Honore de Balzac
Etext prepared by Dagny, email@example.com
and John Bickers, firstname.lastname@example.org
HONORE DE BALZAC
Ellen Marriage and Clara Bell
Dedicated to my dear niece Valentine Surville.
The incident recorded in this sketch took place towards the end of the
month of November, 1809, the moment when Napoleon's fugitive empire
attained the apogee of its splendor. The trumpet-blasts of Wagram were
still sounding an echo in the heart of the Austrian monarchy. Peace
was being signed between France and the Coalition. Kings and princes
came to perform their orbits, like stars, round Napoleon, who gave
himself the pleasure of dragging all Europe in his train--a
magnificent experiment in the power he afterwards displayed at
Dresden. Never, as contemporaries tell us, did Paris see
entertainments more superb than those which preceded and followed the
sovereign's marriage with an Austrian archduchess. Never, in the most
splendid days of the Monarchy, had so many crowned heads thronged the
shores of the Seine, never had the French aristocracy been so rich or
so splendid. The diamonds lavishly scattered over the women's dresses,
and the gold and silver embroidery on the uniforms contrasted so
strongly with the penury of the Republic, that the wealth of the globe
seemed to be rolling through the drawing-rooms of Paris. Intoxication
seemed to have turned the brains of this Empire of a day. All the
military, not excepting their chief, reveled like parvenus in the
treasure conquered for them by a million men with worsted epaulettes,
whose demands were satisfied by a few yards of red ribbon.
At this time most women affected that lightness of conduct and
facility of morals which distinguished the reign of Louis XV. Whether
it were in imitation of the tone of the fallen monarchy, or because
certain members of the Imperial family had set the example--as certain
malcontents of the Faubourg Saint-Germain chose to say--it is certain
that men and women alike flung themselves into a life of pleasure with
an intrepidity which seemed to forbode the end of the world. But there
was at that time another cause for such license. The infatuation of
women for the military became a frenzy, and was too consonant to the
Emperor's views for him to try to check it. The frequent calls to
arms, which gave every treaty concluded between Napoleon and the rest
of Europe the character of an armistice, left every passion open to a
termination as sudden as the decisions of the Commander-in-chief of
all these busbys, pelisses, and aiguillettes, which so fascinated the
fair sex. Hearts were as nomadic as the regiments. Between the first
and fifth bulletins from the Grand armee a woman might be in
succession mistress, wife, mother, and widow.
Was it the prospect of early widowhood, the hope of a jointure, or
that of bearing a name promised to history, which made the soldiers so
attractive? Were women drawn to them by the certainty that the secret
of their passions would be buried on the field of battle? or may we
find the reason of this gentle fanaticism in the noble charm that
courage has for a woman? Perhaps all these reasons, which the future
historian of the manners of the Empire will no doubt amuse himself by
weighing, counted for something in their facile readiness to abandon
themselves to love intrigues. Be that as it may, it must here be
confessed that at that time laurels hid many errors, women showed an
ardent preference for the brave adventurers, whom they regarded as the
true fount of honor, wealth, or pleasure; and in the eyes of young
girls, an epaulette--the hieroglyphic of a future--signified happiness
One feature, and a characteristic one, of this unique period in our
history was an unbridled mania for everything glittering. Never were
fireworks so much in vogue, never were diamonds so highly prized. The
men, as greedy as the women of these translucent pebbles, displayed
them no less lavishly. Possibly the necessity for carrying plunder in
the most portable form made gems the fashion in the army. A man was
not ridiculous then, as he would be now, if his shirt-frill or his
fingers blazed with large diamonds. Murat, an Oriental by nature, set
the example of preposterous luxury to modern soldiers.
The Comte de Gondreville, formerly known as Citizen Malin, whose
elevation had made him famous, having become a Lucullus of the
Conservative Senate, which "conserved" nothing, had postponed an
entertainment in honor of the peace only that he might the better pay
his court to Napoleon by his efforts to eclipse those flatterers who
had been before-hand with him. The ambassadors from all the Powers
friendly with France, with an eye to favors to come, the most
important personages of the Empire, and even a few princes, were at
this hour assembled in the wealthy senator's drawing-rooms. Dancing
flagged; every one was watching for the Emperor, whose presence the
Count had promised his guests. And Napoleon would have kept his word
but for the scene which had broken out that very evening between him
and Josephine--the scene which portended the impending divorce of the
august pair. The report of this incident, at the time kept very
secret, but recorded by history, did not reach the ears of the
courtiers, and had no effect on the gaiety of Comte de Gondreville's
party beyond keeping Napoleon away.
The prettiest women in Paris, eager to be at the Count's on the
strength of mere hearsay, at this moment were a besieging force of
luxury, coquettishness, elegance, and beauty. The financial world,
proud of its riches, challenged the splendor of the generals and high
officials of the Empire, so recently gorged with orders, titles, and
honors. These grand balls were always an opportunity seized upon by
wealthy families for introducing their heiresses to Napoleon's
Praetorian Guard, in the foolish hope of exchanging their splendid
fortunes for uncertain favors. The women who believed themselves
strong enough in their beauty alone came to test their power. There,
as elsewhere, amusement was but a blind. Calm and smiling faces and
placid brows covered sordid interests, expressions of friendship were
a lie, and more than one man was less distrustful of his enemies than
of his friends.
These remarks are necessary to explain the incidents of the little
imbroglio which is the subject of this study, and the picture,
softened as it is, of the tone then dominant in Paris drawing-rooms.
"Turn your eyes a little towards the pedestal supporting that
candelabrum--do you see a young lady with her hair drawn back a la
Chinoise!--There, in the corner to the left; she has bluebells in the
knot of chestnut curls which fall in clusters on her head. Do not you
see her? She is so pale you might fancy she was ill, delicate-looking,
and very small; there--now she is turning her head this way; her
almond-shaped blue eyes, so delightfully soft, look as if they were
made expressly for tears. Look, look! She is bending forward to see
Madame de Vaudremont below the crowd of heads in constant motion; the
high head-dresses prevent her having a clear view."
"I see her now, my dear fellow. You had only to say that she had the
whitest skin of all the women here; I should have known whom you
meant. I had noticed her before; she has the loveliest complexion I
ever admired. From hence I defy you to see against her throat the
pearls between the sapphires of her necklace. But she is a prude or a
coquette, for the tucker of her bodice scarcely lets one suspect the
beauty of her bust. What shoulders! what lily-whiteness!"
"Who is she?" asked the first speaker.
"Ah! that I do not know."
"Aristocrat!--Do you want to keep them all to yourself, Montcornet?"
"You of all men to banter me!" replied Montcornet, with a smile. "Do
you think you have a right to insult a poor general like me because,
being a happy rival of Soulanges, you cannot even turn on your heel
without alarming Madame de Vaudremont? Or is it because I came only a
month ago into the Promised Land? How insolent you can be, you men in
office, who sit glued to your chairs while we are dodging shot and
shell! Come, Monsieur le Maitre des Requetes, allow us to glean in the
field of which you can only have precarious possession from the moment
when we evacuate it. The deuce is in it! We have a right to live! My
good friend, if you knew the German women, you would, I believe, do me
a good turn with the Parisian you love best."
"Well, General, since you have vouchsafed to turn your attention to
that lady, whom I never saw till now, have the charity to tell me if
you have seen her dance."
"Why, my dear Martial, where have you dropped from? If you are ever
sent with an embassy, I have small hopes of your success. Do not you
see a triple rank of the most undaunted coquettes of Paris between her
and the swarm of dancing men that buzz under the chandelier? And was
it not only by the help of your eyeglass that you were able to
discover her at all in the corner by that pillar, where she seems
buried in the gloom, in spite of the candles blazing above her head?
Between her and us there is such a sparkle of diamonds and glances, so
many floating plumes, such a flutter of lace, of flowers and curls,
that it would be a real miracle if any dancer could detect her among
those stars. Why, Martial, how is it that you have not understood her
to be the wife of some sous-prefet from Lippe or Dyle, who has come to
try to get her husband promoted?"
"Oh, he will be!" exclaimed the Master of Appeals quickly.
