Chapter 5 - An Old Maid'S Household
To complete the picture of the internal habits and ways of this house, it is necessary to group around Mademoiselle Cormon and the Abbe de Sponde Jacquelin, Josette, and Mariette, the cook, who employed themselves in providing for the comfort of uncle and niece.
Jacquelin, a man of forty, short, fat, ruddy, and brown, with a face like a Breton sailor, had been in the service of the house for twenty- two years. He waited at table, groomed the mare, gardened, blacked the abbe's boots, went on errands, chopped the wood, drove the carriole, and fetched the oats, straw, and hay from Prebaudet. He sat in the antechamber during the evening, where he slept like a dormouse. He was in love with Josette, a girl of thirty, whom Mademoiselle would have dismissed had she married him. So the poor fond pair laid by their wages, and loved each other silently, waiting, hoping for mademoiselle's own marriage, as the Jews are waiting for the Messiah. Josette, born between Alencon and Mortagne, was short and plump; her face, which looked like a dirty apricot, was not wanting in sense and character; it was said that she ruled her mistress. Josette and Jacquelin, sure of results, endeavored to hide an inward satisfaction which allows it to be supposed that, as lovers, they had discounted the future. Mariette, the cook, who had been fifteen years in the household, knew how to make all the dishes held in most honor in Alencon.
Perhaps we ought to count for much the fat old Norman brown-bay mare, which drew Mademoiselle Cormon to her country-seat at Prebaudet; for the five inhabitants of the house bore to this animal a maniacal affection. She was called Penelope, and had served the family for eighteen years; but she was kept so carefully and fed with such regularity that mademoiselle and Jacquelin both hoped to use her for ten years longer. This beast was the subject of perpetual talk and occupation; it seemed as if poor Mademoiselle Cormon, having no children on whom her repressed motherly feelings could expend themselves, had turned those sentiments wholly on this most fortunate animal.
The four faithful servants--for Penelope's intelligence raised her to the level of the other good servants; while they, on the other hand, had lowered themselves to the mute, submissive regularity of the beast --went and came daily in the same occupations with the infallible accuracy of mechanism. But, as they said in their idiom, they had eaten their white bread first. Mademoiselle Cormon, like all persons nervously agitated by a fixed idea, became hard to please, and nagging, less by nature than from the need of employing her activity. Having no husband or children to occupy her, she fell back on petty details. She talked for hours about mere nothings, on a dozen napkins marked "Z," placed in the closet before the "O's."
"What can Josette be thinking of?" she exclaimed. "Josette is beginning to neglect things."
Mademoiselle inquired for eight days running whether Penelope had had her oats at two o'clock, because on one occasion Jacquelin was a trifle late. Her narrow imagination spent itself on trifles. A layer of dust forgotten by the feather-duster, a slice of toast ill-made by Mariette, Josette's delay in closing the blinds when the sun came round to fade the colors of the furniture,--all these great little things gave rise to serious quarrels in which mademoiselle grew angry. "Everything was changing," she would cry; "she did not know her own servants; the fact was she spoiled them!" On one occasion Josette gave her the "Journee du Chretien" instead of the "Quinzaine de Paques." The whole town heard of this disaster the same evening. Mademoiselle had been forced to leave the church and return home; and her sudden departure, upsetting the chairs, made people suppose a catastrophe had happened. She was therefore obliged to explain the facts to her friends.
"Josette," she said gently, "such a thing must never happen again."
Mademoiselle Cormon was, without being aware of it, made happier by such little quarrels, which served as cathartics to relieve her bitterness. The soul has its needs, and, like the body, its gymnastics. These uncertainties of temper were accepted by Josette and Jacquelin as changes in the weather are accepted by husbandmen. Those worthy souls remark, "It is fine to-day," or "It rains," without arraigning the heavens. And so when they met in the morning the servants would wonder in what humor mademoiselle would get up, just as a farmer wonders about the mists at dawn.
