Honore de Balzac
Part 1 out of 2
Etext prepared by Dagny, email@example.com
and John Bickers, firstname.lastname@example.org
by HONORE DE BALZAC
To Monsieur Achille Deveria
An affectionate remembrance from the Author.
If the French have as great an aversion for traveling as the English
have a propensity for it, both English and French have perhaps
sufficient reasons. Something better than England is everywhere to be
found; whereas it is excessively difficult to find the charms of
France outside France. Other countries can show admirable scenery, and
they frequently offer greater comfort than that of France, which makes
but slow progress in that particular. They sometimes display a
bewildering magnificence, grandeur, and luxury; they lack neither
grace nor noble manners; but the life of the brain, the talent for
conversation, the "Attic salt" so familiar at Paris, the prompt
apprehension of what one is thinking, but does not say, the spirit of
the unspoken, which is half the French language, is nowhere else to be
met with. Hence a Frenchman, whose raillery, as it is, finds so little
comprehension, would wither in a foreign land like an uprooted tree.
Emigration is counter to the instincts of the French nation. Many
Frenchmen, of the kind here in question, have owned to pleasure at
seeing the custom-house officers of their native land, which may seem
the most daring hyperbole of patriotism.
This preamble is intended to recall to such Frenchmen as have traveled
the extreme pleasure they have felt on occasionally finding their
native land, like an oasis, in the drawing-room of some diplomate: a
pleasure hard to be understood by those who have never left the
asphalt of the Boulevard des Italiens, and to whom the Quais of the
left bank of the Seine are not really Paris. To find Paris again! Do
you know what that means, O Parisians? It is to find--not indeed the
cookery of the /Rocher de Cancale/ as Borel elaborates it for those
who can appreciate it, for that exists only in the Rue Montorgueil--
but a meal which reminds you of it! It is to find the wines of France,
which out of France are to be regarded as myths, and as rare as the
woman of whom I write! It is to find--not the most fashionable
pleasantry, for it loses its aroma between Paris and the frontier--but
the witty understanding, the critical atmosphere in which the French
live, from the poet down to the artisan, from the duchess to the boy
in the street.
In 1836, when the Sardinian Court was residing at Genoa, two
Parisians, more or less famous, could fancy themselves still in Paris
when they found themselves in a palazzo, taken by the French Consul-
General, on the hill forming the last fold of the Apennines between
the gate of San Tomaso and the well-known lighthouse, which is to be
seen in all the keepsake views of Genoa. This palazzo is one of the
magnificent villas on which Genoese nobles were wont to spend millions
at the time when the aristocratic republic was a power.
If the early night is beautiful anywhere, it surely is at Genoa, after
it has rained as it can rain there, in torrents, all the morning; when
the clearness of the sea vies with that of the sky; when silence
reigns on the quay and in the groves of the villa, and over the marble
heads with yawning jaws, from which water mysteriously flows; when the
stars are beaming; when the waves of the Mediterranean lap one after
another like the avowal of a woman, from whom you drag it word by
word. It must be confessed, that the moment when the perfumed air
brings fragrance to the lungs and to our day-dreams; when
voluptuousness, made visible and ambient as the air, holds you in your
easy-chair; when, a spoon in your hand, you sip an ice or a sorbet,
the town at your feet and fair woman opposite--such Boccaccio hours
can be known only in Italy and on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Imagine to yourself, round the table, the Marquis di Negro, a knight
hospitaller to all men of talent on their travels, and the Marquis
Damaso Pareto, two Frenchmen disguised as Genoese, a Consul-General
with a wife as beautiful as a Madonna, and two silent children--silent
because sleep has fallen on them--the French Ambassador and his wife,
a secretary to the Embassy who believes himself to be crushed and
mischievous; finally, two Parisians, who have come to take leave of
the Consul's wife at a splendid dinner, and you will have the picture
presented by the terrace of the villa about the middle of May--a
picture in which the predominant figure was that of a celebrated
woman, on whom all eyes centered now and again, the heroine of this
One of the two Frenchmen was the famous landscape painter, Leon de
Lora; the other a well known critic Claude Vignon. They had both come
with this lady, one of the glories of the fair sex, Mademoiselle des
Touches, known in the literary world by the name of Camille Maupin.
Mademoiselle des Touches had been to Florence on business. With the
charming kindness of which she is prodigal, she had brought with her
Leon de Lora to show him Italy, and had gone on as far as Rome that he
might see the Campagna. She had come by Simplon, and was returning by
the Cornice road to Marseilles. She had stopped at Genoa, again on the
landscape painter's account. The Consul-General had, of course, wished
to do the honors of Genoa, before the arrival of the Court, to a woman
whose wealth, name, and position recommend her no less than her
talents. Camille Maupin, who knew her Genoa down to its smallest
chapels, had left her landscape painter to the care of the diplomate
and the two Genoese marquises, and was miserly of her minutes. Though
the ambassador was a distinguished man of letters, the celebrated lady
had refused to yield to his advances, dreading what the English call
an exhibition; but she had drawn in the claws of her refusals when it
was proposed that they should spend a farewell day at the Consul's
villa. Leon de Lora had told Camille that her presence at the villa
was the only return he could make to the Ambassador and his wife, the
two Genoese noblemen, the Consul and his wife. So Mademoiselle des
Touches had sacrificed one of those days of perfect freedom, which are
not always to be had in Paris by those on whom the world has its eye.
Now, the meeting being accounted for, it is easy to understand that
etiquette had been banished, as well as a great many women even of the
highest rank, who were curious to know whether Camille Maupin's manly
talent impaired her grace as a pretty woman, and to see, in a word,
whether the trousers showed below her petticoats. After dinner till
nine o'clock, when a collation was served, though the conversation had
been gay and grave by turns, and constantly enlivened by Leon de
Lora's sallies--for he is considered the most roguish wit of Paris
to-day--and by the good taste which will surprise no one after the
list of guests, literature had scarcely been mentioned. However, the
butterfly flittings of this French tilting match were certain to come
to it, were it only to flutter over this essentially French subject.
But before coming to the turn in the conversation which led the
Consul-General to speak, it will not be out of place to give some
account of him and his family.
This diplomate, a man of four-and-thirty, who had been married about
six years, was the living portrait of Lord Byron. The familiarity of
that face makes a description of the Consul's unnecessary. It may,
however, be noted that there was no affectation in his dreamy
expression. Lord Byron was a poet, and the Consul was poetical; women
know and recognize the difference, which explains without justifying
some of their attachments. His handsome face, thrown into relief by a
delightful nature, had captivated a Genoese heiress. A Genoese
heiress! the expression might raise a smile at Genoa, where, in
consequence of the inability of daughters to inherit, a woman is
rarely rich; but Onorina Pedrotti, the only child of a banker without
heirs male, was an exception. Notwithstanding all the flattering
advances prompted by a spontaneous passion, the Consul-General had not
seemed to wish to marry. Nevertheless, after living in the town for
two years, and after certain steps taken by the Ambassador during his
visits to the Genoese Court, the marriage was decided on. The young
man withdrew his former refusal, less on account of the touching
affection of Onorina Petrotti than by reason of an unknown incident,
one of those crises of private life which are so instantly buried
under the daily tide of interests that, at a subsequent date, the most
natural actions seem inexplicable.
This involution of causes sometimes affects the most serious events of
history. This, at any rate, was the opinion of the town of Genoa,
where, to some women, the extreme reserve, the melancholy of the
French Consul could be explained only by the word passion. It may be
remarked, in passing, that women never complain of being the victims
of a preference; they are very ready to immolate themselves for the
common weal. Onorina Pedrotti, who might have hated the Consul if she
had been altogether scorned, loved her /sposo/ no less, and perhaps
more, when she know that he had loved. Women allow precedence in love
affairs. All is well if other women are in question.
A man is not a diplomate with impunity: the /sposo/ was as secret as
the grave--so secret that the merchants of Genoa chose to regard the
young Consul's attitude as premeditated, and the heiress might perhaps
have slipped through his fingers if he had not played his part of a
love-sick /malade imaginaire/. If it was real, the women thought it
too degrading to be believed.
Pedrotti's daughter gave him her love as a consolation; she lulled
these unknown griefs in a cradle of tenderness and Italian caresses.
Il Signor Pedrotti had indeed no reason to complain of the choice to
which he was driven by his beloved child. Powerful protectors in Paris
watched over the young diplomate's fortunes. In accordance with a
promise made by the Ambassador to the Consul-General's father-in-law,
the young man was created Baron and Commander of the Legion of Honor.
Signor Pedrotti himself was made a Count by the King of Sardinia.
Onorina's dower was a million of francs. As to the fortune of the Casa
Pedrotti, estimated at two millions, made in the corn trade, the young
couple came into it within six months of their marriage, for the first
and last Count Pedrotti died in January 183l.
Onorina Pedrotti is one of those beautiful Genoese women who, when
they are beautiful, are the most magnificent creatures in Italy.
Michael Angelo took his models in Genoa for the tomb of Giuliano.
Hence the fulness and singular placing of the breast in the figures of
Day and Night, which so many critics have thought exaggerated, but
which is peculiar to the women of Liguria. A Genoese beauty is no
longer to be found excepting under the mezzaro, as at Venice it is met
with only under the /fazzioli/. This phenomenon is observed among all
fallen nations. The noble type survives only among the populace, as
after the burning of a town coins are found hidden in the ashes. And
Onorina, an exception as regards her fortune, is no less an
exceptional patrician beauty. Recall to mind the figure of Night which
Michael Angelo has placed at the feet of the /Pensieroso/, dress her
in modern garb, twist that long hair round the magnificent head, a
little dark in complexion, set a spark of fire in those dreamy eyes,
throw a scarf about the massive bosom, see the long dress, white,
embroidered with flowers, imagine the statue sitting upright, with her
arms folded like those of Mademoiselle Georges, and you will see
before you the Consul's wife, with a boy of six, as handsome as a
mother's desire, and a little girl of four on her knees, as beautiful
as the type of childhood so laboriously sought out by the sculptor
David to grace a tomb.
This beautiful family was the object of Camille's secret study. It
struck Mademoiselle des Touches that the Consul looked rather too
absent-minded for a perfectly happy man.
Although, throughout the day, the husband and wife had offered her the
pleasing spectacle of complete happiness, Camille wondered why one of
the most superior men she had ever met, and whom she had seen too in
Paris drawing-rooms, remained as Consul-General at Genoa when he
possessed a fortune of a hundred odd thousand francs a year. But, at
the same time, she had discerned, by many of the little nothings which
women perceive with the intelligence of the Arab sage in /Zadig/, that
the husband was faithfully devoted. These two handsome creatures would
no doubt love each other without a misunderstanding till the end of
their days. So Camille said to herself alternately, "What is wrong?--
Nothing is wrong," following the misleading symptoms of the Consul's
demeanor; and he, it may be said, had the absolute calmness of
Englishmen, of savages, of Orientals, and of consummate diplomatists.
In discussing literature, they spoke of the perennial stock-in-trade
of the republic of letters--woman's sin. And they presently found
themselves confronted by two opinions: When a woman sins, is the man
or the woman to blame? The three women present--the Ambassadress, the
Consul's wife, and Mademoiselle des Touches, women, of course, of
blameless reputations--were without pity for the woman. The men tried
to convince these fair flowers of their sex that some virtues might
remain in a woman after she had fallen.
"How long are we going to play at hide-and-seek in this way?" said
Leon de Lora.
"/Cara vita/, go and put your children to bed, and send me by Gina the
little black pocket-book that lies on my Boule cabinet," said the
Consul to his wife.
She rose without a reply, which shows that she loved her husband very
truly, for she already knew French enough to understand that her
husband was getting rid of her.