"I doubt it," replied the Colonel of Cuirassiers, laughing. "She seems
as raw in intrigue as you are in diplomacy. I dare bet, Martial, that
you do not know how she got into that place."
The lawyer looked at the Colonel of Cuirassiers with an expression as
much of contempt as of curiosity.
"Well," proceeded Montcornet, "she arrived, I have no doubt,
punctually at nine, the first of the company perhaps, and probably she
greatly embarrassed the Comtesse de Gondreville, who cannot put two
ideas together. Repulsed by the mistress of the house, routed from
chair to chair by each newcomer, and driven into the darkness of this
little corner, she allowed herself to be walled in, the victim of the
jealousy of the other ladies, who would gladly have buried that
dangerous beauty. She had, of course, no friend to encourage her to
maintain the place she first held in the front rank; then each of
those treacherous fair ones would have enjoined on the men of her
circle on no account to take out our poor friend, under pain of the
severest punishment. That, my dear fellow, is the way in which those
sweet faces, in appearance so tender and so artless, would have formed
a coalition against the stranger, and that without a word beyond the
question, 'Tell me, dear, do you know that little woman in blue?'--
Look here, Martial, if you care to run the gauntlet of more flattering
glances and inviting questions than you will ever again meet in the
whole of your life, just try to get through the triple rampart which
defends that Queen of Dyle, or Lippe, or Charente. You will see
whether the dullest woman of them all will not be equal to inventing
some wile that would hinder the most determined man from bringing the
plaintive stranger to the light. Does it not strike you that she looks
like an elegy?"
"Do you think so, Montcornet? Then she must be a married woman?"
"Why not a widow?"
"She would be less passive," said the lawyer, laughing.
"She is perhaps the widow of a man who is gambling," replied the
"To be sure; since the peace there are so many widows of that class!"
said Martial. "But my dear Montcornet, we are a couple of simpletons.
That face is still too ingenuous, there is too much youth and
freshness on the brow and temples for her to be married. What splendid
flesh-tints! Nothing has sunk in the modeling of the nose. Lips, chin,
everything in her face is as fresh as a white rosebud, though the
expression is veiled, as it were, by the clouds of sadness. Who can it
be that makes that young creature weep?"
"Women cry for so little," said the Colonel.
"I do not know," replied Martial; "but she does not cry because she is
left there without a partner; her grief is not of to-day. It is
evident that she has beautified herself for this evening with
intention. I would wager that she is in love already."
"Bah! She is perhaps the daughter of some German princeling; no one
talks to her," said Montcornet.
"Dear! how unhappy a poor child may be!" Martial went on. "Can there
be anything more graceful and refined than our little stranger? Well,
not one of those furies who stand round her, and who believe that they
can feel, will say a word to her. If she would but speak, we should
see if she has fine teeth.
"Bless me, you boil over like milk at the least increase of
temperature!" cried the Colonel, a little nettled at so soon finding a
rival in his friend.
"What!" exclaimed the lawyer, without heeding the Colonel's question.
"Can nobody here tell us the name of this exotic flower?"
"Some lady companion!" said Montcornet.
"What next? A companion! wearing sapphires fit for a queen, and a
dress of Malines lace? Tell that to the marines, General. You, too,
would not shine in diplomacy if, in the course of your conjectures,
you jump in a breath from a German princess to a lady companion."
Montcornet stopped a man by taking his arm--a fat little man, whose
iron-gray hair and clever eyes were to be seen at the lintel of every
doorway, and who mingled unceremoniously with the various groups which
welcomed him respectfully.
"Gondreville, my friend," said Montcornet, "who is that quite charming
little woman sitting out there under that huge candelabrum?"
"The candelabrum? Ravrio's work; Isabey made the design."
"Oh, I recognized your lavishness and taste; but the lady?"
"Ah! I do not know. Some friend of my wife's, no doubt."
"Or your mistress, you old rascal."
"No, on my honor. The Comtesse de Gondreville is the only person
capable of inviting people whom no one knows."
In spite of this very acrimonious comment, the fat little man's lips
did not lose the smile which the Colonel's suggestion had brought to
them. Montcornet returned to the lawyer, who had rejoined a
neighboring group, intent on asking, but in vain, for information as
to the fair unknown. He grasped Martial's arm, and said in his ear:
"My dear Martial, mind what you are about. Madame de Vaudremont has
been watching you for some minutes with ominous attentiveness; she is
a woman who can guess by the mere movement of your lips what you say
to me; our eyes have already told her too much; she has perceived and
followed their direction, and I suspect that at this moment she is
thinking even more than we are of the little blue lady."
"That is too old a trick in warfare, my dear Montcornet! However, what
do I care? Like the Emperor, when I have made a conquest, I keep it."
"Martial, your fatuity cries out for a lesson. What! you, a civilian,
and so lucky as to be the husband-designate of Madame de Vaudremont, a
widow of two-and-twenty, burdened with four thousand napoleons a year
--a woman who slips such a diamond as this on your finger," he added,
taking the lawyer's left hand, which the young man complacently
allowed; "and, to crown all, you affect the Lovelace, just as if you
were a colonel and obliged to keep up the reputation of the military
in home quarters! Fie, fie! Only think of all you may lose."
"At any rate, I shall not lose my liberty," replied Martial, with a
He cast a passionate glance at Madame de Vaudremont, who responded
only by a smile of some uneasiness, for she had seen the Colonel
examining the lawyer's ring.
"Listen to me, Martial. If you flutter round my young stranger, I
shall set to work to win Madame de Vaudremont."
"You have my full permission, my dear Cuirassier, but you will not
gain this much," and the young Maitre des Requetes put his polished
thumb-nail under an upper tooth with a little mocking click.
"Remember that I am unmarried," said the Colonel; "that my sword is my
whole fortune; and that such a challenge is setting Tantalus down to a
banquet which he will devour."
This defiant roll of consonants was the only reply to the Colonel's
declaration, as Martial looked him from head to foot before turning
The fashion of the time required men to wear at a ball white
kerseymere breeches and silk stockings. This pretty costume showed to
great advantage the perfection of Montcornet's fine shape. He was
five-and-thirty, and attracted attention by his stalwart height,
insisted on for the Cuirassiers of the Imperial Guard whose handsome
uniform enhanced the dignity of his figure, still youthful in spite of
the stoutness occasioned by living on horseback. A black moustache
emphasized the frank expression of a thoroughly soldierly countenance,
with a broad, high forehead, an aquiline nose, and bright red lips.
Montcornet's manner, stamped with a certain superiority due to the
habit of command, might please a woman sensible enough not to aim at
making a slave of her husband. The Colonel smiled as he looked at the
lawyer, one of his favorite college friends, whose small figure made
it necessary for Montcornet to look down a little as he answered his
raillery with a friendly glance.
Baron Martial de la Roche-Hugon was a young Provencal patronized by
Napoleon; his fate might probably be some splendid embassy. He had won
the Emperor by his Italian suppleness and a genius for intrigue, a
drawing-room eloquence, and a knowledge of manners, which are so good
a substitute for the higher qualities of a sterling man. Through young
and eager, his face had already acquired the rigid brilliancy of
tinned iron, one of the indispensable characteristics of diplomatists,
which allows them to conceal their emotions and disguise their
feelings, unless, indeed, this impassibility indicates an absence of
all emotion and the death of every feeling. The heart of a diplomate
may be regarded as an insoluble problem, for the three most
illustrious ambassadors of the time have been distinguished by
perdurable hatreds and most romantic attachments.
Martial, however, was one of those men who are capable of reckoning on
the future in the midst of their intensest enjoyment; he had already
learned to judge the world, and hid his ambition under the fatuity of
a lady-killer, cloaking his talent under the commonplace of mediocrity
as soon as he observed the rapid advancement of those men who gave the
master little umbrage.
