Thereupon Nana became a smart woman, mistress of all that is foolish and filthy in man, marquise in the ranks of her calling. It was a sudden but decisive start, a plunge into the garish day of gallant notoriety and mad expenditure and that daredevil wastefulness peculiar to beauty. She at once became queen among the most expensive of her kind. Her photographs were displayed in shopwindows, and she was mentioned in the papers. When she drove in her carriage along the boulevards the people would turn and tell one another who that was with all the unction of a nation saluting its sovereign, while the object of their adoration lolled easily back in her diaphanous dresses and smiled gaily under the rain of little golden curls which ran riot above the blue of her made-up eyes and the red of her painted lips. And the wonder of wonders was that the great creature, who was so awkward on the stage, so very absurd the moment she sought to act the chaste woman, was able without effort to assume the role of an enchantress in the outer world. Her movements were lithe as a serpent’s, and the studied and yet seemingly involuntary carelessness with which she dressed was really exquisite in its elegance. There was a nervous distinction in all she did which suggested a wellborn Persian cat; she was an aristocrat in vice and proudly and rebelliously trampled upon a prostrate Paris like a sovereign whom none dare disobey. She set the fashion, and great ladies imitated her.
Nana’s fine house was situated at the corner of the Rue Cardinet, in the Avenue de Villiers. The avenue was part of the luxurious quarter at that time springing up in the vague district which had once been the Plaine Monceau. The house had been built by a young painter, who was intoxicated by a first success, and had been perforce resold almost as soon as it was habitable. It was in the palatial Renaissance manner and had fantastic interior arrangements which consisted of modern conveniences framed in a setting of somewhat artificial originality. Count Muffat had bought the house ready furnished and full of hosts of beautiful objects — lovely Eastern hangings, old credences, huge chairs of the Louis XIII epoch. And thus Nana had come into artistic surroundings of the choicest kind and of the most extravagantly various dates. But since the studio, which occupied the central portion of the house, could not be of any use to her, she had upset existing arrangements, establishing a small drawing room on the first floor, next to her bedroom and dressing room, and leaving a conservatory, a large drawing room and a dining room to look after themselves underneath. She astonished the architect with her ideas, for, as became a Parisian workgirl who understands the elegancies of life by instinct, she had suddenly developed a very pretty taste for every species of luxurious refinement. Indeed, she did not spoil her house overmuch; nay, she even added to the richness of the furniture, save here and there, where certain traces of tender foolishness and vulgar magnificence betrayed the ex-flower seller who had been wont to dream in front of shopwindows in the arcades.
A carpet was spread on the steps beneath the great awning over the front door in the court, and the moment you entered the hall you were greeted by a perfume as of violets and a soft, warm atmosphere which thick hangings helped to produce. A window, whose yellow- and rose-colored panes suggested the warm pallor of human flesh, gave light to the wide staircase, at the foot of which a Negro in carved wood held out a silver tray full of visiting cards and four white marble women, with bosoms displayed, raised lamps in their uplifted hands. Bronzes and Chinese vases full of flowers, divans covered with old Persian rugs, armchairs upholstered in old tapestry, furnished the entrance hall, adorned the stairheads and gave the first-floor landing the appearance of an anteroom. Here men’s overcoats and hats were always in evidence, and there were thick hangings which deadened every sound. It seemed a place apart: on entering it you might have fancied yourself in a chapel, whose very air was thrilling with devotion, whose very silence and seclusion were fraught with mystery.
Nana only opened the large and somewhat too-sumptuous Louis XVI drawing room on those gala nights when she received society from the Tuileries or strangers of distinction. Ordinarily she only came downstairs at mealtimes, and she would feel rather lost on such days as she lunched by herself in the lofty dining room with its Gobelin tapestry and its monumental sideboard, adorned with old porcelain and marvelous pieces of ancient plate. She used to go upstairs again as quickly as possible, for her home was on the first floor, in the three rooms, the bed, dressing and small drawing room above described. Twice already she had done the bedchamber up anew: on the first occasion in mauve satin, on the second in blue silk under lace. But she had not been satisfied with this; it had struck her as “nohowish,” and she was still unsuccessfully seeking for new colors and designs. On the elaborately upholstered bed, which was as low as a sofa, there were twenty thousand francs’ worth of POINT DE VENISE lace. The furniture was lacquered blue and white under designs in silver filigree, and everywhere lay such numbers of white bearskins that they hid the carpet. This was a luxurious caprice on Nana’s part, she having never been able to break herself of the habit of sitting on the floor to take her stockings off. Next door to the bedroom the little saloon was full of an amusing medley of exquisitely artistic objects. Against the hangings of pale rose-colored silk — a faded Turkish rose color, embroidered with gold thread — a whole world of them stood sharply outlined. They were from every land and in every possible style. There were Italian cabinets, Spanish and Portuguese coffers, models of Chinese pagodas, a Japanese screen of precious workmanship, besides china, bronzes, embroidered silks, hangings of the finest needlework. Armchairs wide as beds and sofas deep as alcoves suggested voluptuous idleness and the somnolent life of the seraglio. The prevailing tone of the room was old gold blended with green and red, and nothing it contained too forcibly indicated the presence of the courtesan save the luxuriousness of the seats. Only two “biscuit” statuettes, a woman in her shift, hunting for fleas, and another with nothing at all on, walking on her hands and waving her feet in the air, sufficed to sully the room with a note of stupid originality.
Through a door, which was nearly always ajar, the dressing room was visible. It was all in marble and glass with a white bath, silver jugs and basins and crystal and ivory appointments. A drawn curtain filled the place with a clear twilight which seemed to slumber in the warm scent of violets, that suggestive perfume peculiar to Nana wherewith the whole house, from the roof to the very courtyard, was penetrated.
The furnishing of the house was a most important undertaking. Nana certainly had Zoe with her, that girl so devoted to her fortunes. For months she had been tranquilly awaiting this abrupt, new departure, as became a woman who was certain of her powers of prescience, and now she was triumphant; she was mistress of the house and was putting by a round sum while serving Madame as honestly as possible. But a solitary lady’s maid was no longer sufficient. A butler, a coachman, a porter and a cook were wanted. Besides, it was necessary to fill the stables. It was then that Labordette made himself most useful. He undertook to perform all sorts of errands which bored the count; he made a comfortable job of the purchase of horses; he visited the coachbuilders; he guided the young woman in her choice of things. She was to be met with at the shops, leaning on his arm. Labordette even got in the servants — Charles, a great, tall coachman, who had been in service with the Duc de Corbreuse; Julien, a little, smiling, much-becurled butler, and a married couple, of whom the wife Victorine became cook while the husband Francois was taken on as porter and footman. The last mentioned in powder and breeches wore Nana’s livery, which was a sky-blue one adorned with silver lace, and he received visitors in the hall. The whole thing was princely in the correctness of its style.
At the end of two months the house was set going. The cost had been more than three hundred thousand francs. There were eight horses in the stables, and five carriages in the coach houses, and of these five one was a landau with silver embellishments, which for the moment occupied the attention of all Paris. And amid this great wealth Nana began settling down and making her nest. After the third representation of the Petite Duchesse she had quitted the theater, leaving Bordenave to struggle on against a bankruptcy which, despite the count’s money, was imminent. Nevertheless, she was still bitter about her failure. It added to that other bitterness, the lesson Fontan had given her, a shameful lesson for which she held all men responsible. Accordingly she now declared herself very firm and quite proof against sudden infatuations, but thoughts of vengeance took no hold of her volatile brain. What did maintain a hold on it in the hours when she was not indignant was an ever-wakeful lust of expenditure, added to a natural contempt for the man who paid and to a perpetual passion for consumption and waste, which took pride in the ruin of her lovers.
