Toward the end of September Count Muffat, who was to dine at Nana’s that evening, came at nightfall to inform her of a summons to the Tuileries. The lamps in the house had not been lit yet, and the servants were laughing uproariously in the kitchen regions as he softly mounted the stairs, where the tall windows gleamed in warm shadow. The door of the drawing room up-stairs opened noiselessly. A faint pink glow was dying out on the ceiling of the room, and the red hangings, the deep divans, the lacquered furniture, with their medley of embroidered fabrics and bronzes and china, were already sleeping under a slowly creeping flood of shadows, which drowned nooks and corners and blotted out the gleam of ivory and the glint of gold. And there in the darkness, on the white surface of a wide, outspread petticoat, which alone remained clearly visible, he saw Nana lying stretched in the arms of Georges. Denial in any shape or form was impossible. He gave a choking cry and stood gaping at them.
Nana had bounded up, and now she pushed him into the bedroom in order to give the lad time to escape.
“Come in,” she murmured with reeling senses, “I’ll explain.”
She was exasperated at being thus surprised. Never before had she given way like this in her own house, in her own drawing room, when the doors were open. It was a long story: Georges and she had had a disagreement; he had been mad with jealousy of Philippe, and he had sobbed so bitterly on her bosom that she had yielded to him, not knowing how else to calm him and really very full of pity for him at heart. And on this solitary occasion, when she had been stupid enough to forget herself thus with a little rascal who could not even now bring her bouquets of violets, so short did his mother keep him — on this solitary occasion the count turned up and came straight down on them. ‘Gad, she had very bad luck! That was what one got if one was a good-natured wench!
Meanwhile in the bedroom, into which she had pushed Muffat, the darkness was complete. Whereupon after some groping she rang furiously and asked for a lamp. It was Julien’s fault too! If there had been a lamp in the drawing room the whole affair would not have happened. It was the stupid nightfall which had got the better of her heart.
“I beseech you to be reasonable, my pet,” she said when Zoe had brought in the lights.
The count, with his hands on his knees, was sitting gazing at the floor. He was stupefied by what he had just seen. He did not cry out in anger. He only trembled, as though overtaken by some horror which was freezing him. This dumb misery touched the young woman, and she tried to comfort him.
“Well, yes, I’ve done wrong. It’s very bad what I did. You see I’m sorry for my fault. It makes me grieve very much because it annoys you. Come now, be nice, too, and forgive me.”
She had crouched down at his feet and was striving to catch his eye with a look of tender submission. She was fain to know whether he was very vexed with her. Presently, as he gave a long sigh and seemed to recover himself, she grew more coaxing and with grave kindness of manner added a final reason:
“You see, dearie, you must try and understand how it is: I can’t refuse it to my poor friends.”
The count consented to give way and only insisted that Georges should be dismissed once for all. But all his illusions had vanished, and he no longer believed in her sworn fidelity. Next day Nana would deceive him anew, and he only remained her miserable possessor in obedience to a cowardly necessity and to terror at the thought of living without her.
This was the epoch in her existence when Nana flared upon Paris with redoubled splendor. She loomed larger than heretofore on the horizon of vice and swayed the town with her impudently flaunted splendor and that contempt of money which made her openly squander fortunes. Her house had become a sort of glowing smithy, where her continual desires were the flames and the slightest breath from her lips changed gold into fine ashes, which the wind hourly swept away. Never had eye beheld such a rage of expenditure. The great house seemed to have been built over a gulf in which men — their worldly possessions, their fortunes, their very names — were swallowed up without leaving even a handful of dust behind them. This courtesan, who had the tastes of a parrot and gobbled up radishes and burnt almonds and pecked at the meat upon her plate, had monthly table bills amounting to five thousand francs. The wildest waste went on in the kitchen: the place, metaphorically speaking was one great river which stove in cask upon cask of wine and swept great bills with it, swollen by three or four successive manipulators. Victorine and Francois reigned supreme in the kitchen, whither they invited friends. In addition to these there was quite a little tribe of cousins, who were cockered up in their homes with cold meats and strong soup. Julien made the trades-people give him commissions, and the glaziers never put up a pane of glass at a cost of a franc and a half but he had a franc put down to himself. Charles devoured the horses’ oats and doubled the amount of their provender, reselling at the back door what came in at the carriage gate, while amid the general pillage, the sack of the town after the storm, Zoe, by dint of cleverness, succeeded in saving appearances and covering the thefts of all in order the better to slur over and make good her own. But the household waste was worse than the household dishonesty. Yesterday’s food was thrown into the gutter, and the collection of provisions in the house was such that the servants grew disgusted with it. The glass was all sticky with sugar, and the gas burners flared and flared till the rooms seemed ready to explode. Then, too, there were instances of negligence and mischief and sheer accident — of everything, in fact, which can hasten the ruin of a house devoured by so many mouths. Upstairs in Madame’s quarters destruction raged more fiercely still. Dresses, which cost ten thousand francs and had been twice worn, were sold by Zoe; jewels vanished as though they had crumbled deep down in their drawers; stupid purchases were made; every novelty of the day was brought and left to lie forgotten in some corner the morning after or swept up by ragpickers in the street. She could not see any very expensive object without wanting to possess it, and so she constantly surrounded herself with the wrecks of bouquets and costly knickknacks and was the happier the more her passing fancy cost. Nothing remained intact in her hands; she broke everything, and this object withered, and that grew dirty in the clasp of her lithe white fingers. A perfect heap of nameless debris, of twisted shreds and muddy rags, followed her and marked her passage. Then amid this utter squandering of pocket money cropped up a question about the big bills and their settlement. Twenty thousand francs were due to the modiste, thirty thousand to the linen draper, twelve thousand to the bootmaker. Her stable devoured fifty thousand for her, and in six months she ran up a bill of a hundred and twenty thousand francs at her ladies’ tailor. Though she had not enlarged her scheme of expenditure, which Labordette reckoned at four hundred thousand francs on an average, she ran up that same year to a million. She was herself stupefied by the amount and was unable to tell whither such a sum could have gone. Heaps upon heaps of men, barrowfuls of gold, failed to stop up the hole, which, amid this ruinous luxury, continually gaped under the floor of her house.
Meanwhile Nana had cherished her latest caprice. Once more exercised by the notion that her room needed redoing, she fancied she had hit on something at last. The room should be done in velvet of the color of tea roses, with silver buttons and golden cords, tassels and fringes, and the hangings should be caught up to the ceiling after the manner of a tent. This arrangement ought to be both rich and tender, she thought, and would form a splendid background to her blonde vermeil-tinted skin. However, the bedroom was only designed to serve as a setting to the bed, which was to be a dazzling affair, a prodigy. Nana meditated a bed such as had never before existed; it was to be a throne, an altar, whither Paris was to come in order to adore her sovereign nudity. It was to be all in gold and silver beaten work — it should suggest a great piece of jewelry with its golden roses climbing on a trelliswork of silver. On the headboard a band of Loves should peep forth laughing from amid the flowers, as though they were watching the voluptuous dalliance within the shadow of the bed curtains. Nana had applied to Labordette who had brought two goldsmiths to see her. They were already busy with the designs. The bed would cost fifty thousand francs, and Muffat was to give it her as a New Year’s present.
What most astonished the young woman was that she was endlessly short of money amid a river of gold, the tide of which almost enveloped her. On certain days she was at her wit’s end for want of ridiculously small sums — sums of only a few louis. She was driven to borrow from Zoe, or she scraped up cash as well as she could on her own account. But before resignedly adopting extreme measures she tried her friends and in a joking sort of way got the men to give her all they had about them, even down to their coppers. For the last three months she had been emptying Philippe’s pockets especially, and now on days of passionate enjoyment he never came away but he left his purse behind him. Soon she grew bolder and asked him for loans of two hundred francs, three hundred francs — never more than that — wherewith to pay the interest of bills or to stave off outrageous debts. And Philippe, who in July had been appointed paymaster to his regiment, would bring the money the day after, apologizing at the same time for not being rich, seeing that good Mamma Hugon now treated her sons with singular financial severity. At the close of three months these little oft-renewed loans mounted up to a sum of ten thousand francs. The captain still laughed his hearty-sounding laugh, but he was growing visibly thinner, and sometimes he seemed absent-minded, and a shade of suffering would pass over his face. But one look from Nana’s eyes would transfigure him in a sort of sensual ecstasy. She had a very coaxing way with him and would intoxicate him with furtive kisses and yield herself to him in sudden fits of self-abandonment, which tied him to her apron strings the moment he was able to escape from his military duties.
One evening, Nana having announced that her name, too, was Therese and that her fete day was the fifteenth of October, the gentlemen all sent her presents. Captain Philippe brought his himself; it was an old comfit dish in Dresden china, and it had a gold mount. He found her alone in her dressing room. She had just emerged from the bath, had nothing on save a great red-and-white flannel bathing wrap and was very busy examining her presents, which were ranged on a table. She had already broken a rock-crystal flask in her attempts to unstopper it.
“Oh, you’re too nice!” she said. “What is it? Let’s have a peep! What a baby you are to spend your pennies in little fakements like that!”
She scolded him, seeing that he was not rich, but at heart she was delighted to see him spending his whole substance for her. Indeed, this was the only proof of love which had power to touch her. Meanwhile she was fiddling away at the comfit dish, opening it and shutting it in her desire to see how it was made.
“Take care,” he murmured, “it’s brittle.”
But she shrugged her shoulders. Did he think her as clumsy as a street porter? And all of a sudden the hinge came off between her fingers and the lid fell and was broken. She was stupefied and remained gazing at the fragments as she cried:
“Oh, it’s smashed!”
Then she burst out laughing. The fragments lying on the floor tickled her fancy. Her merriment was of the nervous kind, the stupid, spiteful laughter of a child who delights in destruction. Philippe had a little fit of disgust, for the wretched girl did not know what anguish this curio had cost him. Seeing him thoroughly upset, she tried to contain herself.
“Gracious me, it isn’t my fault! It was cracked; those old things barely hold together. Besides, it was the cover! Didn’t you see the bound it gave?
And she once more burst into uproarious mirth.