The two friends now had to part with a cordial grasp of hands. The
introductory tune, warning the ladies to form in squares for a fresh
quadrille, cleared the men away from the space they had filled while
talking in the middle of the large room. This hurried dialogue had
taken place during the usual interval between two dances, in front of
the fireplace of the great drawing-room of Gondreville's mansion. The
questions and answers of this very ordinary ballroom gossip had been
almost whispered by each of the speakers into his neighbor's ear. At
the same time, the chandeliers and the flambeaux on the chimney-shelf
shed such a flood of light on the two friends that their faces,
strongly illuminated, failed, in spite of their diplomatic discretion,
to conceal the faint expression of their feelings either from the
keen-sighted countess or the artless stranger. This espionage of
people's thoughts is perhaps to idle persons one of the pleasures they
find in society, while numbers of disappointed numskulls are bored
there without daring to own it.
Fully to appreciate the interest of this conversation, it is necessary
to relate an incident which would presently serve as an invisible
bond, drawing together the actors in this little drama, who were at
present scattered through the rooms.
At about eleven o'clock, just as the dancers were returning to their
seats, the company had observed the entrance of the handsomest woman
in Paris, the queen of fashion, the only person wanting to the
brilliant assembly. She made it a rule never to appear till the moment
when a party had reached that pitch of excited movement which does not
allow the women to preserve much longer the freshness of their faces
or of their dress. This brief hour is, as it were, the springtime of a
ball. An hour after, when pleasure falls flat and fatigue is
encroaching, everything is spoilt. Madame de Vaudremont never
committed the blunder of remaining at a party to be seen with drooping
flowers, hair out of curl, tumbled frills, and a face like every other
that sleep is courting--not always without success. She took good care
not to let her beauty be seen drowsy, as her rivals did; she was so
clever as to keep up her reputation for smartness by always leaving a
ballroom in brilliant order, as she had entered it. Women whispered to
each other with a feeling of envy that she planned and wore as many
different dresses as the parties she went to in one evening.
On the present occasion Madame de Vaudremont was not destined to be
free to leave when she would the ballroom she had entered in triumph.
Pausing for a moment on the threshold, she shot swift but observant
glances on the women present, hastily scrutinizing their dresses to
assure herself that her own eclipsed them all.
The illustrious beauty presented herself to the admiration of the
crowd at the same moment with one of the bravest colonels of the
Guards' Artillery and the Emperor's favorite, the Comte de Soulanges.
The transient and fortuitous association of these two had about it a
certain air of mystery. On hearing the names announced of Monsieur de
Soulanges and the Comtesse de Vaudremont, a few women sitting by the
wall rose, and men, hurrying in from the side-rooms, pressed forward
to the principal doorway. One of the jesters who are always to be
found in any large assembly said, as the Countess and her escort came
in, that "women had quite as much curiosity about seeing a man who was
faithful to his passion as men had in studying a woman who was
difficult to enthrall."
Though the Comte de Soulanges, a young man of about two-and-thirty,
was endowed with the nervous temperament which in a man gives rise to
fine qualities, his slender build and pale complexion were not at
first sight attractive; his black eyes betrayed great vivacity, but he
was taciturn in company, and there was nothing in his appearance to
reveal the gift for oratory which subsequently distinguished him, on
the Right, in the legislative assembly under the Restoration.
The Comtesse de Vaudremont, a tall woman, rather fat, with a skin of
dazzling whiteness, a small head that she carried well, and the
immense advantage of inspiring love by the graciousness of her manner,
was one of those beings who keep all the promise of their beauty.
The pair, who for a few minutes were the centre of general
observation, did not for long give curiosity an opportunity of
exercising itself about them. The Colonel and the Countess seemed
perfectly to understand that accident had placed them in an awkward
position. Martial, as they came forward, had hastened to join the
group of men by the fireplace, that he might watch Madame de
Vaudremont with the jealous anxiety of the first flame of passion,
from behind the heads which formed a sort of rampart; a secret voice
seemed to warn him that the success on which he prided himself might
perhaps be precarious. But the coldly polite smile with which the
Countess thanked Monsieur de Soulanges, and her little bow of
dismissal as she sat down by Madame de Gondreville, relaxed the
muscles of his face which jealousy had made rigid. Seeing Soulanges,
however, still standing quite near the sofa on which Madame de
Vaudremont was seated, not apparently having understood the glance by
which the lady had conveyed to him that they were both playing a
ridiculous part, the volcanic Provencal again knit the black brows
that overshadowed his blue eyes, smoothed his chestnut curls to keep
himself in countenance, and without betraying the agitation which made
his heart beat, watched the faces of the Countess and of M. de
Soulanges while still chatting with his neighbors. He then took the
hand of Colonel Montcornet, who had just renewed their old
acquaintance, but he listened to him without hearing him; his mind was
Soulanges was gazing calmly at the women, sitting four ranks deep all
round the immense ballroom, admiring this dado of diamonds, rubies,
masses of gold and shining hair, of which the lustre almost outshone
the blaze of waxlights, the cutglass of the chandeliers, and the
gilding. His rival's stolid indifference put the lawyer out of
countenance. Quite incapable of controlling his secret transports of
impatience, Martial went towards Madame de Vaudremont with a bow. On
seeing the Provencal, Soulanges gave him a covert glance, and
impertinently turned away his head. Solemn silence now reigned in the
room, where curiosity was at the highest pitch. All these eager faces
wore the strangest mixed expressions; every one apprehended one of
those outbreaks which men of breeding carefully avoid. Suddenly the
Count's pale face turned as red as the scarlet facings of his coat,
and he fixed his gaze on the floor that the cause of his agitation
might not be guessed. On catching sight of the unknown lady humbly
seated by the pedestal of the candelabrum, he moved away with a
melancholy air, passing in front of the lawyer, and took refuge in one
of the cardrooms. Martial and all the company thought that Soulanges
had publicly surrendered the post, out of fear of the ridicule which
invariably attaches to a discarded lover. The lawyer proudly raised
his head and looked at the strange lady; then, as he took his seat at
his ease near Madame de Vaudremont, he listened to her so
inattentively that he did not catch these words spoken behind her fan:
"Martial, you will oblige me this evening by not wearing that ring
that you snatched from me. I have my reasons, and will explain them to
you in a moment when we go away. You must give me your arm to go to
the Princess de Wagram's."
"Why did you come in with the Colonel?" asked the Baron.
"I met him in the hall," she replied. "But leave me now; everybody is
looking at us."
Martial returned to the Colonel of Cuirassiers. Then it was that the
little blue lady had become the object of the curiosity which agitated
in such various ways the Colonel, Soulanges, Martial, and Madame de
When the friends parted, after the challenge which closed their
conversation, the Baron flew to Madame de Vaudremont, and led her to a
place in the most brilliant quadrille. Favored by the sort of
intoxication which dancing always produces in a woman, and by the
turmoil of a ball, where men appear in all the trickery of dress,
which adds no less to their attractions than it does to those of
women, Martial thought he might yield with impunity to the charm that
attracted his gaze to the fair stranger. Though he succeeded in hiding
his first glances towards the lady in blue from the anxious activity
of the Countess' eyes, he was ere long caught in the fact; and though
he managed to excuse himself once for his absence of mind, he could
not justify the unseemly silence with which he presently heard the
most insinuating question which a woman can put to a man:
"Do you like me very much this evening?"
And the more dreamy he became, the more the Countess pressed and
While Martial was dancing, the Colonel moved from group to group,
seeking information about the unknown lady. After exhausting the good-
humor even of the most indifferent, he had resolved to take advantage
of a moment when the Comtesse de Gondreville seemed to be at liberty,
to ask her the name of the mysterious lady, when he perceived a little
space left clear between the pedestal of the candelabrum and the two
sofas, which ended in that corner. The dance had left several of the
chairs vacant, which formed rows of fortifications held by mothers or
women of middle age; and the Colonel seized the opportunity to make
his way through this palisade hung with shawls and wraps. He began by
making himself agreeable to the dowagers, and so from one to another,
and from compliment to compliment, he at last reached the empty space
next the stranger. At the risk of catching on to the gryphons and
chimaeras of the huge candelabrum, he stood there, braving the glare
and dropping of the wax candles, to Martial's extreme annoyance.
The Colonel, far too tactful to speak suddenly to the little blue lady
on his right, began by saying to a plain woman who was seated on the
"This is a splendid ball, madame! What luxury! What life! On my word,
every woman here is pretty! You are not dancing--because you do not
care for it, no doubt."