At starting Nana put the count on a proper footing and clearly mapped out the conditions of their relationship. The count gave twelve thousand francs monthly, presents excepted, and demanded nothing in return save absolute fidelity. She swore fidelity but insisted also on being treated with the utmost consideration, on enjoying complete liberty as mistress of the house and on having her every wish respected. For instance, she was to receive her friends every day, and he was to come only at stated times. In a word, he was to repose a blind confidence in her in everything. And when he was seized with jealous anxiety and hesitated to grant what she wanted, she stood on her dignity and threatened to give him back all he had given or even swore by little Louiset to perform what she promised. This was to suffice him. There was no love where mutual esteem was wanting. At the end of the first month Muffat respected her.
But she desired and obtained still more. Soon she began to influence him, as became a good-natured courtesan. When he came to her in a moody condition she cheered him up, confessed him and then gave him good advice. Little by little she interested herself in the annoyances of his home life, in his wife, in his daughter, in his love affairs and financial difficulties; she was very sensible, very fair and right-minded. On one occasion only did she let anger get the better of her, and that was when he confided to her that doubtless Daguenet was going to ask for his daughter Estelle in marriage. When the count began making himself notorious Daguenet had thought it a wise move to break off with Nana. He had treated her like a base hussy and had sworn to snatch his future father-in-law out of the creature’s clutches. In return Nana abused her old Mimi in a charming fashion. He was a renegade who had devoured his fortune in the company of vile women; he had no moral sense. True, he did not let them pay him money, but he profited by that of others and only repaid them at rare intervals with a bouquet or a dinner. And when the count seemed inclined to find excuses for these failings she bluntly informed him that Daguenet had enjoyed her favors, and she added disgusting particulars. Muffat had grown ashen-pale. There was no question of the young man now. This would teach him to be lacking in gratitude!
Meanwhile the house had not been entirely furnished, when one evening after she had lavished the most energetic promises of fidelity on Muffat Nana kept the Count Xavier de Vandeuvres for the night. For the last fortnight he had been paying her assiduous court, visiting her and sending presents of flowers, and now she gave way not so much out of sudden infatuation as to prove that she was a free woman. The idea of gain followed later when, the day after, Vandeuvres helped her to pay a bill which she did not wish to mention to the other man. From Vandeuvres she would certainly derive from eight to ten thousand francs a month, and this would prove very useful as pocket money. In those days he was finishing the last of his fortune in an access of burning, feverish folly. His horses and Lucy had devoured three of his farms, and at one gulp Nana was going to swallow his last chateau, near Amiens. He seemed in a hurry to sweep everything away, down to the ruins of the old tower built by a Vandeuvres under Philip Augustus. He was mad for ruin and thought it a great thing to leave the last golden bezants of his coat of arms in the grasp of this courtesan, whom the world of Paris desired. He, too, accepted Nana’s conditions, leaving her entire freedom of action and claiming her caresses only on certain days. He was not even naively impassioned enough to require her to make vows. Muffat suspected nothing. As to Vandeuvres, he knew things would take place for a certainty, but he never made the least allusion to them and pretended total ignorance, while his lips wore the subtle smile of the skeptical man of pleasure who does not seek the impossible, provided he can have his day and that Paris is aware of it.
From that time forth Nana’s house was really properly appointed. The staff of servants was complete in the stable, in the kitchen and in my lady’s chamber. Zoe organized everything and passed successfully through the most unforeseen difficulties. The household moved as easily as the scenery in a theater and was regulated like a grand administrative concern. Indeed, it worked with such precision that during the early months there were no jars and no derangements. Madame, however, pained Zoe extremely with her imprudent acts, her sudden fits of unwisdom, her mad bravado. Still the lady’s maid grew gradually lenient, for she had noticed that she made increased profits in seasons of wanton waste when Madame had committed a folly which must be made up for. It was then that the presents began raining on her, and she fished up many a louis out of the troubled waters.
One morning when Muffat had not yet left the bedroom Zoe ushered a gentleman into the dressing room, where Nana was changing her underwear. He was trembling violently.
“Good gracious! It’s Zizi!” said the young woman in great astonishment.
It was, indeed, Georges. But when he saw her in her shift, with her golden hair over her bare shoulders, he threw his arms round her neck and round her waist and kissed her in all directions. She began struggling to get free, for she was frightened, and in smothered tones she stammered:
“Do leave off! He’s there! Oh, it’s silly of you! And you, Zoe, are you out of your senses? Take him away and keep him downstairs; I’ll try and come down.”
Zoe had to push him in front of her. When Nana was able to rejoin them in the drawing room downstairs she scolded them both, and Zoe pursed up her lips and took her departure with a vexed expression, remarking that she had only been anxious to give Madame a pleasure. Georges was so glad to see Nana again and gazed at her with such delight that his fine eyes began filling with tears. The miserable days were over now; his mother believed him to have grown reasonable and had allowed him to leave Les Fondettes. Accordingly, the moment he had reached the terminus, he had got a conveyance in order the more quickly to come and kiss his sweet darling. He spoke of living at her side in future, as he used to do down in the country when he waited for her, barefooted, in the bedroom at La Mignotte. And as he told her about himself, he let his fingers creep forward, for he longed to touch her after that cruel year of separation. Then he got possession of her hands, felt about the wide sleeves of her dressing jacket, traveled up as far as her shoulders.
“You still love your baby?” he asked in his child voice.
“Oh, I certainly love him!” answered Nana, briskly getting out of his clutches. “But you come popping in without warning. You know, my little man, I’m not my own mistress; you must be good!”
Georges, when he got out of his cab, had been so dizzy with the feeling that his long desire was at last about to be satisfied that he had not even noticed what sort of house he was entering. But now he became conscious of a change in the things around him. He examined the sumptuous dining room with its lofty decorated ceiling, its Gobelin hangings, its buffet blazing with plate.
“Yes, yes!” he remarked sadly.
And with that she made him understand that he was never to come in the mornings but between four and six in the afternoon, if he cared to. That was her reception time. Then as he looked at her with suppliant, questioning eyes and craved no boon at all, she, in her turn, kissed him on the forehead in the most amiable way.
“Be very good,” she whispered. “I’ll do all I can.”
But the truth was that this remark now meant nothing. She thought Georges very nice and would have liked him as a companion, but as nothing else. Nevertheless, when he arrived daily at four o’clock he seemed so wretched that she was often fain to be as compliant as of old and would hide him in cupboards and constantly allow him to pick up the crumbs from Beauty’s table. He hardly ever left the house now and became as much one of its inmates as the little dog Bijou. Together they nestled among Mistress’s skirts and enjoyed a little of her at a time, even when she was with another man, while doles of sugar and stray caresses not seldom fell to their share in her hours of loneliness and boredom.
Doubtless Mme Hugon found out that the lad had again returned to that wicked woman’s arms, for she hurried up to Paris and came and sought aid from her other son, the Lieutenant Philippe, who was then in garrison at Vincennes. Georges, who was hiding from his elder brother, was seized with despairing apprehension, for he feared the latter might adopt violent tactics, and as his tenderness for Nana was so nervously expansive that he could not keep anything from her, he soon began talking of nothing but his big brother, a great, strong fellow, who was capable of all kinds of things.
“You know,” he explained, “Mamma won’t come to you while she can send my brother. Oh, she’ll certainly send Philippe to fetch me.”
The first time he said this Nana was deeply wounded. She said frigidly:
“Gracious me, I should like to see him come! For all that he’s a lieutenant in the army, Francois will chuck him out in double-quick time!”
