Toward one in the morning, in the great bed of the Venice point draperies, Nana and the count lay still awake. He had returned to her that evening after a three days sulking fit. The room, which was dimly illumined by a lamp, seemed to slumber amid a warm, damp odor of love, while the furniture, with its white lacquer and silver incrustations, loomed vague and wan through the gloom. A curtain had been drawn to, so that the bed lay flooded with shadow. A sigh became audible; then a kiss broke the silence, and Nana, slipping off the coverlet, sat for a moment or two, barelegged, on the edge of the bed. The count let his head fall back on the pillow and remained in darkness.
“Dearest, you believe in the good God, don’t you?” she queried after some moments’ reflection. Her face was serious; she had been overcome by pious terrors on quitting her lover’s arms.
Since morning, indeed, she had been complaining of feeling uncomfortable, and all her stupid notions, as she phrased it, notions about death and hell, were secretly torturing her. From time to time she had nights such as these, during which childish fears and atrocious fancies would thrill her with waking nightmares. She continued:
“I say, d’you think I shall go to heaven?”
And with that she shivered, while the count, in his surprise at her putting such singular questions at such a moment, felt his old religious remorse returning upon him. Then with her chemise slipping from her shoulders and her hair unpinned, she again threw herself upon his breast, sobbing and clinging to him as she did so.
“I’m afraid of dying! I’m afraid of dying!” He had all the trouble in the world to disengage himself. Indeed, he was himself afraid of giving in to the sudden madness of this woman clinging to his body in her dread of the Invisible. Such dread is contagious, and he reasoned with her. Her conduct was perfect — she had only to conduct herself well in order one day to merit pardon. But she shook her head. Doubtless she was doing no one any harm; nay, she was even in the constant habit of wearing a medal of the Virgin, which she showed to him as it hung by a red thread between her breasts. Only it had been foreordained that all unmarried women who held conversation with men would go to hell. Scraps of her catechism recurred to her remembrance. Ah, if one only knew for certain, but, alas, one was sure of nothing; nobody ever brought back any information, and then, truly, it would be stupid to bother oneself about things if the priests were talking foolishness all the time. Nevertheless, she religiously kissed her medal, which was still warm from contact with her skin, as though by way of charm against death, the idea of which filled her with icy horror. Muffat was obliged to accompany her into the dressing room, for she shook at the idea of being alone there for one moment, even though she had left the door open. When he had lain down again she still roamed about the room, visiting its several corners and starting and shivering at the slightest noise. A mirror stopped her, and as of old she lapsed into obvious contemplation of her nakedness. But the sight of her breast, her waist and her thighs only doubled her terror, and she ended by feeling with both hands very slowly over the bones of her face.
“You’re ugly when you’re dead,” she said in deliberate tones.
And she pressed her cheeks, enlarging her eyes and pushing down her jaw, in order to see how she would look. Thus disfigured, she turned toward the count.
“Do look! My head’ll be quite small, it will!”
At this he grew vexed.
“You’re mad; come to bed!”
He fancied he saw her in a grave, emaciated by a century of sleep, and he joined his hands and stammered a prayer. It was some time ago that the religious sense had reconquered him, and now his daily access of faith had again assumed the apoplectic intensity which was wont to leave him well-nigh stunned. The joints of his fingers used to crack, and he would repeat without cease these words only: “My God, my God, my God!” It was the cry of his impotence, the cry of that sin against which, though his damnation was certain, he felt powerless to strive. When Nana returned she found him hidden beneath the bedclothes; he was haggard; he had dug his nails into his bosom, and his eyes stared upward as though in search of heaven. And with that she started to weep again. Then they both embraced, and their teeth chattered they knew not why, as the same imbecile obsession over-mastered them. They had already passed a similar night, but on this occasion the thing was utterly idiotic, as Nana declared when she ceased to be frightened. She suspected something, and this caused her to question the count in a prudent sort of way. It might be that Rose Mignon had sent the famous letter! But that was not the case; it was sheer fright, nothing more, for he was still ignorant whether he was a cuckold or no.
Two days later, after a fresh disappearance, Muffat presented himself in the morning, a time of day at which he never came. He was livid; his eyes were red and his whole man still shaken by a great internal struggle. But Zoe, being scared herself, did not notice his troubled state. She had run to meet him and now began crying:
“Oh, monsieur, do come in! Madame nearly died yesterday evening!”
And when he asked for particulars:
“Something it’s impossible to believe has happened — a miscarriage, monsieur.”
Nana had been in the family way for the past three months. For long she had simply thought herself out of sorts, and Dr Boutarel had himself been in doubt. But when afterward he made her a decisive announcement, she felt so bored thereby that she did all she possibly could to disguise her condition. Her nervous terrors, her dark humors, sprang to some extent from this unfortunate state of things, the secret of which she kept very shamefacedly, as became a courtesan mother who is obliged to conceal her plight. The thing struck her as a ridiculous accident, which made her appear small in her own eyes and would, had it been known, have led people to chaff her.
“A poor joke, eh?” she said. “Bad luck, too, certainly.”
She was necessarily very sharp set when she thought her last hour had come. There was no end to her surprise, too; her sexual economy seemed to her to have got out of order; it produced children then even when one did not want them and when one employed it for quite other purposes! Nature drove her to exasperation; this appearance of serious motherhood in a career of pleasure, this gift of life amid all the deaths she was spreading around, exasperated her. Why could one not dispose of oneself as fancy dictated, without all this fuss? And whence had this brat come? She could not even suggest a father. Ah, dear heaven, the man who made him would have a splendid notion had he kept him in his own hands, for nobody asked for him; he was in everybody’s way, and he would certainly not have much happiness in life!