"I will tell you a story in which I played a part, and after that we
can discuss it, for it seems to me childish to practise with the
scalpel on an imaginary body. Begin by dissecting a corpse."
Every one prepared to listen, with all the greater readiness because
they had all talked enough, and this is the moment to be chosen for
telling a story. This, then, is the Consul-General's tale:--
"When I was two-and-twenty, and had taken my degree in law, my old
uncle, the Abbe Loraux, then seventy-two years old, felt it necessary
to provide me with a protector, and to start me in some career. This
excellent man, if not indeed a saint, regarded each year of his life
as a fresh gift from God. I need not tell you that the father
confessor of a Royal Highness had no difficulty in finding a place for
a young man brought up by himself, his sister's only child. So one
day, towards the end of the year 1824, this venerable old man, who for
five years had been Cure of the White Friars at Paris, came up to the
room I had in his house, and said:
" 'Get yourself dressed, my dear boy; I am going to introduce you to
some one who is willing to engage you as secretary. If I am not
mistaken, he may fill my place in the event of God's taking me to
Himself. I shall have finished mass at nine o'clock; you have three-
quarters of an hour before you. Be ready.'
" 'What, uncle! must I say good-bye to this room, where for four years
I have been so happy?'
" 'I have no fortune to leave you,' said he.
" 'Have you not the reputation of your name to leave me, the memory of
your good works----?'
" 'We need say nothing of that inheritance,' he replied, smiling. 'You
do not yet know enough of the world to be aware that a legacy of that
kind is hardly likely to be paid, whereas by taking you this morning
to M. le Comte'--Allow me," said the Consul, interrupting himself, "to
speak of my protector by his Christian name only, and to call him
Comte Octave.--'By taking you this morning to M. le Comte Octave, I
hope to secure you his patronage, which, if you are so fortunate as to
please that virtuous statesman--as I make no doubt you can--will be
worth, at least, as much as the fortune I might have accumulated for
you, if my brother-in-law's ruin and my sister's death had not fallen
on me like a thunder-bolt from a clear sky.'
" 'Are you the Count's director?'
" 'If I were, could I place you with him? What priest could be capable
of taking advantage of the secrets which he learns at the tribunal of
repentance? No; you owe this position to his Highness, the Keeper of
the Seals. My dear Maurice, you will be as much at home there as in
your father's house. The Count will give you a salary of two thousand
four hundred francs, rooms in his house, and an allowance of twelve
hundred francs in lieu of feeding you. He will not admit you to his
table, nor give you a separate table, for fear of leaving you to the
care of servants. I did not accept the offer when it was made to me
till I was perfectly certain that Comte Octave's secretary was never
to be a mere upper servant. You will have an immense amount of work,
for the Count is a great worker; but when you leave him, you will be
qualified to fill the highest posts. I need not warn you to be
discreet; that is the first virtue of any man who hopes to hold public
"You may conceive of my curiosity. Comte Octave, at that time, held
one of the highest legal appointments; he was in the confidence of
Madame the Dauphiness, who had just got him made a State Minister; he
led such a life as the Comte de Serizy, whom you all know, I think;
but even more quietly, for his house was in the Marais, Rue Payenne,
and he hardly ever entertained. His private life escaped public
comment by its hermit-like simplicity and by constant hard work.
"Let me describe my position to you in a few words. Having found in
the solemn headmaster of the College Saint-Louis a tutor to whom my
uncle delegated his authority, at the age of eighteen I had gone
through all the classes; I left school as innocent as a seminarist,
full of faith, on quitting Saint-Sulpice. My mother, on her deathbed,
had made my uncle promise that I should not become a priest, but I was
as pious as though I had to take orders. On leaving college, the Abbe
Loraux took me into his house and made me study law. During the four
years of study requisite for passing all the examinations, I worked
hard, but chiefly at things outside the arid fields of jurisprudence.
Weaned from literature as I had been at college, where I lived in the
headmaster's house, I had a thirst to quench. As soon as I had read a
few modern masterpieces, the works of all the preceding ages were
greedily swallowed. I became crazy about the theatre, and for a long
time I went every night to the play, though my uncle gave me only a
hundred francs a month. This parsimony, to which the good old man was
compelled by his regard for the poor, had the effect of keeping a
young man's desires within reasonable limits.
"When I went to live with Comte Octave I was not indeed an innocent,
but I thought of my rare escapades as crimes. My uncle was so truly
angelic, and I was so much afraid of grieving him, that in all those
four years I had never spent a night out. The good man would wait till
I came in to go to bed. This maternal care had more power to keep me
within bounds than the sermons and reproaches with which the life of a
young man is diversified in a puritanical home. I was a stranger to
the various circles which make up the world of Paris society; I only
knew some women of the better sort, and none of the inferior class but
those I saw as I walked about, or in the boxes at the play, and then
only from the depths of the pit where I sat. If, at that period, any
one had said to me, 'You will see Canalis, or Camille Maupin,' I
should have felt hot coals in my head and in my bowels. Famous people
were to me as gods, who neither spoke, nor walked, nor ate like other
"How many tales of the Thousand-and-one Nights are comprehended in the
ripening of a youth! How many wonderful lamps must we have rubbed
before we understand that the True Wonderful Lamp is either luck, or
work, or genius. In some men this dream of the aroused spirit is but
brief; mine has lasted until now! In those days I always went to sleep
as Grand Duke of Tuscany,--as a millionaire,--as beloved by a
princess,--or famous! So to enter the service of Comte Octave, and
have a hundred louis a year, was entering on independent life. I had
glimpses of some chance of getting into society, and seeking for what
my heart desired most, a protectress, who would rescue me from the
paths of danger, which a young man of two-and-twenty can hardly help
treading, however prudent and well brought up he may be. I began to be
afraid of myself.
"The persistent study of other people's rights into which I had
plunged was not always enough to repress painful imaginings. Yes,
sometimes in fancy I threw myself into theatrical life; I thought I
could be a great actor; I dreamed of endless triumphs and loves,
knowing nothing of the disillusion hidden behind the curtain, as
everywhere else--for every stage has its reverse behind the scenes. I
have gone out sometimes, my heart boiling, carried away by an impulse
to rush hunting through Paris, to attach myself to some handsome woman
I might meet, to follow her to her door, watch her, write to her,
throw myself on her mercy, and conquer her by sheer force of passion.
My poor uncle, a heart consumed by charity, a child of seventy years,
as clear-sighted as God, as guileless as a man of genius, no doubt
read the tumult of my soul; for when he felt the tether by which he
held me strained too tightly and ready to break, he would never fail
to say, 'Here, Maurice, you too are poor! Here are twenty francs; go
and amuse yourself, you are not a priest!' And if you could have seen
the dancing light that gilded his gray eyes, the smile that relaxed
his fine lips, puckering the corners of his mouth, the adorable
expression of that august face, whose native ugliness was redeemed by
the spirit of an apostle, you would understand the feeling which made
me answer the Cure of White Friars only with a kiss, as if he had been
" 'In Comte Octave you will find not a master, but a friend,' said my
uncle on the way to the Rue Payenne. 'But he is distrustful, or to be
more exact, he is cautious. The statesman's friendship can be won only
with time; for in spite of his deep insight and his habit of gauging
men, he was deceived by the man you are succeeding, and nearly became
a victim to his abuse of confidence. This is enough to guide you in
your behavior to him.'
"When we knocked at the enormous outer door of a house as large as the
Hotel Carnavalet, with a courtyard in front and a garden behind, the
sound rang as in a desert. While my uncle inquired of an old porter in
livery if the Count were at home, I cast my eyes, seeing everything at
once, over the courtyard where the cobblestones were hidden in the
grass, the blackened walls where little gardens were flourishing above
the decorations of the elegant architecture, and on the roof, as high
as that of the Tuileries. The balustrade of the upper balconies was
eaten away. Through a magnificent colonnade I could see a second court
on one side, where were the offices; the door was rotting. An old
coachman was there cleaning an old carriage. The indifferent air of
this servant allowed me to assume that the handsome stables, where of
old so many horses had whinnied, now sheltered two at most. The
handsome facade of the house seemed to me gloomy, like that of a
mansion belonging to the State or the Crown, and given up to some
public office. A bell rang as we walked across, my uncle and I, from
the porter's lodge--/Inquire of the Porter/ was still written over the
door--towards the outside steps, where a footman came out in a livery
like that of Labranche at the Theatre Francais in the old stock plays.
A visitor was so rare that the servant was putting his coat on when he
opened a glass door with small panes, on each side of which the smoke
of a lamp had traced patterns on the walls.
"A hall so magnificent as to be worthy of Versailles ended in a
staircase such as will never again be built in France, taking up as
much space as the whole of a modern house. As we went up the marble
steps, as cold as tombstones, and wide enough for eight persons to
walk abreast, our tread echoed under sonorous vaulting. The banister
charmed the eye by its miraculous workmanship--goldsmith's work in
iron--wrought by the fancy of an artist of the time of Henri III.
Chilled as by an icy mantle that fell on our shoulders, we went
through ante-rooms, drawing-rooms opening one out of the other, with
carpetless parquet floors, and furnished with such splendid
antiquities as from thence would find their way to the curiosity
dealers. At last we reached a large study in a cross wing, with all
the windows looking into an immense garden.
" 'Monsieur le Cure of the White Friars, and his nephew, Monsieur de
l'Hostal,' said Labranche, to whose care the other theatrical servant
had consigned us in the first ante-chamber.
"Comte Octave, dressed in long trousers and a gray flannel morning
coat, rose from his seat by a huge writing-table, came to the
fireplace, and signed to me to sit down, while he went forward to take
my uncle's hands, which he pressed.
" 'Though I am in the parish of Saint-Paul,' said he, 'I could
scarcely have failed to hear of the Cure of the White Friars, and I am
happy to make his acquaintance.'
" 'Your Excellency is most kind,' replied my uncle. 'I have brought to
you my only remaining relation. While I believe that I am offering a
good gift to your Excellency, I hope at the same time to give my
nephew a second father.'
" 'As to that, I can only reply, Monsieur l'Abbe, when we shall have
tried each other,' said Comte Octave. 'Your name?' he added to me.
" 'He has taken his doctor's degree in law,' my uncle observed.
" 'Very good, very good!' said the Count, looking at me from head to
foot. 'Monsieur l'Abbe, I hope that for your nephew's sake in the
first instance, and then for mine, you will do me the honor of dining
here every Monday. That will be our family dinner, our family party.'
"My uncle and the Count then began to talk of religion from the
political point of view, of charitable institutes, the repression of
crime, and I could at my leisure study the man on whom my fate would
henceforth depend. The Count was of middle height; it was impossible
to judge of his build on account of his dress, but he seemed to me to
be lean and spare. His face was harsh and hollow; the features were
refined. His mouth, which was rather large, expressed both irony and
kindliness. His forehead perhaps too spacious, was as intimidating as
that of a madman, all the more so from the contrast of the lower part
of the face, which ended squarely in a short chin very near the lower
lip. Small eyes, of turquoise blue, were as keen and bright as those
of the Prince de Talleyrand--which I admired at a later time--and
endowed, like the Prince's, with the faculty of becoming
expressionless to the verge of gloom; and they added to the
singularity of a face that was not pale but yellow. This complexion
seemed to bespeak an irritable temper and violent passions. His hair,
already silvered, and carefully dressed, seemed to furrow his head
with streaks of black and white alternately. The trimness of this head
spoiled the resemblance I had remarked in the Count to the wonderful
monk described by Lewis after Schedoni in the /Confessional of the
Black Penitents (The Italian)/, a superior creation, as it seems to
me, to /The Monk/.