Soon, as the lad kept returning to the subject of his brother, she ended by taking a certain interest in Philippe, and in a week’s time she knew him from head to foot — knew him as very tall and very strong and merry and somewhat rough. She learned intimate details, too, and found out that he had hair on his arms and a birthmark on his shoulder. So thoroughly did she learn her lesson that one day, when she was full of the image of the man who was to be turned out of doors by her orders, she cried out:
“I say, Zizi, your brother’s not coming. He’s a base deserter!”
The next day, when Georges and Nana were alone together, Francois came upstairs to ask whether Madame would receive Lieutenant Philippe Hugon. Georges grew extremely white and murmured:
“I suspected it; Mamma was talking about it this morning.”
And he besought the young woman to send down word that she could not see visitors. But she was already on her feet and seemed all aflame as she said:
“Why should I not see him? He would think me afraid. Dear me, we’ll have a good laugh! Just leave the gentleman in the drawing room for a quarter of an hour, Francois; afterward bring him up to me.”
She did not sit down again but began pacing feverishly to and fro between the fireplace and a Venetian mirror hanging above an Italian chest. And each time she reached the latter she glanced at the glass and tried the effect of a smile, while Georges sat nervously on a sofa, trembling at the thought of the coming scene. As she walked up and down she kept jerking out such little phrases as:
“It will calm the fellow down if he has to wait a quarter of an hour. Besides, if he thinks he’s calling on a tottie the drawing room will stun him! Yes, yes, have a good look at everything, my fine fellow! It isn’t imitation, and it’ll teach you to respect the lady who owns it. Respect’s what men need to feel! The quarter of an hour’s gone by, eh? No? Only ten minutes? Oh, we’ve got plenty of time.”
She did not stay where she was, however. At the end of the quarter of an hour she sent Georges away after making him solemnly promise not to listen at the door, as such conduct would scarcely look proper in case the servants saw him. As he went into her bedroom Zizi ventured in a choking sort of way to remark:
“It’s my brother, you know —”
“Don’t you fear,” she said with much dignity; “if he’s polite I’ll be polite.”
Francois ushered in Philippe Hugon, who wore morning dress. Georges began crossing on tiptoe on the other side of the room, for he was anxious to obey the young woman. But the sound of voices retained him, and he hesitated in such anguish of mind that his knees gave way under him. He began imagining that a dread catastrophe would befall, that blows would be struck, that something abominable would happen, which would make Nana everlastingly odious to him. And so he could not withstand the temptation to come back and put his ear against the door. He heard very ill, for the thick portieres deadened every sound, but he managed to catch certain words spoken by Philippe, stern phrases in which such terms as “mere child,” “family,” “honor,” were distinctly audible. He was so anxious about his darling’s possible answers that his heart beat violently and filled his head with a confused, buzzing noise. She was sure to give vent to a “Dirty blackguard!” or to a “Leave me bloody well alone! I’m in my own house!” But nothing happened — not a breath came from her direction. Nana seemed dead in there! Soon even his brother’s voice grew gentler, and he could not make it out at all, when a strange murmuring sound finally stupefied him. Nana was sobbing! For a moment or two he was the prey of contending feelings and knew not whether to run away or to fall upon Philippe. But just then Zoe came into the room, and he withdrew from the door, ashamed at being thus surprised.
She began quietly to put some linen away in a cupboard while he stood mute and motionless, pressing his forehead against a windowpane. He was tortured by uncertainty. After a short silence the woman asked:
“It’s your brother that’s with Madame?”
“Yes,” replied the lad in a choking voice.
There was a fresh silence.
“And it makes you anxious, doesn’t it, Monsieur Georges?”
“Yes,” he rejoined in the same painful, suffering tone.
Zoe was in no hurry. She folded up some lace and said slowly:
“You’re wrong; Madame will manage it all.”
And then the conversation ended; they said not another word. Still she did not leave the room. A long quarter of an hour passed, and she turned round again without seeming to notice the look of exasperation overspreading the lad’s face, which was already white with the effects of uncertainty and constraint. He was casting sidelong glances in the direction of the drawing room.
Maybe Nana was still crying. The other must have grown savage and have dealt her blows. Thus when Zoe finally took her departure he ran to the door and once more pressed his ear against it. He was thunderstruck; his head swam, for he heard a brisk outburst of gaiety, tender, whispering voices and the smothered giggles of a woman who is being tickled. Besides, almost directly afterward, Nana conducted Philippe to the head of the stairs, and there was an exchange of cordial and familiar phrases.
When Georges again ventured into the drawing room the young woman was standing before the mirror, looking at herself.
“Well?” he asked in utter bewilderment.
“Well, what?” she said without turning round. Then negligently:
“What did you mean? He’s very nice, is your brother!”
“So it’s all right, is it?”
“Oh, certainly it’s all right! Goodness me, what’s come over you? One would have thought we were going to fight!”
Georges still failed to understand.
“I thought I heard — that is, you didn’t cry?” he stammered out.
“Me cry!” she exclaimed, looking fixedly at him. “Why, you’re dreaming! What makes you think I cried?”
Thereupon the lad was treated to a distressing scene for having disobeyed and played Paul Pry behind the door. She sulked, and he returned with coaxing submissiveness to the old subject, for he wished to know all about it.
“And my brother then?”
“Your brother saw where he was at once. You know, I might have been a tottie, in which case his interference would have been accounted for by your age and the family honor! Oh yes, I understand those kinds of feelings! But a single glance was enough for him, and he behaved like a well-bred man at once. So don’t be anxious any longer. It’s all over — he’s gone to quiet your mamma!”
And she went on laughingly:
“For that matter, you’ll see your brother here. I’ve invited him, and he’s going to return.”
“Oh, he’s going to return,” said the lad, growing white. He added nothing, and they ceased talking of Philippe. She began dressing to go out, and he watched her with his great, sad eyes. Doubtless he was very glad that matters had got settled, for he would have preferred death to a rupture of their connection, but deep down in his heart there was a silent anguish, a profound sense of pain, which he had no experience of and dared not talk about. How Philippe quieted their mother’s fears he never knew, but three days later she returned to Les Fondettes, apparently satisfied. On the evening of her return, at Nana’s house, he trembled when Francois announced the lieutenant, but the latter jested gaily and treated him like a young rascal, whose escapade he had favored as something not likely to have any consequences. The lad’s heart was sore within him; he scarcely dared move and blushed girlishly at the least word that was spoken to him. He had not lived much in Philippe’s society; he was ten years his junior, and he feared him as he would a father, from whom stories about women are concealed. Accordingly he experienced an uneasy sense of shame when he saw him so free in Nana’s company and heard him laugh uproariously, as became a man who was plunging into a life of pleasure with the gusto born of magnificent health. Nevertheless, when his brother shortly began to present himself every day, Georges ended by getting somewhat used to it all. Nana was radiant.
This, her latest installation, had been involving all the riotous waste attendant on the life of gallantry, and now her housewarming was being defiantly celebrated in a grand mansion positively overflowing with males and with furniture.
One afternoon when the Hugons were there Count Muffat arrived out of hours. But when Zoe told him that Madame was with friends he refused to come in and took his departure discreetly, as became a gallant gentleman. When he made his appearance again in the evening Nana received him with the frigid indignation of a grossly affronted woman.
“Sir,” she said, “I have given you no cause why you should insult me. You must understand this: when I am at home to visitors, I beg you to make your appearance just like other people.”
The count simply gaped in astonishment. “But, my dear —” he endeavored to explain.