This vapid conversation was solely intended to induce his right-hand
neighbor to speak; but she, silent and absent-minded, paid not the
least attention. The officer had in store a number of phrases which he
intended should lead up to: "And you, madame?"--a question from which
he hoped great things. But he was strangely surprised to see tears in
the strange lady's eyes, which seemed wholly absorbed in gazing on
Madame de Vaudremont.
"You are married, no doubt, madame?" he asked her at length, in
"Yes, monsieur," replied the lady.
"And your husband is here, of course?"
"And why, madame, do you remain in this spot? Is it to attract
The mournful lady smiled sadly.
"Allow me the honor, madame, of being your partner in the next
quadrille, and I will take care not to bring you back here. I see a
vacant settee near the fire; come and take it. When so many people are
ready to ascend the throne, and Royalty is the mania of the day, I
cannot imagine that you will refuse the title of Queen of the Ball
which your beauty may claim."
"I do not intend to dance, monsieur."
The curt tone of the lady's replies was so discouraging that the
Colonel found himself compelled to raise the siege. Martial, who
guessed what the officer's last request had been, and the refusal he
had met with, began to smile, and stroked his chin, making the diamond
sparkle which he wore on his finger.
"What are you laughing at?" said the Comtesse de Vaudremont.
"At the failure of the poor Colonel, who has just put his foot in
"I begged you to take your ring off," said the Countess, interrupting
"I did not hear you."
"If you can hear nothing this evening, at any rate you see everything,
Monsieur le Baron," said Madame de Vaudremont, with an air of
"That young man is displaying a very fine diamond," the stranger
remarked to the Colonel.
"Splendid," he replied. "The man is the Baron Martial de la Roche-
Hugon, one of my most intimate friends."
"I have to thank you for telling me his name," she went on; "he seems
an agreeable man."
"Yes, but he is rather fickle."
"He seems to be on the best terms with the Comtesse de Vaudremont?"
said the lady, with an inquiring look at the Colonel.
"On the very best."
The unknown turned pale.
"Hallo!" thought the soldier, "she is in love with that lucky devil
"I fancied that Madame de Vaudremont had long been devoted to M. de
Soulanges," said the lady, recovering a little from the suppressed
grief which had clouded the fairness of her face.
"For a week past the Countess has been faithless," replied the
Colonel. "But you must have seen poor Soulanges when he came in; he is
till trying to disbelieve in his disaster."
"Yes, I saw him," said the lady. Then she added, "Thank you very much,
monsieur," in a tone which signified a dismissal.
At this moment the quadrille was coming to an end. Montcornet had only
time to withdraw, saying to himself by way of consolation, "She is
"Well, valiant Cuirassier," exclaimed the Baron, drawing the Colonel
aside into a window-bay to breathe the fresh air from the garden, "how
are you getting on?"
"She is a married woman, my dear fellow."
"What does that matter?"
"Oh, deuce take it! I am a decent sort of man," replied the Colonel.
"I have no idea of paying my addresses to a woman I cannot marry.
Besides, Martial, she expressly told me that she did not intend to
"Colonel, I will bet a hundred napoleons to your gray horse that she
will dance with me this evening."
"Done!" said the Colonel, putting his hand in the coxcomb's.
"Meanwhile I am going to look for Soulanges; he perhaps knows the
lady, as she seems interested in him."
"You have lost, my good fellow," cried Martial, laughing. "My eyes
have met hers, and I know what they mean. My dear friend, you owe me
no grudge for dancing with her after she has refused you?"
"No, no. Those who laugh last, laugh longest. But I am an honest
gambler and a generous enemy, Martial, and I warn you, she is fond of
With these words the friends parted; General Montcornet made his way
to the cardroom, where he saw the Comte de Soulanges sitting at a
bouillotte table. Though there was no friendship between the two
soldiers, beyond the superficial comradeship arising from the perils
of war and the duties of the service, the Colonel of Cuirassiers was
painfully struck by seeing the Colonel of Artillery, whom he knew to
be a prudent man, playing at a game which might bring him to ruin. The
heaps of gold and notes piled on the fateful cards showed the frenzy
of play. A circle of silent men stood round the players at the table.
Now and then a few words were spoken--PASS, PLAY, I STOP, A THOUSAND
LOUIS, TAKEN--but, looking at the five motionless men, it seemed as
though they talked only with their eyes. As the Colonel, alarmed by
Soulanges' pallor, went up to him, the Count was winning. Field-
Marshal the Duc d'Isemberg, Keller, and a famous banker rose from the
table completely cleaned out of considerable sums. Soulanges looked
gloomier than ever as he swept up a quantity of gold and notes; he did
not even count it; his lips curled with bitter scorn, he seemed to
defy fortune rather than be grateful for her favors.
"Courage," said the Colonel. "Courage, Soulanges!" Then, believing he
would do him a service by dragging him from play, he added: "Come with
me. I have some good news for you, but on one condition."
"What is that?" asked Soulanges.
"That you will answer a question I will ask you."
The Comte de Soulanges rose abruptly, placing his winnings with
reckless indifference in his handkerchief, which he had been twisting
with convulsive nervousness, and his expression was so savage that
none of the players took exception to his walking off with their
money. Indeed, every face seemed to dilate with relief when his morose
and crabbed countenance was no longer to be seen under the circle of
light which a shaded lamp casts on a gaming-table.
"Those fiends of soldiers are always as thick as thieves at a fair!"
said a diplomate who had been looking on, as he took Soulanges' place.
One single pallid and fatigued face turned to the newcomer, and said
with a glance that flashed and died out like the sparkle of a diamond:
"When we say military men, we do not mean civil, Monsieur le
"My dear fellow," said Montcornet to Soulanges, leading him into a
corner, "the Emperor spoke warmly in your praise this morning, and
your promotion to be field-marshal is a certainty."
"The Master does not love the Artillery."
"No, but he adores the nobility, and you are an aristocrat. The Master
said," added Montcornet, "that the men who had married in Paris during
the campaign were not therefore to be considered in disgrace. Well
The Comte de Soulanges looked as if he understood nothing of this
"And now I hope," the Colonel went on, "that you will tell me if you
know a charming little woman who is sitting under a huge
At these words the Count's face lighted up; he violently seized the
Colonel's hand: "My dear General," said he, in a perceptibly altered
voice, "if any man but you had asked me such a question, I would have
cracked his skull with this mass of gold. Leave me, I entreat you. I
feel more like blowing out my brains this evening, I assure you, than
----I hate everything I see. And, in fact, I am going. This gaiety,
this music, these stupid faces, all laughing, are killing me!"
"My poor friend!" replied Montcornet gently, and giving the Count's
hand a friendly pressure, "you are too vehement. What would you say if
I told you that Martial is thinking so little of Madame de Vaudremont
that he is quite smitten with that little lady?"
"If he says a word to her," cried Soulanges, stammering with rage, "I
will thrash him as flat as his own portfolio, even if the coxcomb were
in the Emperor's lap!"
And he sank quite overcome on an easy-chair to which Montcornet had
led him. The colonel slowly went away, for he perceived that Soulanges
was in a state of fury far too violent for the pleasantries or the
attentions of superficial friendship to soothe him.
When Montcornet returned to the ballroom, Madame de Vaudremont was the
first person on whom his eyes fell, and he observed on her face,
usually so calm, some symptoms of ill-disguised agitation. A chair was
vacant near hers, and the Colonel seated himself.
"I dare wager something has vexed you?" said he.
"A mere trifle, General. I want to be gone, for I have promised to go
to a ball at the Grand Duchess of Berg's, and I must look in first at
the Princesse de Wagram's. Monsieur de la Roche-Hugon, who knows this,
is amusing himself by flirting with the dowagers."
"That is not the whole secret of your disturbance, and I will bet a
hundred louis that you will remain here the whole evening."
"Then I have hit the truth?"
"Well, tell me, what am I thinking of?" said the Countess, tapping the
Colonel's fingers with her fan. "I might even reward you if you guess
"I will not accept the challenge; I have too much the advantage of
"You are presumptuous."