"The Count was already shaved, having to attend early at the law
courts. Two candelabra with four lights, screened by lamp-shades, were
still burning at the opposite ends of the writing-table, and showed
plainly that the magistrate rose long before daylight. His hands,
which I saw when he took hold of the bell-pull to summon his servant,
were extremely fine, and as white as a woman's.
"As I tell you this story," said the Consul-General, interrupting
himself, "I am altering the titles and the social position of this
gentleman, while placing him in circumstances analogous to what his
really were. His profession, rank, luxury, fortune, and style of
living were the same; all these details are true, but I would not be
false to my benefactor, nor to my usual habits of discretion.
"Instead of feeling--as I really was, socially speaking--an insect in
the presence of an eagle," the narrator went on after a pause, "I felt
I know not what indefinable impression from the Count's appearance,
which, however, I can now account for. Artists of genius" (and he
bowed gracefully to the Ambassador, the distinguished lady, and the
two Frenchmen), "real statesmen, poets, a general who has commanded
armies--in short, all really great minds are simple, and their
simplicity places you on a level with themselves.--You who are all of
superior minds," he said, addressing his guests, "have perhaps
observed how feeling can bridge over the distances created by society.
If we are inferior to you in intellect, we can be your equals in
devoted friendship. By the temperature--allow me the word--of our
hearts I felt myself as near my patron as I was far below him in rank.
In short, the soul has its clairvoyance; it has presentiments of
suffering, grief, joy, antagonism, or hatred in others.
"I vaguely discerned the symptoms of a mystery, from recognizing in
the Count the same effects of physiognomy as I had observed in my
uncle. The exercise of virtue, serenity of conscience, and purity of
mind had transfigured my uncle, who from being ugly had become quite
beautiful. I detected a metamorphosis of a reverse kind in the Count's
face; at the first glance I thought he was about fifty-five, but after
an attentive examination I found youth entombed under the ice of a
great sorrow, under the fatigue of persistent study, under the glowing
hues of some suppressed passion. At a word from my uncle the Count's
eyes recovered for a moment the softness of the periwinkle flower, and
he had an admiring smile, which revealed what I believed to be his
real age, about forty. These observations I made, not then but
afterwards, as I recalled the circumstances of my visit.
"The man-servant came in carrying a tray with his master's breakfast
" 'I did not ask for breakfast,' remarked the Count; 'but leave it,
and show monsieur to his rooms.'
"I followed the servant, who led the way to a complete set of pretty
rooms, under a terrace, between the great courtyard and the servants'
quarters, over a corridor of communication between the kitchens and
the grand staircase. When I returned to the Count's study, I
overheard, before opening the door, my uncle pronouncing this judgment
" 'He may do wrong, for he has strong feelings, and we are all liable
to honorable mistakes; but he has no vices.'
" 'Well,' said the Count, with a kindly look, 'do you like yourself
there? Tell me. There are so many rooms in this barrack that, if you
were not comfortable, I could put you elsewhere.'
" 'At my uncle's I had but one room,' replied I.
" 'Well, you can settle yourself this evening,' said the Count, 'for
your possessions, no doubt, are such as all students own, and a
hackney coach will be enough to convey them. To-day we will all three
dine together,' and he looked at my uncle.
"A splendid library opened from the Count's study, and he took us in
there, showing me a pretty little recess decorated with paintings,
which had formerly served, no doubt, as an oratory.
" 'This is your cell,' said he. 'You will sit there when you have to
work with me, for you will not be tethered by a chain;' and he
explained in detail the kind and duration of my employment with him.
As I listened I felt that he was a great political teacher.
"It took me about a month to familiarize myself with people and
things, to learn the duties of my new office, and accustom myself to
the Count's methods. A secretary necessarily watches the man who makes
use of him. That man's tastes, passions, temper, and manias become the
subject of involuntary study. The union of their two minds is at once
more and less than a marriage.
"During these months the Count and I reciprocally studied each other.
I learned with astonishment that Comte Octave was but thirty-seven
years old. The merely superficial peacefulness of his life and the
propriety of his conduct were the outcome not solely of a deep sense
of duty and of stoical reflection; in my constant intercourse with
this man--an extraordinary man to those who knew him well--I felt vast
depths beneath his toil, beneath his acts of politeness, his mask of
benignity, his assumption of resignation, which so closely resembled
calmness that it is easy to mistake it. Just as when walking through
forest-lands certain soils give forth under our feet a sound which
enables us to guess whether they are dense masses of stone or a void;
so intense egoism, though hidden under the flowers of politeness, and
subterranean caverns eaten out by sorrow sound hollow under the
constant touch of familiar life. It was sorrow and not despondency
that dwelt in that really great soul. The Count had understood that
actions, deeds, are the supreme law of social man. And he went on his
way in spite of secret wounds, looking to the future with a tranquil
eye, like a martyr full of faith.
"His concealed sadness, the bitter disenchantment from which he
suffered, had not led him into philosophical deserts of incredulity;
this brave statesman was religious, without ostentation; he always
attended the earliest mass at Saint-Paul's for pious workmen and
servants. Not one of his friends, no one at Court, knew that he so
punctually fulfilled the practice of religion. He was addicted to God
as some men are addicted to a vice, with the greatest mystery. Thus
one day I came to find the Count at the summit of an Alp of woe much
higher than that on which many are who think themselves the most
tried; who laugh at the passions and the beliefs of others because
they have conquered their own; who play variations in every key of
irony and disdain. He did not mock at those who still follow hope into
the swamps whither she leads, nor those who climb a peak to be alone,
nor those who persist in the fight, reddening the arena with their
blood and strewing it with their illusions. He looked on the world as
a whole; he mastered its beliefs; he listened to its complaining; he
was doubtful of affection, and yet more of self-sacrifice; but this
great and stern judge pitied them, or admired them, not with transient
enthusiasm, but with silence, concentration, and the communion of a
deeply-touched soul. He was a sort of catholic Manfred, and unstained
by crime, carrying his choiceness into his faith, melting the snows by
the fires of a sealed volcano, holding converse with a star seen by
"I detected many dark riddles in his ordinary life. He evaded my gaze
not like a traveler who, following a path, disappears from time to
time in dells or ravines according to the formation of the soil, but
like a sharpshooter who is being watched, who wants to hide himself,
and seeks a cover. I could not account for his frequent absences at
the times when he was working the hardest, and of which he made no
secret from me, for he would say, 'Go on with this for me,' and trust
me with the work in hand.
"This man, wrapped in the threefold duties of the statesman, the
judge, and the orator, charmed me by a taste for flowers, which shows
an elegant mind, and which is shared by almost all persons of
refinement. His garden and his study were full of the rarest plants,
but he always bought them half-withered. Perhaps it pleased him to see
such an image of his own fate! He was faded like these dying flowers,
whose almost decaying fragrance mounted strangely to his brain. The
Count loved his country; he devoted himself to public interests with
the frenzy of a heart that seeks to cheat some other passion; but the
studies and work into which he threw himself were not enough for him;
there were frightful struggles in his mind, of which some echoes
reached me. Finally, he would give utterance to harrowing aspirations
for happiness, and it seemed to me he ought yet to be happy; but what
was the obstacle? Was there a woman he loved? This was a question I
asked myself. You may imagine the extent of the circles of torment
that my mind had searched before coming to so simple and so terrible a
question. Notwithstanding his efforts, my patron did not succeed in
stifling the movements of his heart. Under his austere manner, under
the reserve of the magistrate, a passion rebelled, though coerced with
such force that no one but I who lived with him ever guessed the
secret. His motto seemed to be, 'I suffer, and am silent.' The escort
of respect and admiration which attended him; the friendship of
workers as valiant as himself--Grandville and Serizy, both presiding
judges--had no hold over the Count: either he told them nothing, or
they knew all. Impassible and lofty in public, the Count betrayed the
man only on rare intervals when, alone in his garden or his study, he
supposed himself unobserved; but then he was a child again, he gave
course to the tears hidden beneath the toga, to the excitement which,
if wrongly interpreted, might have damaged his credit for perspicacity
as a statesman.
"When all this had become to me a matter of certainty, Comte Octave
had all the attractions of a problem, and won on my affection as much
as though he had been my own father. Can you enter into the feeling of
curiosity, tempered by respect? What catastrophe had blasted this
learned man, who, like Pitt, had devoted himself from the age of
eighteen to the studies indispensable to power, while he had no
ambition; this judge, who thoroughly knew the law of nations,
political law, civil and criminal law, and who could find in these a
weapon against every anxiety, against every mistake; this profound
legislator, this serious writer, this pious celibate whose life
sufficiently proved that he was open to no reproach? A criminal could
not have been more hardly punished by God than was my master; sorrow
had robbed him of half his slumbers; he never slept more than four
hours. What struggle was it that went on in the depths of these hours
apparently so calm, so studious, passing without a sound or a murmur,
during which I often detected him, when the pen had dropped from his
fingers, with his head resting on one hand, his eyes like two fixed
stars, and sometimes wet with tears? How could the waters of that
living spring flow over the burning strand without being dried up by
the subterranean fire? Was there below it, as there is under the sea,
between it and the central fires of the globe, a bed of granite? And
would the volcano burst at last?
"Sometimes the Count would give me a look of that sagacious and keen-
eyed curiosity by which one man searches another when he desires an
accomplice; then he shunned my eye as he saw it open a mouth, so to
speak, insisting on a reply, and seeming to say, 'Speak first!' Now
and then Comte Octave's melancholy was surly and gruff. If these
spurts of temper offended me, he could get over it without thinking of
asking my pardon; but then his manners were gracious to the point of
"When I became attached like a son to this man--to me such a mystery,
but so intelligible to the outer world, to whom the epithet eccentric
is enough to account for all the enigmas of the heart--I changed the
state of the house. Neglect of his own interests was carried by the
Count to the length of folly in the management of his affairs.
Possessing an income of about a hundred and sixty thousand francs,
without including the emoluments of his appointments--three of which
did not come under the law against plurality--he spent sixty thousand,
of which at least thirty thousand went to his servants. By the end of
the first year I had got rid of all these rascals, and begged His
Excellency to use his influence in helping me to get honest servants.
By the end of the second year the Count, better fed and better served,
enjoyed the comforts of modern life; he had fine horses, supplied by a
coachman to whom I paid so much a month for each horse; his dinners on
his reception days, furnished by Chevet at a price agreed upon, did
him credit; his daily meals were prepared by an excellent cook found
by my uncle, and helped by two kitchenmaids. The expenditure for
housekeeping, not including purchases, was no more than thirty
thousand francs a year; we had two additional men-servants, whose care
restored the poetical aspect of the house; for this old palace,
splendid even in its rust, had an air of dignity which neglect had
" 'I am no longer astonished,' said he, on hearing of these results,
'at the fortunes made by servants. In seven years I have had two
cooks, who have become rich restaurant-keepers.'
"Early in the year 1826 the Count had, no doubt, ceased to watch me,
and we were as closely attached as two men can be when one is
subordinate to the other. He had never spoken to me of my future
prospects, but he had taken an interest, both as a master and as a
father, in training me. He often required me to collect materials for
his most arduous labors; I drew up some of his reports, and he
corrected them, showing the difference between his interpretation of
the law, his views and mine. When at last I had produced a document
which he could give in as his own he was delighted; this satisfaction
was my reward, and he could see that I took it so. This little
incident produced an extraordinary effect on a soul which seemed so
stern. The Count pronounced sentence on me, to use a legal phrase, as
supreme and royal judge; he took my head in his hands, and kissed me
on the forehead.
" 'Maurice,' he exclaimed, 'you are no longer my apprentice; I know
not yet what you will be to me--but if no change occurs in my life,
perhaps you will take the place of a son.'