“Perhaps it was because I had visitors! Yes, there were men here, but what d’you suppose I was doing with those men? You only advertise a woman’s affairs when you act the discreet lover, and I don’t want to be advertised; I don’t!”
He obtained his pardon with difficulty, but at bottom he was enchanted. It was with scenes such as these that she kept him in unquestioning and docile submission. She had long since succeeded in imposing Georges on him as a young vagabond who, she declared, amused her. She made him dine with Philippe, and the count behaved with great amiability. When they rose from table he took the young man on one side and asked news of his mother. From that time forth the young Hugons, Vandeuvres and Muffat were openly about the house and shook hands as guests and intimates might have done. It was a more convenient arrangement than the previous one. Muffat alone still abstained discreetly from too-frequent visits, thus adhering to the ceremonious policy of an ordinary strange caller. At night when Nana was sitting on her bearskins drawing off her stockings, he would talk amicably about the other three gentlemen and lay especial stress on Philippe, who was loyalty itself.
“It’s very true; they’re nice,” Nana would say as she lingered on the floor to change her shift. “Only, you know, they see what I am. One word about it and I should chuck ‘em all out of doors for you!”
Nevertheless, despite her luxurious life and her group of courtiers, Nana was nearly bored to death. She had men for every minute of the night, and money overflowed even among the brushes and combs in the drawers of her dressing table. But all this had ceased to satisfy her; she felt that there was a void somewhere or other, an empty place provocative of yawns. Her life dragged on, devoid of occupation, and successive days only brought back the same monotonous hours. Tomorrow had ceased to be; she lived like a bird: sure of her food and ready to perch and roost on any branch which she came to. This certainty of food and drink left her lolling effortless for whole days, lulled her to sleep in conventual idleness and submission as though she were the prisoner of her trade. Never going out except to drive, she was losing her walking powers. She reverted to low childish tastes, would kiss Bijou from morning to night and kill time with stupid pleasures while waiting for the man whose caresses she tolerated with an appearance of complaisant lassitude. Amid this species of self-abandonment she now took no thought about anything save her personal beauty; her sole care was to look after herself, to wash and to perfume her limbs, as became one who was proud of being able to undress at any moment and in face of anybody without having to blush for her imperfections.
At ten in the morning Nana would get up. Bijou, the Scotch griffon dog, used to lick her face and wake her, and then would ensue a game of play lasting some five minutes, during which the dog would race about over her arms and legs and cause Count Muffat much distress. Bijou was the first little male he had ever been jealous of. It was not at all proper, he thought, that an animal should go poking its nose under the bedclothes like that! After this Nana would proceed to her dressing room, where she took a bath. Toward eleven o’clock Francois would come and do up her hair before beginning the elaborate manipulations of the afternoon.
At breakfast, as she hated feeding alone, she nearly always had Mme Maloir at table with her. This lady would arrive from unknown regions in the morning, wearing her extravagantly quaint hats, and would return at night to that mysterious existence of hers, about which no one ever troubled. But the hardest to bear were the two or three hours between lunch and the toilet. On ordinary occasions she proposed a game of bezique to her old friend; on others she would read the Figaro, in which the theatrical echoes and the fashionable news interested her. Sometimes she even opened a book, for she fancied herself in literary matters. Her toilet kept her till close on five o’clock, and then only she would wake from her daylong drowse and drive out or receive a whole mob of men at her own house. She would often dine abroad and always go to bed very late, only to rise again on the morrow with the same languor as before and to begin another day, differing in nothing from its predecessor.
The great distraction was to go to the Batignolles and see her little Louis at her aunt’s. For a fortnight at a time she forgot all about him, and then would follow an access of maternal love, and she would hurry off on foot with all the modesty and tenderness becoming a good mother. On such occasions she would be the bearer of snuff for her aunt and of oranges and biscuits for the child, the kind of presents one takes to a hospital. Or again she would drive up in her landau on her return from the Bois, decked in costumes, the resplendence of which greatly excited the dwellers in the solitary street. Since her niece’s magnificent elevation Mme Lerat had been puffed up with vanity. She rarely presented herself in the Avenue de Villiers, for she was pleased to remark that it wasn’t her place to do so, but she enjoyed triumphs in her own street. She was delighted when the young woman arrived in dresses that had cost four or five thousand francs and would be occupied during the whole of the next day in showing off her presents and in citing prices which quite stupefied the neighbors. As often as not, Nana kept Sunday free for the sake of “her family,” and on such occasions, if Muffat invited her, she would refuse with the smile of a good little shopwoman. It was impossible, she would answer; she was dining at her aunt’s; she was going to see Baby. Moreover, that poor little man Louiset was always ill. He was almost three years old, growing quite a great boy! But he had had an eczema on the back of his neck, and now concretions were forming in his ears, which pointed, it was feared, to decay of the bones of the skull. When she saw how pale he looked, with his spoiled blood and his flabby flesh all out in yellow patches, she would become serious, but her principal feeling would be one of astonishment. What could be the matter with the little love that he should grow so weakly? She, his mother, was so strong and well!
On the days when her child did not engross attention Nana would again sink back into the noisy monotony of her existence, with its drives in the Bois, first nights at the theater, dinners and suppers at the Maison-d’Or or the Cafe Anglais, not to mention all the places of public resort, all the spectacles to which crowds rushed — Mabille, the reviews, the races. But whatever happened she still felt that stupid, idle void, which caused her, as it were, to suffer internal cramps. Despite the incessant infatuations that possessed her heart, she would stretch out her arms with a gesture of immense weariness the moment she was left alone. Solitude rendered her low spirited at once, for it brought her face to face with the emptiness and boredom within her. Extremely gay by nature and profession, she became dismal in solitude and would sum up her life in the following ejaculation, which recurred incessantly between her yawns:
“Oh, how the men bother me!”
One afternoon as she was returning home from a concert, Nana, on the sidewalk in the Rue Montmartre, noticed a woman trotting along in down-at-the-heel boots, dirty petticoats and a hat utterly ruined by the rain. She recognized her suddenly.
“Stop, Charles!” she shouted to the coachman and began calling: “Satin, Satin!”
Passers-by turned their heads; the whole street stared. Satin had drawn near and was still further soiling herself against the carriage wheels.
“Do get in, my dear girl,” said Nana tranquilly, disdaining the onlookers.
And with that she picked her up and carried her off, though she was in disgusting contrast to her light blue landau and her dress of pearl-gray silk trimmed with Chantilly, while the street smiled at the coachman’s loftily dignified demeanor.
From that day forth Nana had a passion to occupy her thoughts. Satin became her vicious foible. Washed and dressed and duly installed in the house in the Avenue de Villiers, during three days the girl talked of Saint-Lazare and the annoyances the sisters had caused her and how those dirty police people had put her down on the official list. Nana grew indignant and comforted her and vowed she would get her name taken off, even though she herself should have to go and find out the minister of the interior. Meanwhile there was no sort of hurry: nobody would come and search for her at Nana’s — that was certain. And thereupon the two women began to pass tender afternoons together, making numberless endearing little speeches and mingling their kisses with laughter. The same little sport, which the arrival of the plainclothes men had interrupted in the Rue de Laval, was beginning again in a jocular sort of spirit. One fine evening, however, it became serious, and Nana, who had been so disgusted at Laure’s, now understood what it meant. She was upset and enraged by it, the more so because Satin disappeared on the morning of the fourth day. No one had seen her go our. She had, indeed, slipped away in her new dress, seized by a longing for air, full of sentimental regret for her old street existence.