Meanwhile Zoe described the catastrophe.
“Madame was seized with colic toward four o’clock. When she didn’t come back out of the dressing room I went in and found her lying stretched on the floor in a faint. Yes, monsieur, on the floor in a pool of blood, as though she had been murdered. Then I understood, you see. I was furious; Madame might quite well have confided her trouble to me. As it happened, Monsieur Georges was there, and he helped me to lift her up, and directly a miscarriage was mentioned he felt ill in his turn! Oh, it’s true I’ve had the hump since yesterday!”
In fact, the house seemed utterly upset. All the servants were galloping upstairs, downstairs and through the rooms. Georges had passed the night on an armchair in the drawing room. It was he who had announced the news to Madame’s friends at that hour of the evening when Madame was in the habit of receiving. He had still been very pale, and he had told his story very feelingly, and as though stupefied. Steiner, La Faloise, Philippe and others, besides, had presented themselves, and at the end of the lad’s first phrase they burst into exclamations. The thing was impossible! It must be a farce! After which they grew serious and gazed with an embarrassed expression at her bedroom door. They shook their heads; it was no laughing matter.
Till midnight a dozen gentlemen had stood talking in low voices in front of the fireplace. All were friends; all were deeply exercised by the same idea of paternity. They seemed to be mutually excusing themselves, and they looked as confused as if they had done something clumsy. Eventually, however, they put a bold face on the matter. It had nothing to do with them: the fault was hers! What a stunner that Nana was, eh? One would never have believed her capable of such a fake! And with that they departed one by one, walking on tiptoe, as though in a chamber of death where you cannot laugh.
“Come up all the same, monsieur,” said Zoe to Muffat. “Madame is much better and will see you. We are expecting the doctor, who promised to come back this morning.”
The lady’s maid had persuaded Georges to go back home to sleep, and upstairs in the drawing room only Satin remained. She lay stretched on a divan, smoking a cigarette and scanning the ceiling. Amid the household scare which had followed the accident she had been white with rage, had shrugged her shoulders violently and had made ferocious remarks. Accordingly, when Zoe was passing in front of her and telling Monsieur that poor, dear Madame had suffered a great deal:
“That’s right; it’ll teach him!” said Satin curtly.
They turned round in surprise, but she had not moved a muscle; her eyes were still turned toward the ceiling, and her cigarette was still wedged tightly between her lips.
“Dear me, you’re charming, you are!” said Zoe.
But Satin sat up, looked savagely at the count and once more hurled her remark at him.
“That’s right; it’ll teach him!”
And she lay down again and blew forth a thin jet of smoke, as though she had no interest in present events and were resolved not to meddle in any of them. No, it was all too silly!
Zoe, however, introduced Muffat into the bedroom, where a scent of ether lingered amid warm, heavy silence, scarce broken by the dull roll of occasional carriages in the Avenue de Villiers. Nana, looking very white on her pillow, was lying awake with wide-open, meditative eyes. She smiled when she saw the count but did not move.
“Ah, dear pet!” she slowly murmured. “I really thought I should never see you again.”
Then as he leaned forward to kiss her on the hair, she grew tender toward him and spoke frankly about the child, as though he were its father.
“I never dared tell you; I felt so happy about it! Oh, I used to dream about it; I should have liked to be worthy of you! And now there’s nothing left. Ah well, perhaps that’s best. I don’t want to bring a stumbling block into your life.”
Astounded by this story of paternity, he began stammering vague phrases. He had taken a chair and had sat down by the bed, leaning one arm on the coverlet. Then the young woman noticed his wild expression, the blood reddening his eyes, the fever that set his lips aquiver.
“What’s the matter then?” she asked. “You’re ill too.”
“No,” he answered with extreme difficulty.
She gazed at him with a profound expression. Then she signed to Zoe to retire, for the latter was lingering round arranging the medicine bottles. And when they were alone she drew him down to her and again asked:
“What’s the matter with you, darling? The tears are ready to burst from your eyes — I can see that quite well. Well now, speak out; you’ve come to tell me something.”
“No, no, I swear I haven’t,” he blurted out. But he was choking with suffering, and this sickroom, into which he had suddenly entered unawares, so worked on his feelings that he burst out sobbing and buried his face in the bedclothes to smother the violence of his grief. Nana understood. Rose Mignon had most assuredly decided to send the letter. She let him weep for some moments, and he was shaken by convulsions so fierce that the bed trembled under her. At length in accents of motherly compassion she queried:
“You’ve had bothers at your home?”
He nodded affirmatively. She paused anew, and then very low:
“Then you know all?”
He nodded assent. And a heavy silence fell over the chamber of suffering. The night before, on his return from a party given by the empress, he had received the letter Sabine had written her lover. After an atrocious night passed in the meditation of vengeance he had gone out in the morning in order to resist a longing which prompted him to kill his wife. Outside, under a sudden, sweet influence of a fine June morning, he had lost the thread of his thoughts and had come to Nana’s, as he always came at terrible moments in his life. There only he gave way to his misery, for he felt a cowardly joy at the thought that she would console him.
“Now look here, be calm!” the young woman continued, becoming at the same time extremely kind. “I’ve known it a long time, but it was certainly not I that would have opened your eyes. You remember you had your doubts last year, but then things arranged themselves, owing to my prudence. In fact, you wanted proofs. The deuce, you’ve got one today, and I know it’s hard lines. Nevertheless, you must look at the matter quietly: you’re not dishonored because it’s happened.”