But though he made an effort to the contrary, tears appeared in the young man’s eyes, and with that she flung her arms tenderly round his neck.
“How silly you are! You know I love you all the same. If one never broke anything the tradesmen would never sell anything. All that sort of thing’s made to be broken. Now look at this fan; it’s only held together with glue!”
She had snatched up a fan and was dragging at the blades so that the silk was torn in two. This seemed to excite her, and in order to show that she scorned the other presents, the moment she had ruined his she treated herself to a general massacre, rapping each successive object and proving clearly that not one was solid in that she had broken them all. There was a lurid glow in her vacant eyes, and her lips, slightly drawn back, displayed her white teeth. Soon, when everything was in fragments, she laughed cheerily again and with flushed cheeks beat on the table with the flat of her hands, lisping like a naughty little girl:
“All over! Got no more! Got no more!”
Then Philippe was overcome by the same mad excitement, and, pushing her down, he merrily kissed her bosom. She abandoned herself to him and clung to his shoulders with such gleeful energy that she could not remember having enjoyed herself so much for an age past. Without letting go of him she said caressingly:
“I say, dearie, you ought certainly to bring me ten louis tomorrow. It’s a bore, but there’s the baker’s bill worrying me awfully.”
He had grown pale. Then imprinting a final kiss on her forehead, he said simply:
Silence reigned. She was dressing, and he stood pressing his forehead against the windowpanes. A minute passed, and he returned to her and deliberately continued:
“Nana, you ought to marry me.”
This notion straightway so tickled the young woman that she was unable to finish tying on her petticoats.
“My poor pet, you’re ill! D’you offer me your hand because I ask you for ten louis? No, never! I’m too fond of you. Good gracious, what a silly question!”
And as Zoe entered in order to put her boots on, they ceased talking of the matter. The lady’s maid at once espied the presents lying broken in pieces on the table. She asked if she should put these things away, and, Madame having bidden her get rid of them, she carried the whole collection off in the folds of her dress. In the kitchen a sorting-out process began, and Madame’s debris were shared among the servants.
That day Georges had slipped into the house despite Nana’s orders to the contrary. Francois had certainly seen him pass, but the servants had now got to laugh among themselves at their good lady’s embarrassing situations. He had just slipped as far as the little drawing room when his brother’s voice stopped him, and, as one powerless to tear himself from the door, he overheard everything that went on within, the kisses, the offer of marriage. A feeling of horror froze him, and he went away in a state bordering on imbecility, feeling as though there were a great void in his brain. It was only in his own room above his mother’s flat in the Rue Richelieu that his heart broke in a storm of furious sobs. This time there could be no doubt about the state of things; a horrible picture of Nana in Philippe’s arms kept rising before his mind’s eye. It struck him in the light of an incest. When he fancied himself calm again the remembrance of it all would return, and in fresh access of raging jealousy he would throw himself on the bed, biting the coverlet, shouting infamous accusations which maddened him the more. Thus the day passed. In order to stay shut up in his room he spoke of having a sick headache. But the night proved more terrible still; a murder fever shook him amid continual nightmares. Had his brother lived in the house, he would have gone and killed him with the stab of a knife. When day returned he tried to reason things out. It was he who ought to die, and he determined to throw himself out of the window when an omnibus was passing. Nevertheless, he went out toward ten o’clock and traversed Paris, wandered up and down on the bridges and at the last moment felt an unconquerable desire to see Nana once more. With one word, perhaps, she would save him. And three o’clock was striking when he entered the house in the Avenue de Villiers.
Toward noon a frightful piece of news had simply crushed Mme Hugon. Philippe had been in prison since the evening of the previous day, accused of having stolen twelve thousand francs from the chest of his regiment. For the last three months he had been withdrawing small sums therefrom in the hope of being able to repay them, while he had covered the deficit with false money. Thanks to the negligence of the administrative committee, this fraud had been constantly successful. The old lady, humbled utterly by her child’s crime, had at once cried out in anger against Nana. She knew Philippe’s connection with her, and her melancholy had been the result of this miserable state of things which kept her in Paris in constant dread of some final catastrophe. But she had never looked forward to such shame as this, and now she blamed herself for refusing him money, as though such refusal had made her accessory to his act. She sank down on an armchair; her legs were seized with paralysis, and she felt herself to be useless, incapable of action and destined to stay where she was till she died. But the sudden thought of Georges comforted her. Georges was still left her; he would be able to act, perhaps to save them. Thereupon, without seeking aid of anyone else — for she wished to keep these matters shrouded in the bosom of her family — she dragged herself up to the next story, her mind possessed by the idea that she still had someone to love about her. But upstairs she found an empty room. The porter told her that M. Georges had gone out at an early hour. The room was haunted by the ghost of yet another calamity; the bed with its gnawed bedclothes bore witness to someone’s anguish, and a chair which lay amid a heap of clothes on the ground looked like something dead. Georges must be at that woman’s house, and so with dry eyes and feet that had regained their strength Mme Hugon went downstairs. She wanted her sons; she was starting to reclaim them.
Since morning Nana had been much worried. First of all it was the baker, who at nine o’clock had turned up, bill in hand. It was a wretched story. He had supplied her with bread to the amount of a hundred and thirty-three francs, and despite her royal housekeeping she could not pay it. In his irritation at being put off he had presented himself a score of times since the day he had refused further credit, and the servants were now espousing his cause. Francois kept saying that Madame would never pay him unless he made a fine scene; Charles talked of going upstairs, too, in order to get an old unpaid straw bill settled, while Victorine advised them to wait till some gentleman was with her, when they would get the money out of her by suddenly asking for it in the middle of conversation. The kitchen was in a savage mood: the tradesmen were all kept posted in the course events were taking, and there were gossiping consultations, lasting three or four hours on a stretch, during which Madame was stripped, plucked and talked over with the wrathful eagerness peculiar to an idle, overprosperous servants’ hall. Julien, the house steward, alone pretended to defend his mistress. She was quite the thing, whatever they might say! And when the others accused him of sleeping with her he laughed fatuously, thereby driving the cook to distraction, for she would have liked to be a man in order to “spit on such women’s backsides,” so utterly would they have disgusted her. Francois, without informing Madame of it, had wickedly posted the baker in the hall, and when she came downstairs at lunch time she found herself face to face with him. Taking the bill, she told him to return toward three o’clock, whereupon, with many foul expressions, he departed, vowing that he would have things properly settled and get his money by hook or by crook.
Nana made a very bad lunch, for the scene had annoyed her. Next time the man would have to be definitely got rid of. A dozen times she had put his money aside for him, but it had as constantly melted away, sometimes in the purchase of flowers, at others in the shape of a subscription got up for the benefit of an old gendarme. Besides, she was counting on Philippe and was astonished not to see him make his appearance with his two hundred francs. It was regular bad luck, seeing that the day before yesterday she had again given Satin an outfit, a perfect trousseau this time, some twelve hundred francs’ worth of dresses and linen, and now she had not a louis remaining.
Toward two o’clock, when Nana was beginning to be anxious, Labordette presented himself. He brought with him the designs for the bed, and this caused a diversion, a joyful interlude which made the young woman forget all her troubles. She clapped her hands and danced about. After which, her heart bursting wish curiosity, she leaned over a table in the drawing room and examined the designs, which Labordette proceeded to explain to her.
“You see,” he said, “this is the body of the bed. In the middle here there’s a bunch of roses in full bloom, and then comes a garland of buds and flowers. The leaves are to be in yellow and the roses in red-gold. And here’s the grand design for the bed’s head; Cupids dancing in a ring on a silver trelliswork.”
But Nana interrupted him, for she was beside herself with ecstasy.
“Oh, how funny that little one is, that one in the corner, with his behind in the air! Isn’t he now? And what a sly laugh! They’ve all got such dirty, wicked eyes! You know, dear boy, I shall never dare play any silly tricks before THEM!”
Her pride was flattered beyond measure. The goldsmiths had declared that no queen anywhere slept in such a bed. However, a difficulty presented itself. Labordette showed her two designs for the footboard, one of which reproduced the pattern on the sides, while the other, a subject by itself, represented Night wrapped in her veil and discovered by a faun in all her splendid nudity. He added that if she chose this last subject the goldsmiths intended making Night in her own likeness. This idea, the taste of which was rather risky, made her grow white with pleasure, and she pictured herself as a silver statuette, symbolic of the warm, voluptuous delights of darkness.
“Of course you will only sit for the head and shoulders,” said Labordette.
She looked quietly at him.
“Why? The moment a work of art’s in question I don’t mind the sculptor that takes my likeness a blooming bit!”
Of course it must be understood that she was choosing the subject. But at this he interposed.
“Wait a moment; it’s six thousand francs extra.”
“It’s all the same to me, by Jove!” she cried, bursting into a laugh. “Hasn’t my little rough got the rhino?”
Nowadays among her intimates she always spoke thus of Count Muffat, and the gentlemen had ceased to inquire after him otherwise.
“Did you see your little rough last night?” they used to say.
“Dear me, I expected to find the little rough here!”
It was a simple familiarity enough, which, nevertheless, she did not as yet venture on in his presence.
Labordette began rolling up the designs as he gave the final explanations. The goldsmiths, he said, were undertaking to deliver the bed in two months’ time, toward the twenty-fifth of December, and next week a sculptor would come to make a model for the Night. As she accompanied him to the door Nana remembered the baker and briskly inquired:
“By the by, you wouldn’t be having ten louis about you?”
Labordette made it a solemn rule, which stood him in good stead, never to lend women money. He used always to make the same reply.
“No, my girl, I’m short. But would you like me to go to your little rough?”