"Comte Octave had introduced me to the best houses in Paris, whither I
went in his stead, with his servants and carriage, on the too frequent
occasions when, on the point of starting, he changed his mind, and
sent for a hackney cab to take him--Where?--that was the mystery. By
the welcome I met with I could judge of the Count's feelings towards
me, and the earnestness of his recommendations. He supplied all my
wants with the thoughtfulness of a father, and with all the greater
liberality because my modesty left it to him always to think of me.
Towards the end of January 1827, at the house of the Comtesse de
Serizy, I had such persistent ill-luck at play that I lost two
thousand francs, and I would not draw them out of my savings. Next
morning I asked myself, 'Had I better ask my uncle for the money, or
put my confidence in the Count?'
"I decided on the second alternative.
" 'Yesterday,' said I, when he was at breakfast, 'I lost persistently
at play; I was provoked, and went on; I owe two thousand francs. Will
you allow me to draw the sum on account of my year's salary?'
" 'No,' said he, with the sweetest smile; 'when a man plays in
society, he must have a gambling purse. Draw six thousand francs; pay
your debts. Henceforth we must go halves; for since you are my
representative on most occasions, your self-respect must not be made
to suffer for it.'
"I made no speech of thanks. Thanks would have been superfluous
between us. This shade shows the character of our relations. And yet
we had not yet unlimited confidence in each other; he did not open to
me the vast subterranean chambers which I had detected in his secret
life; and I, for my part, never said to him, 'What ails you? From what
are you suffering?'
"What could he be doing during those long evenings? He would often
come in on foot or in a hackney cab when I returned in a carriage--I,
his secretary! Was so pious a man a prey to vices hidden under
hypocrisy? Did he expend all the powers of his mind to satisfy a
jealousy more dexterous than Othello's? Did he live with some woman
unworthy of him? One morning, on returning from I have forgotten what
shop, where I had just paid a bill, between the Church of Saint-Paul
and the Hotel de Ville, I came across Comte Octave in such eager
conversation with an old woman that he did not see me. The appearance
of this hag filled me with strange suspicions, suspicions that were
all the better founded because I never found that the Count invested
his savings. Is it not shocking to think of? I was constituting myself
my patron's censor. At that time I knew that he had more than six
hundred thousand francs to invest; and if he had bought securities of
any kind, his confidence in me was so complete in all that concerned
his pecuniary interests, that I certainly should have known it.
"Sometimes, in the morning, the Count took exercise in his garden, to
and fro, like a man to whom a walk is the hippogryph ridden by dreamy
melancholy. He walked and walked! And he rubbed his hands enough to
rub the skin off. And then, if I met him unexpectedly as he came to
the angle of a path, I saw his face beaming. His eyes, instead of the
hardness of a turquoise, had that velvety softness of the blue
periwinkle, which had so much struck me on the occasion of my first
visit, by reason of the astonishing contrast in the two different
looks; the look of a happy man, and the look of an unhappy man. Two or
three times at such a moment he had taken me by the arm and led me on;
then he had said, 'What have you come to ask?' instead of pouring out
his joy into my heart that opened to him. But more often, especially
since I could do his work for him and write his reports, the unhappy
man would sit for hours staring at the goldfish that swarmed in a
handsome marble basin in the middle of the garden, round which grew an
amphitheatre of the finest flowers. He, an accomplished statesman,
seemed to have succeeded in making a passion of the mechanical
amusement of crumbling bread to fishes.
"This is how the drama was disclosed of this second inner life, so
deeply ravaged and storm-tossed, where, in a circle overlooked by
Dante in his /Inferno/, horrible joys had their birth."
The Consul-General paused.
"On a certain Monday," he resumed, "as chance would have it, M. le
President de Grandville and M. de Serizy (at that time Vice-President
of the Council of State) had come to hold a meeting at Comte Octave's
house. They formed a committee of three, of which I was the secretary.
The Count had already got me the appointment of Auditor to the Council
of State. All the documents requisite for their inquiry into the
political matter privately submitted to these three gentlemen were
laid out on one of the long tables in the library. MM. de Grandville
and de Serizy had trusted to the Count to make the preliminary
examination of the papers relating to the matter. To avoid the
necessity for carrying all the papers to M. de Serizy, as president of
the commission, it was decided that they should meet first in the Rue
Payenne. The Cabinet at the Tuileries attached great importance to
this piece of work, of which the chief burden fell on me--and to which
I owed my appointment, in the course of that year, to be Master of
"Though the Comtes de Grandville and de Serizy, whose habits were much
the same as my patron's, never dined away from home, we were still
discussing the matter at a late hour, when we were startled by the
man-servant calling me aside to say, 'MM. the Cures of Saint-Paul and
of the White Friars have been waiting in the drawing-room for two
"It was nine o'clock.
" 'Well, gentlemen, you find yourselves compelled to dine with
priests,' said Comte Octave to his colleagues. 'I do not know whether
Grandville can overcome his horror of a priest's gown----'
" 'It depends on the priest.'
" 'One of them is my uncle, and the other is the Abbe Gaudron,' said
I. 'Do not be alarmed; the Abbe Fontanon is no longer second priest at
" 'Well, let us dine,' replied the President de Grandville. 'A bigot
frightens me, but there is no one so cheerful as a truly pious man.'
"We went into the drawing-room. The dinner was delightful. Men of real
information, politicians to whom business gives both consummate
experience and the practice of speech, are admirable story-tellers,
when they tell stories. With them there is no medium; they are either
heavy, or they are sublime. In this delightful sport Prince Metternich
is as good as Charles Nodier. The fun of a statesman, cut in facets
like a diamond, is sharp, sparkling, and full of sense. Being sure
that the proprieties would be observed by these three superior men, my
uncle allowed his wit full play, a refined wit, gentle, penetrating,
and elegant, like that of all men who are accustomed to conceal their
thoughts under the black robe. And you may rely upon it, there was
nothing vulgar nor idle in this light talk, which I would compare, for
its effect on the soul, to Rossini's music.
"The Abbe Gaudron was, as M. de Grandville said, a Saint Peter rather
than a Saint Paul, a peasant full of faith, as square on his feet as
he was tall, a sacerdotal of whose ignorance in matters of the world
and of literature enlivened the conversation by guileless amazement
and unexpected questions. They came to talking of one of the plague
spots of social life, of which we were just now speaking--adultery. My
uncle remarked on the contradiction which the legislators of the Code,
still feeling the blows of the revolutionary storm, had established
between civil and religious law, and which he said was at the root of
all the mischief.
" 'In the eyes of the Church,' said he, 'adultery is a crime; in those
of your tribunals it is a misdemeanor. Adultery drives to the police
court in a carriage instead of standing at the bar to be tried.
Napoleon's Council of State, touched with tenderness towards erring
women, was quite inefficient. Ought they not in this case to have
harmonized the civil and the religious law, and have sent the guilty
wife to a convent, as of old?'
" 'To a convent!' said M. de Serizy. 'They must first have created
convents, and in those days monasteries were being turned into
barracks. Besides, think of what you say, M. l'Abbe--give to God what
society would have none of?'
" 'Oh!' said the Comte de Grandville, 'you do not know France. They
were obliged to leave the husband free to take proceedings: well,
there are not ten cases of adultery brought up in a year.'
" 'M. l'Abbe preaches for his own saint, for it was Jesus Christ who
invented adultery,' said Comte Octave. 'In the East, the cradle of the
human race, woman was merely a luxury, and there was regarded as a
chattel; no virtues were demanded of her but obedience and beauty. By
exalting the soul above the body, the modern family in Europe--a
daughter of Christ--invented indissoluble marriage, and made it a
" 'Ah! the Church saw the difficulties,' exclaimed M. de Grandville.
" 'This institution has given rise to a new world,' the Count went on
with a smile. 'But the practices of that world will never be that of a
climate where women are marriageable at seven years of age, and more
than old at five-and-twenty. The Catholic Church overlooked the needs
of half the globe.--So let us discuss Europe only.
" 'Is woman our superior or our inferior? That is the real question so
far as we are concerned. If woman is our inferior, by placing her on
so high a level as the Church does, fearful punishments for adultery
were needful. And formerly that was what was done. The cloister or
death sums up early legislation. But since then practice has modified
the law, as is always the case. The throne served as a hotbed for
adultery, and the increase of this inviting crime marks the decline of
the dogmas of the Catholic Church. In these days, in cases where the
Church now exacts no more than sincere repentance from the erring
wife, society is satisfied with a brand-mark instead of an execution.
The law still condemns the guilty, but it no longer terrifies them. In
short, there are two standards of morals: that of the world, and that
of the Code. Where the Code is weak, as I admit with our dear Abbe,
the world is audacious and satirical. There are so few judges who
would not gladly have committed the fault against which they hurl the
rather stolid thunders of their "Inasmuch." The world, which gives the
lie to the law alike in its rejoicings, in its habits, and in its
pleasures, is severer than the Code and the Church; the world punishes
a blunder after encouraging hypocrisy. The whole economy of the law on
marriage seems to me to require reconstruction from the bottom to the
top. The French law would be perfect perhaps if it excluded daughters
" 'We three among us know the question very thoroughly,' said the
Comte de Grandville with a laugh. 'I have a wife I cannot live with.
Serizy has a wife who will not live with him. As for you, Octave,
yours ran away from you. So we three represent every case of the
conjugal conscience, and, no doubt, if ever divorce is brought in
again, we shall form the committee.'
"Octave's fork dropped on his glass, broke it, and broke his plate. He
had turned as pale as death, and flashed a thunderous glare at M. de
Grandville, by which he hinted at my presence, and which I caught.
" 'Forgive me, my dear fellow. I did not see Maurice,' the President
went on. 'Serizy and I, after being the witnesses to your marriage,
became your accomplices; I did not think I was committing an
indiscretion in the presence of these two venerable priests.'
"M. de Serizy changed the subject by relating all he had done to
please his wife without ever succeeding. The old man concluded that it
was impossible to regulate human sympathies and antipathies; he
maintained that social law was never more perfect than when it was
nearest to natural law. Now Nature takes no account of the affinities
of souls; her aim is fulfilled by the propagation of the species.
Hence, the Code, in its present form, was wise in leaving a wide
latitude to chance. The incapacity of daughters to inherit so long as
there were male heirs was an excellent provision, whether to hinder
the degeneration of the race, or to make households happier by
abolishing scandalous unions and giving the sole preference to moral
qualities and beauty.
" 'But then,' he exclaimed, lifting his hand with a gesture of
disgust, 'how are we to perfect legislation in a country which insists
on bringing together seven or eight hundred legislators!--After all,
if I am sacrificed,' he added, 'I have a child to succeed me.'
" 'Setting aside all the religious question,' my uncle said, 'I would
remark to your Excellency that Nature only owes us life, and that it
is society that owes us happiness. Are you a father?' asked my uncle.
" 'And I--have I any children?' said Comte Octave in a hollow voice,
and his tone made such an impression that there was no more talk of
wives or marriage.
"When coffee had been served, the two Counts and the two priests stole
away, seeing that poor Octave had fallen into a fit of melancholy
which prevented his noticing their disappearance. My patron was
sitting in an armchair by the fire, in the attitude of a man crushed.
" 'You now know the secret of my life, said he to me on noticing that
we were alone. 'After three years of married life, one evening when I
came in I found a letter in which the Countess announced her flight.
The letter did not lack dignity, for it is in the nature of women to
preserve some virtues even when committing that horrible sin.--The
story is now that my wife went abroad in a ship that was wrecked; she
is supposed to be dead. I have lived alone for seven years!--Enough
for this evening, Maurice. We will talk of my situation when I have
grown used to the idea of speaking of it to you. When we suffer from a
chronic disease, it needs time to become accustomed to improvement.