He had left off weeping. A sense of shame restrained him from saying what he wanted to, although he had long ago slipped into the most intimate confessions about his household. She had to encourage him. Dear me, she was a woman; she could understand everything. When in a dull voice he exclaimed:
“You’re ill. What’s the good of tiring you? It was stupid of me to have come. I’m going —”
“No,” she answered briskly enough. “Stay! Perhaps I shall be able to give you some good advice. Only don’t make me talk too much; the medical man’s forbidden it.”
He had ended by rising, and he was now walking up and down the room. Then she questioned him:
“Now what are you going to do?
“I’m going to box the man’s ears — by heavens, yes!”
She pursed up her lips disapprovingly.
“That’s not very wise. And about your wife?”
“I shall go to law; I’ve proofs.”
“Not at all wise, my dear boy. It’s stupid even. You know I shall never let you do that!”
And in her feeble voice she showed him decisively how useless and scandalous a duel and a trial would be. He would be a nine days’ newspaper sensation; his whole existence would be at stake, his peace of mind, his high situation at court, the honor of his name, and all for what? That he might have the laughers against him.
“What will it matter?” he cried. “I shall have had my revenge.”
“My pet,” she said, “in a business of that kind one never has one’s revenge if one doesn’t take it directly.”
He paused and stammered. He was certainly no poltroon, but he felt that she was right. An uneasy feeling was growing momentarily stronger within him, a poor, shameful feeling which softened his anger now that it was at its hottest. Moreover, in her frank desire to tell him everything, she dealt him a fresh blow.
“And d’you want to know what’s annoying you, dearest? Why, that you are deceiving your wife yourself. You don’t sleep away from home for nothing, eh? Your wife must have her suspicions. Well then, how can you blame her? She’ll tell you that you’ve set her the example, and that’ll shut you up. There, now, that’s why you’re stamping about here instead of being at home murdering both of ‘em.”
Muffat had again sunk down on the chair; he was overwhelmed by these home thrusts. She broke off and took breath, and then in a low voice:
“Oh, I’m a wreck! Do help me sit up a bit. I keep slipping down, and my head’s too low.”
When he had helped her she sighed and felt more comfortable. And with that she harked back to the subject. What a pretty sight a divorce suit would be! Couldn’t he imagine the advocate of the countess amusing Paris with his remarks about Nana? Everything would have come out — her fiasco at the Varietes, her house, her manner of life. Oh dear, no! She had no wish for all that amount of advertising. Some dirty women might, perhaps, have driven him to it for the sake of getting a thundering big advertisement, but she — she desired his happiness before all else. She had drawn him down toward her and, after passing her arm around his neck, was nursing his head close to hers on the edge of the pillow. And with that she whispered softly:
“Listen, my pet, you shall make it up with your wife.”
But he rebelled at this. It could never be! His heart was nigh breaking at the thought; it was too shameful. Nevertheless, she kept tenderly insisting.
“You shall make it up with your wife. Come, come, you don’t want to hear all the world saying that I’ve tempted you away from your home? I should have too vile a reputation! What would people think of me? Only swear that you’ll always love me, because the moment you go with another woman —”
Tears choked her utterance, and he intervened with kisses and said:
“You’re beside yourself; it’s impossible!”
“Yes, yes,” she rejoined, “you must. But I’ll be reasonable. After all, she’s your wife, and it isn’t as if you were to play me false with the firstcomer.”
And she continued in this strain, giving him the most excellent advice. She even spoke of God, and the count thought he was listening to M. Venot, when that old gentleman endeavored to sermonize him out of the grasp of sin. Nana, however, did not speak of breaking it off entirely: she preached indulgent good nature and suggested that, as became a dear, nice old fellow, he should divide his attentions between his wife and his mistress, so that they would all enjoy a quiet life, devoid of any kind of annoyance, something, in fact, in the nature of a happy slumber amid the inevitable miseries of existence. Their life would be nowise changed: he would still be the little man of her heart. Only he would come to her a bit less often and would give the countess the nights not passed with her. She had got to the end of her strength and left off, speaking under her breath:
“After that I shall feel I’ve done a good action, and you’ll love me all the more.”
Silence reigned. She had closed her eyes and lay wan upon her pillow. The count was patiently listening to her, not wishing her to tire herself. A whole minute went by before she reopened her eyes and murmured:
“Besides, how about the money? Where would you get the money from if you must grow angry and go to law? Labordette came for the bill yesterday. As for me, I’m out of everything; I have nothing to put on now.”
Then she shut her eyes again and looked like one dead. A shadow of deep anguish had passed over Muffat’s brow. Under the present stroke he had since yesterday forgotten the money troubles from which he knew not how to escape. Despite formal promises to the contrary, the bill for a hundred thousand francs had been put in circulation after being once renewed, and Labordette, pretending to be very miserable about it, threw all the blame on Francis, declaring that he would never again mix himself up in such a matter with an uneducated man. It was necessary to pay, for the count would never have allowed his signature to be protested. Then in addition to Nana’s novel demands, his home expenses were extraordinarily confused. On their return from Les Fondettes the countess had suddenly manifested a taste for luxury, a longing for worldly pleasures, which was devouring their fortune. Her ruinous caprices began to be talked about. Their whole household management was altered, and five hundred thousand francs were squandered in utterly transforming the old house in the Rue Miromesnil. Then there were extravagantly magnificent gowns and large sums disappeared, squandered or perhaps given away, without her ever dreaming of accounting for them. Twice Muffat ventured to mention this, for he was anxious to know how the money went, but on these occasions she had smiled and gazed at him with so singular an expression that he dared not interrogate her further for fear of a too-unmistakable answer. If he were taking Daguenet as son-in-law as a gift from Nana it was chiefly with the hope of being able to reduce Estelle’s dower to two hundred thousand francs and of then being free to make any arrangements he chose about the remainder with a young man who was still rejoicing in this unexpected match.
