going, coming with him in his courses through space, through the world of ambition; suffering with his griefs, rising on the wings of his high pleasures, developing her faculties on some vast stage; and all this while living calm, serene, and cold before an observing world. Ah! dearest, what happiness in having at all hours an enormous interest, which multiplies the fibres of the heart and varies them indefinitely! to feel no longer cold indifference! to find one’s very life depending on a thousand trifles! — on a walk where an eye will beam to us from a crowd, on a glance which pales the sun! Ah! what intoxication, dear, to live! to live when other women are praying on their knees for emotions that never come to them! Remember, darling, that for this poem of delight there is but a single moment — youth! In a few years winter comes, and cold. Ah! if you possessed these living riches of the heart, and were threatened with the loss of them —”
Madame du Tillet, terrified, had covered her face with her hands during the passionate utterance of this anthem.
“I did not even think of reproaching you, my beloved,” she said at last, seeing her sister’s face bathed in hot tears. “You have cast into my soul, in one moment, more brands than I have tears to quench. Yes, the life I live would justify to my heart a love like that you picture. Let me believe that if we could have seen each other oftener, we should not now be where we are. If you had seen my sufferings, you must have valued your own happiness the more, and you might have strengthened me to resist my tyrant, and so have won a sort of peace. Your misery is an incident which chance may change, but mine is daily and perpetual. To my husband I am a peg on which to hang his luxury, the sign-post of his ambition, a satisfaction to his vanity. He has no real affection for me, and no confidence. Ferdinand is hard and polished as that piece of marble,” she continued, striking the chimney-piece. “He distrusts me. Whatever I may want for myself is refused before I ask it; but as for what flatters his vanity and proclaims his wealth, I have no occasion to express a wish. He decorates my apartments; he spends enormous sums upon my entertainments; my servants, my opera-box, all external matters are maintained with the utmost splendor. His vanity spares no expense; he would trim his children’s swaddling-clothes with lace if he could, but he would never hear their cries, or guess their needs. Do you understand me? I am covered with diamonds when I go to court; I wear the richest jewels in society, but I have not one farthing I can use. Madame du Tillet, who, they say, is envied, who appears to float in gold, has not a hundred francs she can call her own. If the father cares little for his child, he cares less for its mother. Ah! he has cruelly made me feel that he bought me, and that in marrying me without a ‘dot’ he was wronged. I might perhaps have won him to love me, but there’s an outside influence against it — that of a woman, who is over fifty years of age, the widow of a notary, who rules him. I shall never be free, I know that, so long as he lives. My life is regulated like that of a queen; my meals are served with the utmost formality; at a given hour I must drive to the Bois; I am always accompanied by two footmen in full dress; I am obliged to return at a certain hour. Instead of giving orders, I receive them. At a ball, at the theatre, a servant comes to me and says: ‘Madame’s carriage is ready,’ and I am obliged to go, in the midst, perhaps, of something I enjoy. Ferdinand would be furious if I did not obey the etiquette he prescribes for his wife; he frightens me. In the midst of this hateful opulence, I find myself regretting the past, and thinking that our mother was kind; she left us the nights when we could talk together; at any rate, I was living with a dear being who loved me and suffered with me; whereas here, in this sumptuous house, I live in a desert.”
At this terrible confession the countess caught her sister’s hand and kissed it, weeping.
“How, then, can I help you,” said Eugenie, in a low voice. “He would be suspicious at once if he surprised us here, and would insist on knowing all that you have been saying to me. I should be forced to tell a lie, which is difficult indeed with so sly and treacherous a man; he would lay traps for me. But enough of my own miseries; let us think of yours. The forty thousand francs you want would be, of course, a mere nothing to Ferdinand, who handles millions with that fat banker, Baron de Nucingen. Sometimes, at dinner, in my presence, they say things to each other which make me shudder. Du Tillet knows my discretion, and they often talk freely before me, being sure of my silence. Well, robbery and murder on the high-road seem to me merciful compared to some of their financial schemes. Nucingen and he no more mind destroying a man than if he were an animal. Often I am told to receive poor dupes whose fate I have heard them talk of the night before — men who rush into some business where they are certain to lose their all. I am tempted, like Leonardo in the brigand’s cave, to cry out, ‘Beware!’ But if I did, what would become of me? So I keep silence. This splendid house is a cut-throat’s den! But Ferdinand and Nucingen will lavish millions for their own caprices. Ferdinand is now buying from the other du Tillet family the site of their old castle; he intends to rebuild it and add a forest with large domains to the estate, and make his son a count; he declares that by the third generation the family will be noble. Nucingen, who is tired of his house in the rue Saint–Lazare, is building a palace. His wife is a friend of mine — Ah!” she cried, interrupting herself, “she might help us; she is very bold with her husband; her fortune is in her own right. Yes, she could save you.”