That improvement often seems to be merely another aspect of the
"I went to bed greatly agitated; for the mystery, far from being
explained, seemed to me more obscure than ever. I foresaw some strange
drama indeed, for I understood that there could be no vulgar
difference between the woman that Count could choose and such a
character as his. The events which had driven the Countess to leave a
man so noble, so amiable, so perfect, so loving, so worthy to be
loved, must have been singular, to say the least. M. de Grandville's
remark had been like a torch flung into the caverns over which I had
so long been walking; and though the flame lighted them but dimly, my
eyes could perceive their wide extent! I could imagine the Count's
sufferings without knowing their depths or their bitterness. That
sallow face, those parched temples, those overwhelming studies, those
moments of absentmindedness, the smallest details of the life of this
married bachelor, all stood out in luminous relief during the hour of
mental questioning, which is, as it were, the twilight before sleep,
and to which any man would have given himself up, as I did.
"Oh! how I loved my poor master! He seemed to me sublime. I read a
poem of melancholy, I saw perpetual activity in the heart I had
accused of being torpid. Must not supreme grief always come at last to
stagnation? Had this judge, who had so much in his power, ever
revenged himself? Was he feeding himself on her long agony? Is it not
a remarkable thing in Paris to keep anger always seething for ten
years? What had Octave done since this great misfortune--for the
separation of husband and wife is a great misfortune in our day, when
domestic life has become a social question, which it never was of old?
"We allowed a few days to pass on the watch, for great sorrows have a
diffidence of their own; but at last, one evening, the Count said in a
"This, as nearly as may be, is his story.
" 'My father had a ward, rich and lovely, who was sixteen at the time
when I came back from college to live in this old house. Honorine, who
had been brought up by my mother, was just awakening to life. Full of
grace and of childish ways, she dreamed of happiness as she would have
dreamed of jewels; perhaps happiness seemed to her the jewel of the
soul. Her piety was not free from puerile pleasures; for everything,
even religion, was poetry to her ingenuous heart. She looked to the
future as a perpetual fete. Innocent and pure, no delirium had
disturbed her dream. Shame and grief had never tinged her cheek nor
moistened her eye. She did not even inquire into the secret of her
involuntary emotions on a fine spring day. And then, she felt that she
was weak and destined to obedience, and she awaited marriage without
wishing for it. Her smiling imagination knew nothing of the corruption
--necessary perhaps--which literature imparts by depicting the
passions; she knew nothing of the world, and was ignorant of all the
dangers of society. The dear child had suffered so little that she had
not even developed her courage. In short, her guilelessness would have
led her to walk fearless among serpents, like the ideal figure of
Innocence a painter once created. We lived together like two brothers.
" 'At the end of a year I said to her one day, in the garden of this
house, by the basin, as we stood throwing crumbs to the fish:
" ' "Would you like that we should be married? With me you could do
whatever you please, while another man would make you unhappy."
" ' "Mamma," said she to my mother, who came out to join us, "Octave
and I have agreed to be married----"
" ' "What! at seventeen?" said my mother. "No, you must wait eighteen
months; and if eighteen months hence you like each other, well, your
birth and fortunes are equal, you can make a marriage which is
suitable, as well as being a love match."
" 'When I was six-and-twenty, and Honorine nineteen, we were married.
Our respect for my father and mother, old folks of the Bourbon Court,
hindered us from making this house fashionable, or renewing the
furniture; we lived on, as we had done in the past, as children.
However, I went into society; I initiated my wife into the world of
fashion; and I regarded it as one of my duties to instruct her.
" 'I recognized afterwards that marriages contracted under such
circumstances as ours bear in themselves a rock against which many
affections are wrecked, many prudent calculations, many lives. The
husband becomes a pedagogue, or, if you like, a professor, and love
perishes under the rod which, sooner or later, gives pain; for a young
and handsome wife, at once discreet and laughter-loving, will not
accept any superiority above that with which she is endowed by nature.
Perhaps I was in the wrong? During the difficult beginnings of a
household I, perhaps, assumed a magisterial tone? On the other hand, I
may have made the mistake of trusting too entirely to that artless
nature; I kept no watch over the Countess, in whom revolt seemed to me
impossible? Alas! neither in politics nor in domestic life has it yet
been ascertained whether empires and happiness are wrecked by too much
confidence or too much severity! Perhaps again, the husband failed to
realize Honorine's girlish dreams? Who can tell, while happy days
last, what precepts he has neglected?'
"I remember only the broad outlines of the reproaches the Count
addressed to himself, with all the good faith of an anatomist seeking
the cause of a disease which might be overlooked by his brethren; but
his merciful indulgence struck me then as really worthy of that of
Jesus Christ when He rescued the woman taken in adultery.
" 'It was eighteen months after my father's death--my mother followed
him to the tomb in a few months--when the fearful night came which
surprised me by Honorine's farewell letter. What poetic delusion had
seduced my wife? Was it through her senses? Was it the magnetism of
misfortune or of genius? Which of these powers had taken her by storm
or misled her?--I would not know. The blow was so terrible, that for a
month I remained stunned. Afterwards, reflection counseled me to
continue in ignorance, and Honorine's misfortunes have since taught me
too much about all these things.--So far, Maurice, the story is
commonplace enough; but one word will change it all: I love Honorine,
I have never ceased to worship her. From the day when she left me I
have lived on memory; one by one I recall the pleasures for which
Honorine no doubt had no taste.
" 'Oh!' said he, seeing the amazement in my eyes, 'do not make a hero
of me, do not think me such a fool, as the Colonel of the Empire would
say, as to have sought no diversion. Alas, my boy! I was either too
young or too much in love; I have not in the whole world met with
another woman. After frightful struggles with myself, I tried to
forget; money in hand, I stood on the very threshold of infidelity,
but there the memory of Honorine rose before me like a white statue.
As I recalled the infinite delicacy of that exquisite skin, through
which the blood might be seen coursing and the nerves quivering; as I
saw in fancy that ingenuous face, as guileless on the eve of my
sorrows as on the day when I said to her, "Shall we marry?" as I
remembered a heavenly fragrance, the very odor of virtue, and the
light in her eyes, the prettiness of her movements, I fled like a man
preparing to violate a tomb, who sees emerging from it the
transfigured soul of the dead. At consultations, in Court, by night, I
dream so incessantly of Honorine that only by excessive strength of
mind do I succeed in attending to what I am doing and saying. This is
the secret of my labors.
" 'Well, I felt no more anger with her than a father can feel on
seeing his beloved child in some danger it has imprudently rushed
into. I understood that I had made a poem of my wife--a poem I
delighted in with such intoxication, that I fancied she shared the
intoxication. Ah! Maurice, an indiscriminating passion in a husband is
a mistake that may lead to any crime in a wife. I had no doubt left
all the faculties of this child, loved as a child, entirely
unemployed; I had perhaps wearied her with my love before the hour of
loving had struck for her! Too young to understand that in the
constancy of the wife lies the germ of the mother's devotion, she
mistook this first test of marriage for life itself, and the
refractory child cursed life, unknown to me, nor daring to complain to
me, out of sheer modesty perhaps! In so cruel a position she would be
defenceless against any man who stirred her deeply.--And I, so wise a
judge as they say--I, who have a kind heart, but whose mind was
absorbed--I understood too late these unwritten laws of the woman's
code, I read them by the light of the fire that wrecked my roof. Then
I constituted my heart a tribunal by virtue of the law, for the law
makes the husband a judge: I acquitted my wife, and I condemned
myself. But love took possession of me as a passion, the mean,
despotic passion which comes over some old men. At this day I love the
absent Honorine as a man of sixty loves a woman whom he must possess
at any cost, and yet I feel the strength of a young man. I have the
insolence of the old man and the reserve of a boy.--My dear fellow,
society only laughs at such a desperate conjugal predicament. Where it
pities a lover, it regards a husband as ridiculously inept; it makes
sport of those who cannot keep the woman they have secured under the
canopy of the Church, and before the Maire's scarf of office. And I
had to keep silence.
" 'Serizy is happy. His indulgence allows him to see his wife; he can
protect and defend her; and, as he adores her, he knows all the
perfect joys of a benefactor whom nothing can disturb, not even
ridicule, for he pours it himself on his fatherly pleasures. "I remain
married only for my wife's sake," he said to me one day on coming out
" 'But I--I have nothing; I have not even to face ridicule, I who live
solely on a love which is starving! I who can never find a word to say
to a woman of the world! I who loathe prostitution! I who am faithful
under a spell!--But for my religious faith, I should have killed
myself. I have defied the gulf of hard work; I have thrown myself into
it, and come out again alive, fevered, burning, bereft of sleep!----'
"I cannot remember all the words of this eloquent man, to whom passion
gave an eloquence indeed so far above that of the pleader that, as I
listened to him, I, like him, felt my cheeks wet with tears. You may
conceive of my feelings when, after a pause, during which we dried
them away, he finished his story with this revelation:--
" 'This is the drama of my soul, but it is not the actual living drama
which is at this moment being acted in Paris! The interior drama
interests nobody. I know it; and you will one day admit that it is so,
you, who at this moment shed tears with me; no one can burden his
heart or his skin with another's pain. The measure of our sufferings
is in ourselves.--You even understand my sorrows only by very vague
analogy. Could you see me calming the most violent frenzy of despair
by the contemplation of a miniature in which I can see and kiss her
brow, the smile on her lips, the shape of her face, can breathe the
whiteness of her skin; which enables me almost to feel, to play with
the black masses of her curling hair?--Could you see me when I leap
with hope--when I writhe under the myriad darts of despair--when I
tramp through the mire of Paris to quell my irritation by fatigue? I
have fits of collapse comparable to those of a consumptive patient,
moods of wild hilarity, terrors as of a murderer who meets a sergeant
of police. In short, my life is a continual paroxysm of fears, joy,
" 'As to the drama--it is this. You imagine that I am occupied with
the Council of State, the Chamber, the Courts, Politics.--Why, dear
me, seven hours at night are enough for all that, so much are my
faculties overwrought by the life I lead! Honorine is my real concern.
To recover my wife is my only study; to guard her in her cage, without
her suspecting that she is in my power; to satisfy her needs, to
supply the little pleasure she allows herself, to be always about her
like a sylph without allowing her to see or to suspect me, for if she
did, the future would be lost,--that is my life, my true life.--For
seven years I have never gone to bed without going first to see the
light of her night-lamp, or her shadow on the window curtains.
" 'She left my house, choosing to take nothing but the dress she wore
that day. The child carried her magnanimity to the point of folly!
Consequently, eighteen months after her flight she was deserted by her
lover, who was appalled by the cold, cruel, sinister, and revolting
aspect of poverty--the coward! The man had, no doubt, counted on the
easy and luxurious life in Switzerland or Italy which fine ladies
indulge in when they leave their husbands. Honorine has sixty thousand
francs a year of her own. The wretch left the dear creature expecting
an infant, and without a penny. In the month of November 1820 I found
means to persuade the best /accoucheur/ in Paris to play the part of a
humble suburban apothecary. I induced the priest of the parish in
which the Countess was living to supply her needs as though he were
performing an act of charity. Then to hide my wife, to secure her
against discovery, to find her a housekeeper who would be devoted to
me and be my intelligent confidante--it was a task worthy of Figaro!
You may suppose that to discover where my wife had taken refuge I had
only to make up my mind to it.
" 'After three months of desperation rather than despair, the idea of
devoting myself to Honorine with God only in my secret, was one of
those poems which occur only to the heart of a lover through life and
death! Love must have its daily food. And ought I not to protect this
child, whose guilt was the outcome of my imprudence, against fresh
disaster--to fulfil my part, in short, as a guardian angel?--At the
age of seven months her infant died, happily for her and for me. For
nine months more my wife lay between life and death, deserted at the
time when she most needed a manly arm; but this arm,' said he, holding
out his own with a gesture of angelic dignity, 'was extended over her
head. Honorine was nursed as she would have been in her own home.