Nevertheless, for the last week, under the immediate necessity of finding Labordette’s hundred thousand francs, Muffat had been able to hit on but one expedient, from which he recoiled. This was that he should sell the Bordes, a magnificent property valued at half a million, which an uncle had recently left the countess. However, her signature was necessary, and she herself, according to the terms of the deed, could not alienate the property without the count’s authorization. The day before he had indeed resolved to talk to his wife about this signature. And now everything was ruined; at such a moment he would never accept of such a compromise. This reflection added bitterness to the frightful disgrace of the adultery. He fully understood what Nana was asking for, since in that ever-growing self-abandonment which prompted him to put her in possession of all his secrets, he had complained to her of his position and had confided to her the tiresome difficulty he was in with regard to the signature of the countess.
Nana, however, did not seem to insist. She did not open her eyes again, and, seeing her so pale, he grew frightened and made her inhale a little ether. She gave a sigh and without mentioning Daguenet asked him some questions.
“When is the marriage?”
“We sign the contract on Tuesday, in five days’ time,” he replied.
Then still keeping her eyelids closed, as though she were speaking from the darkness and silence of her brain:
“Well then, pet, see to what you’ve got to do. As far as I’m concerned, I want everybody to be happy and comfortable.”
He took her hand and soothed her. Yes, he would see about it; the important thing now was for her to rest. And the revolt within him ceased, for this warm and slumberous sickroom, with its all-pervading scent of ether, had ended by lulling him into a mere longing for happiness and peace. All his manhood, erewhile maddened by wrong, had departed out of him in the neighborhood of that warm bed and that suffering woman, whom he was nursing under the influence of her feverish heat and of remembered delights. He leaned over her and pressed her in a close embrace, while despite her unmoved features her lips wore a delicate, victorious smile. But Dr Boutarel made his appearance.
“Well, and how’s this dear child?” he said familiarly to Muffat, whom he treated as her husband. “The deuce, but we’ve made her talk!”
The doctor was a good-looking man and still young. He had a superb practice among the gay world, and being very merry by nature and ready to laugh and joke in the friendliest way with the demimonde ladies with whom, however, he never went farther, he charged very high fees and got them paid with the greatest punctuality. Moreover, he would put himself out to visit them on the most trivial occasions, and Nana, who was always trembling at the fear of death, would send and fetch him two or three times a week and would anxiously confide to him little infantile ills which he would cure to an accompaniment of amusing gossip and harebrained anecdotes. The ladies all adored him. But this time the little ill was serious.
Muffat withdrew, deeply moved. Seeing his poor Nana so very weak, his sole feeling was now one of tenderness. As he was leaving the room she motioned him back and gave him her forehead to kiss. In a low voice and with a playfully threatening look she said:
“You know what I’ve allowed you to do. Go back to your wife, or it’s all over and I shall grow angry!”
The Countess Sabine had been anxious that her daughter’s wedding contract should be signed on a Tuesday in order that the renovated house, where the paint was still scarcely dry, might be reopened with a grand entertainment. Five hundred invitations had been issued to people in all kinds of sets. On the morning of the great day the upholsterers were still nailing up hangings, and toward nine at night, just when the lusters were going to be lit, the architect, accompanied by the eager and interested countess, was given his final orders.
It was one of those spring festivities which have a delicate charm of their own. Owing to the warmth of the June nights, it had become possible to open the two doors of the great drawing room and to extend the dancing floor to the sanded paths of the garden. When the first guests arrived and were welcomed at the door by the count and the countess they were positively dazzled. One had only to recall to mind the drawing room of the past, through which flitted the icy, ghostly presence of the Countess Muffat, that antique room full of an atmosphere of religious austerity with its massive First Empire mahogany furniture, its yellow velvet hangings, its moldy ceiling through which the damp had soaked. Now from the very threshold of the entrance hall mosaics set off with gold were glittering under the lights of lofty candelabras, while the marble staircase unfurled, as it were, a delicately chiseled balustrade. Then, too, the drawing room looked splendid; it was hung with Genoa velvet, and a huge decorative design by Boucher covered the ceiling, a design for which the architect had paid a hundred thousand francs at the sale of the Chateau de Dampierre. The lusters and the crystal ornaments lit up a luxurious display of mirrors and precious furniture. It seemed as though Sabine’s long chair, that solitary red silk chair, whose soft contours were so marked in the old days, had grown and spread till it filled the whole great house with voluptuous idleness and a sense of tense enjoyment not less fierce and hot than a fire which has been long in burning up.
People were already dancing. The band, which had been located in the garden, in front of one of the open windows, was playing a waltz, the supple rhythm of which came softly into the house through the intervening night air. And the garden seemed to spread away and away, bathed in transparent shadow and lit by Venetian lamps, while in a purple tent pitched on the edge of a lawn a table for refreshments had been established. The waltz, which was none other than the quaint, vulgar one in the Blonde Venus, with its laughing, blackguard lilt, penetrated the old hotel with sonorous waves of sound and sent a feverish thrill along its walls. It was as though some fleshly wind had come up out of the common street and were sweeping the relics of a vanished epoch out of the proud old dwelling, bearing away the Muffats’ past, the age of honor and religious faith which had long slumbered beneath the lofty ceilings.