"You are afraid of seeing Martial at the feet----"
"Of whom?" cried the Countess, affecting surprise.
"Of that candelabrum," replied the Colonel, glancing at the fair
stranger, and then looking at the Countess with embarrassing scrutiny.
"You have guessed it," replied the coquette, hiding her face behind
her fan, which she began to play with. "Old Madame de Lansac, who is,
you know, as malicious as an old monkey," she went on, after a pause,
"has just told me that Monsieur de la Roche-Hugon is running into
danger by flirting with that stranger, who sits here this evening like
a skeleton at a feast. I would rather see a death's head than that
face, so cruelly beautiful, and as pale as a ghost. She is my evil
genius.--Madame de Lansac," she added, after a flash and gesture of
annoyance, "who only goes to a ball to watch everything while
pretending to sleep, has made me miserably anxious. Martial shall pay
dearly for playing me such a trick. Urge him, meanwhile, since he is
your friend, not to make me so unhappy."
"I have just been with a man who promises to blow his brains out, and
nothing less, if he speaks to that little lady. And he is a man,
madame, to keep his word. But then I know Martial; such threats are to
him an encouragement. And, besides, we have wagered----" Here the
Colonel lowered his voice.
"Can it be true?" said the Countess.
"On my word of honor."
"Thank you, my dear Colonel," replied Madame de Vaudremont, with a
glance full of invitation.
"Will you do me the honor of dancing with me?"
"Yes; but the next quadrille. During this one I want to find out what
will come of this little intrigue, and to ascertain who the little
blue lady may be; she looks intelligent."
The Colonel, understanding that Madame de Vaudremont wished to be
alone, retired, well content to have begun his attack so well.
At most entertainments women are to be met who are there, like Madame
de Lansac, as old sailors gather on the seashore to watch younger
mariners struggling with the tempest. At this moment Madame de Lansac,
who seemed to be interested in the personages of this drama, could
easily guess the agitation which the Countess was going through. The
lady might fan herself gracefully, smile on the young men who bowed to
her, and bring into play all the arts by which a woman hides her
emotion,--the Dowager, one of the most clear-sighted and mischief-
loving duchesses bequeathed by the eighteenth century to the
nineteenth, could read her heart and mind through it all.
The old lady seemed to detect the slightest movement that revealed the
impressions of the soul. The imperceptible frown that furrowed that
calm, pure forehead, the faintest quiver of the cheeks, the curve of
the eyebrows, the least curl of the lips, whose living coral could
conceal nothing from her,--all these were to the Duchess like the
print of a book. From the depths of her large arm-chair, completely
filled by the flow of her dress, the coquette of the past, while
talking to a diplomate who had sought her out to hear the anecdotes
she told so cleverly, was admiring herself in the younger coquette;
she felt kindly to her, seeing how bravely she disguised her annoyance
and grief of heart. Madame de Vaudremont, in fact, felt as much sorrow
as she feigned cheerfulness; she had believed that she had found in
Martial a man of talent on whose support she could count for adorning
her life with all the enchantment of power; and at this moment she
perceived her mistake, as injurious to her reputation as to her good
opinion of herself. In her, as in other women of that time, the
suddenness of their passions increased their vehemence. Souls which
love much and love often, suffer no less than those which burn
themselves out in one affection. Her liking for Martial was but of
yesterday, it is true, but the least experienced surgeon knows that
the pain caused by the amputation of a healthy limb is more acute than
the removal of a diseased one. There was a future before Madame de
Vaudremont's passion for Martial, while her previous love had been
hopeless, and poisoned by Soulanges' remorse.
The old Duchess, who was watching for an opportunity of speaking to
the Countess, hastened to dismiss her Ambassador; for in comparison
with a lover's quarrel every interest pales, even with an old woman.
To engage battle, Madame de Lansac shot at the younger lady a sardonic
glance which made the Countess fear lest her fate was in the dowager's
hands. There are looks between woman and woman which are like the
torches brought on at the climax of a tragedy. No one who had not
known that Duchess could appreciate the terror which the expression of
her countenance inspired in the Countess.
Madame de Lansac was tall, and her features led people to say, "That
must have been a handsome woman!" She coated her cheeks so thickly
with rouge that the wrinkles were scarcely visible; but her eyes, far
from gaining a factitious brilliancy from this strong carmine, looked
all the more dim. She wore a vast quantity of diamonds, and dressed
with sufficient taste not to make herself ridiculous. Her sharp nose
promised epigram. A well-fitted set of teeth preserved a smile of such
irony as recalled that of Voltaire. At the same time, the exquisite
politeness of her manners so effectually softened the mischievous
twist in her mind, that it was impossible to accuse her of
The old woman's eyes lighted up, and a triumphant glance, seconded by
a smile, which said, "I promised you as much!" shot across the room,
and brought a blush of hope to the pale cheeks of the young creature
languishing under the great chandelier. The alliance between Madame de
Lansac and the stranger could not escape the practised eye of the
Comtesse de Vaudremont, who scented a mystery, and was determined to
At this instant the Baron de la Roche-Hugon, after questioning all the
dowagers without success as to the blue lady's name, applied in
despair to the Comtesse de Gondreville, from whom he reached only this
unsatisfactory reply, "A lady whom the 'ancient' Duchesse de Lansac
introduced to me."
Turning by chance towards the armchair occupied by the old lady, the
lawyer intercepted the glance of intelligence she sent to the
stranger; and although he had for some time been on bad terms with
her, he determined to speak to her. The "ancient" Duchess, seeing the
jaunty Baron prowling round her chair, smiled with sardonic irony, and
looked at Madame de Vaudremont with an expression that made Montcornet
"If the old witch affects to be friendly," thought the Baron, "she is
certainly going to play me some spiteful trick.--Madame," he said,
"you have, I am told, undertaken the charge of a very precious
"Do you take me for a dragon?" said the old lady. "But of whom are you
speaking?" she added, with a sweetness which revived Martial's hopes.
"Of that little lady, unknown to all, whom the jealousy of all these
coquettes has imprisoned in that corner. You, no doubt, know her
"Yes," said the Duchess. "But what concern have you with a provincial
heiress, married some time since, a woman of good birth, whom you none
of you know, you men; she goes nowhere."
"Why does not she dance, she is such a pretty creature?--May we
conclude a treaty of peace? If you will vouchsafe to tell me all I
want to know, I promise you that a petition for the restitution of the
woods of Navarreins by the Commissioners of Crown Lands shall be
strongly urged on the Emperor."
The younger branch of the house of Navarreins bears quarterly with the
arms of Navarreins those of Lansac, namely, azure, and argent party
per pale raguly, between six spear-heads in pale, and the old lady's
liaison with Louis XV. had earned her husband the title of duke by
royal patent. Now, as the Navarreins had not yet resettled in France,
it was sheer trickery that the young lawyer thus proposed to the old
lady by suggesting to her that she should petition for an estate
belonging to the elder branch of the family.
"Monsieur," said the old woman with deceptive gravity, "bring the
Comtesse de Vaudremont across to me. I promise you that I will reveal
to her the mystery of the interesting unknown. You see, every man in
the room has reached as great a curiosity as your own. All eyes are
involuntarily turned towards the corner where my protegee has so
modestly placed herself; she is reaping all the homage the women
wished to deprive her of. Happy the man she chooses for her partner!"
She interrupted herself, fixing her eyes on Madame de Vaudremont with
one of those looks which plainly say, "We are talking of you."--Then
she added, "I imagine you would rather learn the stranger's name from
the lips of your handsome Countess than from mine."
There was such marked defiance in the Duchess' attitude that Madame de
Vaudremont rose, came up to her, and took the chair Martial placed for
her; then without noticing him she said, "I can guess, madame, that
you are talking of me; but I admit my want of perspicacity; I do not
know whether it is for good or evil."
Madame de Lansac pressed the young woman's pretty hand in her own dry
and wrinkled fingers, and answered in a low, compassionate tone, "Poor
The women looked at each other. Madame de Vaudremont understood that
Martial was in the way, and dismissed him, saying with an imperious
expression, "Leave us."
