The Collection of Antiquities
Honore de Balzac
Part 2 out of 3
"Yes, he is a lucky rascal," said the Vidame, and he twitched
Blondet's ear. "But perhaps Victurnien here will be luckier still this
"ALREADY!" exclaimed de Marsay. "Why, he only came here a month ago;
he has scarcely had time to shake the dust of his old manor house off
his feet, to wipe off the brine in which his aunt kept him preserved;
he has only just set up a decent horse, a tilbury in the latest style,
"No, no, not a groom," interrupted Rastignac; "he has some sort of an
agricultural laborer that he brought with him 'from his place.'
Buisson, who understands a livery as well as most, declared that the
man was physically incapable of wearing a jacket."
"I will tell you what, you ought to have modeled yourself on
Beaudenord," the Vidame said seriously. "He has this advantage over
all of you, my young friends, he has a genuine specimen of the English
"Just see, gentlemen, what the noblesse have come to in France!" cried
Victurnien. "For them the one important thing is to have a tiger, a
thoroughbred, and baubles----"
"Bless me!" said Blondet. " 'This gentleman's good sense at times
appalls me.'--Well, yes, young moralist, you nobles have come to that.
You have not even left to you that lustre of lavish expenditure for
which the dear Vidame was famous fifty years ago. We revel on a second
floor in the Rue Montorgueil. There are no more wars with the
Cardinal, no Field of the Cloth of Gold. You, Comte d'Esgrignon, in
short, are supping in the company of one Blondet, younger son of a
miserable provincial magistrate, with whom you would not shake hands
down yonder; and in ten years' time you may sit beside him among peers
of the realm. Believe in yourself after that, if you can."
"Ah, well," said Rastignac, "we have passed from action to thought,
from brute force to force of intellect, we are talking----"
"Let us not talk of our reverses," protested the Vidame; "I have made
up my mind to die merrily. If our friend here has not a tiger as yet,
he comes of a race of lions, and can dispense with one."
"He cannot do without a tiger," said Blondet; "he is too newly come to
"His elegance may be new as yet," returned de Marsay, "but we are
adopting it. He is worthy of us, he understands his age, he has
brains, he is nobly born and gently bred; we are going to like him,
and serve him, and push him----"
"Whither?" inquired Blondet.
"Inquisitive soul!" said Rastignac.
"With whom will he take up to-night?" de Marsay asked.
"With a whole seraglio," said the Vidame.
"Plague take it! What can we have done that the dear Vidame is
punishing us by keeping his word to the infanta? I should be pitiable
indeed if I did not know her----"
"And I was once a coxcomb even as he," said the Vidame, indicating de
The conversation continued pitched in the same key, charmingly
scandalous, and agreeably corrupt. The dinner went off very
pleasantly. Rastignac and de Marsay went to the Opera with the Vidame
and Victurnien, with a view to following them afterwards to Mlle. des
Touches' salon. And thither, accordingly, this pair of rakes betook
themselves, calculating that by that time the tragedy would have been
read; for of all things to be taken between eleven and twelve o'clock
at night, a tragedy in their opinion was the most unwholesome. They
went to keep a watch on Victurnien and to embarrass him, a piece of
schoolboys's mischief embittered by a jealous dandy's spite. But
Victurnien was gifted with that page's effrontery which is a great
help to ease of manner; and Rastignac, watching him as he made his
entrance, was surprised to see how quickly he caught the tone of the
"That young d'Esgrignon will go far, will he not?" he said, addressing
"That is as may be," returned de Marsay, "but he is in a fair way."
The Vidame introduced his young friend to one of the most amiable and
frivolous duchesses of the day, a lady whose adventures caused an
explosion five years later. Just then, however, she was in the full
blaze of her glory; she had been suspected, it is true, of equivocal
conduct; but suspicion, while it is still suspicion and not proof,
marks a woman out with the kind of distinction which slander gives to
a man. Nonentities are never slandered; they chafe because they are
left in peace. This woman was, in fact, the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse,
a daughter of the d'Uxelles; her father-in-law was still alive; she
was not to be the Princesse de Cadignan for some years to come. A
friend of the Duchesse de Langeais and the Vicomtesse de Beauseant,
two glories departed, she was likewise intimate with the Marquise
d'Espard, with whom she disputed her fragile sovereignty as queen of
fashion. Great relations lent her countenance for a long while, but
the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse was one of those women who, in some way,
nobody knows how, or why, or where, will spend the rents of all the
lands of earth, and of the moon likewise, if they were not out of
reach. The general outline of her character was scarcely known as yet;
de Marsay, and de Marsay only, really had read her. That redoubtable
dandy now watched the Vidame de Pamiers' introduction of his young
friend to that lovely woman, and bent over to say in Rastignac's ear:
"My dear fellow, he will go up WHIZZ! like a rocket, and come down
like a stick," an atrociously vulgar saying which was remarkably
The Duchesse de Maufrigneuse had lost her heart to Victurnien after
first giving her mind to a serious study of him. Any lover who should
have caught the glance by which she expressed her gratitude to the
Vidame might well have been jealous of such friendship. Women are like
horses let loose on a steppe when they feel, as the Duchess felt with
the Vidame de Pamiers, that the ground is safe; at such moments they
are themselves; perhaps it pleases them to give, as it were, samples
of their tenderness in intimacy in this way. It was a guarded glance,
nothing was lost between eye and eye; there was no possibility of
reflection in any mirror. Nobody intercepted it.
"See how she has prepared herself," Rastignac said, turning to de
Marsay. "What a virginal toilette; what swan's grace in that snow-
white throat of hers! How white her gown is, and she is wearing a sash
like a little girl; she looks round like a madonna inviolate. Who
would think that you had passed that way?"
"The very reason why she looks as she does," returned de Marsay, with
a triumphant air.
The two young men exchanged a smile. Mme. de Maufrigneuse saw the
smile and guessed at their conversation, and gave the pair a broadside
of her eyes, an art acquired by Frenchwomen since the Peace, when
Englishwomen imported it into this country, together with the shape of
their silver plate, their horses and harness, and the piles of insular
ice which impart a refreshing coolness to the atmosphere of any room
in which a certain number of British females are gathered together.
The young men grew serious as a couple of clerks at the end of a
homily from headquarters before the receipt of an expected bonus.
The Duchess when she lost her heart to Victurnien had made up her mind
to play the part of romantic Innocence, a role much understudied
subsequently by other women, for the misfortune of modern youth. Her
Grace of Maufrigneuse had just come out as an angel at a moment's
notice, precisely as she meant to turn to literature and science
somewhere about her fortieth year instead of taking to devotion. She
made a point of being like nobody else. Her parts, her dresses, her
caps, opinions, toilettes, and manner of acting were all entirely new
and original. Soon after her marriage, when she was scarcely more than
a girl, she had played the part of a knowing and almost depraved
woman; she ventured on risky repartees with shallow people, and
betrayed her ignorance to those who knew better. As the date of that
marriage made it impossible to abstract one little year from her age
without the knowledge of Time, she had taken it into her head to be
immaculate. She scarcely seemed to belong to earth; she shook out her
wide sleeves as if they had been wings. Her eyes fled to heaven at too
warm a glance, or word, or thought.
There is a madonna painted by Piola, the great Genoese painter, who
bade fair to bring out a second edition of Raphael till his career was
cut short by jealousy and murder; his madonna, however, you may dimly
discern through a pane of glass in a little street in Genoa.
A more chaste-eyed madonna than Piola's does not exist but compared
with Mme. de Maufrigneuse, that heavenly creature was a Messalina.
Women wondered among themselves how such a giddy young thing had been
transformed by a change of dress into the fair veiled seraph who
seemed (to use an expression now in vogue) to have a soul as white as
new fallen snow on the highest Alpine crests. How had she solved in
such short space the Jesuitical problem how to display a bosom whiter
than her soul by hiding it in gauze? How could she look so ethereal
while her eyes drooped so murderously? Those almost wanton glances
seemed to give promise of untold languorous delight, while by an
ascetic's sigh of aspiration after a better life the mouth appeared to
add that none of those promises would be fulfilled. Ingenuous youths
(for there were a few to be found in the Guards of that day) privately
wondered whether, in the most intimate moments, it were possible to
speak familiarly to this White Lady, this starry vapor slidden down
from the Milky Way. This system, which answered completely for some
years at a stretch, was turned to good account by women of fashion,
whose breasts were lined with a stout philosophy, for they could cloak
no inconsiderable exactions with these little airs from the sacristy.
Not one of the celestial creatures but was quite well aware of the
possibilities of less ethereal love which lay in the longing of every
well-conditioned male to recall such beings to earth. It was a fashion
which permitted them to abide in a semi-religious, semi-Ossianic
empyrean; they could, and did, ignore all the practical details of
daily life, a short and easy method of disposing of many questions. De
Marsay, foreseeing the future developments of the system, added a last
word, for he saw that Rastignac was jealous of Victurnien.
"My boy," said he, "stay as you are. Our Nucingen will make your
fortune, whereas the Duchess would ruin you. She is too expensive."
Rastignac allowed de Marsay to go without asking further questions. He
knew Paris. He knew that the most refined and noble and disinterested
of women--a woman who cannot be induced to accept anything but a
bouquet--can be as dangerous an acquaintance for a young man as any
opera girl of former days. As a matter of fact, the opera girl is an
almost mythical being. As things are now at the theatres, dancers and
actresses are about as amusing as a declaration of the rights of
woman, they are puppets that go abroad in the morning in the character
of respected and respectable mothers of families, and act men's parts
in tight-fitting garments at night.
Worthy M. Chesnel, in his country notary's office, was right; he had
foreseen one of the reefs on which the Count might shipwreck.
Victurnien was dazzled by the poetic aureole which Mme. de
Maufrigneuse chose to assume; he was chained and padlocked from the
first hour in her company, bound captive by that girlish sash, and
caught by the curls twined round fairy fingers. Far corrupted the boy
was already, but he really believed in that farrago of maidenliness
and muslin, in sweet looks as much studied as an Act of Parliament.
And if the one man, who is in duty bound to believe in feminine fibs,
is deceived by them, is not that enough?
For a pair of lovers, the rest of their species are about as much
alive as figures on the tapestry. The Duchess, flattery apart, was
avowedly and admittedly one of the ten handsomest women in society.
"The loveliest woman in Paris" is, as you know, as often met with in
the world of love-making as "the finest book that has appeared in this
generation," in the world of letters.
The converse which Victurnien held with the Duchess can be kept up at
his age without too great a strain. He was young enough and ignorant
enough of life in Paris to feel no necessity to be upon his guard, no
need to keep a watch over his lightest words and glances. The
religious sentimentalism, which finds a broadly humorous commentary in
the after-thoughts of either speaker, puts the old-world French chat
of men and women, with its pleasant familiarity, its lively ease,
quite out of the question; they make love in a mist nowadays.
Victurnien was just sufficient of an unsophisticated provincial to
remain suspended in a highly appropriate and unfeigned rapture which
pleased the Duchess; for women are no more to be deceived by the
comedies which men play than by their own. Mme. de Maufrigneuse
calculated, not without dismay, that the young Count's infatuation was
likely to hold good for six whole months of disinterested love. She
looked so lovely in this dove's mood, quenching the light in her eyes
by the golden fringe of their lashes, that when the Marquise d'Espard
bade her friend good-night, she whispered, "Good! very good, dear!"