Meanwhile near the hearth, in their accustomed places, the old friends of the count’s mother were taking refuge. They felt out of their element — they were dazzled and they formed a little group amid the slowly invading mob. Mme du Joncquoy, unable to recognize the various rooms, had come in through the dining saloon. Mme Chantereau was gazing with a stupefied expression at the garden, which struck her as immense. Presently there was a sound of low voices, and the corner gave vent to all sorts of bitter reflections.
“I declare,” murmured Mme Chantereau, “just fancy if the countess were to return to life. Why, can you not imagine her coming in among all these crowds of people! And then there’s all this gilding and this uproar! It’s scandalous!”
“Sabine’s out of her senses,” replied Mme du Joncquoy. “Did you see her at the door? Look, you can catch sight of her here; she’s wearing all her diamonds.”
For a moment or two they stood up in order to take a distant view of the count and countess. Sabine was in a white dress trimmed with marvelous English point lace. She was triumphant in beauty; she looked young and gay, and there was a touch of intoxication in her continual smile. Beside her stood Muffat, looking aged and a little pale, but he, too, was smiling in his calm and worthy fashion.
“And just to think that he was once master,” continued Mme Chantereau, “and that not a single rout seat would have come in without his permission! Ah well, she’s changed all that; it’s her house now. D’you remember when she did not want to do her drawing room up again? She’s done up the entire house.”
But the ladies grew silent, for Mme de Chezelles was entering the room, followed by a band of young men. She was going into ecstasies and marking her approval with a succession of little exclamations.
“Oh, it’s delicious, exquisite! What taste!” And she shouted back to her followers:
“Didn’t I say so? There’s nothing equal to these old places when one takes them in hand. They become dazzling! It’s quite in the grand seventeenth-century style. Well, NOW she can receive.”
The two old ladies had again sat down and with lowered tones began talking about the marriage, which was causing astonishment to a good many people. Estelle had just passed by them. She was in a pink silk gown and was as pale, flat, silent and virginal as ever. She had accepted Daguenet very quietly and now evinced neither joy nor sadness, for she was still as cold and white as on those winter evenings when she used to put logs on the fire. This whole fete given in her honor, these lights and flowers and tunes, left her quite unmoved.
“An adventurer,” Mme du Joncquoy was saying. “For my part, I’ve never seen him.”
“Take care, here he is,” whispered Mme Chantereau.
Daguenet, who had caught sight of Mme Hugon and her sons, had eagerly offered her his arm. He laughed and was effusively affectionate toward her, as though she had had a hand in his sudden good fortune.
“Thank you,” she said, sitting down near the fireplace. “You see, it’s my old corner.”
“You know him?” queried Mme du Joncquoy, when Daguenet had gone. “Certainly I do — a charming young man. Georges is very fond of him. Oh, they’re a most respected family.”
And the good lady defended him against the mute hostility which was apparent to her. His father, held in high esteem by Louis Philippe, had been a PREFET up to the time of his death. The son had been a little dissipated, perhaps; they said he was ruined, but in any case, one of his uncles, who was a great landowner, was bound to leave him his fortune. The ladies, however, shook their heads, while Mme Hugon, herself somewhat embarrassed, kept harking back to the extreme respectability of his family. She was very much fatigued and complained of her feet. For some months she had been occupying her house in the Rue Richelieu, having, as she said, a whole lot of things on hand. A look of sorrow overshadowed her smiling, motherly face.
“Never mind,” Mme Chantereau concluded. “Estelle could have aimed at something much better.”
There was a flourish. A quadrille was about to begin, and the crowd flowed back to the sides of the drawing room in order to leave the floor clear. Bright dresses flitted by and mingled together amid the dark evening coats, while the intense light set jewels flashing and white plumes quivering and lilacs and roses gleaming and flowering amid the sea of many heads. It was already very warm, and a penetrating perfume was exhaled from light tulles and crumpled silks and satins, from which bare shoulders glimmered white, while the orchestra played its lively airs. Through open doors ranges of seated ladies were visible in the background of adjoining rooms; they flashed a discreet smile; their eyes glowed, and they made pretty mouths as the breath of their fans caressed their faces. And guests still kept arriving, and a footman announced their names while gentlemen advanced slowly amid the surrounding groups, striving to find places for ladies, who hung with difficulty on their arms, and stretching forward in quest of some far-off vacant armchair. The house kept filling, and crinolined skirts got jammed together with a little rustling sound. There were corners where an amalgam of laces, bunches and puffs would completely bar the way, while all the other ladies stood waiting, politely resigned and imperturbably graceful, as became people who were made to take part in these dazzling crushes. Meanwhile across the garden couples, who had been glad to escape from the close air of the great drawing room, were wandering away under the roseate gleam of the Venetian lamps, and shadowy dresses kept flitting along the edge of the lawn, as though in rhythmic time to the music of the quadrille, which sounded sweet and distant behind the trees.
Steiner had just met with Foucarmont and La Faloise, who were drinking a glass of champagne in front of the buffet.
“It’s beastly smart,” said La Faloise as he took a survey of the purple tent, which was supported by gilded lances. “You might fancy yourself at the Gingerbread Fair. That’s it — the Gingerbread Fair!”
In these days he continually affected a bantering tone, posing as the young man who has abused every mortal thing and now finds nothing worth taking seriously.
“How surprised poor Vandeuvres would be if he were to come back,” murmured Foucarmont. “You remember how he simply nearly died of boredom in front of the fire in there. Egad, it was no laughing matter.”
“Vandeuvres — oh, let him be. He’s a gone coon!” La Faloise disdainfully rejoined. “He jolly well choused himself, he did, if he thought he could make us sit up with his roast-meat story! Not a soul mentions it now. Blotted out, done for, buried — that’s what’s the matter with Vandeuvres! Here’s to the next man!”