The Baron, ill-pleased at seeing the Countess under the spell of the
dangerous sibyl who had drawn her to her side gave one of those looks
which a man can give--potent over a blinded heart, but simply
ridiculous in the eyes of a woman who is beginning to criticise the
man who has attracted her.
"Do you think you can play the Emperor?" said Madame de Vaudremont,
turning three-quarters of her face to fix an ironical sidelong gaze on
Martial was too much a man of the world, and had too much wit and
acumen, to risk breaking with a woman who was in favor at Court, and
whom the Emperor wished to see married. He counted, too, on the
jealousy he intended to provoke in her as the surest means of
discovering the secret of her coolness, and withdrew all the more
willingly, because at this moment a new quadrille was putting
everybody in motion.
With an air of making room for the dancing, the Baron leaned back
against the marble slab of a console, folded his arms, and stood
absorbed in watching the two ladies talking. From time to time he
followed the glances which both frequently directed to the stranger.
Then, comparing the Countess with the new beauty, made so attractive
by a touch of mystery, the Baron fell a prey to the detestable self-
interest common to adventurous lady-killers; he hesitated between a
fortune within his grasp and the indulgence of his caprice. The blaze
of light gave such strong relief to his anxious and sullen face,
against the hangings of white silk moreen brushed by his black hair,
that he might have been compared to an evil genius. Even from a
distance more than one observer no doubt said to himself, "There is
another poor wretch who seems to be enjoying himself!"
The Colonel, meanwhile, with one shoulder leaning lightly against the
side-post of the doorway between the ballroom and the cardroom, could
laugh undetected under his ample moustache; it amused him to look on
at the turmoil of the dance; he could see a hundred pretty heads
turning about in obedience to the figures; he could read in some
faces, as in those of the Countess and his friend Martial, the secrets
of their agitation; and then, looking round, he wondered what
connection there could be between the gloomy looks of the Comte de
Soulanges, still seated on the sofa, and the plaintive expression of
the fair unknown, on whose features the joys of hope and the anguish
of involuntary dread were alternately legible. Montcornet stood like
the king of the feast. In this moving picture he saw a complete
presentment of the world, and he laughed at it as he found himself the
object of inviting smiles from a hundred beautiful and elegant women.
A Colonel of the Imperial Guard, a position equal to that of a
Brigadier-General, was undoubtedly one of the best matches in the
It was now nearly midnight. The conversation, the gambling, the
dancing, the flirtations, interests, petty rivalries, and scheming had
all reached the pitch of ardor which makes a young man exclaim
involuntarily, "A fine ball!"
"My sweet little angel," said Madame de Lansac to the Countess, "you
are now at an age when in my day I made many mistakes. Seeing you are
just now enduring a thousand deaths, it occurred to me that I might
give you some charitable advice. To go wrong at two-and-twenty means
spoiling your future; is it not tearing the gown you must wear? My
dear, it is not much later that we learn to go about in it without
crumpling it. Go on, sweetheart, making clever enemies, and friends
who have no sense of conduct, and you will see what a pleasant life
you will some day be leading!"
"Oh, madame, it is very hard for a woman to be happy, do not you
think?" the Countess eagerly exclaimed.
"My child, at your age you must learn to choose between pleasure and
happiness. You want to marry Martial, who is not fool enough to make a
good husband, nor passionate enough to remain a lover. He is in debt,
my dear; he is the man to run through your fortune; still, that would
be nothing if he could make you happy.--Do not you see how aged he is?
The man must have been ill; he is making the most of what is left him.
In three years he will be a wreck. Then he will be ambitious; perhaps
he may succeed. I do not think so.--What is he? A man of intrigue, who
may have the business faculty to perfection, and be able to gossip
agreeably; but he is too presumptuous to have any sterling merit; he
will not go far. Besides--only look at him. Is it not written on his
brow that, at this very moment, what he sees in you is not a young and
pretty woman, but the two million francs you possess? He does not love
you, my dear; he is reckoning you up as if you were an investment. If
you are bent on marrying, find an older man who has an assured
position and is half-way on his career. A widow's marriage ought not
to be a trivial love affair. Is a mouse to be caught a second time in
the same trap? A new alliance ought now to be a good speculation on
your part, and in marrying again you ought at least to have a hope of
being some day addressed as Madame la Marechale!"
As she spoke, both women naturally fixed their eyes on Colonel
Montcornet's handsome face.
"If you would rather play the delicate part of a flirt and not marry
again," the Duchess went on, with blunt good-nature; "well! my poor
child, you, better than any woman, will know how to raise the storm-
clouds and disperse them again. But, I beseech you, never make it your
pleasure to disturb the peace of families, to destroy unions, and ruin
the happiness of happy wives. I, my dear, have played that perilous
game. Dear heaven! for a triumph of vanity some poor virtuous soul is
murdered--for there really are virtuous women, child,--and we may make
ourselves mortally hated. I learned, a little too late, that, as the
Duc d'Albe once said, one salmon is worth a thousand frogs! A genuine
affection certainly brings a thousand times more happiness than the
transient passions we may inspire.--Well, I came here on purpose to
preach to you; yes, you are the cause of my appearance in this house,
which stinks of the lower class. Have I not just seen actors here?
Formerly, my dear, we received them in our boudoir; but in the
drawing-room--never!--Why do you look at me with so much amazement?
Listen to me. If you want to play with men, do not try to wring the
hearts of any but those whose life is not yet settled, who have no
duties to fulfil; the others do not forgive us for the errors that
have made them happy. Profit by this maxim, founded on my long
experience.--That luckless Soulanges, for instance, whose head you
have turned, whom you have intoxicated for these fifteen months past,
God knows how! Do you know at what you have struck?--At his whole
life. He has been married these two years; he is worshiped by a
charming wife, whom he loves, but neglects; she lives in tears and
embittered silence. Soulanges has had hours of remorse more terrible
than his pleasure has been sweet. And you, you artful little thing,
have deserted him.--Well, come and see your work."
The old lady took Madame de Vaudremont's hand, and they rose.
"There," said Madame de Lansac, and her eyes showed her the stranger,
sitting pale and tremulous under the glare of the candles, "that is my
grandniece, the Comtesse de Soulanges; to-day she yielded at last to
my persuasion, and consented to leave the sorrowful room, where the
sight of her child gives her but little consolation. You see her? You
think her charming? Then imagine, dear Beauty, what she must have been
when happiness and love shed their glory on that face now blighted."
The Countess looked away in silence, and seemed lost in sad
The Duchess led her to the door into the card-room; then, after
looking round the room as if in search of some one--"And there is
Soulanges!" she said in deep tones.
The Countess shuddered as she saw, in the least brilliantly lighted
corner, the pale, set face of Soulanges stretched in an easy-chair.
The indifference of his attitude and the rigidity of his brow betrayed
his suffering. The players passed him to and fro, without paying any
more attention to him than if he had been dead. The picture of the
wife in tears, and the dejected, morose husband, separated in the
midst of this festivity like the two halves of a tree blasted by
lightning, had perhaps a prophetic significance for the Countess. She
dreaded lest she here saw an image of the revenges the future might
have in store for her. Her heart was not yet so dried up that the
feeling and generosity were entirely excluded, and she pressed the
Duchess' hand, while thanking her by one of those smiles which have a
certain childlike grace.
"My dear child," the old lady said in her ear, "remember henceforth
that we are just as capable of repelling a man's attentions as of
"She is yours if you are not a simpleton." These words were whispered
into Colonel Montcornet's ear by Madame de Lansac, while the handsome
Countess was still absorbed in compassion at the sight of Soulanges,
for she still loved him truly enough to wish to restore him to
happiness, and was promising herself in her own mind that she would
exert the irresistible power her charms still had over him to make him
return to his wife.
"Oh! I will talk to him!" said she to Madame de Lansac.
"Do nothing of the kind, my dear!" cried the old lady, as she went
back to her armchair. "Choose a good husband, and shut your door to my
nephew. Believe me, my child, a wife cannot accept her husband's heart
as the gift of another woman; she is a hundred times happier in the
belief that she has reconquered it. By bringing my niece here I
believe I have given her an excellent chance of regaining her
husband's affection. All the assistance I need of you is to play the
Colonel." She pointed to the Baron's friend, and the Countess smiled.