And with those farewell words, the fair Marquise left her rival to
make the tour of the modern Pays du Tendre; which, by the way, is not
so absurd a conception as some appear to think. New maps of the
country are engraved for each generation; and if the names of the
routes are different, they still lead to the same capital city.
In the course of an hour's tete-a-tete, on a corner sofa, under the
eyes of the world, the Duchess brought young d'Esgrignon as far as
Scipio's Generosity, the Devotion of Amadis, and Chivalrous Self-
abnegation (for the Middle Ages were just coming into fashion, with
their daggers, machicolations, hauberks, chain-mail, peaked shoes, and
romantic painted card-board properties). She had an admirable turn,
moreover, for leaving things unsaid, for leaving ideas in a discreet,
seeming careless way, to work their way down, one by one, into
Victurnien's heart, like needles into a cushion. She possessed a
marvelous skill in reticence; she was charming in hypocrisy, lavish of
subtle promises, which revived hope and then melted away like ice in
the sun if you looked at them closely, and most treacherous in the
desire which she felt and inspired. At the close of this charming
encounter she produced the running noose of an invitation to call, and
flung it over him with a dainty demureness which the printed page can
never set forth.
"You will forget me," she said. "You will find so many women eager to
pay court to you instead of enlightening you. . . . But you will come
back to me undeceived. Are you coming to me first? . . . No. As you
will.--For my own part, I tell you frankly that your visits will be a
great pleasure to me. People of soul are so rare, and I think that you
are one of them.--Come, good-bye; people will begin to talk about us
if we talk together any longer."
She made good her words and took flight. Victurnien went soon
afterwards, but not before others had guessed his ecstatic condition;
his face wore the expression peculiar to happy men, something between
an Inquisitor's calm discretion and the self-contained beatitude of a
devotee, fresh from the confessional and absolution.
"Mme. de Maufrigneuse went pretty briskly to the point this evening,"
said the Duchesse de Grandlieu, when only half-a-dozen persons were
left in Mlle. des Touches' little drawing-room--to wit, des Lupeaulx,
a Master of Requests, who at that time stood very well at court,
Vandenesse, the Vicomtesse de Grandlieu, Canalis, and Mme. de Serizy.
"D'Esgrignon and Maufrigneuse are two names that are sure to cling
together," said Mme. de Serizy, who aspired to epigram.
"For some days past she has been out at grass on Platonism," said des
"She will ruin that poor innocent," added Charles de Vandenesse.
"What do you mean?" asked Mlle. des Touches.
"Oh, morally and financially, beyond all doubt," said the Vicomtesse,
The cruel words were cruelly true for young d'Esgrignon.
Next morning he wrote to his aunt describing his introduction into the
high world of the Faubourg Saint-Germain in bright colors flung by the
prism of love, explaining the reception which met him everywhere in a
way which gratified his father's family pride. The Marquis would have
the whole long letter read to him twice; he rubbed his hands when he
heard of the Vidame de Pamiers' dinner--the Vidame was an old
acquaintance--and of the subsequent introduction to the Duchess; but
at Blondet's name he lost himself in conjectures. What could the
younger son of a judge, a public prosecutor during the Revolution,
have been doing there?
There was joy that evening among the Collection of Antiquities. They
talked over the young Count's success. So discreet were they with
regard to Mme. de Maufrigneuse, that the one man who heard the secret
was the Chevalier. There was no financial postscript at the end of the
letter, no unpleasant reference to the sinews of war, which every
young man makes in such a case. Mlle. Armande showed it to Chesnel.
Chesnel was pleased and raised not a single objection. It was clear,
as the Marquis and the Chevalier agreed, that a young man in favor
with the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse would shortly be a hero at court,
where in the old days women were all-powerful. The Count had not made
a bad choice. The dowagers told over all the gallant adventures of the
Maufrigneuses from Louis XIII. to Louis XVI.--they spared to inquire
into preceding reigns--and when all was done they were enchanted.--
Mme. de Maufrigneuse was much praised for interesting herself in
Victurnien. Any writer of plays in search of a piece of pure comedy
would have found it well worth his while to listen to the Antiquities
Victurnien received charming letters from his father and aunt, and
also from the Chevalier. That gentleman recalled himself to the
Vidame's memory. He had been at Spa with M. de Pamiers in 1778, after
a certain journey made by a celebrated Hungarian princess. And Chesnel
also wrote. The fond flattery to which the unhappy boy was only too
well accustomed shone out of every page; and Mlle. Armande seemed to
share half of Mme. de Maufrigneuse's happiness.
Thus happy in the approval of his family, the young Count made a
spirited beginning in the perilous and costly ways of dandyism. He had
five horses--he was moderate--de Marsay had fourteen! He returned the
Vidame's hospitality, even including Blondet in the invitation, as
well as de Marsay and Rastignac. The dinner cost five hundred francs,
and the noble provincial was feted on the same scale. Victurnien
played a good deal, and, for his misfortune, at the fashionable game
He laid out his days in busy idleness. Every day between twelve and
three o'clock he was with the Duchess; afterwards he went to meet her
in the Bois de Boulogne and ride beside her carriage. Sometimes the
charming couple rode together, but this was early in fine summer
mornings. Society, balls, the theatre, and gaiety filled the Count's
evening hours. Everywhere Victurnien made a brilliant figure,
everywhere he flung the pearls of his wit broadcast. He gave his
opinion on men, affairs, and events in profound sayings; he would have
put you in mind of a fruit-tree putting forth all its strength in
blossom. He was leading an enervating life wasteful of money, and even
yet more wasteful, it may be of a man's soul; in that life the fairest
talents are buried out of sight, the most incorruptible honesty
perishes, the best-tempered springs of will are slackened.
The Duchess, so white and fragile and angel-like, felt attracted to
the dissipations of bachelor life; she enjoyed first nights, she liked
anything amusing, anything improvised. Bohemian restaurants lay
outside her experience; so d'Esgrignon got up a charming little party
at the Rocher de Cancale for her benefit, asked all the amiable scamps
whom she cultivated and sermonized, and there was a vast amount of
merriment, wit, and gaiety, and a corresponding bill to pay. That
supper led to others. And through it all Victurnien worshiped her as
an angel. Mme. de Maufrigneuse for him was still an angel, untouched
by any taint of earth; an angel at the Varietes, where she sat out the
half-obscene, vulgar farces, which made her laugh; an angel through
the cross-fire of highly-flavored jests and scandalous anecdotes,
which enlivened a stolen frolic; a languishing angel in the latticed
box at the Vaudeville; an angel while she criticised the postures of
opera dancers with the experience of an elderly habitue of le coin de
la reine; an angel at the Porte Saint-Martin, at the little boulevard
theatres, at the masked balls, which she enjoyed like any schoolboy.
She was an angel who asked him for the love that lives by self-
abnegation and heroism and self-sacrifice; an angel who would have her
lover live like an English lord, with an income of a million francs.
D'Esgrignon once exchanged a horse because the animal's coat did not
satisfy her notions. At play she was an angel, and certainly no
bourgeoise that ever lived could have bidden d'Esgrignon "Stake for
me!" in such an angelic way. She was so divinely reckless in her
folly, that a man might well have sold his soul to the devil lest this
angel should lose her taste for earthly pleasures.
The first winter went by. The Count had drawn on M. Cardot for the
trifling sum of thirty thousand francs over and above Chesnel's
remittance. As Cardot very carefully refrained from using his right of
remonstrance, Victurnien now learned for the first time that he had
overdrawn his account. He was the more offended by an extremely polite
refusal to make any further advance, since it so happened that he had
just lost six thousand francs at play at the club, and he could not
very well show himself there until they were paid.
After growing indignant with Maitre Cardot, who had trusted him with
thirty thousand francs (Cardot had written to Chesnel, but to the fair
Duchess' favorite he made the most of his so-called confidence in
him), after all this, d'Esgrignon was obliged to ask the lawyer to
tell him how to set about raising the money, since debts of honor were
"Draw bills on your father's banker, and take them to his
correspondent; he, no doubt, will discount them for you. Then write to
your family, and tell them to remit the amount to the banker."
An inner voice seemed to suggest du Croisier's name in this
predicament. He had seen du Croisier on his knees to the aristocracy,
and of the man's real disposition he was entirely ignorant. So to du
Croisier he wrote a very offhand letter, informing him that he had
drawn a bill of exchange on him for ten thousand francs, adding that
the amount would be repaid on receipt of the letter either by M.
Chesnel or by Mlle. Armande d'Esgrignon. Then he indited two touching
epistles--one to Chesnel, another to his aunt. In the matter of going
headlong to ruin, a young man often shows singular ingenuity and
ability, and fortune favors him. In the morning Victurnien happened on
the name of the Paris bankers in correspondence with du Croisier, and
de Marsay furnished him with the Kellers' address. De Marsay knew
everything in Paris. The Kellers took the bill and gave him the sum
without a word, after deducting the discount. The balance of the
account was in du Croisier's favor.
But the gaming debt was as nothing in comparison with the state of
things at home. Invoices showered in upon Victurnien.
"I say! Do you trouble yourself about that sort of thing?" Rastignac
said, laughing. "Are you putting them in order, my dear boy? I did not
think you were so business-like."
"My dear fellow, it is quite time I thought about it; there are twenty
odd thousand francs there."
De Marsay, coming in to look up d'Esgrignon for a steeplechase,
produced a dainty little pocket-book, took out twenty thousand francs,
and handed them to him.
"It is the best way of keeping the money safe," said he; "I am twice
enchanted to have won it yesterday from my honored father, Milord
Such French grace completely fascinated d'Esgrignon; he took it for
friendship; and as to the money, punctually forgot to pay his debts
with it, and spent it on his pleasures. The fact was that de Marsay
was looking on with an unspeakable pleasure while young d'Esgrignon
"got out of his depth," in dandy's idiom; it pleased de Marsay in all
sorts of fondling ways to lay an arm on the lad's shoulder; by and by
he should feel its weight, and disappear the sooner. For de Marsay was
jealous; the Duchess flaunted her love affair; she was not at home to
other visitors when d'Esgrignon was with her. And besides, de Marsay
was one of those savage humorists who delight in mischief, as Turkish
women in the bath. So when he had carried off the prize, and bets were
settled at the tavern where they breakfasted, and a bottle or two of
good wine had appeared, de Marsay turned to d'Esgrignon with a laugh:
"Those bills that you are worrying over are not yours, I am sure."
"Eh! if they weren't, why should he worry himself?" asked Rastignac.
"And whose should they be?" d'Esgrignon inquired.
"Then you do not know the Duchess' position?" queried de Marsay, as he
sprang into the saddle.
"No," said d'Esgrignon, his curiosity aroused.
"Well, dear fellow, it is like this," returned de Marsay--"thirty
thousand francs to Victorine, eighteen thousand francs to Houbigaut,
lesser amounts to Herbault, Nattier, Nourtier, and those Latour
people,--altogether a hundred thousand francs."