Then as Steiner shook hands with him:
“You know Nana’s just arrived. Oh, my boys, it was a state entry. It was too brilliant for anything! First of all she kissed the countess. Then when the children came up she gave them her blessing and said to Daguenet, ‘Listen, Paul, if you go running after the girls you’ll have to answer for it to me.’ What, d’you mean to say you didn’t see that? Oh, it WAS smart. A success, if you like!”
The other two listened to him, openmouthed, and at last burst out laughing. He was enchanted and thought himself in his best vein.
“You thought it had really happened, eh? Confound it, since Nana’s made the match! Anyway, she’s one of the family.”
The young Hugons were passing, and Philippe silenced him. And with that they chatted about the marriage from the male point of view. Georges was vexed with La Faloise for telling an anecdote. Certainly Nana had fubbed off on Muffat one of her old flames as son-in-law; only it was not true that she had been to bed with Daguenet as lately as yesterday. Foucarmont made bold to shrug his shoulders. Could anyone ever tell when Nana was in bed with anyone? But Georges grew excited and answered with an “I can tell, sir!” which set them all laughing. In a word, as Steiner put it, it was all a very funny kettle of fish!
The buffet was gradually invaded by the crowd, and, still keeping together, they vacated their positions there. La Faloise stared brazenly at the women as though he believed himself to be Mabille. At the end of a garden walk the little band was surprised to find M. Venot busily conferring with Daguenet, and with that they indulged in some facile pleasantries which made them very merry. He was confessing him, giving him advice about the bridal night! Presently they returned in front of one of the drawing-room doors, within which a polka was sending the couples whirling to and fro till they seemed to leave a wake behind them among the crowd of men who remained standing about. In the slight puffs of air which came from outside the tapers flared up brilliantly, and when a dress floated by in time to the rat-tat of the measure, a little gust of wind cooled the sparkling heat which streamed down from the lusters.
“Egad, they’re not cold in there!” muttered La Faloise.
They blinked after emerging from the mysterious shadows of the garden. Then they pointed out to one another the Marquis de Chouard where he stood apart, his tall figure towering over the bare shoulders which surrounded him. His face was pale and very stern, and beneath its crown of scant white hair it wore an expression of lofty dignity. Scandalized by Count Muffat’s conduct, he had publicly broken off all intercourse with him and was by way of never again setting foot in the house. If he had consented to put in an appearance that evening it was because his granddaughter had begged him to. But he disapproved of her marriage and had inveighed indignantly against the way in which the government classes were being disorganized by the shameful compromises engendered by modern debauchery.
“Ah, it’s the end of all things,” Mme du Joncquoy whispered in Mme Chantereau’s ear as she sat near the fireplace. “That bad woman has bewitched the unfortunate man. And to think we once knew him such a true believer, such a noblehearted gentleman!”
“It appears he is ruining himself,” continued Mme Chantereau. “My husband has had a bill of his in his hands. At present he’s living in that house in the Avenue de Villiers; all Paris is talking about it. Good heavens! I don’t make excuses for Sabine, but you must admit that he gives her infinite cause of complaint, and, dear me, if she throws money out of the window, too —”
“She does not only throw money,” interrupted the other. “In fact, between them, there’s no knowing where they’ll stop; they’ll end in the mire, my dear.”
But just then a soft voice interrupted them. It was M. Venot, and he had come and seated himself behind them, as though anxious to disappear from view. Bending forward, he murmured:
“Why despair? God manifests Himself when all seems lost.”
He was assisting peacefully at the downfall of the house which he erewhile governed. Since his stay at Les Fondettes he had been allowing the madness to increase, for he was very clearly aware of his own powerlessness. He had, indeed, accepted the whole position — the count’s wild passion for Nana, Fauchery’s presence, even Estelle’s marriage with Daguenet. What did these things matter? He even became more supple and mysterious, for he nursed a hope of being able to gain the same mastery over the young as over the disunited couple, and he knew that great disorders lead to great conversions. Providence would have its opportunity.
“Our friend,” he continued in a low voice, “is always animated by the best religious sentiments. He has given me the sweetest proofs of this.”
“Well,” said Mme du Joncquoy, “he ought first to have made it up with his wife.”
“Doubtless. At this moment I have hopes that the reconciliation will be shortly effected.”
Whereupon the two old ladies questioned him.
But he grew very humble again. “Heaven,” he said, “must be left to act.” His whole desire in bringing the count and the countess together again was to avoid a public scandal, for religion tolerated many faults when the proprieties were respected.
“In fact,” resumed Mme du Joncquoy, “you ought to have prevented this union with an adventurer.”
The little old gentleman assumed an expression of profound astonishment. “You deceive yourself. Monsieur Daguenet is a young man of the greatest merit. I am acquainted with his thoughts; he is anxious to live down the errors of his youth. Estelle will bring him back to the path of virtue, be sure of that.”
“Oh, Estelle!” Mme Chantereau murmured disdainfully. “I believe the dear young thing to be incapable of willing anything; she is so insignificant!”
This opinion caused M. Venot to smile. However, he went into no explanations about the young bride and, shutting his eyes, as though to avoid seeming to take any further interest in the matter, he once more lost himself in his corner behind the petticoats. Mme Hugon, though weary and absent-minded, had caught some phrases of the conversation, and she now intervened and summed up in her tolerant way by remarking to the Marquis de Chouard, who just then bowed to her:
“These ladies are too severe. Existence is so bitter for every one of us! Ought we not to forgive others much, my friend, if we wish to merit forgiveness ourselves?”