She refused; it was useless. Two days before she had succeeded in getting five thousand francs out of the count. However, she soon regretted her discreet conduct, for the moment Labordette had gone the baker reappeared, though it was barely half-past two, and with many loud oaths roughly settled himself on a bench in the hall. The young woman listened to him from the first floor. She was pale, and it caused her especial pain to hear the servants’ secret rejoicings swelling up louder and louder till they even reached her ears. Down in the kitchen they were dying of laughter. The coachman was staring across from the other side of the court; Francois was crossing the hall without any apparent reason. Then he hurried off to report progress, after sneering knowingly at the baker. They didn’t care a damn for Madame; the walls were echoing to their laughter, and she felt that she was deserted on all hands and despised by the servants’ hall, the inmates of which were watching her every movement and liberally bespattering her with the filthiest of chaff. Thereupon she abandoned the intention of borrowing the hundred and thirty-three francs from Zoe; she already owed the maid money, and she was too proud to risk a refusal now. Such a burst of feeling stirred her that she went back into her room, loudly remarking:
“Come, come, my girl, don’t count on anyone but yourself. Your body’s your own property, and it’s better to make use of it than to let yourself be insulted.”
And without even summoning Zoe she dressed herself with feverish haste in order to run round to the Tricon’s. In hours of great embarrassment this was her last resource. Much sought after and constantly solicited by the old lady, she would refuse or resign herself according to her needs, and on these increasingly frequent occasions when both ends would not meet in her royally conducted establishment, she was sure to find twenty-five louis awaiting her at the other’s house. She used to betake herself to the Tricon’s with the ease born of use, just as the poor go to the pawnshop.
But as she left her own chamber Nana came suddenly upon Georges standing in the middle of the drawing room. Not noticing his waxen pallor and the somber fire in his wide eyes, she gave a sigh of relief.
“Ah, you’ve come from your brother.”
“No,” said the lad, growing yet paler.
At this she gave a despairing shrug. What did he want? Why was he barring her way? She was in a hurry — yes, she was. Then returning to where he stood:
“You’ve no money, have you?”
“That’s true. How silly of me! Never a stiver; not even their omnibus fares Mamma doesn’t wish it! Oh, what a set of men!”
And she escaped. But he held her back; he wanted to speak to her. She was fairly under way and again declared she had no time, but he stopped her with a word.
“Listen, I know you’re going to marry my brother.”
Gracious! The thing was too funny! And she let herself down into a chair in order to laugh at her ease.
“Yes,” continued the lad, “and I don’t wish it. It’s I you’re going to marry. That’s why I’ve come.”
“Eh, what? You too?” she cried. “Why, it’s a family disease, is it? No, never! What a fancy, to be sure! Have I ever asked you to do anything so nasty? Neither one nor t’other of you! No, never!”
The lad’s face brightened. Perhaps he had been deceiving himself! He continued:
“Then swear to me that you don’t go to bed with my brother.”
“Oh, you’re beginning to bore me now!” said Nana, who had risen with renewed impatience. “It’s amusing for a little while, but when I tell you I’m in a hurry — I go to bed with your brother if it pleases me. Are you keeping me — are you paymaster here that you insist on my making a report? Yes, I go to bed with your brother.”
He had caught hold of her arm and squeezed it hard enough to break it as he stuttered:
“Don’t say that! Don’t say that!”
With a slight blow she disengaged herself from his grasp.
“He’s maltreating me now! Here’s a young ruffian for you! My chicken, you’ll leave this jolly sharp. I used to keep you about out of niceness. Yes, I did! You may stare! Did you think I was going to be your mamma till I died? I’ve got better things to do than to bring up brats.”
He listened to her stark with anguish, yet in utter submission. Her every word cut him to the heart so sharply that he felt he should die. She did not so much as notice his suffering and continued delightedly to revenge herself on him for the annoyance of the morning.
“It’s like your brother; he’s another pretty Johnny, he is! He promised me two hundred francs. Oh, dear me; yes, I can wait for ‘em. It isn’t his money I care for! I’ve not got enough to pay for hair oil. Yes, he’s leaving me in a jolly fix! Look here, d’you want to know how matters stand? Here goes then: it’s all owing to your brother that I’m going out to earn twenty-five louis with another man.”
At these words his head spun, and he barred her egress. He cried; he besought her not to go, clasping his hands together and blurting out:
“Oh no! Oh no!”
“I want to, I do,” she said. “Have you the money?”
No, he had not got the money. He would have given his life to have the money! Never before had he felt so miserable, so useless, so very childish. All his wretched being was shaken with weeping and gave proof of such heavy suffering that at last she noticed it and grew kind. She pushed him away softly.
“Come, my pet, let me pass; I must. Be reasonable. You’re a baby boy, and it was very nice for a week, but nowadays I must look after my own affairs. Just think it over a bit. Now your brother’s a man; what I’m saying doesn’t apply to him. Oh, please do me a favor; it’s no good telling him all this. He needn’t know where I’m going. I always let out too much when I’m in a rage.”
She began laughing. Then taking him in her arms and kissing him on the forehead:
“Good-by, baby,” she said; “it’s over, quite over between us; d’you understand? And now I’m off!”
And she left him, and he stood in the middle of the drawing room. Her last words rang like the knell of a tocsin in his ears: “It’s over, quite over!” And he thought the ground was opening beneath his feet. There was a void in his brain from which the man awaiting Nana had disappeared. Philippe alone remained there in the young woman’s bare embrace forever and ever. She did not deny it: she loved him, since she wanted to spare him the pain of her infidelity. It was over, quite over. He breathed heavily and gazed round the room, suffocating beneath a crushing weight. Memories kept recurring to him one after the other — memories of merry nights at La Mignotte, of amorous hours during which he had fancied himself her child, of pleasures stolen in this very room. And now these things would never, never recur! He was too small; he had not grown up quickly enough; Philippe was supplanting him because he was a bearded man. So then this was the end; he could not go on living. His vicious passion had become transformed into an infinite tenderness, a sensual adoration, in which his whole being was merged. Then, too, how was he to forget it all if his brother remained — his brother, blood of his blood, a second self, whose enjoyment drove him mad with jealousy? It was the end of all things; he wanted to die.
All the doors remained open, as the servants noisily scattered over the house after seeing Madame make her exit on foot. Downstairs on the bench in the hall the baker was laughing with Charles and Francois. Zoe came running across the drawing room and seemed surprised at sight of Georges. She asked him if he were waiting for Madame. Yes, he was waiting for her; he had for-gotten to give her an answer to a question. And when he was alone he set to work and searched. Finding nothing else to suit his purpose, he took up in the dressing room a pair of very sharply pointed scissors with which Nana had a mania for ceaselessly trimming herself, either by polishing her skin or cutting off little hairs. Then for a whole hour he waited patiently, his hand in his pocket and his fingers tightly clasped round the scissors.
“Here’s Madame,” said Zoe, returning. She must have espied her through the bedroom window.
There was a sound of people racing through the house, and laughter died away and doors were shut. Georges heard Nana paying the baker and speaking in the curtest way. Then she came upstairs.
“What, you’re here still!” she said as she noticed him. “Aha! We’re going to grow angry, my good man!”
He followed her as she walked toward her bedroom.
“Nana, will you marry me?”
She shrugged her shoulders. It was too stupid; she refused to answer any more and conceived the idea of slamming the door in his face.
“Nana, will you marry me?”
She slammed the door. He opened it with one hand while he brought the other and the scissors out of his pocket. And with one great stab he simply buried them in his breast.
Nana, meanwhile, had felt conscious that something dreadful would happen, and she had turned round. When she saw him stab himself she was seized with indignation.
“Oh, what a fool he is! What a fool! And with my scissors! Will you leave off, you naughty little rogue? Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”
She was scared. Sinking on his knees, the boy had just given himself a second stab, which sent him down at full length on the carpet. He blocked the threshold of the bedroom. With that Nana lost her head utterly and screamed with all her might, for she dared not step over his body, which shut her in and prevented her from running to seek assistance.
“Zoe! Zoe! Come at once. Make him leave off. It’s getting stupid — a child like that! He’s killing himself now! And in my place too! Did you ever see the like of it?”
He was frightening her. He was all white, and his eyes were shut. There was scarcely any bleeding — only a little blood, a tiny stain which was oozing down into his waistcoat. She was making up her mind to step over the body when an apparition sent her starting back. An old lady was advancing through the drawing-room door, which remained wide open opposite. And in her terror she recognized Mme Hugon but could not explain her presence. Still wearing her gloves and hat, Nana kept edging backward, and her terror grew so great that she sought to defend herself, and in a shaky voice:
“Madame,” she cried, “it isn’t I; I swear to you it isn’t. He wanted to marry me, and I said no, and he’s killed himself!”
Slowly Mme Hugon drew near — she was in black, and her face showed pale under her white hair. In the carriage, as she drove thither, the thought of Georges had vanished and that of Philippe’s misdoing had again taken complete possession of her. It might be that this woman could afford explanations to the judges which would touch them, and so she conceived the project of begging her to bear witness in her son’s favor. Downstairs the doors of the house stood open, but as she mounted to the first floor her sick feet failed her, and she was hesitating as to which way to go when suddenly horror-stricken cries directed her. Then upstairs she found a man lying on the floor with bloodstained shirt. It was Georges — it was her other child.
Nana, in idiotic tones, kept saying:
“He wanted to marry me, and I said no, and he’s killed himself.”
Uttering no cry, Mme Hugon stooped down. Yes, it was the other one; it was Georges. The one was brought to dishonor, the other murdered! It caused her no surprise, for her whole life was ruined. Kneeling on the carpet, utterly forgetting where she was, noticing no one else, she gazed fixedly at her boy’s face and listened with her hand on his heart. Then she gave a feeble sigh — she had felt the heart beating. And with that she lifted her head and scrutinized the room and the woman and seemed to remember. A fire glowed forth in her vacant eyes, and she looked so great and terrible in her silence that Nana trembled as she continued to defend herself above the body that divided them.
“I swear it, madame! If his brother were here he could explain it to you.”
“His brother has robbed — he is in prison,” said the mother in a hard voice.
Nana felt a choking sensation. Why, what was the reason of it all? The other had turned thief now! They were mad in that family! She ceased struggling in self-defense; she seemed no longer mistress in her own house and allowed Mme Hugon to give what orders she liked. The servants had at last hurried up, and the old lady insisted on their carrying the fainting Georges down to her carriage. She preferred killing him rather than letting him remain in that house. With an air of stupefaction Nana watched the retreating servants as they supported poor, dear Zizi by his legs and shoulders. The mother walked behind them in a state of collapse; she supported herself against the furniture; she felt as if all she held dear had vanished in the void. On the landing a sob escaped her; she turned and twice ejaculated:
“Oh, but you’ve done us infinite harm! You’ve done us infinite harm!”