"An angel!" cried d'Esgrignon, with eyes uplifted to heaven.
"This is the bill for her wings," Rastignac cried facetiously.
"She owes all that, my dear boy," continued de Marsay, "precisely
because she is an angel. But we have all seen angels in this
position," he added, glancing at Rastignac; "there is this about women
that is sublime: they understand nothing of money; they do not meddle
with it, it is no affair of theirs; they are invited guests at the
'banquet of life,' as some poet or other said that came to an end in
"How do you know this when I do not?" d'Esgrignon artlessly returned.
"You are sure to be the last to know it, just as she is sure to be the
last to hear that you are in debt."
"I thought she had a hundred thousand livres a year," said
"Her husband," replied de Marsay, "lives apart from her. He stays with
his regiment and practises economy, for he has one or two little debts
of his own as well, has our dear Duke. Where do you come from? Just
learn to do as we do and keep our friends' accounts for them. Mlle.
Diane (I fell in love with her for the name's sake), Mlle. Diane
d'Uxelles brought her husband sixty thousand livres of income; for the
last eight years she has lived as if she had two hundred thousand. It
is perfectly plain that at this moment her lands are mortgaged up to
their full value; some fine morning the crash must come, and the angel
will be put to flight by--must it be said?--by sheriff's officers that
have the effrontery to lay hands on an angel just as they might take
hold of one of us."
"Lord! it costs a great deal to dwell in a Parisian heaven; you must
whiten your wings and your complexion every morning," said Rastignac.
Now as the thought of confessing his debts to his beloved Diane had
passed through d'Esgrignon's mind, something like a shudder ran
through him when he remembered that he still owed sixty thousand
francs, to say nothing of bills to come for another ten thousand. He
went back melancholy enough. His friends remarked his ill-disguised
preoccupation, and spoke of it among themselves at dinner.
"Young d'Esgrignon is getting out of his depth. He is not up to Paris.
He will blow his brains out. A little fool!" and so on and so on.
D'Esgrignon, however, promptly took comfort. His servant brought him
two letters. The first was from Chesnel. A letter from Chesnel smacked
of the stale grumbling faithfulness of honesty and its consecrated
formulas. With all respect he put it aside till the evening. But the
second letter he read with unspeakable pleasure. In Ciceronian
phrases, du Croisier groveled before him, like a Sganarelle before a
Geronte, begging the young Count in future to spare him the affront of
first depositing the amount of the bills which he should condescend to
draw. The concluding phrase seemed meant to convey the idea that here
was an open cashbox full of coin at the service of the noble
d'Esgrignon family. So strong was the impression that Victurnien, like
Sganarelle or Mascarille in the play, like everybody else who feels a
twinge of conscience at his finger-tips, made an involuntary gesture.
Now that he was sure of unlimited credit with the Kellers, he opened
Chesnel's letter gaily. He had expected four full pages, full of
expostulation to the brim; he glanced down the sheet for the familiar
words "prudence," "honor," "determination to do right," and the like,
and saw something else instead which made his head swim.
"MONSIEUR LE COMTE,--Of all my fortune I have now but two hundred
thousand francs left. I beg of you not to exceed that amount, if
you should do one of the most devoted servants of your family the
honor of taking it. I present my respects to you.
"He is one of Plutarch's men," Victurnien said to himself, as he
tossed the letter on the table. He felt chagrined; such magnanimity
made him feel very small.
"There! one must reform," he thought; and instead of going to a
restaurant and spending fifty or sixty francs over his dinner, he
retrenched by dining with the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, and told her
about the letter.
"I should like to see that man," she said, letting her eyes shine like
two fixed stars.
"What would you do?"
"Why, he should manage my affairs for me."
Diane de Maufrigneuse was divinely dressed; she meant her toilet to do
honor to Victurnien. The levity with which she treated his affairs or,
more properly speaking, his debts fascinated him.
The charming pair went to the Italiens. Never had that beautiful and
enchanting woman looked more seraphic, more ethereal. Nobody in the
house could have believed that she had debts which reached the sum
total mentioned by de Marsay that very morning. No single one of the
cares of earth had touched that sublime forehead of hers, full of
woman's pride of the highest kind. In her, a pensive air seemed to be
some gleam of an earthly love, nobly extinguished. The men for the
most part were wagering that Victurnien, with his handsome figure,
laid her under contribution; while the women, sure of their rival's
subterfuge, admired her as Michael Angelo admired Raphael, in petto.
Victurnien loved Diane, according to one of these ladies, for the sake
of her hair--she had the most beautiful fair hair in France; another
maintained that Diane's pallor was her principal merit, for she was
not really well shaped, her dress made the most of her figure; yet
others thought that Victurnien loved her for her foot, her one good
point, for she had a flat figure. But (and this brings the present-day
manner of Paris before you in an astonishing manner) whereas all the
men said that the Duchess was subsidizing Victurnien's splendor, the
women, on the other hand, gave people to understand that it was
Victurnien who paid for the angel's wings, as Rastignac said.
As they drove back again, Victurnien had it on the tip of his tongue a
score of times to open this chapter, for the Duchess' debts weighed
more heavily upon his mind than his own; and a score of times his
purpose died away before the attitude of the divine creature beside
him. He could see her by the light of the carriage lamps; she was
bewitching in the love-languor which always seemed to be extorted by
the violence of passion from her madonna's purity. The Duchess did not
fall into the mistake of talking of her virtue, of her angel's estate,
as provincial women, her imitators, do. She was far too clever. She
made him, for whom she made such great sacrifices, think these things
for himself. At the end of six months she could make him feel that a
harmless kiss on her hand was a deadly sin; she contrived that every
grace should be extorted from her, and this with such consummate art,
that it was impossible not to feel that she was more an angel than
ever when she yielded.
None but Parisian women are clever enough always to give a new charm
to the moon, to romanticize the stars, to roll in the same sack of
charcoal and emerge each time whiter than ever. This is the highest
refinement of intellectual and Parisian civilization. Women beyond the
Rhine or the English Channel believe nonsense of this sort when they
utter it; while your Parisienne makes her lover believe that she is an
angel, the better to add to his bliss by flattering his vanity on both
sides--temporal and spiritual. Certain persons, detractors of the
Duchess, maintain that she was the first dupe of her own white magic.
A wicked slander. The Duchess believed in nothing but herself.
By the end of the year 1823 the Kellers had supplied Victurnien with
two hundred thousand francs, and neither Chesnel nor Mlle. Armande
knew anything about it. He had had, besides, two thousand crowns from
Chesnel at one time and another, the better to hide the sources on
which he was drawing. He wrote lying letters to his poor father and
aunt, who lived on, happy and deceived, like most happy people under
the sun. The insidious current of life in Paris was bringing a
dreadful catastrophe upon the great and noble house; and only one
person was in the secret of it. This was du Croisier. He rubbed his
hands gleefully as he went past in the dark and looked in at the
Antiquities. He had good hope of attaining his ends; and his ends were
not, as heretofore, the simple ruin of the d'Esgrignons, but the
dishonor of their house. He felt instinctively at such times that his
revenge was at hand; he scented it in the wind! He had been sure of it
indeed from the day when he discovered that the young Count's burden
of debt was growing too heavy for the boy to bear.
Du Croisier's first step was to rid himself of his most hated enemy,
the venerable Chesnel. The good old man lived in the Rue du Bercail,
in a house with a steep-pitched roof. There was a little paved
courtyard in front, where the rose-bushes grew and clambered up to the
windows of the upper story. Behind lay a little country garden, with
its box-edged borders, shut in by damp, gloomy-looking walls. The
prim, gray-painted street door, with its wicket opening and bell
attached, announced quite as plainly as the official scutcheon that "a
notary lives here."
It was half-past five o'clock in the afternoon, at which hour the old
man usually sat digesting his dinner. He had drawn his black leather-
covered armchair before the fire, and put on his armor, a painted
pasteboard contrivance shaped like a top boot, which protected his
stockinged legs from the heat of the fire; for it was one of the good
man's habits to sit for a while after dinner with his feet on the dogs
and to stir up the glowing coals. He always ate too much; he was fond
of good living. Alas! if it had not been for that little failing,
would he not have been more perfect than it is permitted to mortal man
to be? Chesnel had finished his cup of coffee. His old housekeeper had
just taken away the tray which had been used for the purpose for the
last twenty years. He was waiting for his clerks to go before he
himself went out for his game at cards, and meanwhile he was thinking
--no need to ask of whom or what. A day seldom passed but he asked
himself, "Where is HE? What is HE doing?" He thought that the Count
was in Italy with the fair Duchesse de Maufrigneuse.
When every franc of a man's fortune has come to him, not by
inheritance, but through his own earning and saving, it is one of his
sweetest pleasures to look back upon the pains that have gone to the
making of it, and then to plan out a future for his crowns. This it is
to conjugate the verb "to enjoy" in every tense. And the old lawyer,
whose affections were all bound up in a single attachment, was
thinking that all the carefully-chosen, well-tilled land which he had
pinched and scraped to buy would one day go to round the d'Esgrignon
estates, and the thought doubled his pleasure. His pride swelled as he
sat at his ease in the old armchair; and the building of glowing
coals, which he raised with the tongs, sometimes seemed to him to be
the old noble house built up again, thanks to his care. He pictured
the young Count's prosperity, and told himself that he had done well
to live for such an aim. Chesnel was not lacking in intelligence;
sheer goodness was not the sole source of his great devotion; he had a
pride of his own; he was like the nobles who used to rebuild a pillar
in a cathedral to inscribe their name upon it; he meant his name to be
remembered by the great house which he had restored. Future
generations of d'Esgrignons should speak of old Chesnel. Just at this
point his old housekeeper came in with signs of alarm in her
"Is the house on fire, Brigitte?"
"Something of the sort," said she. "Here is M. du Croisier wanting to
speak to you----"
"M. du Croisier," repeated the old lawyer. A stab of cold misgiving
gave him so sharp a pang at the heart that he dropped the tongs. "M.
du Croisier here!" thought he, "our chief enemy!"
Du Croisier came in at that moment, like a cat that scents milk in a
dairy. He made a bow, seated himself quietly in the easy-chair which
the lawyer brought forward, and produced a bill for two hundred and
twenty-seven thousand francs, principal and interest, the total amount
of sums advanced to M. Victurnien in bills of exchange drawn upon du
Croisier, and duly honored by him. Of these, he now demanded immediate
payment, with a threat of proceeding to extremities with the heir-
presumptive of the house. Chesnel turned the unlucky letters over one
by one, and asked the enemy to keep the secret. This he engaged to do
if he were paid within forty-eight hours. He was pressed for money he
had obliged various manufacturers; and there followed a series of the
financial fictions by which neither notaries nor borrowers are
deceived. Chesnel's eyes were dim; he could scarcely keep back the
tears. There was but one way of raising the money; he must mortgage
his own lands up to their full value. But when du Croisier learned the
difficulty in the way of repayment, he forgot that he was hard
pressed; he no longer wanted ready money, and suddenly came out with a
proposal to buy the old lawyer's property. The sale was completed
within two days. Poor Chesnel could not bear the thought of the son of
the house undergoing a five years' imprisonment for debt. So in a few
days' time nothing remained to him but his practice, the sums that
were due to him, and the house in which he lived. Chesnel, stripped of
all his lands, paced to and fro in his private office, paneled with
dark oak, his eyes fixed on the beveled edges of the chestnut cross-
beams of the ceiling, or on the trellised vines in the garden outside.