"Well, madame, do you at last know the name of the unknown?" asked
Martial, with an air of pique, to the Countess when he saw her alone.
"Yes," said Madame de Vaudremont, looking him in the face.
Her features expressed as much roguery as fun. The smile which gave
life to her lips and cheeks, the liquid brightness of her eyes, were
like the will-o'-the-wisp which leads travelers astray. Martial, who
believed that she still loved him, assumed the coquetting graces in
which a man is so ready to lull himself in the presence of the woman
he loves. He said with a fatuous air:
"And will you be annoyed with me if I seem to attach great importance
to your telling me that name?"
"Will you be annoyed with me," answered Madame de Vaudremont, "if a
remnant of affection prevents my telling you; and if I forbid you to
make the smallest advances to that young lady? It would be at the risk
of your life perhaps."
"To lose your good graces, madame, would be worse than to lose my
"Martial," said the Countess severely, "she is Madame de Soulanges.
Her husband would blow your brains out--if, indeed, you have any----"
"Ha! ha!" laughed the coxcomb. "What! the Colonel can leave the man in
peace who has robbed him of your love, and then would fight for his
wife! What a subversion of principles!--I beg of you to allow me to
dance with the little lady. You will then be able to judge how little
love that heart of ice could feel for you; for, if the Colonel
disapproves of my dancing with his wife after allowing me to----"
"But she loves her husband."
"A still further obstacle that I shall have the pleasure of
"But she is married."
"A whimsical objection!"
"Ah!" said the Countess, with a bitter smile, "you punish us alike for
our faults and our repentance!"
"Do not be angry!" exclaimed Martial eagerly. "Oh, forgive me, I
beseech you. There, I will think no more of Madame de Soulanges."
"You deserve that I should send you to her."
"I am off then," said the Baron, laughing, "and I shall return more
devoted to you than ever. You will see that the prettiest woman in the
world cannot capture the heart that is yours."
"That is to say, that you want to win Colonel Montcornet's horse?"
"Ah! Traitor!" said he, threatening his friend with his finger. The
Colonel smiled and joined them; the Baron gave him the seat near the
Countess, saying to her with a sardonic accent:
"Here, madame, is a man who boasted that he could win your good graces
in one evening."
He went away, thinking himself clever to have piqued the Countess'
pride and done Montcornet an ill turn; but, in spite of his habitual
keenness, he had not appreciated the irony underlying Madame de
Vaudremont's speech, and did not perceive that she had come as far to
meet his friend as his friend towards her, though both were
unconscious of it.
At that moment when the lawyer went fluttering up to the candelabrum
by which Madame de Soulanges sat, pale, timid, and apparently alive
only in her eyes, her husband came to the door of the ballroom, his
eyes flashing with anger. The old Duchess, watchful of everything,
flew to her nephew, begged him to give her his arm and find her
carriage, affecting to be mortally bored, and hoping thus to prevent a
vexatious outbreak. Before going she fired a singular glance of
intelligence at her niece, indicating the enterprising knight who was
about to address her, and this signal seemed to say, "There he is,
Madame de Vaudremont caught these looks of the aunt and niece; a
sudden light dawned on her mind; she was frightened lest she was the
dupe of this old woman, so cunning and so practised in intrigue.
"That perfidious Duchess," said she to herself, "has perhaps been
amusing herself by preaching morality to me while playing me some
spiteful trick of her own."
At this thought Madame de Vaudremont's pride was perhaps more roused
than her curiosity to disentangle the thread of this intrigue. In the
absorption of mind to which she was a prey she was no longer mistress
of herself. The Colonel, interpreting to his own advantage the
embarrassment evident in the Countess' manner and speech, became more
ardent and pressing. The old blase diplomates, amusing themselves by
watching the play of faces, had never found so many intrigues at once
to watch or guess at. The passions agitating the two couples were to
be seen with variations at every step in the crowded rooms, and
reflected with different shades in other countenances. The spectacle
of so many vivid passions, of all these lovers' quarrels, these
pleasing revenges, these cruel favors, these flaming glances, of all
this ardent life diffused around them, only made them feel their
impotence more keenly.
At last the Baron had found a seat by Madame de Soulanges. His eyes
stole a long look at her neck, as fresh as dew and as fragrant as
field flowers. He admired close at hand the beauty which had amazed
him from afar. He could see a small, well-shod foot, and measure with
his eye a slender and graceful shape. At that time women wore their
sash tied close under the bosom, in imitation of Greek statues, a
pitiless fashion for those whose bust was faulty. As he cast furtive
glances at the Countess' figure, Martial was enchanted with its
"You have not danced once this evening, madame," said he in soft and
flattering tones. "Not, I should suppose, for lack of a partner?"
"I never go to parties; I am quite unknown," replied Madame de
Soulanges coldly, not having understood the look by which her aunt had
just conveyed to her that she was to attract the Baron.
Martial, to give himself countenance, twisted the diamond he wore on
his left hand; the rainbow fires of the gem seemed to flash a sudden
light on the young Countess' mind; she blushed and looked at the Baron
with an undefinable expression.
"Do you like dancing?" asked the Provencal, to reopen the
"Yes, very much, monsieur."
At this strange reply their eyes met. The young man, surprised by the
earnest accent, which aroused a vague hope in his heart, had suddenly
questioned the lady's eyes.
"Then, madame, am I not overbold in offering myself to be your partner
for the next quadrille?'
Artless confusion colored the Countess' white cheeks.
"But, monsieur, I have already refused one partner--a military
"Was it that tall cavalry colonel whom you see over there?"
"Oh! he is a friend of mine; feel no alarm. Will you grant me the
favor I dare hope for?"
Her tone betrayed an emotion so new and so deep that the lawyer's
world-worn soul was touched. He was overcome by shyness like a
schoolboy's, lost his confidence, and his southern brain caught fire;
he tried to talk, but his phrases struck him as graceless in
comparison with Madame de Soulanges' bright and subtle replies. It was
lucky for him that the quadrille was forming. Standing by his
beautiful partner, he felt more at ease. To many men dancing is a
phase of being; they think that they can more powerfully influence the
heart of woman by displaying the graces of their bodies than by their
intellect. Martial wished, no doubt, at this moment to put forth all
his most effective seductions, to judge by the pretentiousness of his
movements and gestures.
He led his conquest to the quadrille in which the most brilliant women
in the room made it a point of chimerical importance to dance in
preference to any other. While the orchestra played the introductory
bars to the first figure, the Baron felt it an incredible
gratification to his pride to perceive, as he reviewed the ladies
forming the lines of that formidable square, that Madame de Soulanges'
dress might challenge that even of Madame de Vaudremont, who, by a
chance not perhaps unsought, was standing with Montcornet vis-a-vis to
himself and the lady in blue. All eyes were for a moment turned on
Madame de Soulanges; a flattering murmur showed that she was the
subject of every man's conversation with his partner. Looks of
admiration and envy centered on her, with so much eagerness that the
young creature, abashed by a triumph she seemed to disclaim, modestly
looked down, blushed, and was all the more charming. When she raised
her white eyelids it was to look at her ravished partner as though she
wished to transfer the glory of this admiration to him, and to say
that she cared more for his than for all the rest. She threw her
innocence into her vanity; or rather she seemed to give herself up to
the guileless admiration which is the beginning of love, with the good
faith found only in youthful hearts. As she danced, the lookers-on
might easily believe that she displayed her grace for Martial alone;
and though she was modest, and new to the trickery of the ballroom,
she knew as well as the most accomplished coquette how to raise her
eyes to his at the right moment and drop their lids with assumed
When the movement of a new figure, invented by a dancer named Trenis,
and named after him, brought Martial face to face with the Colonel--"I
have won your horse," said he, laughing.
"Yes, but you have lost eighty thousand francs a year!" retorted
Montcornet, glancing at Madame de Vaudremont.