When, on her recovery, she asked how and by whom she had been
assisted, she was told--"By the Sisters of Charity in the neighborhood
--by the Maternity Society--by the parish priest, who took an interest
" 'This woman, whose pride amounts to a vice, has shown a power of
resistance in misfortune, which on some evenings I call the obstinacy
of a mule. Honorine was bent on earning her living. My wife works! For
five years past I have lodged her in the Rue Saint-Maur, in a charming
little house, where she makes artificial flowers and articles of
fashion. She believes that she sells the product of her elegant
fancywork to a shop, where she is so well paid that she makes twenty
francs a day, and in these six years she had never had a moment's
suspicion. She pays for everything she needs at about the third of its
value, so that on six thousand francs a year she lives as if she had
fifteen thousand. She is devoted to flowers, and pays a hundred crowns
to a gardener, who costs me twelve hundred in wages, and sends me in a
bill for two thousand francs every three months. I have promised the
man a market-garden with a house on it close to the porter's lodge in
the Rue Saint-Maur. I hold this ground in the name of a clerk of the
law courts. The smallest indiscretion would ruin the gardener's
prospects. Honorine has her little house, a garden, and a splendid
hothouse, for a rent of five hundred francs a year. There she lives
under the name of her housekeeper, Madame Gobain, the old woman of
impeccable discretion whom I was so lucky as to find, and whose
affection Honorine has won. But her zeal, like that of the gardener,
is kept hot by the promise of reward at the moment of success. The
porter and his wife cost me dreadfully dear for the same reasons.
However, for three years Honorine has been happy, believing that she
owes to her own toil all the luxury of flowers, dress, and comfort.
" 'Oh! I know what you are about to say,' cried the Count, seeing a
question in my eyes and on my lips. 'Yes, yes; I have made the
attempt. My wife was formerly living in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine.
One day when, from what Gobain told me, I believed in some chance of a
reconciliation, I wrote by post a letter, in which I tried to
propitiate my wife--a letter written and re-written twenty times! I
will not describe my agonies. I went from the Rue Payenne to the Rue
de Reuilly like a condemned wretch going from the Palais de Justice to
his execution, but he goes on a cart, and I was on foot. It was dark--
there was a fog; I went to meet Madame Gobain, who was to come and
tell me what my wife had done. Honorine, on recognizing my writing,
had thrown the letter into the fire without reading it.--"Madame
Gobain," she had exclaimed, "I leave this to-morrow."
" 'What a dagger-stroke was this to a man who found inexhaustible
pleasure in the trickery by which he gets the finest Lyons velvet at
twelve francs a yard, a pheasant, a fish, a dish of fruit, for a tenth
of their value, for a woman so ignorant as to believe that she is
paying ample wages with two hundred and fifty francs to Madame Gobain,
a cook fit for a bishop.
" 'You have sometimes found me rubbing my hands in the enjoyment of a
sort of happiness. Well, I had just succeeded in some ruse worthy of
the stage. I had just deceived my wife--I had sent her by a purchaser
of wardrobes an Indian shawl, to be offered to her as the property of
an actress who had hardly worn it, but in which I--the solemn lawyer
whom you know--had wrapped myself for a night! In short, my life at
this day may be summed up in the two words which express the extremes
of torment--I love, and I wait! I have in Madame Gobain a faithful spy
on the heart I worship. I go every evening to chat with the old woman,
to hear from her all that Honorine has done during the day, the
lightest word she has spoken, for a single exclamation might betray to
me the secrets of that soul which is wilfully deaf and dumb. Honorine
is pious; she attends the Church services and prays, but she has never
been to confession or taken the Communion; she foresees what a priest
would tell her. She will not listen to the advice, to the injunction,
that she should return to me. This horror of me overwhelms me, dismays
me, for I have never done her the smallest harm. I have always been
kind to her. Granting even that I may have been a little hasty when
teaching her, that my man's irony may have hurt her legitimate girlish
pride, is that a reason for persisting in a determination which only
the most implacable hatred could have inspired? Honorine has never
told Madame Gobain who she is; she keeps absolute silence as to her
marriage, so that the worthy and respectable woman can never speak a
word in my favor, for she is the only person in the house who knows my
secret. The others know nothing; they live under the awe caused by the
name of the Prefect of Police, and their respect for the power of a
Minister. Hence it is impossible for me to penetrate that heart; the
citadel is mine, but I cannot get into it. I have not a single means
of action. An act of violence would ruin me for ever.
" 'How can I argue against reasons of which I know nothing? Should I
write a letter, and have it copied by a public writer, and laid before
Honorine? But that would be to run the risk of a third removal. The
last cost me fifty thousand francs. The purchase was made in the first
instance in the name of the secretary whom you succeeded. The unhappy
man, who did not know how lightly I sleep, was detected by me in the
act of opening a box in which I had put the private agreement; I
coughed, and he was seized with a panic; next day I compelled him to
sell the house to the man in whose name it now stands, and I turned
" 'If it were not that I feel all my noblest faculties as a man
satisfied, happy, expansive; if the part I am playing were not that of
divine fatherhood; if I did not drink in delight by every pore, there
are moments when I should believe that I was a monomaniac. Sometimes
at night I hear the jingling bells of madness. I dread the violent
transitions from a feeble hope, which sometimes shines and flashes up,
to complete despair, falling as low as man can fall. A few days since
I was seriously considering the horrible end of the story of Lovelace
and Clarissa Harlowe, and saying to myself, if Honorine were the
mother of a child of mine, must she not necessarily return under her
" 'And I have such complete faith in a happy future, that ten months
ago I bought and paid for one of the handsomest houses in the Faubourg
Saint-Honore. If I win back Honorine, I will not allow her to see this
house again, nor the room from which she fled. I mean to place my idol
in a new temple, where she may feel that life is altogether new. That
house is being made a marvel of elegance and taste. I have been told
of a poet who, being almost mad with love for an actress, bought the
handsomest bed in Paris without knowing how the actress would reward
his passion. Well, one of the coldest of lawyers, a man who is
supposed to be the gravest adviser of the Crown, was stirred to the
depths of his heart by that anecdote. The orator of the Legislative
Chamber can understand the poet who fed his ideal on material
possibilities. Three days before the arrival of Maria Louisa, Napoleon
flung himself on his wedding bed at Compiegne. All stupendous passions
have the same impulses. I love as a poet--as an emperor!'
"As I heard the last words, I believed that Count Octave's fears were
realized; he had risen, and was walking up and down, and
gesticulating, but he stopped as if shocked by the vehemence of his
" 'I am very ridiculous,' he added, after a long pause, looking at me,
as if craving a glance of pity.
" 'No, monsieur, you are very unhappy.'
" 'Ah yes!' said he, taking up the thread of his confidences. 'From
the violence of my speech you may, you must believe in the intensity
of a physical passion which for nine years has absorbed all my
faculties; but that is nothing in comparison with the worship I feel
for the soul, the mind, the heart, all in that woman; the enchanting
divinities in the train of Love, with whom we pass our life, and who
form the daily poem of a fugitive delight. By a phenomenon of
retrospection I see now the graces of Honorine's mind and heart, to
which I paid little heed in the time of my happiness--like all who are
happy. From day to day I have appreciated the extent of my loss,
discovering the exquisite gifts of that capricious and refractory
young creature who has grown so strong and so proud under the heavy
hand of poverty and the shock of the most cowardly desertion. And that
heavenly blossom is fading in solitude and hiding!--Ah! The law of
which we were speaking,' he went on with bitter irony, 'the law is a
squad of gendarmes--my wife seized and dragged away by force! Would
not that be to triumph over a corpse? Religion has no hold on her; she
craves its poetry, she prays, but she does not listen to the
commandments of the Church. I, for my part, have exhausted everything
in the way of mercy, of kindness, of love; I am at my wits' end. Only
one chance of victory is left to me; the cunning and patience with
which bird-catchers at last entrap the wariest birds, the swiftest,
the most capricious, and the rarest. Hence, Maurice, when M. de
Grandville's indiscretion betrayed to you the secret of my life, I
ended by regarding this incident as one of the decrees of fate, one of
the utterances for which gamblers listen and pray in the midst of
their most impassioned play. . . . Have you enough affection for me to
show me romantic devotion?'
" 'I see what you are coming to, Monsieur le Comte,' said I,
interrupting him; 'I guess your purpose. Your first secretary tried to
open your deed box. I know the heart of your second--he might fall in
love with your wife. And can you devote him to destruction by sending
him into the fire? Can any one put his hand into a brazier without
" 'You are a foolish boy,' replied the Count. 'I will send you well
gloved. It is no secretary of mine that will be lodged in the Rue
Saint-Maur in the little garden-house which I have at his disposal. It
is my distant cousin, Baron de l'Hostal, a lawyer high in
office . . ."
"After a moment of silent surprise, I heard the gate bell ring, and a
carriage came into the courtyard. Presently the footman announced
Madame de Courteville and her daughter. The Count had a large family
connection on his mother's side. Madame de Courteville, his cousin,
was the widow of a judge on the bench of the Seine division, who had
left her a daughter and no fortune whatever. What could a woman of
nine-and-twenty be in comparison with a young girl of twenty, as
lovely as imagination could wish for an ideal mistress?
" 'Baron, and Master of Appeals, till you get something better, and
this old house settled on her,--would not you have enough good reasons
for not falling in love with the Countess?' he said to me in a
whisper, as he took me by the hand and introduced me to Madame de
Courteville and her daughter.
"I was dazzled, not so much by these advantages of which I had never
dreamed, but by Amelie de Courteville, whose beauty was thrown into
relief by one of those well-chosen toilets which a mother can achieve
for a daughter when she wants to see her married.
"But I will not talk of myself," said the Consul after a pause.
"Three weeks later I went to live in the gardener's cottage, which had
been cleaned, repaired, and furnished with the celerity which is
explained by three words: Paris; French workmen; money! I was as much
in love as the Count could possibly desire as a security. Would the
prudence of a young man of five-and-twenty be equal to the part I was
undertaking, involving a friend's happiness? To settle that matter, I
may confess that I counted very much on my uncle's advice; for I had
been authorized by the Count to take him into confidence in any case
where I deemed his interference necessary. I engaged a garden; I
devoted myself to horticulture; I worked frantically, like a man whom
nothing can divert, turning up the soil of the market-garden, and
appropriating the ground to the culture of flowers. Like the maniacs
of England, or of Holland, I gave it out that I was devoted to one
kind of flower, and especially grew dahlias, collecting every variety.
You will understand that my conduct, even in the smallest details, was
laid down for me by the Count, whose whole intellectual powers were
directed to the most trifling incidents of the tragi-comedy enacted in
the Rue Saint-Maur. As soon as the Countess had gone to bed, at about
eleven at night, Octave, Madame Gobain, and I sat in council. I heard
the old woman's report to the Count of his wife's least proceedings
during the day. He inquired into everything: her meals, her
occupations, her frame of mind, her plans for the morrow, the flowers
she proposed to imitate. I understood what love in despair may be when
it is the threefold passion of the heart, the mind, and the senses.
Octave lived only for that hour.