He was not thinking of his farms now, or of Le Jard, his dear house in
the country; not he.
"What will become of him? He ought to come back; they must marry him
to some rich heiress," he said to himself; and his eyes were dim, his
How to approach Mlle. Armande, and in what words to break the news to
her, he did not know. The man who had just paid the debts of the
family quaked at the thought of confessing these things. He went from
the Rue du Bercail to the Hotel d'Esgrignon with pulses throbbing like
some girl's heart when she leaves her father's roof by stealth, not to
return again till she is a mother and her heart is broken.
Mlle. Armande had just received a charming letter, charming in its
hypocrisy. Her nephew was the happiest man under the sun. He had been
to the baths, he had been traveling in Italy with Mme. de
Maufrigneuse, and now sent his journal to his aunt. Every sentence was
instinct with love. There were enchanting descriptions of Venice, and
fascinating appreciations of the great works of Venetian art; there
were most wonderful pages full of the Duomo at Milan, and again of
Florence; he described the Apennines, and how they differed from the
Alps, and how in some village like Chiavari happiness lay all around
you, ready made.
The poor aunt was under the spell. She saw the far-off country of
love, she saw, hovering above the land, the angel whose tenderness
gave to all that beauty a burning glow. She was drinking in the letter
at long draughts; how should it have been otherwise? The girl who had
put love from her was now a woman ripened by repressed and pent-up
passion, by all the longings continually and gladly offered up as a
sacrifice on the altar of the hearth. Mlle. Armande was not like the
Duchess. She did not look like an angel. She was rather like the
little, straight, slim and slender, ivory-tinted statues, which those
wonderful sculptors, the builders of cathedrals, placed here and there
about the buildings. Wild plants sometimes find a hold in the damp
niches, and weave a crown of beautiful bluebell flowers about the
carved stone. At this moment the blue buds were unfolding in the fair
saint's eyes. Mlle. Armande loved the charming couple as if they stood
apart from real life; she saw nothing wrong in a married woman's love
for Victurnien; any other woman she would have judged harshly; but in
this case, not to have loved her nephew would have been the
unpardonable sin. Aunts, mothers, and sisters have a code of their own
for nephews and sons and brothers.
Mlle. Armande was in Venice; she saw the lines of fairy palaces that
stand on either side of the Grand Canal; she was sitting in
Victurnien's gondola; he was telling her what happiness it had been to
feel that the Duchess' beautiful hand lay in his own, to know that she
loved him as they floated together on the breast of the amorous Queen
of Italian seas. But even in that moment of bliss, such as angels
know, some one appeared in the garden walk. It was Chesnel! Alas! the
sound of his tread on the gravel might have been the sound of the
sands running from Death's hour-glass to be trodden under his unshod
feet. The sound, the sight of a dreadful hopelessness in Chesnel's
face, gave her that painful shock which follows a sudden recall of the
senses when the soul has sent them forth into the world of dreams.
"What is it?" she cried, as if some stab had pierced to her heart.
"All is lost!" said Chesnel. "M. le Comte will bring dishonor upon the
house if we do not set it in order." He held out the bills, and
described the agony of the last few days in a few simple but vigorous
and touching words.
"He is deceiving us! The miserable boy!" cried Mlle. Armande, her
heart swelling as the blood surged back to it in heavy throbs.
"Let us both say mea culpa, mademoiselle," the old lawyer said
stoutly; "we have always allowed him to have his own way; he needed
stern guidance; he could not have it from you with your inexperience
of life; nor from me, for he would not listen to me. He has had no
"Fate sometimes deals terribly with a noble house in decay," said
Mlle. Armande, with tears in her eyes.
The Marquis came up as she spoke. He had been walking up and down the
garden while he read the letter sent by his son after his return.
Victurnien gave his itinerary from an aristocrat's point of view;
telling how he had been welcomed by the greatest Italian families of
Genoa, Turin, Milan, Florence, Venice, Rome, and Naples. This
flattering reception he owed to his name, he said, and partly,
perhaps, to the Duchess as well. In short, he had made his appearance
magnificently, and as befitted a d'Esgrignon.
"Have you been at your old tricks, Chesnel?" asked the Marquis.
Mlle. Armande made Chesnel an eager sign, dreadful to see. They
understood each other. The poor father, the flower of feudal honor,
must die with all his illusions. A compact of silence and devotion was
ratified between the two noble hearts by a simple inclination of the
"Ah! Chesnel, it was not exactly in this way that the d'Esgrignons
went into Italy at the end of the fourteenth century, when Marshal
Trivulzio, in the service of the King of France, served under a
d'Esgrignon, who had a Bayard too under his orders. Other times, other
pleasures. And, for that matter, the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse is at
least the equal of a Marchesa di Spinola."
And, on the strength of his genealogical tree, the old man swung
himself off with a coxcomb's air, as if he himself had once made a
conquest of the Marchesa di Spinola, and still possessed the Duchess
The two companions in unhappiness were left together on the garden
bench, with the same thought for a bond of union. They sat for a long
time, saying little save vague, unmeaning words, watching the father
walk away in his happiness, gesticulating as if he were talking to
"What will become of him now?" Mlle. Armande asked after a while.
"Du Croisier has sent instructions to the MM. Keller; he is not to be
allowed to draw any more without authorization."
"And there are debts," continued Mlle. Armande.
"I am afraid so."
"If he is left without resources, what will he do?"
"I dare not answer that question to myself."
"But he must be drawn out of that life, he must come back to us, or he
will have nothing left."
"And nothing else left to him," Chesnel said gloomily. But Mlle.
Armande as yet did not and could not understand the full force of
"Is there any hope of getting him away from that woman, that Duchess?
Perhaps she leads him on."
"He would not stick at a crime to be with her," said Chesnel, trying
to pave the way to an intolerable thought by others less intolerable.
"Crime," repeated Mlle. Armande. "Oh, Chesnel, no one but you would
think of such a thing!" she added, with a withering look; before such
a look from a woman's eyes no mortal can stand. "There is but one
crime that a noble can commit--the crime of high treason; and when he
is beheaded, the block is covered with a black cloth, as it is for
"The times have changed very much," said Chesnel, shaking his head.
Victurnien had thinned his last thin, white hairs. "Our Martyr-King
did not die like the English King Charles."
That thought soothed Mlle. Armande's splendid indignation; a shudder
ran through her; but still she did not realize what Chesnel meant.
"To-morrow we will decide what we must do," she said; "it needs
thought. At the worst, we have our lands."
"Yes," said Chesnel. "You and M. le Marquis own the estate conjointly;
but the larger part of it is yours. You can raise money upon it
without saying a word to him."
The players at whist, reversis, boston, and backgammon noticed that
evening that Mlle. Armande's features, usually so serene and pure,
showed signs of agitation.
"That poor heroic child!" said the old Marquise de Casteran, "she must
be suffering still. A woman never knows what her sacrifices to her
family may cost her."
Next day it was arranged with Chesnel that Mlle. Armande should go to
Paris to snatch her nephew from perdition. If any one could carry off
Victurnien, was it not the woman whose motherly heart yearned over
him? Mlle. Armande made up her mind that she would go to the Duchesse
de Maufrigneuse and tell her all. Still, some sort of pretext was
necessary to explain the journey to the Marquis and the whole town. At
some cost to her maidenly delicacy, Mlle. Armande allowed it to be
thought that she was suffering from a complaint which called for a
consultation of skilled and celebrated physicians. Goodness knows
whether the town talked of this or no! But Mlle. Armande saw that
something far more than her own reputation was at stake. She set out.
Chesnel brought her his last bag of louis; she took it, without paying
any attention to it, as she took her white capuchine and thread
"Generous girl! What grace!" he said, as he put her into the carriage
with her maid, a woman who looked like a gray sister.
Du Croisier had thought out his revenge, as provincials think out
everything. For studying out a question in all its bearings, there are
no folk in this world like savages, peasants, and provincials; and
this is how, when they proceed from thought to action, you find every
contingency provided for from beginning to end. Diplomatists are
children compared with these classes of mammals; they have time before
them, an element which is lacking to those people who are obliged to
think about a great many things, to superintend the progress of all
kinds of schemes, to look forward for all sorts of contingencies in
the wider interests of human affairs. Had de Croisier sounded poor
Victurnien's nature so well, that he foresaw how easily the young
Count would lend himself to his schemes of revenge? Or was he merely
profiting by an opportunity for which he had been on the watch for
years? One circumstance there was, to be sure, in his manner of
preparing his stroke, which shows a certain skill. Who was it that
gave du Croisier warning of the moment? Was it the Kellers? Or could
it have been President du Ronceret's son, then finishing his law
studies in Paris?
Du Croisier wrote to Victurnien, telling him that the Kellers had been
instructed to advance no more money; and that letter was timed to
arrive just as the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse was in the utmost
perplexity, and the Comte d'Esgrignon consumed by the sense of poverty
as dreadful as it was cunningly hidden. The wretched young man was
exerting all his ingenuity to seem as if he were wealthy!
Now in the letter which informed the victim that in future the Kellers
would make no further advances without security, there was a tolerably
wide space left between the forms of an exaggerated respect and the
signature. It was quite easy to tear off the best part of the letter
and convert it into a bill of exchange for any amount. The diabolical
missive had been enclosed in an envelope, so that the other side of
the sheet was blank. When it arrived, Victurnien was writhing in the
lowest depths of despair. After two years of the most prosperous,
sensual, thoughtless, and luxurious life, he found himself face to
face with the most inexorable poverty; it was an absolute
impossibility to procure money. There had been some throes of crisis
before the journey came to an end. With the Duchess' help he had
managed to extort various sums from bankers; but it had been with the
greatest difficulty, and, moreover, those very amounts were about to
start up again before him as overdue bills of exchange in all their
rigor, with a stern summons to pay from the Bank of France and the
commercial court. All through the enjoyments of those last weeks the
unhappy boy had felt the point of the Commander's sword; at every
supper-party he heard, like Don Juan, the heavy tread of the statue
outside upon the stairs. He felt an unaccountable creeping of the
flesh, a warning that the sirocco of debt is nigh at hand. He reckoned
on chance. For five years he had never turned up a blank in the
lottery, his purse had always been replenished. After Chesnel had come
du Croisier (he told himself), after du Croisier surely another gold
mine would pour out its wealth. And besides, he was winning great sums
at play; his luck at play had saved him several unpleasant steps
already; and often a wild hope sent him to the Salon des Etrangers
only to lose his winnings afterwards at whist at the club. His life
for the past two months had been like the immortal finale of Mozart's
Don Giovanni; and of a truth, if a young man has come to such a plight
as Victurnien's, that finale is enough to make him shudder. Can
anything better prove the enormous power of music than that sublime
rendering of the disorder and confusion arising out of a life wholly
give up to sensual indulgence? that fearful picture of a deliberate
effort to shut out the thought of debts and duels, deceit and evil
luck? In that music Mozart disputes the palm with Moliere. The
terrific finale, with its glow, its power, its despair and laughter,
its grisly spectres and elfish women, centres about the prodigal's
last effort made in the after-supper heat of wine, the frantic
struggle which ends the drama. Victurnien was living through this
infernal poem, and alone. He saw visions of himself--a friendless,
solitary outcast, reading the words carved on the stone, the last
words on the last page of the book that had held him spellbound--THE
Yes; for him all would be at an end, and that soon. Already he saw the
cold, ironical eyes which his associates would turn upon him, and
their amusement over his downfall. Some of them he knew were playing
high on that gambling-table kept open all day long at the Bourse, or
in private houses at the clubs, and anywhere and everywhere in Paris;
but not one of these men could spare a banknote to save an intimate.