That was all. In her stupefaction Nana had sat down; she still wore her gloves and her hat. The house once more lapsed into heavy silence; the carriage had driven away, and she sat motionless, not knowing what to do next. her head swimming after all she had gone through. A quarter of an hour later Count Muffat found her thus, but at sight of him she relieved her feelings in an overflowing current of talk. She told him all about the sad incident, repeated the same details twenty times over, picked up the bloodstained scissors in order to imitate Zizi’s gesture when he stabbed himself. And above all she nursed the idea of proving her own innocence.
“Look you here, dearie, is it my fault? If you were the judge would you condemn me? I certainly didn’t tell Philippe to meddle with the till any more than I urged that wretched boy to kill himself. I’ve been most unfortunate throughout it all. They come and do stupid things in my place; they make me miserable; they treat me like a hussy.”
And she burst into tears. A fit of nervous expansiveness rendered her soft and doleful, and her immense distress melted her utterly.
“And you, too, look as if you weren’t satisfied. Now do just ask Zoe if I’m at all mixed up in it. Zoe, do speak: explain to Monsieur —”
The lady’s maid, having brought a towel and a basin of water out of the dressing room, had for some moments past been rubbing the carpet in order to remove the bloodstains before they dried.
“Oh, monsieur, “ she declared, “Madame is utterly miserable!”
Muffat was still stupefied; the tragedy had frozen him, and his imagination was full of the mother weeping for her sons. He knew her greatness of heart and pictured her in her widow’s weeds, withering solitarily away at Les Fondettes. But Nana grew ever more despondent, for now the memory of Zizi lying stretched on the floor, with a red hole in his shirt, almost drove her senseless.
“He used to be such a darling, so sweet and caressing. Oh, you know, my pet — I’m sorry if it vexes you — I loved that baby! I can’t help saying so; the words must out. Besides, now it ought not to hurt you at all. He’s gone. You’ve got what you wanted; you’re quite certain never to surprise us again.”
And this last reflection tortured her with such regret that he ended by turning comforter. Well, well, he said, she ought to be brave; she was quite right; it wasn’t her fault! But she checked her lamentations of her own accord in order to say:
“Listen, you must run round and bring me news of him. At once! I wish it!”
He took his hat and went to get news of Georges. When he returned after some three quarters of an hour he saw Nana leaning anxiously out of a window, and he shouted up to her from the pavement that the lad was not dead and that they even hoped to bring him through. At this she immediately exchanged grief for excess of joy and began to sing and dance and vote existence delightful. Zoe, meanwhile, was still dissatisfied with her washing. She kept looking at the stain, and every time she passed it she repeated:
“You know it’s not gone yet, madame.”
As a matter of fact, the pale red stain kept reappearing on one of the white roses in the carpet pattern. It was as though, on the very threshold of the room, a splash of blood were barring the doorway.
“Bah!” said the joyous Nana. “That’l be rubbed out under people’s feet.”
After the following day Count Muffat had likewise forgotten the incident. For a moment or two, when in the cab which drove him to the Rue Richelieu, he had busily sworn never to return to that woman’s house. Heaven was warning him; the misfortunes of Philippe and Georges were, he opined, prophetic of his proper ruin. But neither the sight of Mme Hugon in tears nor that of the boy burning with fever had been strong enough to make him keep his vow, and the short-lived horror of the situation had only left behind it a sense of secret delight at the thought that he was now well quit of a rival, the charm of whose youth had always exasperated him. His passion had by this time grown exclusive; it was, indeed, the passion of a man who has had no youth. He loved Nana as one who yearned to be her sole possessor, to listen to her, to touch her, to be breathed on by her. His was now a supersensual tenderness, verging on pure sentiment; it was an anxious affection and as such was jealous of the past and apt at times to dream of a day of redemption and pardon received, when both should kneel before God the Father. Every day religion kept regaining its influence over him. He again became a practicing Christian; he confessed himself and communicated, while a ceaseless struggle raged within him, and remorse redoubled the joys of sin and of repentance. Afterward, when his director gave him leave to spend his passion, he had made a habit of this daily perdition and would redeem the same by ecstasies of faith, which were full of pious humility. Very naively he offered heaven, by way of expiatory anguish, the abominable torment from which he was suffering. This torment grew and increased, and he would climb his Calvary with the deep and solemn feelings of a believer, though steeped in a harlot’s fierce sensuality. That which made his agony most poignant was this woman’s continued faithlessness. He could not share her with others, nor did he understand her imbecile caprices. Undying, unchanging love was what he wished for. However, she had sworn, and he paid her as having done so. But he felt that she was untruthful, incapable of common fidelity, apt to yield to friends, to stray passers-by, like a good-natured animal, born to live minus a shift.
One morning when he saw Foucarmont emerging from her bedroom at an unusual hour, he made a scene about it. But in her weariness of his jealousy she grew angry directly. On several occasions ere that she had behaved rather prettily. Thus the evening when he surprised her with Georges she was the first to regain her temper and to confess herself in the wrong. She had loaded him with caresses and dosed him with soft speeches in order to make him swallow the business. But he had ended by boring her to death with his obstinate refusals to understand the feminine nature, and now she was brutal.
“Very well, yes! I’ve slept with Foucarmont. What then? That’s flattened you out a bit, my little rough, hasn’t it?”
It was the first time she had thrown “my little rough” in his teeth. The frank directness of her avowal took his breath away, and when he began clenching his fists she marched up to him and looked him full in the face.
“We’ve had enough of this, eh? If it doesn’t suit you you’ll do me the pleasure of leaving the house. I don’t want you to go yelling in my place. Just you get it into your noodle that I mean to be quite free. When a man pleases me I go to bed with him. Yes, I do — that’s my way! And you must make up your mind directly. Yes or no! If it’s no, out you may walk!”
She had gone and opened the door, but he did not leave. That was her way now of binding him more closely to her. For no reason whatever, at the slightest approach to a quarrel she would tell him he might stop or go as he liked, and she would accompany her permission with a flood of odious reflections. She said she could always find better than he; she had only too many from whom to choose; men in any quantity could be picked up in the street, and men a good deal smarter, too, whose blood boiled in their veins. At this he would hang his head and wait for those gentler moods when she wanted money. She would then become affectionate, and he would forget it all, one night of tender dalliance making up for the tortures of a whole week. His reconciliation with his wife had rendered his home unbearable. Fauchery, having again fallen under Rose’s dominion, the countess was running madly after other loves. She was entering on the forties, that restless, feverish time in the life of women, and ever hysterically nervous, she now filled her mansion with the maddening whirl of her fashionable life. Estelle, since her marriage, had seen nothing of her father; the undeveloped, insignificant girl had suddenly become a woman of iron will, so imperious withal that Daguenet trembled in her presence. In these days he accompanied her to mass: he was converted, and he raged against his father-in-law for ruining them with a courtesan. M. Venot alone still remained kindly inclined toward the count, for he was biding his time. He had even succeeded in getting into Nana’s immediate circle. In fact, he frequented both houses, where you encountered his continual smile behind doors. So Muffat, wretched at home, driven out by ennui and shame, still preferred to live in the Avenue de Villiers, even though he was abused there.
Soon there was but one question between Nana and the count, and that was “money.” One day after having formally promised her ten thousand francs he had dared keep his appointment empty handed. For two days past she had been surfeiting him with love, and such a breach of faith, such a waste of caresses, made her ragingly abusive. She was white with fury.
“So you’ve not got the money, eh? Then go back where you came from, my little rough, and look sharp about it! There’s a bloody fool for you! He wanted to kiss me again! Mark my words — no money, no nothing!”
He explained matters; he would be sure to have the money the day after tomorrow. But she interrupted him violently:
“And my bills! They’ll sell me up while Monsieur’s playing the fool. Now then, look at yourself. D’ye think I love you for your figure? A man with a mug like yours has to pay the women who are kind enough to put up with him. By God, if you don’t bring me that ten thousand francs tonight you shan’t even have the tip of my little finger to suck. I mean it! I shall send you back to your wife!”
At night he brought the ten thousand francs. Nana put up her lips, and he took a long kiss which consoled him for the whole day of anguish. What annoyed the young woman was to have him continually tied to her apron strings. She complained to M. Venot, begging him to take her little rough off to the countess. Was their reconciliation good for nothing then? She was sorry she had mixed herself up in it, since despite everything he was always at her heels. On the days when, out of anger, she forgot her own interest, she swore to play him such a dirty trick that he would never again be able to set foot in her place. But when she slapped her leg and yelled at him she might quite as well have spat in his face too: he would still have stayed and even thanked her. Then the rows about money matters kept continually recurring. She demanded money savagely; she rowed him over wretched little amounts; she was odiously stingy with every minute of her time; she kept fiercely informing him that she slept with him for his money, not for any other reasons, and that she did not enjoy it a bit, that, in fact, she loved another and was awfully unfortunate in needing an idiot of his sort! They did not even want him at court now, and there was some talk of requiring him to send in his resignation. The empress had said, “He is too disgusting.” It was true enough. So Nana repeated the phrase by way of closure to all their quarrels.
“Look here! You disgust me!”
Nowadays she no longer minded her ps and qs; she had regained the most perfect freedom.
Every day she did her round of the lake, beginning acquaintanceships which ended elsewhere. Here was the happy hunting ground par excellence, where courtesans of the first water spread their nets in open daylight and flaunted themselves amid the tolerating smiles and brilliant luxury of Paris. Duchesses pointed her out to one another with a passing look — rich shopkeepers’ wives copied the fashion of her hats. Sometimes her landau, in its haste to get by, stopped a file of puissant turnouts, wherein sat plutocrats able to buy up all Europe or Cabinet ministers with plump fingers tight-pressed to the throat of France. She belonged to this Bois society, occupied a prominent place in it, was known in every capital and asked about by every foreigner. The splendors of this crowd were enhanced by the madness of her profligacy as though it were the very crown, the darling passion, of the nation. Then there were unions of a night, continual passages of desire, which she lost count of the morning after, and these sent her touring through the grand restaurants and on fine days, as often as not, to “Madrid.” The staffs of all the embassies visited her, and she, Lucy Stewart, Caroline Hequet and Maria Blond would dine in the society of gentlemen who murdered the French language and paid to be amused, engaging them by the evening with orders to be funny and yet proving so blase and so worn out that they never even touched them. This the ladies called “going on a spree,” and they would return home happy at having been despised and would finish the night in the arms of the lovers of their choice.