Mademoiselle Cormon had ended, as it was natural she should end, in contemplating herself only in the infinite pettinesses of her life. Herself and God, her confessor and the weekly wash, her preserves and the church services, and her uncle to care for, absorbed her feeble intellect. To her the atoms of life were magnified by an optic peculiar to persons who are selfish by nature or self-absorbed by some accident. Her perfect health gave alarming meaning to the least little derangement of her digestive organs. She lived under the iron rod of the medical science of our forefathers, and took yearly four precautionary doses, strong enough to have killed Penelope, though they seemed to rejuvenate her mistress. If Josette, when dressing her, chanced to discover a little pimple on the still satiny shoulders of mademoiselle, it became the subject of endless inquiries as to the various alimentary articles of the preceding week. And what a triumph when Josette reminded her mistress of a certain hare that was rather "high," and had doubtless raised that accursed pimple! With what joy they said to each other: "No doubt, no doubt, it WAS the hare!"
"Mariette over-seasoned it," said mademoiselle. "I am always telling her to do so lightly for my uncle and for me; but Mariette has no more memory than--"
"The hare," said Josette.
"Just so," replied Mademoiselle; "she has no more memory than a hare, --a very just remark."
Four times a year, at the beginning of each season, Mademoiselle Cormon went to pass a certain number of days on her estate of Prebaudet. It was now the middle of May, the period at which she wished to see how her apple-trees had "snowed," a saying of that region which expressed the effect produced beneath the trees by the falling of their blossoms. When the circular deposit of these fallen petals resembled a layer of snow the owner of the trees might hope for an abundant supply of cider. While she thus gauged her vats, Mademoiselle Cormon also attended to the repairs which the winter necessitated; she ordered the digging of her flower-beds and her vegetable garden, from which she supplied her table. Every season had its own business. Mademoiselle always gave a dinner of farewell to her intimate friends the day before her departure, although she was certain to see them again within three weeks. It was always a piece of news which echoed through Alencon when Mademoiselle Cormon departed. All her visitors, especially those who had missed a visit, came to bid her good-bye; the salon was thronged, and every one said farewell as though she were starting for Calcutta. The next day the shopkeepers would stand at their doors to see the old carriole pass, and they seemed to be telling one another some news by repeating from shop to shop:--
"So Mademoiselle Cormon is going to Prebaudet!"
Some said: "HER bread is baked."
"Hey! my lad," replied the next man. "She's a worthy woman; if money always came into such hands we shouldn't see a beggar in the country."
Another said: "Dear me, I shouldn't be surprised if the vineyards were in bloom; here's Mademoiselle Cormon going to Prebaudet. How happens it she doesn't marry?"
"I'd marry her myself," said a wag; "in fact, the marriage is half- made, for here's one consenting party; but the other side won't. Pooh! the oven is heating for Monsieur du Bousquier."
"Monsieur du Bousquier! Why, she has refused him."
That evening at all the gatherings it was told gravely:--
"Mademoiselle Cormon has gone."
"So you have really let Mademoiselle Cormon go."
The Wednesday chosen by Suzanne to make known her scandal happened to be this farewell Wednesday,--a day on which Mademoiselle Cormon drove Josette distracted on the subject of packing. During the morning, therefore, things had been said and done in the town which lent the utmost interest to this farewell meeting. Madame Granson had gone the round of a dozen houses while the old maid was deliberating on the things she needed for the journey; and the malicious Chevalier de Valois was playing piquet with Mademoiselle Armande, sister of a distinguished old marquis, and the queen of the salon of the aristocrats. If it was not uninteresting to any one to see what figure the seducer would cut that evening, it was all important for the chevalier and Madame Granson to know how Mademoiselle Cormon would take the news in her double capacity of marriageable woman and president of the Maternity Society. As for the innocent du Bousquier, he was taking a walk on the promenade, and beginning to suspect that Suzanne had tricked him; this suspicion confirmed him in his principles as to women.