There was no help for it--Chesnel must be ruined. He had devoured
He sat with the Duchess in their box at the Italiens, the whole house
envying them their happiness, and while he smiled at her, all the
Furies were tearing at his heart. Indeed, to give some idea of the
depths of doubt, despair, and incredulity in which the boy was
groveling; he who so clung to life--the life which the angel had made
so fair--who so loved it, that he would have stooped to baseness
merely to live; he, the pleasure-loving scapegrace, the degenerate
d'Esgrignon, had even taken out his pistols, had gone so far as to
think of suicide. He who would never have brooked the appearance of an
insult was abusing himself in language which no man is likely to hear
except from himself.
He left du Croisier's letter lying open on the bed. Josephin had
brought it in at nine o'clock. Victurnien's furniture had been
seized, but he slept none the less. After he came back from the
Opera, he and the Duchess had gone to a voluptuous retreat, where
they often spent a few hours together after the most brilliant
court balls and evening parties and gaieties. Appearances were
very cleverly saved. Their love-nest was a garret like any other
to all appearance; Mme. de Maufrigneuse was obliged to bow her
head with its court feathers or wreath of flowers to enter in at
the door; but within all the peris of the East had made the
chamber fair. And now that the Count was on the brink of ruin, he
had longed to bid farewell to the dainty nest, which he had built
to realize a day-dream worthy of his angel. Presently adversity
would break the enchanted eggs; there would be no brood of white
doves, no brilliant tropical birds, no more of the thousand
bright-winged fancies which hover above our heads even to the
last days of our lives. Alas! alas! in three days he must be
gone; his bills had fallen into the hands of the money-lenders,
the law proceedings had reached the last stage.
An evil thought crossed his brain. He would fly with the Duchess; they
would live in some undiscovered nook in the wilds of North or South
America; but--he would fly with a fortune, and leave his creditors to
confront their bills. To carry out the plan, he had only to cut off
the lower portion of that letter with du Croisier's signature, and to
fill in the figures to turn it into a bill, and present it to the
Kellers. There was a dreadful struggle with temptation; tears shed,
but the honor of the family triumphed, subject to one condition.
Victurnien wanted to be sure of his beautiful Diane; he would do
nothing unless she should consent to their flight. So he went to the
Duchess in the Rue Faubourg Saint-Honore, and found her in coquettish
morning dress, which cost as much in thought as in money, a fit dress
in which to begin to play the part of Angel at eleven o'clock in the
Mme. de Maufrigneuse was somewhat pensive. Cares of a similar kind
were gnawing her mind; but she took them gallantly. Of all the various
feminine organizations classified by physiologists, there is one that
has something indescribably terrible about it. Such women combine
strength of soul and clear insight, with a faculty for prompt
decision, and a recklessness, or rather resolution in a crisis which
would shake a man's nerves. And these powers lie out of sight beneath
an appearance of the most graceful helplessness. Such women only among
womankind afford examples of a phenomenon which Buffon recognized in
men alone, to wit, the union, or rather the disunion, of two different
natures in one human being. Other women are wholly women; wholly
tender, wholly devoted, wholly mothers, completely null and completely
tiresome; nerves and brain and blood are all in harmony; but the
Duchess, and others like her, are capable of rising to the highest
heights of feelings, or of showing the most selfish insensibility. It
is one of the glories of Moliere that he has given us a wonderful
portrait of such a woman, from one point of view only, in that
greatest of his full-length figures--Celimene; Celimene is the typical
aristocratic woman, as Figaro, the second edition of Panurge,
represents the people.
So, the Duchess, being overwhelmed with debt, laid it upon herself to
give no more than a moment's thought to the avalanche of cares, and to
take her resolution once and for all; Napoleon could take up or lay
down the burden of his thoughts in precisely the same way. The Duchess
possessed the faculty of standing aloof from herself; she could look
on as a spectator at the crash when it came, instead of submitting to
be buried beneath. This was certainly great, but repulsive in a woman.
When she awoke in the morning she collected her thoughts; and by the
time she had begun to dress she had looked at the danger in its
fullest extent and faced the possibilities of terrific downfall. She
pondered. Should she take refuge in a foreign country? Or should she
go to the King and declare her debts to him? Or again, should she
fascinate a du Tillet or a Nucingen, and gamble on the stock exchange
to pay her creditors? The city man would find the money; he would be
intelligent enough to bring her nothing but the profits, without so
much as mentioning the losses, a piece of delicacy which would gloss
all over. The catastrophe, and these various ways of averting it, had
all been reviewed quite coolly, calmly, and without trepidation.
As a naturalist takes up some king of butterflies and fastens him down
on cotton-wool with a pin, so Mme. de Maufrigneuse had plucked love
out of her heart while she pondered the necessity of the moment, and
was quite ready to replace the beautiful passion on its immaculate
setting so soon as her duchess' coronet was safe. SHE knew none of the
hesitation which Cardinal Richelieu hid from all the world but Pere
Joseph; none of the doubts that Napoleon kept at first entirely to
himself. "Either the one or the other," she told herself.
She was sitting by the fire, giving orders for her toilette for a
drive in the Bois if the weather should be fine, when Victurnien came
The Comte d'Esgrignon, with all his stifled capacity, his so keen
intellect, was in exactly the state which might have been looked for
in the woman. His heart was beating violently, the perspiration broke
out over him as he stood in his dandy's trappings; he was afraid as
yet to lay a hand on the corner-stone which upheld the pyramid of his
life with Diane. So much it cost him to know the truth. The cleverest
men are fain to deceive themselves on one or two points if the truth
once known is likely to humiliate them in their own eyes, and damage
themselves with themselves. Victurnien forced his own irresolution
into the field by committing himself.
"What is the matter with you?" Diane de Maufrigneuse had said at once,
at the sight of her beloved Victurnien's face.
"Why, dear Diane, I am in such a perplexity; a man gone to the bottom
and at his last gasp is happy in comparison."
"Pshaw! it is nothing," said she; "you are a child. Let us see now;
tell me about it."
"I am hopelessly in debt. I have come to the end of my tether."
"Is that all?" said she, smiling at him. "Money matters can always be
arranged somehow or other; nothing is irretrievable except disasters
Victurnien's mind being set at rest by this swift comprehension of his
position, he unrolled the bright-colored web of his life for the last
two years and a half; but it was the seamy side of it which he
displayed with something of genius, and still more of wit, to his
Diane. He told his tale with the inspiration of the moment, which
fails no one in great crises; he had sufficient artistic skill to set
it off by a varnish of delicate scorn for men and things. It was an
aristocrat who spoke. And the Duchess listened as she could listen.
One knee was raised, for she sat with her foot on a stool. She rested
her elbow on her knee and leant her face on her hand so that her
fingers closed daintily over her shapely chin. Her eyes never left
his; but thoughts by myriads flitted under the blue surface, like
gleams of stormy light between two clouds. Her forehead was calm, her
mouth gravely intent--grave with love; her lips were knotted fast by
Victurnien's lips. To have her listening thus was to believe that a
divine love flowed from her heart. Wherefore, when the Count had
proposed flight to this soul, so closely knit to his own, he could not
help crying, "You are an angel!"
The fair Maufrigneuse made silent answer; but she had not spoken as
"Good, very good," she said at last. (She had not given herself up to
the love expressed in her face; her mind had been entirely absorbed by
deep-laid schemes which she kept to herself.) "But THAT is not the
question, dear." (The "angel" was only "that" by this time.) "Let us
think of your affairs. Yes, we will go, and the sooner the better.
Arrange it all; I will follow you. It is glorious to leave Paris and
the world behind. I will set about my preparations in such a way that
no one can suspect anything."
I WILL FOLLOW YOU! Just so Mlle. Mars might have spoken those words to
send a thrill through two thousand listening men and women. When a
Duchesse de Maufrigneuse offers, in such words, to make such a
sacrifice to love, she has paid her debt. How should Victurnien speak
of sordid details after that? He could so much the better hide his
schemes, because Diane was particularly careful not to inquire into
them. She was now, and always, as de Marsay said, an invited guest at
a banquet wreathed with roses, a banquet which mankind, as in duty
bound, made ready for her.
Victurnien would not go till the promise had been sealed. He must draw
courage from his happiness before he could bring himself to do a deed
on which, as he inwardly told himself, people would be certain to put
a bad construction. Still (and this was the thought that decided him)
he counted on his aunt and father to hush up the affair; he even
counted on Chesnel. Chesnel would think of one more compromise.
Besides, "this business," as he called it in his thoughts, was the
only way of raising money on the family estate. With three hundred
thousand francs, he and Diane would lead a happy life hidden in some
palace in Venice; and there they would forget the world. They went
through their romance in advance.
Next day Victurnien made out a bill for three hundred thousand francs,
and took it to the Kellers. The Kellers advanced the money, for du
Croisier happened to have a balance at the time; but they wrote to let
him know that he must not draw again on them without giving them
notice. Du Croisier, much astonished, asked for a statement of
accounts. It was sent. Everything was explained. The day of his
vengeance had arrived.
When Victurnien had drawn "his" money, he took it to Mme. de
Maufrigneuse. She locked up the banknotes in her desk, and proposed to
bid the world farewell by going to the Opera to see it for the last
time. Victurnien was thoughtful, absent, and uneasy. He was beginning
to reflect. He thought that his seat in the Duchess' box might cost
him dear; that perhaps, when he had put the three hundred thousand
francs in safety, it would be better to travel post, to fall at
Chesnel's feet, and tell him all. But before they left the opera-
house, the Duchess, in spite of herself, gave Victurnien an adorable
glance, her eyes were shining with the desire to go back once more to
bid farewell to the nest which she loved so much. And boy that he was,
he lost a night.
The next day, at three o'clock, he was back again at the Hotel de
Maufrigneuse; he had come to take the Duchess' orders for that night's
escape. And, "Why should we go?" asked she; "I have thought it all
out. The Vicomtesse de Beauseant and the Duchesse de Langeais
disappeared. If I go too, it will be something quite commonplace. We
will brave the storm. It will be a far finer thing to do. I am sure of
success." Victurnien's eyes dazzled; he felt as if his skin were
dissolving and the blood oozing out all over him.