When she did not actually throw the men at his head Count Muffat pretended not to know about all this. However, he suffered not a little from the lesser indignities of their daily life. The mansion in the Avenue de Villiers was becoming a hell, a house full of mad people, in which every hour of the day wild disorders led to hateful complications. Nana even fought with her servants. One moment she would be very nice with Charles, the coachman. When she stopped at a restaurant she would send him out beer by the waiter and would talk with him from the inside of her carriage when he slanged the cabbies at a block in the traffic, for then he struck her as funny and cheered her up. Then the next moment she called him a fool for no earthly reason. She was always squabbling over the straw, the bran or the oats; in spite of her love for animals she thought her horses ate too much. Accordingly one day when she was settling up she accused the man of robbing her. At this Charles got in a rage and called her a whore right out; his horses, he said, were distinctly better than she was, for they did not sleep with everybody. She answered him in the same strain, and the count had to separate them and give the coachman the sack. This was the beginning of a rebellion among the servants. When her diamonds had been stolen Victorine and Francois left. Julien himself disappeared, and the tale ran that the master had given him a big bribe and had begged him to go, because he slept with the mistress. Every week there were new faces in the servants’ hall. Never was there such a mess; the house was like a passage down which the scum of the registry offices galloped, destroying everything in their path. Zoe alone kept her place; she always looked clean, and her only anxiety was how to organize this riot until she had got enough together to set up on her own account in fulfillment of a plan she had been hatching for some time past.
These, again, were only the anxieties he could own to. The count put up with the stupidity of Mme Maloir, playing bezique with her in spite of her musty smell. He put up with Mme Lerat and her encumbrances, with Louiset and the mournful complaints peculiar to a child who is being eaten up with the rottenness inherited from some unknown father. But he spent hours worse than these. One evening he had heard Nana angrily telling her maid that a man pretending to be rich had just swindled her — a handsome man calling himself an American and owning gold mines in his own country, a beast who had gone off while she was asleep without giving her a copper and had even taken a packet of cigarette papers with him. The count had turned very pale and had gone downstairs again on tiptoe so as not to hear more. But later he had to hear all. Nana, having been smitten with a baritone in a music hall and having been thrown over by him, wanted to commit suicide during a fit of sentimental melancholia. She swallowed a glass of water in which she had soaked a box of matches. This made her terribly sick but did not kill her. The count had to nurse her and to listen to the whole story of her passion, her tearful protests and her oaths never to take to any man again. In her contempt for those swine, as she called them, she could not, however, keep her heart free, for she always had some sweetheart round her, and her exhausted body inclined to incomprehensible fancies and perverse tastes. As Zoe designedly relaxed her efforts the service of the house had got to such a pitch that Muffat did not dare to push open a door, to pull a curtain or to unclose a cupboard. The bells did not ring; men lounged about everywhere and at every moment knocked up against one another. He had now to cough before entering a room, having almost caught the girl hanging round Francis’ neck one evening that he had just gone out of the dressing room for two minutes to tell the coachman to put the horses to, while her hairdresser was finishing her hair. She gave herself up suddenly behind his back; she took her pleasure in every corner, quickly, with the first man she met. Whether she was in her chemise or in full dress did not matter. She would come back to the count red all over, happy at having cheated him. As for him, he was plagued to death; it was an abominable infliction!
In his jealous anguish the unhappy man was comparatively at peace when he left Nana and Satin alone together. He would have willingly urged her on to this vice, to keep the men off her. But all was spoiled in this direction too. Nana deceived Satin as she deceived the count, going mad over some monstrous fancy or other and picking up girls at the street corners. Coming back in her carriage, she would suddenly be taken with a little slut that she saw on the pavement; her senses would be captivated, her imagination excited. She would take the little slut in with her, pay her and send her away again. Then, disguised as a man, she would go to infamous houses and look on at scenes of debauch to while away hours of boredom. And Satin, angry at being thrown over every moment, would turn the house topsy-turvy with the most awful scenes. She had at last acquired a complete ascendancy over Nana, who now respected her. Muffat even thought of an alliance between them. When he dared not say anything he let Satin loose. Twice she had compelled her darling to take up with him again, while he showed himself obliging and effaced himself in her favor at the least sign. But this good understanding lasted no time, for Satin, too, was a little cracked. On certain days she would very nearly go mad and would smash everything, wearing herself out in tempest of love and anger, but pretty all the time. Zoe must have excited her, for the maid took her into corners as if she wanted to tell her about her great design of which she as yet spoke to no one.
At times, however, Count Muffat was still singularly revolted. He who had tolerated Satin for months, who had at last shut his eyes to the unknown herd of men that scampered so quickly through Nana’s bedroom, became terribly enraged at being deceived by one of his own set or even by an acquaintance. When she confessed her relations with Foucarmont he suffered so acutely, he thought the treachery of the young man so base, that he wished to insult him and fight a duel. As he did not know where to find seconds for such an affair, he went to Labordette. The latter, astonished, could not help laughing.
“A duel about Nana? But, my dear sir, all Paris would be laughing at you. Men do not fight for Nana; it would be ridiculous.”
The count grew very pale and made a violent gesture.
“Then I shall slap his face in the open street.”
For an hour Labordette had to argue with him. A blow would make the affair odious; that evening everyone would know the real reason of the meeting; it would be in all the papers. And Labordette always finished with the same expression:
“It is impossible; it would be ridiculous.”
Each time Muffat heard these words they seemed sharp and keen as a stab. He could not even fight for the woman he loved; people would have burst out laughing. Never before had he felt more bitterly the misery of his love, the contrast between his heavy heart and the absurdity of this life of pleasure in which it was now lost. This was his last rebellion; he allowed Labordette to convince him, and he was present afterward at the procession of his friends, who lived there as if at home.
Nana in a few months finished them up greedily, one after the other. The growing needs entailed by her luxurious way of life only added fuel to her desires, and she finished a man up at one mouthful. First she had Foucarmont, who did not last a fortnight. He was thinking of leaving the navy, having saved about thirty thousand francs in his ten years of service, which he wished to invest in the United States. His instincts, which were prudential, even miserly, were conquered; he gave her everything, even his signature to notes of hand, which pledged his future. When Nana had done with him he was penniless. But then she proved very kind; she advised him to return to his ship. What was the good of getting angry? Since he had no money their relations were no longer possible. He ought to understand that and to be reasonable. A ruined man fell from her hands like a ripe fruit, to rot on the ground by himself.
Then Nana took up with Steiner without disgust but without love. She called him a dirty Jew; she seemed to be paying back an old grudge, of which she had no distinct recollection. He was fat; he was stupid, and she got him down and took two bites at a time in order the quicker to do for this Prussian. As for him, he had thrown Simonne over. His Bosphorous scheme was getting shaky, and Nana hastened the downfall by wild expenses. For a month he struggled on, doing miracles of finance. He filled Europe with posters, advertisements and prospectuses of a colossal scheme and obtained money from the most distant climes. All these savings, the pounds of speculators and the pence of the poor, were swallowed up in the Avenue de Villiers. Again he was partner in an ironworks in Alsace, where in a small provincial town workmen, blackened with coal dust and soaked with sweat, day and night strained their sinews and heard their bones crack to satisfy Nana’s pleasures. Like a huge fire she devoured all the fruits of stock-exchange swindling and the profits of labor. This time she did for Steiner; she brought him to the ground, sucked him dry to the core, left him so cleaned out that he was unable to invent a new roguery. When his bank failed he stammered and trembled at the idea of prosecution. His bankruptcy had just been published, and the simple mention of money flurried him and threw him into a childish embarrassment. And this was he who had played with millions. One evening at Nana’s he began to cry and asked her for a loan of a hundred francs wherewith to pay his maidservant. And Nana, much affected and amused at the end of this terrible old man who had squeezed Paris for twenty years, brought it to him and said:
“I say, I’m giving it you because it seems so funny! But listen to me, my boy, you are too old for me to keep. You must find something else to do.”
Then Nana started on La Faloise at once. He had for some time been longing for the honor of being ruined by her in order to put the finishing stroke on his smartness. He needed a woman to launch him properly; it was the one thing still lacking. In two months all Paris would be talking of him, and he would see his name in the papers. Six weeks were enough. His inheritance was in landed estate, houses, fields, woods and farms. He had to sell all, one after the other, as quickly as he could. At every mouthful Nana swallowed an acre. The foliage trembling in the sunshine, the wide fields of ripe grain, the vineyards so golden in September, the tall grass in which the cows stood knee-deep, all passed through her hands as if engulfed by an abyss. Even fishing rights, a stone quarry and three mills disappeared. Nana passed over them like an invading army or one of those swarms of locusts whose flight scours a whole province. The ground was burned up where her little foot had rested. Farm by farm, field by field, she ate up the man’s patrimony very prettily and quite inattentively, just as she would have eaten a box of sweet-meats flung into her lap between mealtimes. There was no harm in it all; they were only sweets! But at last one evening there only remained a single little wood. She swallowed it up disdainfully, as it was hardly worth the trouble opening one’s mouth for. La Faloise laughed idiotically and sucked the top of his stick. His debts were crushing him; he was not worth a hundred francs a year, and he saw that he would be compelled to go back into the country and live with his maniacal uncle. But that did not matter; he had achieved smartness; the Figaro had printed his name twice. And with his meager neck sticking up between the turndown points of his collar and his figure squeezed into all too short a coat, he would swagger about, uttering his parrotlike exclamations and affecting a solemn listlessness suggestive of an emotionless marionette. He so annoyed Nana that she ended by beating him.