"During two months, while my work in the garden lasted, I never set
eyes on the little house where my fair neighbor dwelt. I had not even
inquired whether I had a neighbor, though the Countess' garden was
divided from mine by a paling, along which she had planted cypress
trees already four feet high. One fine morning Madame Gobain announced
to her mistress, as a disastrous piece of news, the intention,
expressed by an eccentric creature who had become her neighbor, of
building a wall between the two gardens, at the end of the year. I
will say nothing of the curiosity which consumed me to see the
Countess! The wish almost extinguished my budding love for Amelie de
Courteville. My scheme for building a wall was indeed a dangerous
threat. There would be no more fresh air for Honorine, whose garden
would then be a sort of narrow alley shut in between my wall and her
own little house. This dwelling, formerly a summer villa, was like a
house of cards; it was not more than thirty feet deep, and about a
hundred feet long. The garden front, painted in the German fashion,
imitated a trellis with flowers up to the second floor, and was really
a charming example of the Pompadour style, so well called rococo. A
long avenue of limes led up to it. The gardens of the pavilion and my
plot of ground were in the shape of a hatchet, of which this avenue
was the handle. My wall would cut away three-quarters of the hatchet.
"The Countess was in despair.
" 'My good Gobain,' said she, 'what sort of man is this florist?'
" 'On my word,' said the housekeeper, 'I do not know whether it will
be possible to tame him. He seems to have a horror of women. He is the
nephew of a Paris cure. I have seen the uncle but once; a fine old man
of sixty, very ugly, but very amiable. It is quite possible that this
priest encourages his nephew, as they say in the neighborhood, in his
love of flowers, that nothing worse may happen----'
" 'Well, your neighbor is a little cracked!' said Gobain, tapping her
"Now a harmless lunatic is the only man whom no woman ever distrusts
in the matter of sentiment. You will see how wise the Count had been
in choosing this disguise for me.
" 'What ails him then?' asked the Countess.
" 'He has studied too hard,' replied Gobain; 'he has turned
misanthropic. And he has his reasons for disliking women--well, if you
want to know all that is said about him----'
" 'Well,' said Honorine, 'madmen frighten me less than sane folks; I
will speak to him myself! Tell him that I beg him to come here. If I
do not succeed, I will send for the cure.,'
"The day after this conversation, as I was walking along my graveled
path, I caught sight of the half-opened curtains on the first floor of
the little house, and of a woman's face curiously peeping out. Madame
Gobain called me. I hastily glanced at the Countess' house, and by a
rude shrug expressed, 'What do I care for your mistress!'
" "Madame,' said Gobain, called upon to give an account of her errand,
'the madman bid me leave him in peace, saying that even a charcoal
seller is master in his own premises, especially when he has no wife.'
" 'He is perfectly right,' said the Countess.
" 'Yes, but he ended by saying, "I will go," when I told him that he
would greatly distress a lady living in retirement, who found her
greatest solace in growing flowers.'
"Next day a signal from Gobain informed me that I was expected. After
the Countess' breakfast, when she was walking to and fro in front of
her house, I broke out some palings and went towards her. I had
dressed myself like a countryman, in an old pair of gray flannel
trousers, heavy wooden shoes, and shabby shooting coat, a peaked cap
on my head, a ragged bandana round my neck, hands soiled with mould,
and a dibble in my hand.
" 'Madame,' said the housekeeper, 'this good man is your neighbor.'
"The Countess was not alarmed. I saw at last the woman whom her own
conduct and her husband's confidences had made me so curious to meet.
It was in the early days of May. The air was pure, the weather serene;
the verdure of the first foliage, the fragrance of spring formed a
setting for this creature of sorrow. As I then saw Honorine I
understood Octave's passion and the truthfulness of his description,
'A heavenly flower!'
"Her pallor was what first struck me by its peculiar tone of white--
for there are as many tones of white as of red or blue. On looking at
the Countess, the eye seemed to feel that tender skin, where the blood
flowed in the blue veins. At the slightest emotion the blood mounted
under the surface in rosy flushes like a cloud. When we met, the
sunshine, filtering through the light foliage of the acacias, shed on
Honorine the pale gold, ambient glory in which Raphael and Titian,
alone of all painters, have been able to enwrap the Virgin. Her brown
eyes expressed both tenderness and vivacity; their brightness seemed
reflected in her face through the long downcast lashes. Merely by
lifting her delicate eyelids, Honorine could cast a spell; there was
so much feeling, dignity, terror, or contempt in her way of raising or
dropping those veils of the soul. She could freeze or give life by a
look. Her light-brown hair, carelessly knotted on her head, outlined a
poet's brow, high, powerful, and dreamy. The mouth was wholly
voluptuous. And to crown all by a grace, rare in France, though common
in Italy, all the lines and forms of the head had a stamp of nobleness
which would defy the outrages of time.
"Though slight, Honorine was not thin, and her figure struck me as
being one that might revive love when it believed itself exhausted.
She perfectly represented the idea conveyed by the word /mignonne/,
for she was one of those pliant little women who allow themselves to
be taken up, petted, set down, and taken up again like a kitten. Her
small feet, as I heard them on the gravel, made a light sound
essentially their own, that harmonized with the rustle of her dress,
producing a feminine music which stamped itself on the heart, and
remained distinct from the footfall of a thousand other women. Her
gait bore all the quarterings of her race with so much pride, that, in
the street, the least respectful working man would have made way for
her. Gay and tender, haughty and imposing, it was impossible to
understand her, excepting as gifted with these apparently incompatible
qualities, which, nevertheless, had left her still a child. But it was
a child who might be as strong as an angel; and, like the angel, once
hurt in her nature, she would be implacable.
"Coldness on that face must no doubt be death to those on whom her
eyes had smiled, for whom her set lips had parted, for those whose
soul had drunk in the melody of that voice, lending to her words the
poetry of song by its peculiar intonation. Inhaling the perfume of
violets that accompanied her, I understood how the memory of this wife
had arrested the Count on the threshold of debauchery, and how
impossible it would be ever to forget a creature who really was a
flower to the touch, a flower to the eye, a flower of fragrance, a
heavenly flower to the soul. . . . Honorine inspired devotion,
chivalrous devotion, regardless of reward. A man on seeing her must
say to himself:
" 'Think, and I will divine your thought; speak, and I will obey. If
my life, sacrificed in torments, can procure you one day's happiness,
take my life, I will smile like a martyr at the stake, for I shall
offer that day to God, as a token to which a father responds on
recognizing a gift to his child.' Many women study their expression,
and succeed in producing effects similar to those which would have
struck you at first sight of the Countess; only, in her, it was all
the outcome of a delightful nature, that inimitable nature went at
once to the heart. If I tell you all this, it is because her soul, her
thoughts, the exquisiteness of her heart, are all we are concerned
with, and you would have blamed me if I had not sketched them for you.
"I was very near forgetting my part as a half-crazy lout, clumsy, and
by no means chivalrous.
" 'I am told, madame, that you are fond of flowers?'
" 'I am an artificial flower-maker,' said she. 'After growing flowers,
I imitate them, like a mother who is artist enough to have the
pleasure of painting her children. . . . That is enough to tell you
that I am poor and unable to pay for the concession I am anxious to
obtain from you?'
" 'But how,' said I, as grave as a judge, 'can a lady of such rank as
yours would seem to be, ply so humble a calling? Have you, like me,
good reasons for employing your fingers so as to keep your brains from
" 'Let us stick to the question of the wall,' said she, with a smile.
" 'Why, we have begun at the foundations,' said I. 'Must not I know
which of us ought to yield to the other in behalf of our suffering,
or, if you choose, of our mania?--Oh! what a charming clump of
narcissus! They are as fresh as this spring morning!'
"I assure you, she had made for herself a perfect museum of flowers
and shrubs, which none might see but the sun, and of which the
arrangement had been prompted by the genius of an artist; the most
heartless of landlords must have treated it with respect. The masses
of plants, arranged according to their height, or in single clumps,
were really a joy to the soul. This retired and solitary garden
breathed comforting scents, and suggested none but sweet thoughts and
graceful, nay, voluptuous pictures. On it was set that inscrutable
sign-manual, which our true character stamps on everything, as soon as
nothing compels us to obey the various hypocrisies, necessary as they
are, which Society insists on. I looked alternately at the mass of
narcissus and at the Countess, affecting to be far more in love with
the flowers than with her, to carry out my part.
" 'So you are very fond of flowers?' said she.
" 'They are,' I replied, 'the only beings that never disappoint our
cares and affection.' And I went on to deliver such a diatribe while
comparing botany and the world, that we ended miles away from the
dividing wall, and the Countess must have supposed me to be a wretched
and wounded sufferer worthy of her pity. However, at the end of half
an hour my neighbor naturally brought me back to the point; for women,
when they are not in love, have all the cold blood of an experienced
" 'If you insist on my leaving the paling,' said I, 'you will learn
all the secrets of gardening that I want to hide; I am seeking to grow
a blue dahlia, a blue rose; I am crazy for blue flowers. Is not blue
the favorite color of superior souls? We are neither of us really at
home; we might as well make a little door of open railings to unite
our gardens. . . . You, too, are fond of flowers; you will see mine, I
shall see yours. If you receive no visitors at all, I, for my part,
have none but my uncle, the Cure of the White Friars.'
" 'No,' said she, 'I will give you the right to come into my garden,
my premises at any hour. Come and welcome; you will always be admitted
as a neighbor with whom I hope to keep on good terms. But I like my
solitude too well to burden it with any loss of independence.'
" 'As you please,' said I, and with one leap I was over the paling.
" 'Now, of what use would a door be?' said I, from my own domain,
turning round to the Countess, and mocking her with a madman's gesture
"For a fortnight I seemed to take no heed of my neighbor. Towards the
end of May, one lovely evening, we happened both to be out on opposite
sides of the paling, both walking slowly. Having reached the end, we
could not help exchanging a few civil words; she found me in such deep
dejection, lost in such painful meditations, that she spoke to me of
hopefulness, in brief sentences that sounded like the songs with which
nurses lull their babies. I then leaped the fence, and found myself
for the second time at her side. The Countess led me into the house,
wishing to subdue my sadness. So at last I had penetrated the
sanctuary where everything was in harmony with the woman I have tried
to describe to you.
"Exquisite simplicity reigned there. The interior of the little house
was just such a dainty box as the art of the eighteenth century
devised for the pretty profligacy of a fine gentleman. The dining-
room, on the ground floor, was painted in fresco, with garlands of
flowers, admirably and marvelously executed. The staircase was
charmingly decorated in monochrome. The little drawing-room, opposite
the dining-room, was very much faded; but the Countess had hung it
with panels of tapestry of fanciful designs, taken off old screens. A
bath-room came next. Upstairs there was but one bedroom, with a
dressing-room, and a library which she used as her workroom. The
kitchen was beneath in the basement on which the house was raised, for
there was a flight of several steps outside. The balustrade of a
balcony in garlands a la Pompadour concealed the roof; only the lead
cornices were visible. In this retreat one was a hundred leagues from
"But for the bitter smile which occasionally played on the beautiful
red lips of this pale woman, it would have been possible to believe
that this violet buried in her thicket of flowers was happy. In a few
days we had reached a certain degree of intimacy, the result of our
close neighborhood and of the Countess' conviction that I was
indifferent to women. A look would have spoilt all, and I never
allowed a thought of her to be seen in my eyes. Honorine chose to
regard me as an old friend. Her manner to me was the outcome of a kind
of pity. Her looks, her voice, her words, all showed that she was a
hundred miles away from the coquettish airs which the strictest virtue
might have allowed under such circumstances. She soon gave me the
right to go into the pretty workshop where she made her flowers, a
retreat full of books and curiosities, as smart as a boudoir where
elegance emphasized the vulgarity of the tools of her trade. The
Countess had in the course of time poetized, as I may say, a thing
which is at the antipodes to poetry--a manufacture.
"Perhaps of all the work a woman can do, the making of artificial
flowers is that of which the details allow her to display most grace.