For some seconds the marquis appeared embarrassed, for he was afraid of allusions. But the good lady wore so sad a smile that he recovered almost at once and remarked:
“No, there is no forgiveness for certain faults. It is by reason of this kind of accommodating spirit that a society sinks into the abyss of ruin.”
The ball had grown still more animated. A fresh quadrille was imparting a slight swaying motion to the drawing-room floor, as though the old dwelling had been shaken by the impulse of the dance. Now and again amid the wan confusion of heads a woman’s face with shining eyes and parted lips stood sharply out as it was whirled away by the dance, the light of the lusters gleaming on the white skin. Mme du Joncquoy declared that the present proceedings were senseless. It was madness to crowd five hundred people into a room which would scarcely contain two hundred. In fact, why not sign the wedding contract on the Place du Carrousel? This was the outcome of the new code of manners, said Mme Chantereau. In old times these solemnities took place in the bosom of the family, but today one must have a mob of people; the whole street must be allowed to enter quite freely, and there must be a great crush, or else the evening seems a chilly affair. People now advertised their luxury and introduced the mere foam on the wave of Parisian society into their houses, and accordingly it was only too natural if illicit proceedings such as they had been discussing afterward polluted the hearth. The ladies complained that they could not recognize more than fifty people. Where did all this crowd spring from? Young girls with low necks were making a great display of their shoulders. A woman had a golden dagger stuck in her chignon, while a bodice thickly embroidered with jet beads clothed her in what looked like a coat of mail. People’s eyes kept following another lady smilingly, so singularly marked were her clinging skirts. All the luxuriant splendor of the departing winter was there — the overtolerant world of pleasure, the scratch gathering a hostess can get together after a first introduction, the sort of society, in fact, in which great names and great shames jostle together in the same fierce quest of enjoyment. The heat was increasing, and amid the overcrowded rooms the quadrille unrolled the cadenced symmetry of its figures.
“Very smart — the countess!” La Faloise continued at the garden door. “She’s ten years younger than her daughter. By the by, Foucarmont, you must decide on a point. Vandeuvres once bet that she had no thighs.”
This affectation of cynicism bored the other gentlemen, and Foucarmont contented himself by saying:
“Ask your cousin, dear boy. Here he is.”
“Jove, it’s a happy thought!” cried La Faloise. “I bet ten louis she has thighs.”
Fauchery did indeed come up. As became a constant inmate of the house, he had gone round by the dining room in order to avoid the crowded doors. Rose had taken him up again at the beginning of the winter, and he was now dividing himself between the singer and the countess, but he was extremely fatigued and did not know how to get rid of one of them. Sabine flattered his vanity, but Rose amused him more than she. Besides, the passion Rose felt was a real one: her tenderness for him was marked by a conjugal fidelity which drove Mignon to despair.
“Listen, we want some information,” said La Faloise as he squeezed his cousin’s arm. “You see that lady in white silk?”
Ever since his inheritance had given him a kind of insolent dash of manner he had affected to chaff Fauchery, for he had an old grudge to satisfy and wanted to be revenged for much bygone raillery, dating from the days when he was just fresh from his native province.
“Yes, that lady with the lace.”
The journalist stood on tiptoe, for as yet he did not understand.
“The countess?” he said at last.
“Exactly, my good friend. I’ve bet ten louis — now, has she thighs?”
And he fell a-laughing, for he was delighted to have succeeded in snubbing a fellow who had once come heavily down on him for asking whether the countess slept with anyone. But Fauchery, without showing the very slightest astonishment, looked fixedly at him.
“Get along, you idiot!” he said finally as he shrugged his shoulders.
Then he shook hands with the other gentlemen, while La Faloise, in his discomfiture, felt rather uncertain whether he had said something funny. The men chatted. Since the races the banker and Foucarmont had formed part of the set in the Avenue de Villiers. Nana was going on much better, and every evening the count came and asked how she did. Meanwhile Fauchery, though he listened, seemed preoccupied, for during a quarrel that morning Rose had roundly confessed to the sending of the letter. Oh yes, he might present himself at his great lady’s house; he would be well received! After long hesitation he had come despite everything — out of sheer courage. But La Faloise’s imbecile pleasantry had upset him in spite of his apparent tranquillity.
“What’s the matter?” asked Philippe. “You seem in trouble.”
“I do? Not at all. I’ve been working: that’s why I came so late.”
Then coldly, in one of those heroic moods which, although unnoticed, are wont to solve the vulgar tragedies of existence:
“All the same, I haven’t made my bow to our hosts. One must be civil.”
He even ventured on a joke, for he turned to La Faloise and said:
“Eh, you idiot?”
And with that he pushed his way through the crowd. The valet’s full voice was no longer shouting out names, but close to the door the count and countess were still talking, for they were detained by ladies coming in. At length he joined them, while the gentlemen who were still on the garden steps stood on tiptoe so as to watch the scene. Nana, they thought, must have been chattering.
“The count hasn’t noticed him,” muttered Georges. “Look out! He’s turning round; there, it’s done!”
The band had again taken up the waltz in the Blonde Venus. Fauchery had begun by bowing to the countess, who was still smiling in ecstatic serenity. After which he had stood motionless a moment, waiting very calmly behind the count’s back. That evening the count’s deportment was one of lofty gravity: he held his head high, as became the official and the great dignitary. And when at last he lowered his gaze in the direction of the journalist he seemed still further to emphasize the majesty of his attitude. For some seconds the two men looked at one another. It was Fauchery who first stretched out his hand. Muffat gave him his. Their hands remained clasped, and the Countess Sabine with downcast eyes stood smiling before them, while the waltz continually beat out its mocking, vagabond rhythm.