"What do I care?" replied Martial. "Madame de Soulanges is worth
At the end of the quadrille more than one whisper was poured into more
than one ear. The less pretty women made moral speeches to their
partners, commenting on the budding liaison between Martial and the
Comtesse de Soulanges. The handsomest wondered at her easy surrender.
The men could not understand such luck as the Baron's, not regarding
him as particularly fascinating. A few indulgent women said it was not
fair to judge the Countess too hastily; young wives would be in a very
hapless plight if an expressive look or a few graceful dancing steps
were enough to compromise a woman.
Martial alone knew the extent of his happiness. During the last
figure, when the ladies had to form the moulinet, his fingers clasped
those of the Countess, and he fancied that, through the thin perfumed
kid of her gloves, the young wife's grasp responded to his amorous
"Madame," said he, as the quadrille ended, "do not go back to the
odious corner where you have been burying your face and your dress
until now. Is admiration the only benefit you can obtain from the
jewels that adorn your white neck and beautifully dressed hair? Come
and take a turn through the rooms to enjoy the scene and yourself."
Madame de Soulanges yielded to her seducer, who thought she would be
his all the more surely if he could only show her off. Side by side
they walked two or three times amid the groups who crowded the rooms.
The Comtesse de Soulanges, evidently uneasy, paused for an instant at
each door before entering, only doing so after stretching her neck to
look at all the men there. This alarm, which crowned the Baron's
satisfaction, did not seem to be removed till he said to her, "Make
yourself easy; HE is not here."
They thus made their way to an immense picture gallery in a wing of
the mansion, where their eyes could feast in anticipation on the
splendid display of a collation prepared for three hundred persons. As
supper was about to begin, Martial led the Countess to an oval boudoir
looking on to the garden, where the rarest flowers and a few shrubs
made a scented bower under bright blue hangings. The murmurs of the
festivity here died away. The Countess, at first startled, refused
firmly to follow the young man; but, glancing in a mirror, she no
doubt assured herself that they could be seen, for she seated herself
on an ottoman with a fairly good grace.
"This room is charming," said she, admiring the sky-blue hangings
looped with pearls.
"All here is love and delight!" said the Baron, with deep emotion.
In the mysterious light which prevailed he looked at the Countess, and
detected on her gently agitated face an expression of uneasiness,
modesty, and eagerness which enchanted him. The young lady smiled, and
this smile seemed to put an end to the struggle of feeling surging in
her heart; in the most insinuating way she took her adorer's left
hand, and drew from his finger the ring on which she had fixed her
"What a fine diamond!" she exclaimed in the artless tone of a young
girl betraying the incitement of a first temptation.
Martial, troubled by the Countess' involuntary but intoxicating touch,
like a caress, as she drew off the ring, looked at her with eyes as
glittering as the gem.
"Wear it," he said, "in memory of this hour, and for the love of----"
She was looking at him with such rapture that he did not end the
sentence; he kissed her hand.
"You give it me?" she said, looking much astonished.
"I wish I had the whole world to offer you!"
"You are not joking?" she went on, in a voice husky with too great
"Will you accept only my diamond?"
"You will never take it back?" she insisted.
She put the ring on her finger. Martial, confident of coming
happiness, was about to put his hand round her waist, but she suddenly
rose, and said in a clear voice, without any agitation:
"I accept the diamond, monsieur, with the less scruple because it
belongs to me."
The Baron was speechless.
"Monsieur de Soulanges took it lately from my dressing-table, and told
me he had lost it."
"You are mistaken, madame," said Martial, nettled. "It was given me by
Madame de Vaudremont."
"Precisely so," she said with a smile. "My husband borrowed this ring
of me, he gave it to her, she made it a present to you; my ring has
made a little journey, that is all. This ring will perhaps tell me all
I do not know, and teach me the secret of always pleasing.--Monsieur,"
she went on, "if it had not been my own, you may be sure I should not
have risked paying so dear for it; for a young woman, it is said, is
in danger with you. But, you see," and she touched a spring within the
ring, "here is M. de Soulanges' hair."
She fled into the crowded rooms so swiftly, that it seemed useless to
try to follow her; besides, Martial, utterly confounded, was in no
mood to carry the adventure further. The Countess' laugh found an echo
in the boudoir, where the young coxcomb now perceived, between two
shrubs, the Colonel and Madame de Vaudremont, both laughing heartily.
"Will you have my horse, to ride after your prize?" said the Colonel.
The Baron took the banter poured upon him by Madame de Vaudremont and
Montcornet with a good grace, which secured their silence as to the
events of the evening, when his friend exchanged his charger for a
rich and pretty young wife.
As the Comtesse de Soulanges drove across Paris from the Chausee
d'Antin to the Faubourg Saint-Germain, where she lived, her soul was
prey to many alarms. Before leaving the Hotel Gondreville she went
through all the rooms, but found neither her aunt nor her husband, who
had gone away without her. Frightful suspicions then tortured her
ingenuous mind. A silent witness of her husbands' torments since the
day when Madame de Vaudremont had chained him to her car, she had
confidently hoped that repentance would ere long restore her husband
to her. It was with unspeakable repugnance that she had consented to
the scheme plotted by her aunt, Madame de Lansac, and at this moment
she feared she had made a mistake.
The evening's experience had saddened her innocent soul. Alarmed at
first by the Count's look of suffering and dejection, she had become
more so on seeing her rival's beauty, and the corruption of society
had gripped her heart. As she crossed the Pont Royal she threw away
the desecrated hair at the back of the diamond, given to her once as a
token of the purest affection. She wept as she remembered the bitter
grief to which she had so long been a victim, and shuddered more than
once as she reflected that the duty of a woman, who wishes for peace
in her home, compels her to bury sufferings so keen as hers at the
bottom of her heart, and without a complaint.
"Alas!" thought she, "what can women do when they do not love? What is
the fount of their indulgence? I cannot believe that, as my aunt tells
me, reason is all-sufficient to maintain them in such devotion."
She was still sighing when her man-servant let down the handsome
carriage-step down which she flew into the hall of her house. She
rushed precipitately upstairs, and when she reached her room was
startled by seeing her husband sitting by the fire.
"How long is it, my dear, since you have gone to balls without telling
me beforehand?" he asked in a broken voice. "You must know that a
woman is always out of place without her husband. You compromised
yourself strangely by remaining in the dark corner where you had
"Oh, my dear, good Leon," said she in a coaxing tone, "I could not
resist the happiness of seeing you without your seeing me. My aunt
took me to this ball, and I was very happy there!"
This speech disarmed the Count's looks of their assumed severity, for
he had been blaming himself while dreading his wife's return, no doubt
fully informed at the ball of an infidelity he had hoped to hide from
her; and, as is the way of lovers conscious of their guilt, he tried,
by being the first to find fault, to escape her just anger. Happy in
seeing her husband smile, and in finding him at this hour in a room
whither of late he had come more rarely, the Countess looked at him so
tenderly that she blushed and cast down her eyes. Her clemency
enraptured Soulanges all the more, because this scene followed on the
misery he had endured at the ball. He seized his wife's hand and
kissed it gratefully. Is not gratitude often a part of love?
"Hortense, what is that on your finger that has hurt my lip so much?"
asked he, laughing.
"It is my diamond which you said you had lost, and which I have found.
General Montcornet did not marry Madame de Vaudremont, in spite of the
mutual understanding in which they had lived for a few minutes, for
she was one of the victims of the terrible fire which sealed the fame
of the ball given by the Austrian ambassador on the occasion of
Napoleon's marriage with the daughter of the Emperor Joseph II.
The following personages appear in other stories of the Human Comedy.
The Gondreville Mystery
The Seamy Side of History
A Woman of Thirty
Gondreville, Malin, Comte de
The Gondreville Mystery
A Start in Life
The Member for Arcis
The Government Clerks
The Member for Arcis
Keller, Madame Francois
The Member for Arcis
La Roche-Hugon, Martial de
A Daughter of Eve
The Member for Arcis
The Middle Classes
Montcornet, Marechal, Comte de
A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
Scenes from a Courtesan's Life
A Man of Business
Murat, Joachim, Prince
The Gondreville Mystery
The Country Doctor
Soulanges, Comte Leon de
Soulanges, Comtesse Hortense de
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