"What is the matter with you?" cried the fair Diane, noticing a
hesitation which a woman never forgives. Your truly adroit lover will
hasten to agree with any fancy that Woman may take into her head, and
suggest reasons for doing otherwise, while leaving her free exercise
of her right to change her mind, her intentions, and sentiments
generally as often as she pleases. Victurnien was angry for the first
time, angry with the wrath of a weak man of poetic temperament; it was
a storm of rain and lightning flashes, but no thunder followed. The
angel on whose faith he had risked more than his life, the honor of
his house, was very roughly handled.
"So," said she, "we have come to this after eighteen months of
tenderness! You are unkind, very unkind. Go away!--I do not want to
see you again. I thought that you loved me. You do not."
"I DO NOT LOVE YOU?" repeated he, thunderstruck by the reproach.
"And yet----" he cried. "Ah! if you but knew what I have just done for
"And how have you done so much for me, monsieur? As if a man ought not
to do anything for a woman that has done so much for him."
"You are not worthy to know it!" Victurnien cried in a passion of
After that sublime, "Oh!" Diane bowed her head on her hand and sat,
still, cold, and implacable as angels naturally may be expected to do,
seeing that they share none of the passions of humanity. At the sight
of the woman he loved in this terrible attitude, Victurnien forgot his
danger. Had he not just that moment wronged the most angelic creature
on earth? He longed for forgiveness, he threw himself before her, he
kissed her feet, he pleaded, he wept. Two whole hours the unhappy
young man spent in all kinds of follies, only to meet the same cold
face, while the great silent tears dropping one by one, were dried as
soon as they fell lest the unworthy lover should try to wipe them
away. The Duchess was acting a great agony, one of those hours which
stamp the woman who passes through them as something august and
Two more hours went by. By this time the Count had gained possession
of Diane's hand; it felt cold and spiritless. The beautiful hand, with
all the treasures in its grasp, might have been supple wood; there was
nothing of Diane in it; he had taken it, it had not been given to him.
As for Victurnien, the spirit had ebbed out of his frame, he had
ceased to think. He would not have seen the sun in heaven. What was to
be done? What course should he take? What resolution should he make?
The man who can keep his head in such circumstances must be made of
the same stuff as the convict who spent the night in robbing the
Bibliotheque Royale of its gold medals, and repaired to his honest
brother in the morning with a request to melt down the plunder. "What
is to be done?" cried the brother. "Make me some coffee," replied the
thief. Victurnien sank into a bewildered stupor, darkness settled down
over his brain. Visions of past rapture flitted across the misty gloom
like the figures that Raphael painted against a black background; to
these he must bid farewell. Inexorable and disdainful, the Duchess
played with the tip of her scarf. She looked in irritation at
Victurnien from time to time; she coquetted with memories, she spoke
to her lover of his rivals as if anger had finally decided her to
prefer one of them to a man who could so change in one moment after
twenty-eight months of love.
"Ah! that charming young Felix de Vandenesse, so faithful as he was to
Mme. de Mortsauf, would never have permitted himself such a scene! He
can love, can de Vandenesse! De Marsay, that terrible de Marsay, such
a tiger as everyone thought him, was rough with other men; but like
all strong men, he kept his gentleness for women. Montriveau trampled
the Duchesse de Langeais under foot, as Othello killed Desdemona, in a
burst of fury which at any rate proved the extravagance of his love.
It was not like a paltry squabble. There was rapture in being so
crushed. Little, fair-haired, slim, and slender men loved to torment
women; they could only reign over poor, weak creatures; it pleased
them to have some ground for believing that they were men. The tyranny
of love was their one chance of asserting their power. She did not
know why she had put herself at the mercy of fair hair. Such men as de
Marsay, Montriveau, and Vandenesse, dark-haired and well grown, had a
ray of sunlight in their eyes."
It was a storm of epigrams. Her speeches, like bullets, came hissing
past his ears. Every word that Diane hurled at him was triple-barbed;
she humiliated, stung, and wounded him with an art that was all her
own, as half a score of savages can torture an enemy bound to a stake.
"You are mad!" he cried at last, at the end of his patience, and out
he went in God knows what mood. He drove as if he had never handled
the reins before, locked his wheels in the wheels of other vehicles,
collided with the curbstone in the Place Louis-Quinze, went he knew
not whither. The horse, left to its own devices, made a bolt for the
stable along the Quai d'Orsay; but as he turned into the Rue de
l'Universite, Josephin appeared to stop the runaway.
"You cannot go home, sir," the old man said, with a scared face; "they
have come with a warrant to arrest you."
Victurnien thought that he had been arrested on the criminal charge,
albeit there had not been time for the public prosecutor to receive
his instructions. He had forgotten the matter of the bills of
exchange, which had been stirred up again for some days past in the
form of orders to pay, brought by the officers of the court with
accompaniments in the shape of bailiffs, men in possession,
magistrates, commissaries, policemen, and other representatives of
social order. Like most guilty creatures, Victurnien had forgotten
everything but his crime.
"It is all over with me," he cried.
"No, M. le Comte, drive as fast as you can to the Hotel du Bon la
Fontaine, in the Rue de Grenelle. Mlle. Armande is waiting there for
you, the horses have been put in, she will take you with her."
Victurnien, in his trouble, caught like a drowning man at the branch
that came to his hand; he rushed off to the inn, reached the place,
and flung his arms about his aunt. Mlle. Armande cried as if her heart
would break; any one might have thought that she had a share in her
nephew's guilt. They stepped into the carriage. A few minutes later
they were on the road to Brest, and Paris lay behind them. Victurnien
uttered not a sound; he was paralyzed. And when aunt and nephew began
to speak, they talked at cross purposes; Victurnien, still laboring
under the unlucky misapprehension which flung him into Mlle. Armande's
arms, was thinking of his forgery; his aunt had the debts and the
bills on her mind.
"You know all, aunt," he had said.
"Poor boy, yes, but we are here. I am not going to scold you just yet.
"I must hide somewhere."
"Perhaps. . . . Yes, it is a very good idea."
"Perhaps I might get into Chesnel's house without being seen if we
timed ourselves to arrive in the middle of the night?"
"That will be best. We shall be better able to hide this from my
brother.--Poor angel! how unhappy he is!" said she, petting the
"Ah! now I begin to know what dishonor means; it has chilled my love."
"Unhappy boy; what bliss and what misery!" And Mlle. Armande drew his
fevered face to her breast and kissed his forehead, cold and damp
though it was, as the holy women might have kissed the brow of the
dead Christ when they laid Him in His grave clothes. Following out the
excellent scheme suggested by the prodigal son, he was brought by
night to the quiet house in the Rue du Bercail; but chance ordered it
that by so doing he ran straight into the wolf's jaws, as the saying
goes. That evening Chesnel had been making arrangements to sell his
connection to M. Lepressoir's head-clerk. M. Lepressoir was the notary
employed by the Liberals, just as Chesnel's practice lay among the
aristocratic families. The young fellow's relatives were rich enough
to pay Chesnel the considerable sum of a hundred thousand francs in
Chesnel was rubbing his hands. "A hundred thousand francs will go a
long way in buying up debts," he thought. "The young man is paying a
high rate of interest on his loans. We will lock him up down here. I
will go yonder myself and bring those curs to terms."
Chesnel, honest Chesnel, upright, worthy Chesnel, called his darling
Comte Victurnien's creditors "curs."
Meanwhile his successor was making his way along the Rue du Bercail
just as Mlle. Armande's traveling carriage turned into it. Any young
man might be expected to feel some curiosity if he saw a traveling
carriage stop at a notary's door in such a town and at such an hour of
the night; the young man in question was sufficiently inquisitive to
stand in a doorway and watch. He saw Mlle. Armande alight.
"Mlle. Armande d'Esgrignon at this time of night!" said he to himself.
"What can be going forward at the d'Esgrignons'?"
At the sight of mademoiselle, Chesnel opened the door circumspectly
and set down the light which he was carrying; but when he looked out
and saw Victurnien, Mlle. Armande's first whispered word made the
whole thing plain to him. He looked up and down the street; it seemed
quite deserted; he beckoned, and the young Count sprang out of the
carriage and entered the courtyard. All was lost. Chesnel's successor
had discovered Victurnien's hiding place.
Victurnien was hurried into the house and installed in a room beyond
Chesnel's private office. No one could enter it except across the old
man's dead body.
"Ah! M. le Comte!" exclaimed Chesnel, notary no longer.
"Yes, monsieur," the Count answered, understanding his old friend's
exclamation. "I did not listen to you; and now I have fallen into the
depths, and I must perish."
"No, no," the good man answered, looking triumphantly from Mlle.
Armande to the Count. "I have sold my connection. I have been working
for a very long time now, and am thinking of retiring. By noon to-
morrow I shall have a hundred thousand francs; many things can be
settled with that. Mademoiselle, you are tired," he added; "go back to
the carriage and go home and sleep. Business to-morrow."
"Is he safe?" returned she, looking at Victurnien.
She kissed her nephew; a few tears fell on his forehead. Then she
"My good Chesnel," said the Count, when they began to talk of
business, "what are your hundred thousand francs in such a position as
mine? You do not know the full extent of my troubles, I think."
Victurnien explained the situation. Chesnel was thunderstruck. But for
the strength of his devotion, he would have succumbed to this blow.
Tears streamed from the eyes that might well have had no tears left to
shed. For a few moments he was a child again, for a few moments he was
bereft of his senses; he stood like a man who should find his own
house on fire, and through a window see the cradle ablaze and hear the
hiss of the flames on his children's curls. He rose to his full height
--il se dressa en pied, as Amyot would have said; he seemed to grow
taller; he raised his withered hands and wrung them despairingly and
"If only your father may die and never know this, young man! To be a
forger is enough; a parricide you must not be. Fly, you say? No. They
would condemn you for contempt of court! Oh, wretched boy! Why did you
not forge MY signature? _I_ would have paid; I should not have taken
the bill to the public prosecutor.--Now I can do nothing. You have
brought me to a stand in the lowest pit in hell!--Du Croisier! What
will come of it? What is to be done?--If you had killed a man, there
might be some help for it. But forgery--FORGERY! And time--the time is
flying," he went on, shaking his fist towards the old clock. "You will
want a sham passport now. One crime leads to another. First," he
added, after a pause, "first of all we must save the house of
"But the money is still in Mme. de Maufrigneuse's keeping," exclaimed
"Ah!" exclaimed Chesnel. "Well, there is some hope left--a faint hope.
Could we soften du Croisier, I wonder, or buy him over? He shall have
all the lands if he likes. I will go to him; I will wake him and offer
him all we have.--Besides, it was not you who forged that bill; it was
I. I will go to jail; I am too old for the hulks, they can only put me
"But the body of the bill is in my handwriting," objected Victurnien,
without a sign of surprise at this reckless devotion.