“But the thing’s going on wheels!” said Steiner.
“Are their hands glued together?” asked Foucarmont, surprised at this prolonged clasp. A memory he could not forget brought a faint glow to Fanchery’s pale cheeks, and in his mind’s eye he saw the property room bathed in greenish twilight and filled with dusty bric-a-brac. And Muffat was there, eggcup in hand, making a clever use of his suspicions. At this moment Muffat was no longer suspicious, and the last vestige of his dignity was crumbling in ruin. Fauchery’s fears were assuaged, and when he saw the frank gaiety of the countess he was seized with a desire to laugh. The thing struck him as comic.
“Aha, here she is at last!” cried La Faloise, who did not abandon a jest when he thought it a good one. “D’you see Nana coming in over there?”
“Hold your tongue, do, you idiot!” muttered Philippe.
“But I tell you, it is Nana! They’re playing her waltz for her, by Jove! She’s making her entry. And she takes part in the reconciliation, the devil she does! What? You don’t see her? She’s squeezing all three of ‘em to her heart — my cousin Fauchery, my lady cousin and her husband, and she’s calling ‘em her dear kitties. Oh, those family scenes give me a turn!”
Estelle had come up, and Fauchery complimented her while she stood stiffly up in her rose-colored dress, gazing at him with the astonished look of a silent child and constantly glancing aside at her father and mother. Daguenet, too, exchanged a hearty shake of the hand with the journalist. Together they made up a smiling group, while M. Venot came gliding in behind them. He gloated over them with a beatified expression and seemed to envelop them in his pious sweetness, for he rejoiced in these last instances of self-abandonment which were preparing the means of grace.
But the waltz still beat out its swinging, laughing, voluptuous measure; it was like a shrill continuation of the life of pleasure which was beating against the old house like a rising tide. The band blew louder trills from their little flutes; their violins sent forth more swooning notes. Beneath the Genoa velvet hangings, the gilding and the paintings, the lusters exhaled a living heat and a great glow of sunlight, while the crowd of guests, multiplied in the surrounding mirrors, seemed to grow and increase as the murmur of many voices rose ever louder. The couples who whirled round the drawing room, arm about waist, amid the smiles of the seated ladies, still further accentuated the quaking of the floors. In the garden a dull, fiery glow fell from the Venetian lanterns and threw a distant reflection of flame over the dark shadows moving in search of a breath of air about the walks at its farther end. And this trembling of walls and this red glow of light seemed to betoken a great ultimate conflagration in which the fabric of an ancient honor was cracking and burning on every side. The shy early beginnings of gaiety, of which Fauchery one April evening had heard the vocal expression in the sound of breaking glass, had little by little grown bolder, wilder, till they had burst forth in this festival. Now the rift was growing; it was crannying the house and announcing approaching downfall. Among drunkards in the slums it is black misery, an empty cupboard, which put an end to ruined families; it is the madness of drink which empties the wretched beds. Here the waltz tune was sounding the knell of an old race amid the suddenly ignited ruins of accumulated wealth, while Nana, although unseen, stretched her lithe limbs above the dancers’ heads and sent corruption through their caste, drenching the hot air with the ferment of her exhalations and the vagabond lilt of the music.
On the evening after the celebration of the church marriage Count Muffat made his appearance in his wife’s bedroom, where he had not entered for the last two years. At first, in her great surprise, the countess drew back from him. But she was still smiling the intoxicated smile which she now always wore. He began stammering in extreme embarrassment; whereupon she gave him a short moral lecture. However, neither of them risked a decisive explanation. It was religion, they pretended, which required this process of mutual forgiveness, and they agreed by a tacit understanding to retain their freedom. Before going to bed, seeing that the countess still appeared to hesitate, they had a business conversation, and the count was the first to speak of selling the Bordes. She consented at once. They both stood in great want of money, and they would share and share alike. This completed the reconciliation, and Muffat, remorseful though he was, felt veritably relieved.
That very day, as Nana was dozing toward two in the afternoon, Zoe made so bold as to knock at her bedroom door. The curtains were drawn to, and a hot breath of wind kept blowing through a window into the fresh twilight stillness within. During these last days the young woman had been getting up and about again, but she was still somewhat weak. She opened her eyes and asked:
“Who is it?”
Zoe was about to reply, but Daguenet pushed by her and announced himself in person. Nana forthwith propped herself up on her pillow and, dismissing the lady’s maid:
“What! Is that you?” she cried. “On the day of your marriage? What can be the matter?”
Taken aback by the darkness, he stood still in the middle of the room. However, he grew used to it and came forward at last. He was in evening dress and wore a white cravat and gloves.
“Yes, to be sure, it’s me!” he said. “You don’t remember?”
No, she remembered nothing, and in his chaffing way he had to offer himself frankly to her.
“Come now, here’s your commission. I’ve brought you the handsel of my innocence!”
And with that, as he was now by the bedside, she caught him in her bare arms and shook with merry laughter and almost cried, she thought it so pretty of him.
“Oh, that Mimi, how funny he is! He’s thought of it after all! And to think I didn’t remember it any longer! So you’ve slipped off; you’re just out of church. Yes, certainly, you’ve got a scent of incense about you. But kiss me, kiss me! Oh, harder than that, Mimi dear! Bah! Perhaps it’s for the last time.”
In the dim room, where a vague odor of ether still lingered, their tender laughter died away suddenly. The heavy, warm breeze swelled the window curtains, and children’s voices were audible in the avenue without. Then the lateness of the hour tore them asunder and set them joking again. Daguenet took his departure with his wife directly after the breakfast.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02