That day there was such a terrible storm in the house that all the servants hung their heads in sheepish silence. Nana had come near beating Francois for not throwing himself across the door through which Satin escaped. She did her best, however, to control herself, and talked of Satin as a dirty swine. Oh, it would teach her to pick filthy things like that out of the gutter!
When Madame shut herself up in her room in the afternoon Zoe heard her sobbing. In the evening she suddenly asked for her carriage and had herself driven to Laure’s. It had occurred to her that she would find Satin at the table d’hote in the Rue des Martyrs. She was not going there for the sake of seeing her again but in order to catch her one in the face! As a matter of fact Satin was dining at a little table with Mme Robert. Seeing Nana, she began to laugh, but the former, though wounded to the quick, did not make a scene. On the contrary, she was very sweet and very compliant. She paid for champagne made five or six tablefuls tipsy and then carried off Satin when Mme Robert was in the closets. Not till they were in the carriage did she make a mordant attack on her, threatening to kill her if she did it again.
After that day the same little business began again continually. On twenty different occasions Nana, tragically furious, as only a jilted woman can be ran off in pursuit of this sluttish creature, whose flights were prompted by the boredom she suffered amid the comforts of her new home. Nana began to talk of boxing Mme Robert’s ears; one day she even meditated a duel; there was one woman too many, she said.
In these latter times, whenever she dined at Laure’s, she donned her diamonds and occasionally brought with her Louise Violaine, Maria Blond and Tatan Nene, all of them ablaze with finery; and while the sordid feast was progressing in the three saloons and the yellow gaslight flared overhead, these four resplendent ladies would demean themselves with a vengeance, for it was their delight to dazzle the little local courtesans and to carry them off when dinner was over. On days such as these Laure, sleek and tight-laced as ever would kiss everyone with an air of expanded maternity. Yet notwithstanding all these circumstances Satin’s blue eyes and pure virginal face remained as calm as heretofore; torn, beaten and pestered by the two women, she would simply remark that it was a funny business, and they would have done far better to make it up at once. It did no good to slap her; she couldn’t cut herself in two, however much she wanted to be nice to everybody. It was Nana who finally carried her off in triumph, so assiduously had she loaded Satin with kindnesses and presents. In order to be revenged, however, Mme Robert wrote abominable, anonymous letters to her rival’s lovers.
For some time past Count Muffat had appeared suspicious, and one morning, with considerable show of feeling, he laid before Nana an anonymous letter, where in the very first sentences she read that she was accused of deceiving the count with Vandeuvres and the young Hugons.
“It’s false! It’s false!” she loudly exclaimed in accents of extraordinary candor.
“You swear?” asked Muffat, already willing to be comforted.
“I’ll swear by whatever you like — yes, by the head of my child!”
But the letter was long. Soon her connection with Satin was described in the broadest and most ignoble terms. When she had done reading she smiled.
“Now I know who it comes from,” she remarked simply.
And as Muffat wanted her denial to the charges therein contained, she resumed quietly enough:
“That’s a matter which doesn’t concern you, dear old pet. How can it hurt you?”
She did not deny anything. He used some horrified expressions. Thereupon she shrugged her shoulders. Where had he been all this time? Why, it was done everywhere! And she mentioned her friends and swore that fashionable ladies went in for it. In fact, to hear her speak, nothing could be commoner or more natural. But a lie was a lie, and so a moment ago he had seen how angry she grew in the matter of Vandeuvres and the young Hugons! Oh, if that had been true he would have been justified in throttling her! But what was the good of lying to him about a matter of no consequence? And with that she repeated her previous expression:
“Come now, how can it hurt you?”
Then as the scene still continued, she closed it with a rough speech:
“Besides, dear boy, if the thing doesn’t suit you it’s very simple: the house door’s open! There now, you must take me as you find me!”
He hung his head, for the young woman’s vows of fidelity made him happy at bottom. She, however, now knew her power over him and ceased to consider his feelings. And from that time forth Satin was openly installed in the house on the same footing as the gentlemen. Vandeuvres had not needed anonymous letters in order to understand how matters stood, and accordingly he joked and tried to pick jealous quarrels with Satin. Philippe and Georges, on their parts, treated her like a jolly good fellow, shaking hands with her and cracking the riskiest jokes imaginable.
Nana had an adventure one evening when this slut of a girl had given her the go-by and she had gone to dine in the Rue des Martyrs without being able to catch her. While she was dining by herself Daguenet had appeared on the scene, for although he had reformed, he still occasionally dropped in under the influence of his old vicious inclinations. He hoped of course that no one would meet him in these black recesses, dedicated to the town’s lowest depravity. Accordingly even Nana’s presence seemed to embarrass him at the outset. But he was not the man to run away and, coming forward with a smile, he asked if Madame would be so kind as to allow him to dine at her table. Noticing his jocular tone, Nana assumed her magnificently frigid demeanor and icily replied:
“Sit down where you please, sir. We are in a public place.”
Thus begun, the conversation proved amusing. But at dessert Nana, bored and burning for a triumph, put her elbows on the table and began in the old familiar way:
“Well, what about your marriage, my lad? Is it getting on all right?”
“Not much,” Daguenet averred.
As a matter of fact, just when he was about to venture on his request at the Muffats’, he had met with such a cold reception from the count that he had prudently refrained. The business struck him as a failure. Nana fixed her clear eyes on him; she was sitting, leaning her chin on her hand, and there was an ironical curve about her lips.
“Oh yes! I’m a baggage,” she resumed slowly. “Oh yes, the future father-in-law will have to be dragged from between my claws! Dear me, dear me, for a fellow with NOUS, you’re jolly stupid! What! D’you mean to say you’re going to tell your tales to a man who adores me and tells me everything? Now just listen: you shall marry if I wish it, my little man!”
For a minute or two he had felt the truth of this, and now he began scheming out a method of submission. Nevertheless, he still talked jokingly, not wishing the matter to grow serious, and after he had put on his gloves he demanded the hand of Mlle Estelle de Beuville in the strict regulation manner. Nana ended by laughing, as though she had been tickled. Oh, that Mimi! It was impossible to bear him a grudge! Daguenet’s great successes with ladies of her class were due to the sweetness of his voice, a voice of such musical purity and pliancy as to have won him among courtesans the sobriquet of “Velvet-Mouth.” Every woman would give way to him when he lulled her with his sonorous caresses. He knew this power and rocked Nana to sleep with endless words, telling her all kinds of idiotic anecdotes. When they left the table d’hote she was blushing rosy-red; she trembled as she hung on his arm; he had reconquered her. As it was very fine, she sent her carriage away and walked with him as far as his own place, where she went upstairs with him naturally enough. Two hours later, as she was dressing again, she said:
“So you hold to this marriage of yours, Mimi?”
“Egad,” he muttered, “it’s the best thing I could possibly do after all! You know I’m stony broke.”
She summoned him to button her boots, and after a pause:
“Good heavens! I’ve no objection. I’ll shove you on! She’s as dry as a lath, is that little thing, but since it suits your game — oh, I’m agreeable: I’ll run the thing through for you.”
Then with bosom still uncovered, she began laughing:
“Only what will you give me?”
He had caught her in his arms and was kissing her on the shoulders in a perfect access of gratitude while she quivered with excitement and struggled merrily and threw herself backward in her efforts to be free.
“Oh, I know,” she cried, excited by the contest. “Listen to what I want in the way of commission. On your wedding day you shall make me a present of your innocence. Before your wife, d’you understand?”
“That’s it! That’s it!” he said, laughing even louder than Nana.
The bargain amused them — they thought the whole business very good, indeed.