“Dear heart, I have but a few hours left; let us go to her this evening, now, instantly,” said Madame de Vandenesse, throwing herself into Madame du Tillet’s arms with a burst of tears.
“I can’t go out at eleven o’clock at night,” replied her sister.
“My carriage is here.”
“What are you two plotting together?” said du Tillet, pushing open the door of the boudoir.
He came in showing a torpid face lighted now by a speciously amiable expression. The carpets had dulled his steps and the preoccupation of the two sisters had kept them from noticing the noise of his carriage-wheels on entering the court-yard. The countess, in whom the habits of social life and the freedom in which her husband had left her had developed both wit and shrewdness — qualities repressed in her sister by marital despotism, which simply continued that of their mother — saw that Eugenie’s terror was on the point of betraying them, and she evaded that danger by a frank answer.
“I thought my sister richer than she is,” she replied, looking straight at her brother-inlaw. “Women are sometimes embarrassed for money, and do not wish to tell their husbands, like Josephine with Napoleon. I came here to ask Eugenie to do me a service.”
“She can easily do that, madame. Eugenie is very rich,” replied du Tillet, with concealed sarcasm.
“Is she?” replied the countess, smiling bitterly.
“How much do you want?” asked du Tillet, who was not sorry to get his sister-inlaw into his meshes.
“Ah, monsieur! but I have told you already we do not wish to let our husbands into this affair,” said Madame de Vandenesse, cautiously, — aware that if she took his money, she would put herself at the mercy of the man whose portrait Eugenie had fortunately drawn for her not ten minutes earlier. “I will come tomorrow and talk with Eugenie.”
“To-morrow?” said the banker. “No; Madame du Tillet dines tomorrow with a future peer of France, the Baron de Nucingen, who is to leave me his place in the Chamber of Deputies.”
“Then permit her to join me in my box at the Opera,” said the countess, without even glancing at her sister, so much did she fear that Eugenie’s candor would betray them.
“She has her own box, madame,” said du Tillet, nettled.
“Very good; then I will go to hers,” replied the countess.
“It will be the first time you have done us that honor,” said du Tillet.
The countess felt the sting of that reproach, and began to laugh.
“Well, never mind; you shall not be made to pay anything this time. Adieu, my darling.”
“She is an insolent woman,” said du Tillet, picking up the flowers that had fallen on the carpet. “You ought,” he said to his wife, “to study Madame de Vandenesse. I’d like to see you before the world as insolent and overbearing as your sister has just been here. You have a silly, bourgeois air which I detest.”
Eugenie raised her eyes to heaven as her only answer.
“Ah ca, madame! what have you both been talking of?” said the banker, after a pause, pointing to the flowers. “What has happened to make your sister so anxious all of a sudden to go to your opera-box?”
The poor helot endeavored to escape questioning on the score of sleepiness, and turned to go into her dressing-room to prepare for the night; but du Tillet took her by the arm and brought her back under the full light of the wax-candles which were burning in two silver-gilt sconces between fragrant nosegays. He plunged his light eyes into hers and said, coldly:—
“Your sister came here to borrow forty thousand francs for a man in whom she takes an interest, who’ll be locked up within three days in a debtor’s prison.”
The poor woman was seized with a nervous trembling, which she endeavored to repress.
“You alarm me,” she said. “But my sister is far too well brought up, and she loves her husband too much to be interested in any man to that extent.”
“Quite the contrary,” he said, dryly. “Girls brought up as you two were, in the constraints and practice of piety, have a thirst for liberty; they desire happiness, and the happiness they get in marriage is never as fine as that they dreamt of. Such girls make bad wives.”
“Speak for me,” said poor Eugenie, in a tone of bitter feeling, “but respect my sister. The Comtesse de Vandenesse is happy; her husband gives her too much freedom not to make her truly attached to him. Besides, if your supposition were true, she would never have told me of such a matter.”
“It is true,” he said, “and I forbid you to have anything to do with the affair. My interests demand that the man shall go to prison. Remember my orders.”
Madame du Tillet left the room.
“She will disobey me, of course, and I shall find out all the facts by watching her,” thought du Tillet, when alone in the boudoir. “These poor fools always think they can do battle against us.”
He shrugged his shoulders and rejoined his wife, or to speak the truth, his slave.
The confidence made to Madame du Tillet by Madame Felix de Vandenesse is connected with so many points of the latter’s history for the last six years, that it would be unintelligible without a succinct account of the principal events of her life.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05