Meanwhile Fauchery had returned, his cousin having brought him. Poor Fauchery had now set up housekeeping. After having thrown over the countess he had fallen into Rose’s hands, and she treated him as a lawful wife would have done. Mignon was simply Madame’s major-domo. Installed as master of the house, the journalist lied to Rose and took all sorts of precautions when he deceived her. He was as scrupulous as a good husband, for he really wanted to settle down at last. Nana’s triumph consisted in possessing and in ruining a newspaper that he had started with a friend’s capital. She did not proclaim her triumph; on the contrary, she delighted in treating him as a man who had to be circumspect, and when she spoke of Rose it was as “poor Rose.” The newspaper kept her in flowers for two months. She took all the provincial subscriptions; in fact, she took everything, from the column of news and gossip down to the dramatic notes. Then the editorial staff having been turned topsy-turvy and the management completely disorganized, she satisfied a fanciful caprice and had a winter garden constructed in a corner of her house: that carried off all the type. But then it was no joke after all! When in his delight at the whole business Mignon came to see if he could not saddle Fauchery on her altogether, she asked him if he took her for a fool. A penniless fellow living by his articles and his plays — not if she knew it! That sort of foolishness might be all very well for a clever woman like her poor, dear Rose! She grew distrustful: she feared some treachery on Mignon’s part, for he was quite capable of preaching to his wife, and so she gave Fauchery his CONGE as he now only paid her in fame.
But she always recollected him kindly. They had both enjoyed themselves so much at the expense of that fool of a La Faloise! They would never have thought of seeing each other again if the delight of fooling such a perfect idiot had not egged them on! It seemed an awfully good joke to kiss each other under his very nose. They cut a regular dash with his coin; they would send him off full speed to the other end of Paris in order to be alone and then when he came back, they would crack jokes and make allusions he could not understand. One day, urged by the journalist, she bet that she would smack his face, and that she did the very same evening and went on to harder blows, for she thought it a good joke and was glad of the opportunity of showing how cowardly men were. She called him her “slapjack” and would tell him to come and have his smack! The smacks made her hands red, for as yet she was not up to the trick. La Faloise laughed in his idiotic, languid way, though his eyes were full of tears. He was delighted at such familiarity; he thought it simply stunning.
One night when he had received sundry cuffs and was greatly excited:
“Now, d’you know,” he said, “you ought to marry me. We should be as jolly as grigs together, eh?”
This was no empty suggestion. Seized with a desire to astonish Paris, he had been slyly projecting this marriage. “Nana’s husband! Wouldn’t that sound smart, eh?” Rather a stunning apotheosis that! But Nana gave him a fine snubbing.
“Me marry you! Lovely! If such an idea had been tormenting me I should have found a husband a long time ago! And he’d have been a man worth twenty of you, my pippin! I’ve had a heap of proposals. Why, look here, just reckon ‘em up with me: Philippe, Georges, Foucarmont, Steiner — that makes four, without counting the others you don’t know. It’s a chorus they all sing. I can’t be nice, but they forthwith begin yelling, ‘Will you marry me? Will you marry me?’”
She lashed herself up and then burst out in fine indignation:
“Oh dear, no! I don’t want to! D’you think I’m built that way? Just look at me a bit! Why, I shouldn’t be Nana any longer if I fastened a man on behind! And, besides, it’s too foul!”
And she spat and hiccuped with disgust, as though she had seen all the dirt in the world spread out beneath her.
One evening La Faloise vanished, and a week later it became known that he was in the country with an uncle whose mania was botany. He was pasting his specimens for him and stood a chance of marrying a very plain, pious cousin. Nana shed no tears for him. She simply said to the count:
“Eh, little rough, another rival less! You’re chortling today. But he was becoming serious! He wanted to marry me.”
He waxed pale, and she flung her arms round his neck and hung there, laughing, while she emphasized every little cruel speech with a caress.
“You can’t marry Nana! Isn’t that what’s fetching you, eh? When they’re all bothering me with their marriages you’re raging in your corner. It isn’t possible; you must wait till your wife kicks the bucket. Oh, if she were only to do that, how you’d come rushing round! How you’d fling yourself on the ground and make your offer with all the grand accompaniments — sighs and tears and vows! Wouldn’t it be nice, darling, eh?”
Her voice had become soft, and she was chaffing him in a ferociously wheedling manner. He was deeply moved and began blushing as he paid her back her kisses. Then she cried:
“By God, to think I should have guessed! He’s thought about it; he’s waiting for his wife to go off the hooks! Well, well, that’s the finishing touch! Why, he’s even a bigger rascal than the others!”
Muffat had resigned himself to “the others.” Nowadays he was trusting to the last relics of his personal dignity in order to remain “Monsieur” among the servants and intimates of the house, the man, in fact, who because he gave most was the official lover. And his passion grew fiercer. He kept his position because he paid for it, buying even smiles at a high price. He was even robbed and he never got his money’s worth, but a disease seemed to be gnawing his vitals from which he could not prevent himself suffering. Whenever he entered Nana’s bedroom he was simply content to open the windows for a second or two in order to get rid of the odors the others left behind them, the essential smells of fair-haired men and dark, the smoke of cigars, of which the pungency choked him. This bedroom was becoming a veritable thoroughfare, so continually were boots wiped on its threshold. Yet never a man among them was stopped by the bloodstain barring the door. Zoe was still preoccupied by this stain; it was a simple mania with her, for she was a clean girl, and it horrified her to see it always there. Despite everything her eyes would wander in its direction, and she now never entered Madame’s room without remarking:
“It’s strange that don’t go. All the same, plenty of folk come in this way.”
Nana kept receiving the best news from Georges, who was by that time already convalescent in his mother’s keeping at Les Fondettes, and she used always to make the same reply.
“Oh, hang it, time’s all that’s wanted. It’s apt to grow paler as feet cross it.”
As a matter of fact, each of the gentlemen, whether Foucarmont, Steiner, La Faloise or Fauchery, had borne away some of it on their bootsoles. And Muffat, whom the bloodstain preoccupied as much as it did Zoe, kept studying it in his own despite, as though in its gradual rosy disappearance he would read the number of men that passed. He secretly dreaded it and always stepped over it out of a vivid fear of crushing some live thing, some naked limb lying on the floor.
But in the bedroom within he would grow dizzy and intoxicated and would forget everything — the mob of men which constantly crossed it, the sign of mourning which barred its door. Outside, in the open air of the street, he would weep occasionally out of sheer shame and disgust and would vow never to enter the room again. And the moment the portiere had closed behind him he was under the old influence once more and felt his whole being melting in the damp warm air of the place, felt his flesh penetrated by a perfume, felt himself overborne by a voluptuous yearning for self-annihilation. Pious and habituated to ecstatic experiences in sumptuous chapels, he there re-encountered precisely the same mystical sensations as when he knelt under some painted window and gave way to the intoxication of organ music and incense. Woman swayed him as jealously and despotically as the God of wrath, terrifying him, granting him moments of delight, which were like spasms in their keenness, in return for hours filled with frightful, tormenting visions of hell and eternal tortures. In Nana’s presence, as in church, the same stammering accents were his, the same prayers and the same fits of despair — nay, the same paroxysms of humility peculiar to an accursed creature who is crushed down in the mire from whence he has sprung. His fleshly desires, his spiritual needs, were confounded together and seemed to spring from the obscure depths of his being and to bear but one blossom on the tree of his existence. He abandoned himself to the power of love and of faith, those twin levers which move the world. And despite all the struggles of his reason this bedroom of Nana’s always filled him with madness, and he would sink shuddering under the almighty dominion of sex, just as he would swoon before the vast unknown of heaven.
Then when she felt how humble he was Nana grew tyrannously triumphant. The rage for debasing things was inborn in her. It did not suffice her to destroy them; she must soil them too. Her delicate hands left abominable traces and themselves decomposed whatever they had broken. And he in his imbecile condition lent himself to this sort of sport, for he was possessed by vaguely remembered stories of saints who were devoured by vermin and in turn devoured their own excrements. When once she had him fast in her room and the doors were shut, she treated herself to a man’s infamy. At first they joked together, and she would deal him light blows and impose quaint tasks on him, making him lisp like a child and repeat tags of sentences.
“Say as I do: ‘tonfound it! Ickle man damn vell don’t tare about it!”
He would prove so docile as to reproduce her very accent.
“’Tonfound it! Ickle man damn vell don’t tare about it!”
Or again she would play bear, walking on all fours on her rugs when she had only her chemise on and turning round with a growl as though she wanted to eat him. She would even nibble his calves for the fun of the thing. Then, getting up again:
“It’s your turn now; try it a bit. I bet you don’t play bear like me.”
It was still charming enough. As bear she amused him with her white skin and her fell of ruddy hair. He used to laugh and go down on all fours, too, and growl and bite her calves, while she ran from him with an affectation of terror.
“Are we beasts, eh?” she would end by saying. “You’ve no notion how ugly you are, my pet! Just think if they were to see you like that at the Tuileries!”
But ere long these little games were spoiled. It was not cruelty in her case, for she was still a good-natured girl; it was as though a passing wind of madness were blowing ever more strongly in the shut-up bedroom. A storm of lust disordered their brains, plunged them into the delirious imaginations of the flesh. The old pious terrors of their sleepless nights were now transforming themselves into a thirst for bestiality, a furious longing to walk on all fours, to growl and to bite. One day when he was playing bear she pushed him so roughly that he fell against a piece of furniture, and when she saw the lump on his forehead she burst into involuntary laughter. After that her experiments on La Faloise having whetted her appetite, she treated him like an animal, threshing him and chasing him to an accompaniment of kicks.
“Gee up! Gee up! You’re a horse. Hoi! Gee up! Won’t you hurry up, you dirty screw?”
At other times he was a dog. She would throw her scented handkerchief to the far end of the room, and he had to run and pick it up with his teeth, dragging himself along on hands and knees.
“Fetch it, Caesar! Look here, I’ll give you what for if you don’t look sharp! Well done, Caesar! Good dog! Nice old fellow! Now behave pretty!”
And he loved his abasement and delighted in being a brute beast. He longed to sink still further and would cry:
“Hit harder. On, on! I’m wild! Hit away!”