Now as it happened, there was a dinner at Nana’s next day. For the matter of that, it was the customary Thursday dinner, and Muffat, Vandeuvres, the young Hugons and Satin were present. The count arrived early. He stood in need of eighty thousand francs wherewith to free the young woman from two or three debts and to give her a set of sapphires she was dying to possess. As he had already seriously lessened his capital, he was in search of a lender, for he did not dare to sell another property. With the advice of Nana herself he had addressed himself to Labordette, but the latter, deeming it too heavy an undertaking, had mentioned it to the hairdresser Francis, who willingly busied himself in such affairs in order to oblige his lady clients. The count put himself into the hands of these gentlemen but expressed a formal desire not to appear in the matter, and they both undertook to keep in hand the bill for a hundred thousand francs which he was to sign, excusing themselves at the same time for charging a matter of twenty thousand francs interest and loudly denouncing the blackguard usurers to whom, they declared, it had been necessary to have recourse. When Muffat had himself announced, Francis was putting the last touches to Nana’s coiffure. Labordette also was sitting familiarly in the dressing room, as became a friend of no consequence. Seeing the count, he discreetly placed a thick bundle of bank notes among the powders and pomades, and the bill was signed on the marble-topped dressing table. Nana was anxious to keep Labordette to dinner, but he declined — he was taking a rich foreigner about Paris. Muffat, however, led him aside and begged him to go to Becker, the jeweler, and bring him back thence the set of sapphires, which he wanted to present the young woman by way of surprise that very evening. Labordette willingly undertook the commission, and half an hour later Julien handed the jewel case mysteriously to the count.
During dinnertime Nana was nervous. The sight of the eighty thousand francs had excited her. To think all that money was to go to tradespeople! It was a disgusting thought. After soup had been served she grew sentimental, and in the splendid dining room, glittering with plate and glass, she talked of the bliss of poverty. The men were in evening dress, Nana in a gown of white embroidered satin, while Satin made a more modest appearance in black silk with a simple gold heart at her throat, which was a present from her kind friend. Julien and Francois waited behind the guests and were assisted in this by Zoe. All three looked most dignified.
“It’s certain I had far greater fun when I hadn’t a cent!” Nana repeated.
She had placed Muffat on her right hand and Vandeuvres on her left, but she scarcely looked at them, so taken up was she with Satin, who sat in state between Philippe and Georges on the opposite side of the table.
“Eh, duckie?” she kept saying at every turn. “How we did use to laugh in those days when we went to Mother Josse’s school in the Rue Polonceau!”
When the roast was being served the two women plunged into a world of reminiscences. They used to have regular chattering fits of this kind when a sudden desire to stir the muddy depths of their childhood would possess them. These fits always occurred when men were present: it was as though they had given way to a burning desire to treat them to the dunghill on which they had grown to woman’s estate. The gentlemen paled visibly and looked embarrassed. The young Hugons did their best to laugh, while Vandeuvres nervously toyed with his beard and Muffat redoubled his gravity.
“You remember Victor?” said Nana. “There was a wicked little fellow for you! Why, he used to take the little girls into cellars!”
“I remember him perfectly,” replied Satin. “I recollect the big courtyard at your place very well. There was a portress there with a broom!”
“Mother Boche — she’s dead.”
“And I can still picture your shop. Your mother was a great fatty. One evening when we were playing your father came in drunk. Oh, so drunk!”
At this point Vandeuvres tried to intercept the ladies’ reminiscences and to effect a diversion,
“I say, my dear, I should be very glad to have some more truffles. They’re simply perfect. Yesterday I had some at the house of the Duc de Corbreuse, which did not come up to them at all.”
“The truffles, Julien!” said Nana roughly.
Then returning to the subject:
“By Jove, yes, Dad hadn’t any sense! And then what a smash there was! You should have seen it — down, down, down we went, starving away all the time. I can tell you I’ve had to bear pretty well everything and it’s a miracle I didn’t kick the bucket over it, like Daddy and Mamma.”
This time Muffat, who was playing with his knife in a state of infinite exasperation, made so bold as to intervene.
“What you’re telling us isn’t very cheerful.”
“Eh, what? Not cheerful!” she cried with a withering glance. “I believe you; it isn’t cheerful! Somebody had to earn a living for us dear boy. Oh yes, you know, I’m the right sort; I don’t mince matters. Mamma was a laundress; Daddy used to get drunk, and he died of it! There! If it doesn’t suit you — if you’re ashamed of my family —”
They all protested. What was she after now? They had every sort of respect for her family! But she went on:
“If you’re ashamed of my family you’ll please leave me, because I’m not one of those women who deny their father and mother. You must take me and them together, d’you understand?”
They took her as required; they accepted the dad, the mamma, the past; in fact, whatever she chose. With their eyes fixed on the tablecloth, the four now sat shrinking and insignificant while Nana, in a transport of omnipotence, trampled on them in the old muddy boots worn long since in the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or. She was determined not to lay down the cudgels just yet. It was all very fine to bring her fortunes, to build her palaces; she would never leave off regretting the time when she munched apples! Oh, what bosh that stupid thing money was! It was made for the tradespeople! Finally her outburst ended in a sentimentally expressed desire for a simple, openhearted existence, to be passed in an atmosphere of universal benevolence.
When she got to this point she noticed Julien waiting idly by.
“Well, what’s the matter? Hand the champagne then!” she said. “Why d’you stand staring at me like a goose?”
During this scene the servants had never once smiled. They apparently heard nothing, and the more their mistress let herself down, the more majestic they became. Julien set to work to pour out the champagne and did so without mishap, but Francois, who was handing round the fruit, was so unfortunate as to tilt the fruit dish too low, and the apples, the pears and the grapes rolled on the table.
“You bloody clumsy lot!” cried Nana.
The footman was mistaken enough to try and explain that the fruit had not been firmly piled up. Zoe had disarranged it by taking out some oranges.
“Then it’s Zoe that’s the goose!” said Nana.
“Madame —” murmured the lady’s maid in an injured tone.
Straightway Madame rose to her feet, and in a sharp voice and with royally authoritative gesture:
“We’ve had enough of this, haven’t we? Leave the room, all of you! We don’t want you any longer!”
This summary procedure calmed her down, and she was forthwith all sweetness and amiability. The dessert proved charming, and the gentlemen grew quite merry waiting on themselves. But Satin, having peeled a pear, came and ate it behind her darling, leaning on her shoulder the while and whispering sundry little remarks in her ear, at which they both laughed very loudly. By and by she wanted to share her last piece of pear with Nana and presented it to her between her teeth. Whereupon there was a great nibbling of lips, and the pear was finished amid kisses. At this there was a burst of comic protest from the gentlemen, Philippe shouting to them to take it easy and Vandeuvres asking if one ought to leave the room. Georges, meanwhile, had come and put his arm round Satin’s waist and had brought her back to her seat.
“How silly of you!” said Nana. “You’re making her blush, the poor, darling duck. Never mind, dear girl, let them chaff. It’s our own little private affair.”
And turning to Muffat, who was watching them with his serious expression:
“Isn’t it, my friend?”
“Yes, certainly,” he murmured with a slow nod of approval.
He no longer protested now. And so amid that company of gentlemen with the great names and the old, upright traditions, the two women sat face to face, exchanging tender glances, conquering, reigning, in tranquil defiance of the laws of sex, in open contempt for the male portion of the community. The gentlemen burst into applause.