For coloring prints she must sit bent over a table and devote herself,
with some attention, to this half painting. Embroidering tapestry, as
diligently as a woman must who is to earn her living by it, entails
consumption or curvature of the spine. Engraving music is one of the
most laborious, by the care, the minute exactitude, and the
intelligence it demands. Sewing and white embroidery do not earn
thirty sous a day. But the making of flowers and light articles of
wear necessitates a variety of movements, gestures, ideas even, which
do not take a pretty woman out of her sphere; she is still herself;
she may chat, laugh, sing, or think.
"There was certainly a feeling for art in the way in which the
Countess arranged on a long deal table the myriad-colored petals which
were used in composing the flowers she was to produce. The saucers of
color were of white china, and always clean, arranged in such order
that the eye could at once see the required shade in the scale of
tints. Thus the aristocratic artist saved time. A pretty little
cabinet with a hundred tiny drawers, of ebony inlaid with ivory,
contained the little steel moulds in which she shaped the leaves and
some forms of petals. A fine Japanese bowl held the paste, which was
never allowed to turn sour, and it had a fitted cover with a hinge so
easy that she could lift it with a finger-tip. The wire, of iron and
brass, lurked in a little drawer of the table before her.
"Under her eyes, in a Venetian glass, shaped like a flower-cup on its
stem, was the living model she strove to imitate. She had a passion
for achievement; she attempted the most difficult things, close
racemes, the tiniest corollas, heaths, nectaries of the most
variegated hues. Her hands, as swift as her thoughts, went from the
table to the flower she was making, as those of an accomplished
pianist fly over the keys. Her fingers seemed to be fairies, to use
Perrault's expression, so infinite were the different actions of
twisting, fitting, and pressure needed for the work, all hidden under
grace of movement, while she adapted each motion to the result with
the lucidity of instinct.
"I could not tire of admiring her as she shaped a flower from the
materials sorted before her, padding the wire stem and adjusting the
leaves. She displayed the genius of a painter in her bold attempts;
she copied faded flowers and yellowing leaves; she struggled even with
wildflowers, the most artless of all, and the most elaborate in their
" 'This art,' she would say, 'is in its infancy. If the women of Paris
had a little of the genius which the slavery of the harem brings out
in Oriental women, they would lend a complete language of flowers to
the wreaths they wear on their head. To please my own taste as an
artist I have made drooping flowers with leaves of the hue of
Florentine bronze, such as are found before or after the winter. Would
not such a crown on the head of a young woman whose life is a failure
have a certain poetical fitness? How many things a woman might express
by her head-dress! Are there not flowers for drunken Bacchantes,
flowers for gloomy and stern bigots, pensive flowers for women who are
bored? Botany, I believe, may be made to express every sensation and
thought of the soul, even the most subtle.'
"She would employ me to stamp out the leaves, cut up material, and
prepare wires for the stems. My affected desire for occupation made me
soon skilful. We talked as we worked. When I had nothing to do, I read
new books to her, for I had my part to keep up as a man weary of life,
worn out with griefs, gloomy, sceptical, and soured. My person led to
adorable banter as to my purely physical resemblance--with the
exception of his club foot--to Lord Byron. It was tacitly acknowledged
that her own troubles, as to which she kept the most profound silence,
far outweighed mine, though the causes I assigned for my misanthropy
might have satisfied Young or Job.
"I will say nothing of the feelings of shame which tormented me as I
inflicted on my heart, like the beggars in the street, false wounds to
excite the compassion of that enchanting woman. I soon appreciated the
extent of my devotedness by learning to estimate the baseness of a
spy. The expressions of sympathy bestowed on me would have comforted
the greatest grief. This charming creature, weaned from the world, and
for so many years alone, having, besides love, treasures of kindliness
to bestow, offered these to me with childlike effusiveness and such
compassion as would inevitably have filled with bitterness any
profligate who should have fallen in love with her; for, alas, it was
all charity, all sheer pity. Her renunciation of love, her dread of
what is called happiness for women, she proclaimed with equal
vehemence and candor. These happy days proved to me that a woman's
friendship is far superior to her love.
"I suffered the revelations of my sorrows to be dragged from me with
as many grimaces as a young lady allows herself before sitting down to
the piano, so conscious are they of the annoyance that will follow. As
you may imagine, the necessity for overcoming my dislike to speak had
induced the Countess to strengthen the bonds of our intimacy; but she
found in me so exact a counterpart of her own antipathy to love, that
I fancied she was well content with the chance which had brought to
her desert island a sort of Man Friday. Solitude was perhaps beginning
to weigh on her. At the same time, there was nothing of the coquette
in her; nothing survived of the woman; she did not feel that she had a
heart, she told me, excepting in the ideal world where she found
refuge. I involuntarily compared these two lives--hers and the
Count's:--his, all activity, agitation, and emotion; hers, all
inaction, quiescence, and stagnation. The woman and the man were
admirably obedient to their nature. My misanthropy allowed me to utter
cynical sallies against men and women both, and I indulged in them,
hoping to bring Honorine to the confidential point; but she was not to
be caught in any trap, and I began to understand that mulish obstinacy
which is commoner among women than is generally supposed.
" 'The Orientals are right,' I said to her one evening, 'when they
shut you up and regard you merely as the playthings of their pleasure.
Europe has been well punished for having admitted you to form an
element of society and for accepting you on an equal footing. In my
opinion, woman is the most dishonorable and cowardly being to be
found. Nay, and that is where her charm lies. Where would be the
pleasure of hunting a tame thing? When once a woman has inspired a
man's passion, she is to him for ever sacred; in his eyes she is
hedged round by an imprescriptible prerogative. In men gratitude for
past delights is eternal. Though he should find his mistress grown old
or unworthy, the woman still has rights over his heart; but to you
women the man you have loved is as nothing to you; nay, more, he is
unpardonable in one thing--he lives on! You dare not own it, but you
all have in your hearts the feeling which that popular calumny called
tradition ascribes to the Lady of the Tour de Nesle: "What a pity it
is that we cannot live on love as we live on fruit, and that when we
have had our fill, nothing should survive but the remembrance of
" 'God has, no doubt, reserved such perfect bliss for Paradise,' said
she. 'But,' she added, 'if your argument seems to you very witty, to
me it has the disadvantage of being false. What can those women be who
give themselves up to a succession of loves?' she asked, looking at me
as the Virgin in Ingres' picture looks at Louis XIII. offering her his
" 'You are an actress in good faith,' said I, 'for you gave me a look
just now which would make the fame of an actress. Still, lovely as you
are, you have loved; /ergo/, you forget.'
" 'I!' she exclaimed, evading my question, 'I am not a woman. I am a
nun, and seventy-two years old!'
" 'Then, how can you so positively assert that you feel more keenly
than I? Sorrow has but one form for women. The only misfortunes they
regard are disappointments of the heart.'
"She looked at me sweetly, and, like all women when stuck between the
issues of a dilemma, or held in the clutches of truth, she persisted,
nevertheless, in her wilfulness.
" 'I am a nun,' she said, 'and you talk to me of the world where I
shall never again set foot.'
" 'Not even in thought?' said I.
" 'Is the world so much to be desired?' she replied. 'Oh! when my mind
wanders, it goes higher. The angel of perfection, the beautiful angel
Gabriel, often sings in my heart. If I were rich, I should work, all
the same, to keep me from soaring too often on the many-tinted wings
of the angel, and wandering in the world of fancy. There are
meditations which are the ruin of us women! I owe much peace of mind
to my flowers, though sometimes they fail to occupy me. On some days I
find my soul invaded by a purposeless expectancy; I cannot banish some
idea which takes possession of me, which seems to make my fingers
clumsy. I feel that some great event is impending, that my life is
about to change; I listen vaguely, I stare into the darkness, I have
no liking for my work, and after a thousand fatigues I find life once
more--everyday life. Is this a warning from heaven? I ask myself----'
"After three months of this struggle between two diplomates, concealed
under the semblance of youthful melancholy, and a woman whose disgust
of life made her invulnerable, I told the Count that it was impossible
to drag this tortoise out of her shell; it must be broken. The evening
before, in our last quite friendly discussion, the Countess had
" 'Lucretia's dagger wrote in letters of blood the watchword of
woman's charter: /Liberty!/'
"From that moment the Count left me free to act.
" 'I have been paid a hundred francs for the flowers and caps I made
this week!' Honorine exclaimed gleefully one Saturday evening when I
went to visit her in the little sitting-room on the ground floor,
which the unavowed proprietor had had regilt.
"It was ten o'clock. The twilight of July and a glorious moon lent us
their misty light. Gusts of mingled perfumes soothed the soul; the
Countess was clinking in her hand the five gold pieces given to her by
a supposititious dealer in fashionable frippery, another of Octave's
accomplices found for him by a judge, M. Popinot.
" 'I earn my living by amusing myself,' said she; 'I am free, when
men, armed with their laws, have tried to make us slaves. Oh, I have
transports of pride every Saturday! In short, I like M. Gaudissart's
gold pieces as much as Lord Byron, your double, liked Mr. Murray's.'
" 'This is not becoming in a woman,' said I.
" 'Pooh! Am I a woman? I am a boy gifted with a soft soul, that is
all; a boy whom no woman can torture----'
" 'Your life is the negation of your whole being,' I replied. 'What?
You, on whom God has lavished His choicest treasures of love and
beauty, do you never wish----'
" 'For what?' said she, somewhat disturbed by a speech which, for the
first time, gave the lie to the part I had assumed.
" 'For a pretty little child, with curling hair, running, playing
among the flowers, like a flower itself of life and love, and calling
"I waited for an answer. A too prolonged silence led me to perceive
the terrible effect of my words, though the darkness at first
concealed it. Leaning on her sofa, the Countess had not indeed
fainted, but frozen under a nervous attack of which the first chill,
as gentle as everything that was part of her, felt, as she afterwards
said, like the influence of a most insidious poison. I called Madame
Gobain, who came and led away her mistress, laid her on her bed,
unlaced her, undressed her, and restored her, not to life, it is true,
but to the consciousness of some dreadful suffering. I meanwhile
walked up and down the path behind the house, weeping, and doubting my
success. I only wished to give up this part of the bird-catcher which
I had so rashly assumed. Madame Gobain, who came down and found me
with my face wet with tears, hastily went up again to say to the
" 'What has happened, madame? Monsieur Maurice is crying like a
"Roused to action by the evil interpretation that might be put on our
mutual behavior, she summoned superhuman strength to put on a wrapper
and come down to me.
" 'You are not the cause of this attack,' said she. 'I am subject to
these spasms, a sort of cramp of the heart----'
" 'And will you not tell me of your troubles?' said I, in a voice
which cannot be affected, as I wiped away my tears. 'Have you not just
now told me that you have been a mother, and have been so unhappy as
to lose your child?'
" 'Marie!' she called as she rang the bell. Gobain came in.
" 'Bring lights and some tea,' said she, with the calm decision of a
Mylady clothed in the armor of pride by the dreadful English training
which you know too well.
"When the housekeeper had lighted the tapers and closed the shutters,
the Countess showed me a mute countenance; her indomitable pride and
gravity, worthy of a savage, had already reasserted their mastery. She
" 'Do you know why I like Lord Byron so much? It is because he
suffered as animals do. Of what use are complaints when they are not
an elegy like Manfred's, nor bitter mockery like Don Juan's, nor a
reverie like Childe Harold's? Nothing shall be known of me. My heart
is a poem that I lay before God.'
" 'If I chose----' said I.
" 'If?' she repeated.
" 'I have no interest in anything,' I replied, 'so I cannot be
inquisitive; but, if I chose, I could know all your secrets by
" 'I defy you!' she exclaimed, with ill-disguised uneasiness.
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