"Idiot! . . . that is, pardon, M. le Comte. Josephin should have been
made to write it," the old notary cried wrathfully. "He is a good
creature; he would have taken it all on his shoulders. But there is an
end of it; the world is falling to pieces," the old man continued,
sinking exhausted into a chair. "Du Croisier is a tiger; we must be
careful not to rouse him. What time is it? Where is the draft? If it
is at Paris, it might be bought back from the Kellers; they might
accommodate us. Ah! but there are dangers on all sides; a single false
step means ruin. Money is wanted in any case. But there! nobody knows
you are here, you must live buried away in the cellar if needs must. I
will go at once to Paris as fast as I can; I can hear the mail coach
In a moment the old man recovered the faculties of his youth--his
agility and vigor. He packed up clothes for the journey, took money,
brought a six-pound loaf to the little room beyond the office, and
turned the key on his child by adoption.
"Not a sound in here," he said, "no light at night; and stop here till
I come back, or you will go to the hulks. Do you understand, M. le
Comte? Yes, TO THE HULKS! if anybody in a town like this knows that
you are here."
With that Chesnel went out, first telling his housekeeper to give out
that he was ill, to allow no one to come into the house, to send
everybody away, and to postpone business of every kind for three days.
He wheedled the manager of the coach-office, made up a tale for his
benefit--he had the makings of an ingenious novelist in him--and
obtained a promise that if there should be a place, he should have it,
passport or no passport, as well as a further promise to keep the
hurried departure a secret. Luckily, the coach was empty when it
In the middle of the following night Chesnel was set down in Paris. At
nine o'clock in the morning he waited on the Kellers, and learned that
the fatal draft had returned to du Croisier three days since; but
while obtaining this information, he in no way committed himself.
Before he went away he inquired whether the draft could be recovered
if the amount were refunded. Francois Keller's answer was to the
effect that the document was du Croisier's property, and that it was
entirely in his power to keep or return it. Then, in desperation, the
old man went to the Duchess.
Mme. de Maufrigneuse was not at home to any visitor at that hour.
Chesnel, feeling that every moment was precious, sat down in the hall,
wrote a few lines, and succeeded in sending them to the lady by dint
of wheedling, fascinating, bribing, and commanding the most insolent
and inaccessible servants in the world. The Duchess was still in bed;
but, to the great astonishment of her household, the old man in black
knee-breeches, ribbed stockings, and shoes with buckles to them, was
shown into her room.
"What is it, monsieur?" she asked, posing in her disorder. "What does
he want of me, ungrateful that he is?"
"It is this, Mme. la Duchesse," the good man exclaimed, "you have a
hundred thousand crowns belonging to us."
"Yes," began she. "What does it signify----?"
"The money was gained by a forgery, for which we are going to the
hulks, a forgery which we committed for love of you," Chesnel said
quickly. "How is it that you did not guess it, so clever as you are?
Instead of scolding the boy, you ought to have had the truth out of
him, and stopped him while there was time, and saved him."
At the first words the Duchess understood; she felt ashamed of her
behavior to so impassioned a lover, and afraid besides that she might
be suspected of complicity. In her wish to prove that she had not
touched the money left in her keeping, she lost all regard for
appearances; and besides, it did not occur to her that the notary was
a man. She flung off the eider-down quilt, sprang to her desk
(flitting past the lawyer like an angel out of one of the vignettes
which illustrate Lamartine's books), held out the notes, and went back
in confusion to bed.
"You are an angel, madame." (She was to be an angel for all the world,
it seemed.) "But this will not be the end of it. I count upon your
influence to save us."
"To save you! I will do it or die! Love that will not shrink from a
crime must be love indeed. Is there a woman in the world for whom such
a thing has been done? Poor boy! Come, do not lose time, dear M.
Chesnel; and count upon me as upon yourself."
"Mme. la Duchesse! Mme. la Duchesse!" It was all that he could say, so
overcome was he. He cried, he could have danced; but he was afraid of
losing his senses, and refrained.
"Between us, we will save him," she said, as he left the room.
Chesnel went straight to Josephin. Josephin unlocked the young Count's
desk and writing-table. Very luckily, the notary found letters which
might be useful, letters from du Croisier and the Kellers. Then he
took a place in a diligence which was just about to start; and by dint
of fees to the postilions, the lumbering vehicle went as quickly as
the coach. His two fellow-passengers on the journey happened to be in
as great a hurry as himself, and readily agreed to take their meals in
the carriage. Thus swept over the road, the notary reached the Rue du
Bercail, after three days of absence, an hour before midnight. And yet
he was too late. He saw the gendarmes at the gate, crossed the
threshold, and met the young Count in the courtyard. Victurnien had
been arrested. If Chesnel had had the power, he would beyond a doubt
have killed the officers and men; as it was, he could only fall on
"If I cannot hush this matter up, you must kill yourself before the
indictment is made out," he whispered. But Victurnien had sunk into
such stupor, that he stared back uncomprehendingly.
"Kill myself?" he repeated.
"Yes. If your courage should fail, my boy, count upon me," said
Chesnel, squeezing Victurnien's hand.
In spite of the anguish of mind and tottering limbs, he stood firmly
planted, to watch the son of his heart, the Comte d'Esgrignon, go out
of the courtyard between two gendarmes, with the commissary, the
justice of the peace, and the clerk of the court; and not until the
figures had disappeared, and the sound of footsteps had died away into
silence, did he recover his firmness and presence of mind.
"You will catch cold, sir," Brigitte remonstrated.
"The devil take you!" cried her exasperated master.
Never in the nine-and-twenty years that Brigitte had been in his
service had she heard such words from him! Her candle fell out of her
hands, but Chesnel neither heeded his housekeeper's alarm nor heard
her exclaim. He hurried off towards the Val-Noble.
"He is out of his mind," said she; "after all, it is no wonder. But
where is he off to? I cannot possibly go after him. What will become
of him? Suppose that he should drown himself?"
And Brigitte went to waken the head-clerk and send him to look along
the river bank; the river had a gloomy reputation just then, for there
had lately been two cases of suicide--one a young man full of promise,
and the other a girl, a victim of seduction. Chesnel went straight to
the Hotel du Croisier. There lay his only hope. The law requires that
a charge of forgery must be brought by a private individual. It was
still possible to withdraw if du Croisier chose to admit that there
had been a misapprehension; and Chesnel had hopes, even then, of
buying the man over.
M. and Mme. du Croisier had much more company than usual that evening.
Only a few persons were in the secret. M. du Ronceret, president of
the Tribunal; M. Sauvager, deputy Public Prosecutor; and M. du
Coudrai, a registrar of mortgages, who had lost his post by voting on
the wrong side, were the only persons who were supposed to know about
it; but Mesdames du Ronceret and du Coudrai had told the news, in
strict confidence, to one or two intimate friends, so that it had
spread half over the semi-noble, semi-bourgeois assembly at M. du
Croisier's. Everybody felt the gravity of the situation, but no one
ventured to speak of it openly; and, moreover, Mme. du Croisier's
attachment to the upper sphere was so well known, that people scarcely
dared to mention the disaster which had befallen the d'Esgrignons or
to ask for particulars. The persons most interested were waiting till
good Mme. du Croisier retired, for that lady always retreated to her
room at the same hour to perform her religious exercises as far as
possible out of her husband's sight.
Du Croisier's adherents, knowing the secret and the plans of the great
commercial power, looked round when the lady of the house disappeared;
but there were still several persons present whose opinions or
interests marked them out as untrustworthy, so they continued to play.
About half past eleven all had gone save intimates: M. Sauvager, M.
Camusot, the examining magistrate, and his wife, M. and Mme. du
Ronceret and their son Fabien, M. and Mme. du Coudrai, and Joseph
Blondet, the eldest of an old judge; ten persons in all.
It is told of Talleyrand that one fatal day, three hours after
midnight, he suddenly interrupted a game of cards in the Duchesse de
Luynes' house by laying down his watch on the table and asking the
players whether the Prince de Conde had any child but the Duc
"Why do you ask?" returned Mme. de Luynes, "when you know so well that
he has not."
"Because if the Prince has no other son, the House of Conde is now at
There was a moment's pause, and they finished the game.--President du
Ronceret now did something very similar. Perhaps he had heard the
anecdote; perhaps, in political life, little minds and great minds are
apt to hit upon the same expression. He looked at his watch, and
interrupted the game of boston with:
"At this moment M. le Comte d'Esgrignon is arrested, and that house
which has held its head so high is dishonored forever."
"Then, have you got hold of the boy?" du Coudrai cried gleefully.
Every one in the room, with the exception of the President, the
deputy, and du Croisier, looked startled.
"He has just been arrested in Chesnel's house, where he was hiding,"
said the deputy public prosecutor, with the air of a capable but
unappreciated public servant, who ought by rights to be Minister of
Police. M. Sauvager, the deputy, was a thin, tall young man of five-
and-twenty, with a lengthy olive-hued countenance, black frizzled
hair, and deep-set eyes; the wide, dark rings beneath them were
completed by the wrinkled purple eyelids above. With a nose like the
beak of some bird of prey, a pinched mouth, and cheeks worn lean with
study and hollowed by ambition, he was the very type of a second-rate
personage on the lookout for something to turn up, and ready to do
anything if so he might get on in the world, while keeping within the
limitations of the possible and the forms of law. His pompous
expression was an admirable indication of the time-serving eloquence
to be expected of him. Chesnel's successor had discovered the young
Count's hiding place to him, and he took great credit to himself for
The news seemed to come as a shock to the examining magistrate, M.
Camusot, who had granted the warrant of arrest on Sauvager's
application, with no idea that it was to be executed so promptly.
Camusot was short, fair, and fat already, though he was only thirty
years old or thereabouts; he had the flabby, livid look peculiar to
officials who live shut up in their private study or in a court of
justice; and his little, pale, yellow eyes were full of the suspicion
which is often mistaken for shrewdness.
Mme. Camusot looked at her spouse, as who should say, "Was I not
"Then the case will come on," was Camusot's comment.
"Could you doubt it?" asked du Coudrai. "Now they have got the Count,
all is over."
"There is the jury," said Camusot. "In this case M. le Prefet is sure
to take care that after the challenges from the prosecution and the
defence, the jury to a man will be for an acquittal.--My advice would
be to come to a compromise," he added, turning to du Croisier.
"Compromise!" echoed the President; "why, he is in the hands of
"Acquitted or convicted, the Comte d'Esgrignon will be dishonored all
the same," put in Sauvager.
"I am bringing an action,"[*] said du Croisier. "I shall have Dupin
senior. We shall see how the d'Esgrignon family will escape out of his
[*] A trial for an offence of this kind in France is an action brought
by a private person (partie civile) to recover damages, and at the
same time a criminal prosecution conducted on behalf of the
"The d'Esgrignons will defend the case and have counsel from Paris;
they will have Berryer," said Mme. Camusot. "You will have a Roland
for your Oliver."
Du Croisier, M. Sauvager, and the President du Ronceret looked at
Camusot, and one thought troubled their minds. The lady's tone, the
way in which she flung her proverb in the faces of the eight
conspirators against the house of d'Esgrignon, caused them inward
perturbation, which they dissembled as provincials can dissemble, by
dint of lifelong practice in the shifts of a monastic existence.
Little Mme. Camusot saw their change of countenance and subsequent
composure when they scented opposition on the part of the examining
magistrate. When her husband unveiled the thoughts in the back of his
own mind, she had tried to plumb the depths of hate in du Croisier's
adherents. She wanted to find out how du Croisier had gained over this
deputy public prosecutor, who had acted so promptly and so directly in
opposition to the views of the central power.