The company went upstairs to take coffee in the little drawing room, where a couple of lamps cast a soft glow over the rosy hangings and the lacquer and old gold of the knickknacks. At that hour of the evening the light played discreetly over coffers, bronzes and china, lighting up silver or ivory inlaid work, bringing into view the polished contours of a carved stick and gleaming over a panel with glossy silky reflections. The fire, which had been burning since the afternoon, was dying out in glowing embers. It was very warm — the air behind the curtains and hangings was languid with warmth. The room was full of Nana’s intimate existence: a pair of gloves, a fallen handkerchief, an open book, lay scattered about, and their owner seemed present in careless attire with that well-known odor of violets and that species of untidiness which became her in her character of good-natured courtesan and had such a charming effect among all those rich surroundings. The very armchairs, which were as wide as beds, and the sofas, which were as deep as alcoves, invited to slumber oblivious of the flight of time and to tender whispers in shadowy corners.
Satin went and lolled back in the depths of a sofa near the fireplace. She had lit a cigarette, but Vandeuvres began amusing himself by pretending to be ferociously jealous. Nay, he even threatened to send her his seconds if she still persisted in keeping Nana from her duty. Philippe and Georges joined him and teased her and badgered her so mercilessly that at last she shouted out:
“Darling! Darling! Do make ‘em keep quiet! They’re still after me!”
“Now then, let her be,” said Nana seriously. “I won’t have her tormented; you know that quite well. And you, my pet, why d’you always go mixing yourself up with them when they’ve got so little sense?”
Satin, blushing all over and putting out her tongue, went into the dressing room, through the widely open door of which you caught a glimpse of pale marbles gleaming in the milky light of a gas flame in a globe of rough glass. After that Nana talked to the four men as charmingly as hostess could. During the day she had read a novel which was at that time making a good deal of noise. It was the history of a courtesan, and Nana was very indignant, declaring the whole thing to be untrue and expressing angry dislike to that kind of monstrous literature which pretends to paint from nature. “Just as though one could describe everything,” she said. Just as though a novel ought not to be written so that the reader may while away an hour pleasantly! In the matter of books and of plays Nana had very decided opinions: she wanted tender and noble productions, things that would set her dreaming and would elevate her soul. Then allusion being made in the course of conversation to the troubles agitating Paris, the incendiary articles in the papers, the incipient popular disturbances which followed the calls to arms nightly raised at public meetings, she waxed wroth with the Republicans. What on earth did those dirty people who never washed really want? Were folks not happy? Had not the emperor done everything for the people? A nice filthy lot of people! She knew ‘em; she could talk about ‘em, and, quite forgetting the respect which at dinner she had just been insisting should be paid to her humble circle in the Rue de la Goutte-d’Or, she began blackguarding her own class with all the terror and disgust peculiar to a woman who had risen successfully above it. That very afternoon she had read in the Figaro an account of the proceedings at a public meeting which had verged on the comic. Owing to the slang words that had been used and to the piggish behavior of a drunken man who had got himself chucked, she was laughing at those proceedings still.
“Oh, those drunkards!” she said with a disgusted air. “No, look you here, their republic would be a great misfortune for everybody! Oh, may God preserve us the emperor as long as possible!”
“God will hear your prayer, my dear,” Muffat replied gravely. “To be sure, the emperor stands firm.”
He liked her to express such excellent views. Both, indeed, understood one another in political matters. Vandeuvres and Philippe Hugon likewise indulged in endless jokes against the “cads,” the quarrelsome set who scuttled off the moment they clapped eyes on a bayonet. But Georges that evening remained pale and somber.
“What can be the matter with that baby?” asked Nana, noticing his troubled appearance.
“With me? Nothing — I am listening,” he muttered.
But he was really suffering. On rising from table he had heard Philippe joking with the young woman, and now it was Philippe, and not himself, who sat beside her. His heart, he knew not why, swelled to bursting. He could not bear to see them so close together; such vile thoughts oppressed him that shame mingled with his anguish. He who laughed at Satin, who had accepted Steiner and Muffat and all the rest, felt outraged and murderous at the thought that Philippe might someday touch that woman.
“Here, take Bijou,” she said to comfort him, and she passed him the little dog which had gone to sleep on her dress.
And with that Georges grew happy again, for with the beast still warm from her lap in his arms, he held, as it were, part of her.
Allusion had been made to a considerable loss which Vandeuvres had last night sustained at the Imperial Club. Muffat, who did not play, expressed great astonishment, but Vandeuvres smilingly alluded to his imminent ruin, about which Paris was already talking. The kind of death you chose did not much matter, he averred; the great thing was to die handsomely. For some time past Nana had noticed that he was nervous and had a sharp downward droop of the mouth and a fitful gleam in the depths of his clear eyes. But he retained his haughty aristocratic manner and the delicate elegance of his impoverished race, and as yet these strange manifestations were only, so to speak, momentary fits of vertigo overcoming a brain already sapped by play and by debauchery. One night as he lay beside her he had frightened her with a dreadful story. He had told her he contemplated shutting himself up in his stable and setting fire to himself and his horses at such time as he should have devoured all his substance. His only hope at that period was a horse, Lusignan by name, which he was training for the Prix de Paris. He was living on this horse, which was the sole stay of his shaken credit, and whenever Nana grew exacting he would put her off till June and to the probability of Lusignan’s winning.
“Bah! He may very likely lose,” she said merrily, “since he’s going to clear them all out at the races.”
By way of reply he contented himself by smiling a thin, mysterious smile. Then carelessly:
“By the by, I’ve taken the liberty of giving your name to my outsider, the filly. Nana, Nana — that sounds well. You’re not vexed?”
“Vexed, why?” she said in a state of inward ecstasy.
The conversation continued, and same mention was made of an execution shortly to take place. The young woman said she was burning to go to it when Satin appeared at the dressing-room door and called her in tones of entreaty. She got up at once and left the gentlemen lolling lazily about, while they finished their cigars and discussed the grave question as to how far a murderer subject to chronic alcoholism is responsible for his act. In the dressing room Zoe sat helpless on a chair, crying her heart out, while Satin vainly endeavored to console her.
“What’s the matter?” said Nana in surprise.
“Oh, darling, do speak to her!” said Satin. “I’ve been trying to make her listen to reason for the last twenty minutes. She’s crying because you called her a goose.”
“Yes, madame, it’s very hard — very hard,” stuttered Zoe, choked by a fresh fit of sobbing.
This sad sight melted the young woman’s heart at once. She spoke kindly, and when the other woman still refused to grow calm she sank down in front of her and took her round the waist with truly cordial familiarity:
“But, you silly, I said ‘goose’ just as I might have said anything else. How shall I explain? I was in a passion — it was wrong of me; now calm down.”
“I who love Madame so,” stuttered Zoe; “after all I’ve done for Madame.”
Thereupon Nana kissed the lady’s maid and, wishing to show her she wasn’t vexed, gave her a dress she had worn three times. Their quarrels always ended up in the giving of presents! Zoe plugged her handkerchief into her eyes. She carried the dress off over her arm and added before leaving that they were very sad in the kitchen and that Julien and Francois had been unable to eat, so entirely had Madame’s anger taken away their appetites. Thereupon Madame sent them a louis as a pledge of reconciliation. She suffered too much if people around her were sorrowful.
Nana was returning to the drawing room, happy in the thought that she had patched up a disagreement which was rendering her quietly apprehensive of the morrow, when Satin came and whispered vehemently in her ear. She was full of complaint, threatened to be off if those men still went on teasing her and kept insisting that her darling should turn them all out of doors for that night, at any rate. It would be a lesson to them. And then it would be so nice to be alone, both of them! Nana, with a return of anxiety, declared it to be impossible. Thereupon the other shouted at her like a violent child and tried hard to overrule her.
“I wish it, d’you see? Send ‘em away or I’m off!”