She was seized with a whim and insisted on his coming to her one night clad in his magnificent chamberlain’s costume. Then how she did laugh and make fun of him when she had him there in all his glory, with the sword and the cocked hat and the white breeches and the full-bottomed coat of red cloth laced with gold and the symbolic key hanging on its left-hand skirt. This key made her especially merry and urged her to a wildly fanciful and extremely filthy discussion of it. Laughing without cease and carried away by her irreverence for pomp and by the joy of debasing him in the official dignity of his costume, she shook him, pinched him, shouted, “Oh, get along with ye, Chamberlain!” and ended by an accompaniment of swinging kicks behind. Oh, those kicks! How heartily she rained them on the Tuileries and the majesty of the imperial court, throning on high above an abject and trembling people. That’s what she thought of society! That was her revenge! It was an affair of unconscious hereditary spite; it had come to her in her blood. Then when once the chamberlain was undressed and his coat lay spread on the ground she shrieked, “Jump!” And he jumped. She shrieked, “Spit!” And he spat. With a shriek she bade him walk on the gold, on the eagles, on the decorations, and he walked on them. Hi tiddly hi ti! Nothing was left; everything was going to pieces. She smashed a chamberlain just as she smashed a flask or a comfit box, and she made filth of him, reduced him to a heap of mud at a street corner.
Meanwhile the goldsmiths had failed to keep their promise, and the bed was not delivered till one day about the middle of January. Muffat was just then in Normandy, whither he had gone to sell a last stray shred of property, but Nana demanded four thousand francs forthwith. He was not due in Paris till the day after tomorrow, but when his business was once finished he hastened his return and without even paying a flying visit in the Rue Miromesnil came direct to the Avenue de Villiers. Ten o’clock was striking. As he had a key of a little door opening on the Rue Cardinet, he went up unhindered. In the drawing room upstairs Zoe, who was polishing the bronzes, stood dumfounded at sight of him, and not knowing how to stop him, she began with much circumlocution, informing him that M. Venot, looking utterly beside himself, had been searching for him since yesterday and that he had already come twice to beg her to send Monsieur to his house if Monsieur arrived at Madame’s before going home. Muffat listened to her without in the least understanding the meaning of her recital; then he noticed her agitation and was seized by a sudden fit of jealousy of which he no longer believed himself capable. He threw himself against the bedroom door, for he heard the sound of laughter within. The door gave; its two flaps flew asunder, while Zoe withdrew, shrugging her shoulders. So much the worse for Madame! As Madame was bidding good-by to her wits, she might arrange matters for herself.
And on the threshold Muffat uttered a cry at the sight that was presented to his view.
“My God! My God!”
The renovated bedroom was resplendent in all its royal luxury. Silver buttons gleamed like bright stars on the tea-rose velvet of the hangings. These last were of that pink flesh tint which the skies assume on fine evenings, when Venus lights her fires on the horizon against the clear background of fading daylight. The golden cords and tassels hanging in corners and the gold lace-work surrounding the panels were like little flames of ruddy strands of loosened hair, and they half covered the wide nakedness of the room while they emphasized its pale, voluptuous tone. Then over against him there was the gold and silver bed, which shone in all the fresh splendor of its chiseled workmanship, a throne this of sufficient extent for Nana to display the outstretched glory of her naked limbs, an altar of Byzantine sumptuousness, worthy of the almighty puissance of Nana’s sex, which at this very hour lay nudely displayed there in the religious immodesty befitting an idol of all men’s worship. And close by, beneath the snowy reflections of her bosom and amid the triumph of the goddess, lay wallowing a shameful, decrepit thing, a comic and lamentable ruin, the Marquis de Chouard in his nightshirt.
The count had clasped his hands together and, shaken by a paroxysmal shuddering, he kept crying:
“My God! My God!”
It was for the Marquis de Chouard, then, that the golden roses flourished on the side panels, those bunches of golden roses blooming among the golden leaves; it was for him that the Cupids leaned forth with amorous, roguish laughter from their tumbling ring on the silver trelliswork. And it was for him that the faun at his feet discovered the nymph sleeping, tired with dalliance, the figure of Night copied down to the exaggerated thighs — which caused her to be recognizable of all — from Nana’s renowned nudity. Cast there like the rag of something human which has been spoiled and dissolved by sixty years of debauchery, he suggested the charnelhouse amid the glory of the woman’s dazzling contours. Seeing the door open, he had risen up, smitten with sudden terror as became an infirm old man. This last night of passion had rendered him imbecile; he was entering on his second childhood; and, his speech failing him, he remained in an attitude of flight, half-paralyzed, stammering, shivering, his nightshirt half up his skeleton shape, and one leg outside the clothes, a livid leg, covered with gray hair. Despite her vexation Nana could not keep from laughing.
“Do lie down! Stuff yourself into the bed,” she said, pulling him back and burying him under the coverlet, as though he were some filthy thing she could not show anyone.
Then she sprang up to shut the door again. She was decidedly never lucky with her little rough. He was always coming when least wanted. And why had he gone to fetch money in Normandy? The old man had brought her the four thousand francs, and she had let him have his will of her. She pushed back the two flaps of the door and shouted:
“So much the worse for you! It’s your fault. Is that the way to come into a room? I’ve had enough of this sort of thing. Ta ta!”
Muffat remained standing before the closed door, thunderstruck by what he had just seen. His shuddering fit increased. It mounted from his feet to his heart and brain. Then like a tree shaken by a mighty wind, he swayed to and fro and dropped on his knees, all his muscles giving way under him. And with hands despairingly outstretched he stammered:
“This is more than I can bear, my God! More than I can bear!”
He had accepted every situation but he could do so no longer. He had come to the end of his strength and was plunged in the dark void where man and his reason are together overthrown. In an extravagant access of faith he raised his hands ever higher and higher, searching for heaven, calling on God.
“Oh no, I do not desire it! Oh, come to me, my God! Succor me; nay, let me die sooner! Oh no, not that man, my God! It is over; take me, carry me away, that I may not see, that I may not feel any longer! Oh, I belong to you, my God! Our Father which art in heaven —”
And burning with faith, he continued his supplication, and an ardent prayer escaped from his lips. But someone touched him on the shoulder. He lifted his eyes; it was M. Venot. He was surprised to find him praying before that closed door. Then as though God Himself had responded to his appeal, the count flung his arms round the little old gentleman’s neck. At last he could weep, and he burst out sobbing and repeated:
“My brother, my brother.”
All his suffering humanity found comfort in that cry. He drenched M. Venot’s face with tears; he kissed him, uttering fragmentary ejaculations.
“Oh, my brother, how I am suffering! You only are left me, my brother. Take me away forever — oh, for mercy’s sake, take me away!”
Then M. Venot pressed him to his bosom and called him “brother” also. But he had a fresh blow in store for him. Since yesterday he had been searching for him in order to inform him that the Countess Sabine, in a supreme fit of moral aberration, had but now taken flight with the manager of one of the departments in a large, fancy emporium. It was a fearful scandal, and all Paris was already talking about it. Seeing him under the influence of such religious exaltation, Venot felt the opportunity to be favorable and at once told him of the meanly tragic shipwreck of his house. The count was not touched thereby. His wife had gone? That meant nothing to him; they would see what would happen later on. And again he was seized with anguish, and gazing with a look of terror at the door, the walls, the ceiling, he continued pouring forth his single supplication:
“Take me away! I cannot bear it any longer! Take me away!”
M. Venot took him away as though he had been a child. From that day forth Muffat belonged to him entirely; he again became strictly attentive to the duties of religion; his life was utterly blasted. He had resigned his position as chamberlain out of respect for the outraged modesty of the Tuileries, and soon Estelle, his daughter, brought an action against him for the recovery of a sum of sixty thousand francs, a legacy left her by an aunt to which she ought to have succeeded at the time of her marriage. Ruined and living narrowly on the remains of his great fortune, he let himself be gradually devoured by the countess, who ate up the husks Nana had rejected. Sabine was indeed ruined by the example of promiscuity set her by her husband’s intercourse with the wanton. She was prone to every excess and proved the ultimate ruin and destruction of his very hearth. After sundry adventures she had returned home, and he had taken her back in a spirit of Christian resignation and forgiveness. She haunted him as his living disgrace, but he grew more and more indifferent and at last ceased suffering from these distresses. Heaven took him out of his wife’s hands in order to restore him to the arms of God, and so the voluptuous pleasures he had enjoyed with Nana were prolonged in religious ecstasies, accompanied by the old stammering utterances, the old prayers and despairs, the old fits of humility which befit an accursed creature who is crushed beneath the mire whence he sprang. In the recesses of churches, his knees chilled by the pavement, he would once more experience the delights of the past, and his muscles would twitch, and his brain would whirl deliciously, and the satisfaction of the obscure necessities of his existence would be the same as of old.
On the evening of the final rupture Mignon presented himself at the house in the Avenue de Villiers. He was growing accustomed to Fauchery and was beginning at last to find the presence of his wife’s husband infinitely advantageous to him. He would leave all the little household cares to the journalist and would trust him in the active superintendence of all their affairs. Nay, he devoted the money gained by his dramatic successes to the daily expenditure of the family, and as, on his part, Fauchery behaved sensibly, avoiding ridiculous jealousy and proving not less pliant than Mignon himself whenever Rose found her opportunity, the mutual understanding between the two men constantly improved. In fact, they were happy in a partnership which was so fertile in all kinds of amenities, and they settled down side by side and adopted a family arrangement which no longer proved a stumbling block. The whole thing was conducted according to rule; it suited admirably, and each man vied with the other in his efforts for the common happiness. That very evening Mignon had come by Fauchery’s advice to see if he could not steal Nana’s lady’s maid from her, the journalist having formed a high opinion of the woman’s extraordinary intelligence. Rose was in despair; for a month past she had been falling into the hands of inexperienced girls who were causing her continual embarrassment. When Zoe received him at the door he forthwith pushed her into the dining room. But at his opening sentence she smiled. The thing was impossible, she said, for she was leaving Madame and establishing herself on her own account. And she added with an expression of discreet vanity that she was daily receiving offers, that the ladies were fighting for her and that Mme Blanche would give a pile of gold to have her back.