"In any case," continued she, "if celebrated counsel come down from
Paris, there is a prospect of a very interesting session in the Court
of Assize; but the matter will be snuffed out between the Tribunal and
the Court of Appeal. It is only to be expected that the Government
should do all that can be done, below the surface, to save a young man
who comes of a great family, and has the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse for
a friend. So I think that we shall have a 'sensation at Landernau.' "
"How you go on, madame!" the President said sternly. "Can you suppose
that the Court of First Instance will be influenced by considerations
which have nothing to do with justice?"
"The event proves the contrary," she said meaningly, looking full at
Sauvager and the President, who glanced coldly at her.
"Explain yourself, madame," said Sauvager. "you speak as if we had not
done our duty."
"Mme. Camusot meant nothing," interposed her husband.
"But has not M. le President just said something prejudicing a case
which depends on the examination of the prisoner?" said she. "And the
evidence is still to be taken, and the Court had not given its
"We are not at the law-courts," the deputy public prosecutor replied
tartly; "and besides, we know all that."
"But the public prosecutor knows nothing at all about it yet,"
returned she, with an ironical glance. "He will come back from the
Chamber of Deputies in all haste. You have cut out his work for him,
and he, no doubt, will speak for himself."
The deputy prosecutor knitted his thick bushy brows. Those interested
read tardy scruples in his countenance. A great silence followed,
broken by no sound but the dealing of the cards. M. and Mme. Camusot,
sensible of a decided chill in the atmosphere, took their departure to
leave the conspirators to talk at their ease.
"Camusot," the lady began in the street, "you went too far. Why lead
those people to suspect that you will have no part in their schemes?
They will play you some ugly trick."
"What can they do? I am the only examining magistrate."
"Cannot they slander you in whispers, and procure your dismissal?"
At that very moment Chesnel ran up against the couple. The old notary
recognized the examining magistrate; and with the lucidity which comes
of an experience of business, he saw that the fate of the d'Esgrignons
lay in the hands of the young man before him.
"Ah, sir!" he exclaimed, "we shall soon need you badly. Just a word
with you.--Your pardon, madame," he added, as he drew Camusot aside.
Mme. Camusot, as a good conspirator, looked towards du Croisier's
house, ready to break up the conversation if anybody appeared; but she
thought, and thought rightly, that their enemies were busy discussing
this unexpected turn which she had given to the affair. Chesnel
meanwhile drew the magistrate into a dark corner under the wall, and
lowered his voice for his companion's ear.
"If you are for the house of d'Esgrignon," he said, "Mme. la Duchesse
de Maufrigneuse, the Prince of Cadignan, the Ducs de Navarreins and de
Lenoncourt, the Keeper of the Seals, the Chancellor, the King himself,
will interest themselves in you. I have just come from Paris; I knew
all about this; I went post-haste to explain everything at Court. We
are counting on you, and I will keep your secret. If you are hostile,
I shall go back to Paris to-morrow and lodge a complaint with the
Keeper of the Seals that there is a suspicion of corruption. Several
functionaries were at du Croisier's house to-night, and no doubt, ate
and drank there, contrary to law; and besides, they are friends of
Chesnel would have brought the Almighty to intervene if he had had the
power. He did not wait for an answer; he left Camusot and fled like a
deer towards du Croisier's house. Camusot, meanwhile, bidden to reveal
the notary's confidences, was at once assailed with, "Was I not right,
dear?"--a wifely formula used on all occasions, but rather more
vehemently when the fair speaker is in the wrong. By the time they
reached home, Camusot had admitted the superiority of his partner in
life, and appreciated his good fortune in belonging to her; which
confession, doubtless, was the prelude of a blissful night.
Chesnel met his foes in a body as they left du Croisier's house, and
began to fear that du Croisier had gone to bed. In his position he was
compelled to act quickly, and any delay was a misfortune.
"In the King's name!" he cried, as the man-servant was closing the
hall door. He had just brought the King on the scene for the benefit
of an ambitious little official, and the word was still on his lips.
He fretted and chafed while the door was unbarred; then, swift as a
thunderbolt, dashed into the ante-chamber, and spoke to the servant.
"A hundred crowns to you, young man, if you can wake Mme. du Croisier
and send her to me this instant. Tell her anything you like."
Chesnel grew cool and composed as he opened the door of the brightly
lighted drawing-room, where du Croisier was striding up and down. For
a moment the two men scanned each other, with hatred and enmity,
twenty years' deep, in their eyes. One of the two had his foot on the
heart of the house of d'Esgrignon; the other, with a lion's strength,
came forward to pluck it away.
"Your humble servant, sir," said Chesnel. "Have you made the charge?"
"When was it made?"
"Have any steps been taken since the warrant of arrest was issued?"
"I believe so."
"I have come to treat with you."
"Justice must take its course, nothing can stop it, the arrest has
"Never mind that, I am at your orders, at your feet." The old man
knelt before du Croisier, and stretched out his hands entreatingly.
"What do you want? Our lands, our castle? Take all; withdraw the
charge; leave us nothing but life and honor. And over and besides all
this, I will be your servant; command and I will obey."
Du Croisier sat down in an easy-chair and left the old man to kneel.
"You are not vindictive," pleaded Chesnel; "you are good-hearted, you
do not bear us such a grudge that you will not listen to terms. Before
daylight the young man ought to be at liberty."
"The whole town knows that he has been arrested," returned du
Croisier, enjoying his revenge.
"It is a great misfortune, but as there will be neither proofs nor
trial, we can easily manage that."
Du Croisier reflected. He seemed to be struggling with self-interest;
Chesnel thought that he had gained a hold on his enemy through the
great motive of human action. At that supreme moment Mme. du Croisier
"Come here and help me to soften your dear husband, madame?" said
Chesnel, still on his knees. Mme. du Croisier made him rise with every
sign of profound astonishment. Chesnel explained his errand; and when
she knew it, the generous daughter of the intendants of the Ducs de
Alencon turned to du Croisier with tears in her eyes.
"Ah! monsieur, can you hesitate? The d'Esgrignons, the honor of the
province!" she said.
"There is more in it than that," exclaimed du Croisier, rising to
begin his restless walk again.
"More? What more?" asked Chesnel in amazement.
"France is involved, M. Chesnel! It is a question of the country, of
the people, of giving my lords your nobles a lesson, and teaching them
that there is such a thing as justice, and law, and a bourgeoisie--a
lesser nobility as good as they, and a match for them! There shall be
no more trampling down half a score of wheat fields for a single hare;
no bringing shame on families by seducing unprotected girls; they
shall not look down on others as good as they are, and mock at them
for ten whole years, without finding out at last that these things
swell into avalanches, and those avalanches will fall and crush and
bury my lords the nobles. You want to go back to the old order of
things. You want to tear up the social compact, the Charter in which
our rights are set forth---"
"Is it not a sacred mission to open the people's eyes?" cried du
Croisier. "Their eyes will be opened to the morality of your party
when they see nobles going to be tried at the Assize Court like Pierre
and Jacques. They will say, then, that small folk who keep their self-
respect are as good as great folk that bring shame on themselves. The
Assize Court is a light for all the world. Here, I am the champion of
the people, the friend of law. You yourselves twice flung me on the
side of the people--once when you refused an alliance, twice when you
put me under the ban of your society. You are reaping as you have
If Chesnel was startled by this outburst, so no less was Mme. du
Croisier. To her this was a terrible revelation of her husband's
character, a new light not merely on the past but on the future as
well. Any capitulation on the part of the colossus was apparently out
of the question; but Chesnel in no wise retreated before the
"What, monsieur?" said Mme. du Croisier. "Would you not forgive? Then
you are not a Christian."
"I forgive as God forgives, madame, on certain conditions."
"And what are they?" asked Chesnel, thinking that he saw a ray of
"The elections are coming on; I want the votes at your disposal."
"You shall have them."
"I wish that we, my wife and I, should be received familiarly every
evening, with an appearance of friendliness at any rate, by M. le
Marquis d'Esgrignon and his circle," continued du Croisier.
"I do not know how we are going to compass it, but you shall be
"I wish to have the family bound over by a surety of four hundred
thousand francs, and by a written document stating the nature of the
compromise, so as to keep a loaded cannon pointed at its heart."
"We agree," said Chesnel, without admitting that the three hundred
thousand francs was in his possession; "but the amount must be
deposited with a third party and returned to the family after your
election and repayment."
"No; after the marriage of my grand-niece, Mlle. Duval. She will very
likely have four million francs some day; the reversion of our
property (mine and my wife's) shall be settled upon her by her
marriage-contract, and you shall arrange a match between her and the
"NEVER!" repeated du Croisier, quite intoxicated with triumph. "Good-
"Idiot that I am," thought Chesnel, "why did I shrink from a lie to
such a man?"
Du Croisier took himself off; he was pleased with himself; he had
enjoyed Chesnel's humiliation; he had held the destinies of a proud
house, the representatives of the aristocracy of the province,
suspended in his hand; he had set the print of his heel on the very
heart of the d'Esgrignons; and, finally, he had broken off the whole
negotiation on the score of his wounded pride. He went up to his room,
leaving his wife alone with Chesnel. In his intoxication, he saw his
victory clear before him. He firmly believed that the three hundred
thousand francs had been squandered; the d'Esgrignons must sell or
mortgage all that they had to raise the money; the Assize Court was
inevitable to his mind.
An affair of forgery can always be settled out of court in France if
the missing amount is returned. The losers by the crime are usually
well-to-do, and have no wish to blight an imprudent man's character.
But du Croisier had no mind to slacken his hold until he knew what he
was about. He meditated until he fell asleep on the magnificent manner
in which his hopes would be fulfilled by the way of the Assize Court
or by marriage. The murmur of voices below, the lamentations of
Chesnel and Mme. du Croisier, sounded sweet in his ears.
Mme. du Croisier shared Chesnel's views of the d'Esgrignons. She was a
deeply religious woman, a Royalist attached to the noblesse; the
interview had been in every way a cruel shock to her feelings. She, a
staunch Royalist, had heard the roaring of that Liberalism, which, in
her director's opinion, wished to crush the Church. The Left benches
for her meant the popular upheaval and the scaffolds of 1793.
"What would your uncle, that sainted man who hears us, say to this?"
exclaimed Chesnel. Mme. du Croisier made no reply, but the great tears
rolled down her checks.
"You have already been the cause of one poor boy's death; his mother
will go mourning all her days," continued Chesnel; he saw how his
words told, but he would have struck harder and even broken this
woman's heart to save Victurnien. "Do you want to kill Mlle. Armande,
for she would not survive the dishonor of the house for a week? Do you
wish to be the death of poor Chesnel, your old notary? For I shall
kill the Count in prison before they shall bring the charge against
him, and take my own life afterwards, before they shall try me for
murder in an Assize Court."
"That is enough! that is enough, my friend! I would do anything to put
a stop to such an affair; but I never knew M. du Croisier's real
character until a few minutes ago. To you I can make the admission:
there is nothing to be done."
"But what if there is?"
"I would give half the blood in my veins that it were so," said she,
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