And she went back into the drawing room, stretched herself out in the recesses of a divan, which stood in the background near the window, and lay waiting, silent and deathlike, with her great eyes fixed upon Nana.
The gentlemen were deciding against the new criminological theories. Granted that lovely invention of irresponsibility in certain pathological cases, and criminals ceased to exist and sick people alone remained. The young woman, expressing approval with an occasional nod, was busy considering how best to dismiss the count. The others would soon be going, but he would assuredly prove obstinate. In fact, when Philippe got up to withdraw, Georges followed him at once — he seemed only anxious not to leave his brother behind. Vandeuvres lingered some minutes longer, feeling his way, as it were, and waiting to find out if, by any chance, some important business would oblige Muffat to cede him his place. Soon, however, when he saw the count deliberately taking up his quarters for the night, he desisted from his purpose and said good-by, as became a man of tact. But on his way to the door, he noticed Satin staring fixedly at Nana, as usual. Doubtless he understood what this meant, for he seemed amused and came and shook hands with her.
“We’re not angry, eh?” he whispered. “Pray pardon me. You’re the nicer attraction of the two, on my honor!”
Satin deigned no reply. Nor did she take her eyes off Nana and the count, who were now alone. Muffat, ceasing to be ceremonious, had come to sit beside the young woman. He took her fingers and began kissing them. Whereupon Nana, seeking to change the current of his thoughts, asked him if his daughter Estelle were better. The previous night he had been complaining of the child’s melancholy behavior — he could not even spend a day happily at his own house, with his wife always out and his daughter icily silent.
In family matters of this kind Nana was always full of good advice, and when Muffat abandoned all his usual self-control under the influence of mental and physical relaxation and once more launched out into his former plaints, she remembered the promise she had made.
“Suppose you were to marry her?” she said. And with that she ventured to talk of Daguenet. At the mere mention of the name the count was filled with disgust. “Never,” he said after what she had told him!
She pretended great surprise and then burst out laughing and put her arm round his neck.
“Oh, the jealous man! To think of it! Just argue it out a little. Why, they slandered me to you — I was furious. At present I should be ever so sorry if —”
But over Muffat’s shoulder she met Satin’s gaze. And she left him anxiously and in a grave voice continued:
“This marriage must come off, my friend; I don’t want to prevent your daughter’s happiness. The young man’s most charming; you could not possibly find a better sort.”
And she launched into extraordinary praise of Daguenet. The count had again taken her hands; he no longer refused now; he would see about it, he said, they would talk the matter over. By and by, when he spoke of going to bed, she sank her voice and excused herself. It was impossible; she was not well. If he loved her at all he would not insist! Nevertheless, he was obstinate; he refused to go away, and she was beginning to give in when she met Satin’s eyes once more. Then she grew inflexible. No, the thing was out of the question! The count, deeply moved and with a look of suffering, had risen and was going in quest of his hat. But in the doorway he remembered the set of sapphires; he could feel the case in his pocket. He had been wanting to hide it at the bottom of the bed so that when she entered it before him she should feel it against her legs. Since dinnertime he had been meditating this little surprise like a schoolboy, and now, in trouble and anguish of heart at being thus dismissed, he gave her the case without further ceremony.
“What is it?” she queried. “Sapphires? Dear me! Oh yes, it’s that set. How sweet you are! But I say, my darling, d’you believe it’s the same one? In the shopwindow it made a much greater show.”
That was all the thanks he got, and she let him go away. He noticed Satin stretched out silent and expectant, and with that he gazed at both women and without further insistence submitted to his fate and went downstairs. The hall door had not yet closed when Satin caught Nana round the waist and danced and sang. Then she ran to the window.
“Oh, just look at the figure he cuts down in the street!” The two women leaned upon the wrought-iron window rail in the shadow of the curtains. One o’clock struck. The Avenue de Villiers was deserted, and its double file of gas lamps stretched away into the darkness of the damp March night through which great gusts of wind kept sweeping, laden with rain. There were vague stretches of land on either side of the road which looked like gulfs of shadow, while scaffoldings round mansions in process of construction loomed upward under the dark sky. They laughed uncontrollably as they watched Muffat’s rounded back and glistening shadow disappearing along the wet sidewalk into the glacial, desolate plains of new Paris. But Nana silenced Satin.
“Take care; there are the police!”
Thereupon they smothered their laughter and gazed in secret fear at two dark figures walking with measured tread on the opposite side of the avenue. Amid all her luxurious surroundings, amid all the royal splendors of the woman whom all must obey, Nana still stood in horror of the police and did not like to hear them mentioned any oftener than death. She felt distinctly unwell when a policeman looked up at her house. One never knew what such people might do! They might easily take them for loose women if they heard them laughing at that hour of the night. Satin, with a little shudder, had squeezed herself up against Nana. Nevertheless, the pair stayed where they were and were soon interested in the approach of a lantern, the light of which danced over the puddles in the road. It was an old ragpicker woman who was busy raking in the gutters. Satin recognized her.
“Dear me,” she exclaimed, “it’s Queen Pomare with her wickerwork shawl!”
And while a gust of wind lashed the fine rain in their faces she told her beloved the story of Queen Pomare. Oh, she had been a splendid girl once upon a time: all Paris had talked of her beauty. And such devilish go and such cheek! Why, she led the men about like dogs, and great people stood blubbering on her stairs! Now she was in the habit of getting tipsy, and the women round about would make her drink absinthe for the sake of a laugh, after which the street boys would throw stones at her and chase her. In fact, it was a regular smashup; the queen had tumbled into the mud! Nana listened, feeling cold all over.
“You shall see,” added Satin.
She whistled a man’s whistle, and the ragpicker, who was then below the window, lifted her head and showed herself by the yellow flare of her lantern. Framed among rags, a perfect bundle of them, a face looked out from under a tattered kerchief — a blue, seamed face with a toothless, cavernous mouth and fiery bruises where the eyes should be. And Nana, seeing the frightful old woman, the wanton drowned in drink, had a sudden fit of recollection and saw far back amid the shadows of consciousness the vision of Chamont — Irma d’Anglars, the old harlot crowned with years and honors, ascending the steps in front of her chateau amid abjectly reverential villagers. Then as Satin whistled again, making game of the old hag, who could not see her:
“Do leave off; there are the police!” she murmured in changed tones. “In with us, quick, my pet!”
The measured steps were returning, and they shut the window. Turning round again, shivering, and with the damp of night on her hair, Nana was momentarily astounded at sight of her drawing room. It seemed as though she had forgotten it and were entering an unknown chamber. So warm, so full of perfume, was the air she encountered that she experienced a sense of delighted surprise. The heaped-up wealth of the place, the Old World furniture, the fabrics of silk and gold, the ivory, the bronzes, were slumbering in the rosy light of the lamps, while from the whole of the silent house a rich feeling of great luxury ascended, the luxury of the solemn reception rooms, of the comfortable, ample dining room, of the vast retired staircase, with their soft carpets and seats. Her individuality, with its longing for domination and enjoyment and its desire to possess everything that she might destroy everything, was suddenly increased. Never before had she felt so profoundly the puissance of her sex. She gazed slowly round and remarked with an expression of grave philosophy:
“Ah well, all the same, one’s jolly well right to profit by things when one’s young!”
But now Satin was rolling on the bearskins in the bedroom and calling her.
“Oh, do come! Do come!”
Nana undressed in the dressing room, and in order to be quicker about it she took her thick fell of blonde hair in both hands and began shaking it above the silver wash hand basin, while a downward hail of long hairpins rang a little chime on the shining metal.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15