Zoe was taking the Tricon’s establishment. It was an old project and had been long brooded over. It was her ambition to make her fortune thereby, and she was investing all her savings in it. She was full of great ideas and meditated increasing the business and hiring a house and combining all the delights within its walls. It was with this in view that she had tried to entice Satin, a little pig at that moment dying in hospital, so terribly had she done for herself.
Mignon still insisted with his offer and spoke of the risks run in the commercial life, but Zoe, without entering into explanations about the exact nature of her establishment, smiled a pinched smile, as though she had just put a sweetmeat in her mouth, and was content to remark:
“Oh, luxuries always pay. You see, I’ve been with others quite long enough, and now I want others to be with me.”
And a fierce look set her lip curling. At last she would be “Madame,” and for the sake of earning a few louis all those women whose slops she had emptied during the last fifteen years would prostrate themselves before her.
Mignon wished to be announced, and Zoe left him for a moment after remarking that Madame had passed a miserable day. He had only been at the house once before, and he did not know it at all. The dining room with its Gobelin tapestry, its sideboard and its plate filled him with astonishment. He opened the doors familiarly and visited the drawing room and the winter garden, returning thence into the hall. This overwhelming luxury, this gilded furniture, these silks and velvets, gradually filled him with such a feeling of admiration that it set his heart beating. When Zoe came down to fetch him she offered to show him the other rooms, the dressing room, that is to say, and the bedroom. In the latter Mignon’s feelings overcame him; he was carried away by them; they filled him with tender enthusiasm.
That damned Nana was simply stupefying him, and yet he thought he knew a thing or two. Amid the downfall of the house and the servants’ wild, wasteful race to destruction, massed-up riches still filled every gaping hole and overtopped every ruined wall. And Mignon, as he viewed this lordly monument of wealth, began recalling to mind the various great works he had seen. Near Marseilles they had shown him an aqueduct, the stone arches of which bestrode an abyss, a Cyclopean work which cost millions of money and ten years of intense labor. At Cherbourg he had seen the new harbor with its enormous works, where hundreds of men sweated in the sun while cranes filled the sea with huge squares of rock and built up a wall where a workman now and again remained crushed into bloody pulp. But all that now struck him as insignificant. Nana excited him far more. Viewing the fruit of her labors, he once more experienced the feelings of respect that had overcome him one festal evening in a sugar refiner’s chateau. This chateau had been erected for the refiner, and its palatial proportions and royal splendor had been paid for by a single material — sugar. It was with something quite different, with a little laughable folly, a little delicate nudity — it was with this shameful trifle, which is so powerful as to move the universe, that she alone, without workmen, without the inventions of engineers, had shaken Paris to its foundations and had built up a fortune on the bodies of dead men.
“Oh, by God, what an implement!”
Mignon let the words escape him in his ecstasy, for he felt a return of personal gratitude.
Nana had gradually lapsed into a most mournful condition. To begin with, the meeting of the marquis and the count had given her a severe fit of feverish nervousness, which verged at times on laughter. Then the thought of this old man going away half dead in a cab and of her poor rough, whom she would never set eyes on again now that she had driven him so wild, brought on what looked like the beginnings of melancholia. After that she grew vexed to hear about Satin’s illness. The girl had disappeared about a fortnight ago and was now ready to die at Lariboisiere, to such a damnable state had Mme Robert reduced her. When she ordered the horses to be put to in order that she might have a last sight of this vile little wretch Zoe had just quietly given her a week’s notice. The announcement drove her to desperation at once! It seemed to her she was losing a member of her own family. Great heavens! What was to become of her when left alone? And she besought Zoe to stay, and the latter, much flattered by Madame’s despair, ended by kissing her to show that she was not going away in anger. No, she had positively to go: the heart could have no voice in matters of business.
But that day was one of annoyances. Nana was thoroughly disgusted and gave up the idea of going out. She was dragging herself wearily about the little drawing room when Labordette came up to tell her of a splendid chance of buying magnificent lace and in the course of his remarks casually let slip the information that Georges was dead. The announcement froze her.
“Zizi dead!” she cried.
And involuntarily her eyes sought the pink stain on the carpet, but it had vanished at last; passing footsteps had worn it away. Meanwhile Labordette entered into particulars. It was not exactly known how he died. Some spoke of a wound reopening, others of suicide. The lad had plunged, they said, into a tank at Les Fondettes. Nana kept repeating:
She had been choking with grief since morning, and now she burst out sobbing and thus sought relief. Hers was an infinite sorrow: it overwhelmed her with its depth and immensity. Labordette wanted to comfort her as touching Georges, but she silenced him with a gesture and blurted out:
“It isn’t only he; it’s everything, everything. I’m very wretched. Oh yes, I know! They’ll again be saying I’m a hussy. To think of the mother mourning down there and of the poor man who was groaning in front of my door this morning and of all the other people that are now ruined after running through all they had with me! That’s it; punish Nana; punish the beastly thing! Oh, I’ve got a broad back! I can hear them as if I were actually there! ‘That dirty wench who lies with everybody and cleans out some and drives others to death and causes a whole heap of people pain!’”
She was obliged to pause, for tears choked her utterance, and in her anguish she flung herself athwart a divan and buried her face in a cushion. The miseries she felt to be around her, miseries of which she was the cause, overwhelmed her with a warm, continuous stream of self-pitying tears, and her voice failed as she uttered a little girl’s broken plaint:
“Oh, I’m wretched! Oh, I’m wretched! I can’t go on like this: it’s choking me. It’s too hard to be misunderstood and to see them all siding against you because they’re stronger. However, when you’ve got nothing to reproach yourself with and your conscious is clear, why, then I say, ‘I won’t have it! I won’t have it!’”
In her anger she began rebeling against circumstances, and getting up, she dried her eyes, and walked about in much agitation.
“I won’t have it! They can say what they like, but it’s not my fault! Am I a bad lot, eh? I give away all I’ve got; I wouldn’t crush a fly! It’s they who are bad! Yes, it’s they! I never wanted to be horrid to them. And they came dangling after me, and today they’re kicking the bucket and begging and going to ruin on purpose.”
Then she paused in front of Labordette and tapped his shoulders.
“Look here,” she said, “you were there all along; now speak the truth: did I urge them on? Weren’t there always a dozen of ‘em squabbling who could invent the dirtiest trick? They used to disgust me, they did! I did all I knew not to copy them: I was afraid to. Look here, I’ll give you a single instance: they all wanted to marry me! A pretty notion, eh? Yes, dear boy, I could have been countess or baroness a dozen times over and more, if I’d consented. Well now, I refused because I was reasonable. Oh yes, I saved ‘em some crimes and other foul acts! They’d have stolen, murdered, killed father and mother. I had only to say one word, and I didn’t say it. You see what I’ve got for it today. There’s Daguenet, for instance; I married that chap off! I made a position for the beggarly fellow after keeping him gratis for weeks! And I met him yesterday, and he looks the other way! Oh, get along, you swine! I’m less dirty than you!”
She had begun pacing about again, and now she brought her fist violently down on a round table.
“By God it isn’t fair! Society’s all wrong. They come down on the women when it’s the men who want you to do things. Yes, I can tell you this now: when I used to go with them — see? I didn’t enjoy it; no, I didn’t enjoy it one bit. It bored me, on my honor. Well then, I ask you whether I’ve got anything to do with it! Yes, they bored me to death! If it hadn’t been for them and what they made of me, dear boy, I should be in a convent saying my prayers to the good God, for I’ve always had my share of religion. Dash it, after all, if they have dropped their money and their lives over it, what do I care? It’s their fault. I’ve had nothing to do with it!”
“Certainly not,” said Labordette with conviction.
Zoe ushered in Mignon, and Nana received him smilingly. She had cried a good deal, but it was all over now. Still glowing with enthusiasm, he complimented her on her installation, but she let him see that she had had enough of her mansion and that now she had other projects and would sell everything up one of these days. Then as he excused himself for calling on the ground that he had come about a benefit performance in aid of old Bose, who was tied to his armchair by paralysis, she expressed extreme pity and took two boxes. Meanwhile Zoe announced that the carriage was waiting for Madame, and she asked for her hat and as she tied the strings told them about poor, dear Satin’s mishap, adding:
“I’m going to the hospital. Nobody ever loved me as she did. Oh, they’re quite right when they accuse the men of heartlessness! Who knows? Perhaps I shan’t see her alive. Never mind, I shall ask to see her: I want to give her a kiss.”
Labordette and Mignon smiled, and as Nana was no longer melancholy she smiled too. Those two fellows didn’t count; they could enter into her feelings. And they both stood and admired her in silent abstraction while she finished buttoning her gloves. She alone kept her feet amid the heaped-up riches of her mansion, while a whole generation of men lay stricken down before her. Like those antique monsters whose redoubtable domains were covered with skeletons, she rested her feet on human skulls. She was ringed round with catastrophes. There was the furious immolation of Vandeuvres; the melancholy state of Foucarmont, who was lost in the China seas; the smashup of Steiner, who now had to live like an honest man; the satisfied idiocy of La Faloise, and the tragic shipwreck of the Muffats. Finally there was the white corpse of Georges, over which Philippe was now watching, for he had come out of prison but yesterday. She had finished her labor of ruin and death. The fly that had flown up from the ordure of the slums, bringing with it the leaven of social rottenness, had poisoned all these men by merely alighting on them. It was well done — it was just. She had avenged the beggars and the wastrels from whose caste she issued. And while, metaphorically speaking, her sex rose in a halo of glory and beamed over prostrate victims like a mounting sun shining brightly over a field of carnage, the actual woman remained as unconscious as a splendid animal, and in her ignorance of her mission was the good-natured courtesan to the last. She was still big; she was still plump; her health was excellent, her spirits capital. But this went for nothing now, for her house struck her as ridiculous. It was too small; it was full of furniture which got in her way. It was a wretched business, and the long and the short of the matter was she would have to make a fresh start. In fact, she was meditating something much better, and so she went off to kiss Satin for the last time. She was in all her finery and looked clean and solid and as brand new as if she had never seen service before.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02