On gala days the table was laid at Mademoiselle Cormon's about half- past three o'clock. At that period the fashionable people of Alencon dined at four. Under the Empire they still dined as in former times at half-past two; but then they supped! One of the pleasures which Mademoiselle Cormon valued most was (without meaning any malice, although the fact certainly rests on egotism) the unspeakable satisfaction she derived from seeing herself dressed as mistress of the house to receive her guests. When she was thus under arms a ray of hope would glide into the darkness of her heart; a voice told her that nature had not so abundantly provided for her in vain, and that some man, brave and enterprising, would surely present himself. Her desire was refreshed like her person; she contemplated herself in her heavy stuffs with a sort of intoxication, and this satisfaction continued when she descended the stairs to cast her redoubtable eye on the salon, the dinner-table, and the boudoir. She would then walk about with the naive contentment of the rich,--who remember at all moments that they are rich and will never want for anything. She looked at her eternal furniture, her curiosities, her lacquers, and said to herself that all these fine things wanted was a master. After admiring the dining-room, and the oblong dinner-table, on which was spread a snow- white cloth adorned with twenty covers placed at equal distances; after verifying the squadron of bottles she had ordered to be brought up, and which all bore honorable labels; after carefully verifying the names written on little bits of paper in the trembling handwriting of the abbe (the only duty he assumed in the household, and one which gave rise to grave discussions on the place of each guest),--after going through all these preliminary acts mademoiselle went, in her fine clothes, to her uncle, who was accustomed at this, the best hour in the day, to take his walk on the terrace which overlooked the Brillante, where he could listen to the warble of birds which were resting in the coppice, unafraid of either sportsmen or children. At such times of waiting she never joined the Abbe de Sponde without asking him some ridiculous question, in order to draw the old man into a discussion which might serve to amuse him. And her reason was this, --which will serve to complete our picture of this excellent woman's nature:--
Mademoiselle Cormon regarded it as one of her duties to talk; not that she was talkative, for she had unfortunately too few ideas, and did not know enough phrases to converse readily. But she believed she was accomplishing one of the social duties enjoined by religion, which orders us to make ourselves agreeable to our neighbor. This obligation cost her so much that she consulted her director, the Abbe Couturier, upon the subject of this honest but puerile civility. In spite of the humble remark of his penitent, confessing the inward labor of her mind in finding anything to say, the old priest, rigid on the point of discipline, read her a passage from Saint-Francois de Sales on the duties of women in society, which dwelt on the decent gayety of pious Christian women, who were bound to reserve their sternness for themselves, and to be amiable and pleasing in their homes, and see that their neighbors enjoyed themselves. Thus, filled with a sense of duty, and wishing, at all costs, to obey her director, who bade her converse with amenity, the poor soul perspired in her corset when the talk around her languished, so much did she suffer from the effort of emitting ideas in order to revive it. Under such circumstances she would put forth the silliest statements, such as: "No one can be in two places at once--unless it is a little bird," by which she one day roused, and not without success, a discussion on the ubiquity of the apostles, which she was unable to comprehend. Such efforts at conversation won her the appellation of "that good Mademoiselle Cormon," which, from the lips of the beaux esprits of society, means that she was as ignorant as a carp, and rather a poor fool; but many persons of her own calibre took the remark in its literal sense, and answered:--
"Yes; oh yes! Mademoiselle Cormon is an excellent woman."
Sometimes she would put such absurd questions (always for the purpose of fulfilling her duties to society, and making herself agreeable to her guests) that everybody burst out laughing. She asked, for instance, what the government did with the taxes they were always receiving; and why the Bible had not been printed in the days of Jesus Christ, inasmuch as it was written by Moses. Her mental powers were those of the English "country gentleman" who, hearing constant mention of "posterity" in the House of Commons, rose to make the speech that has since become celebrated: "Gentlemen," he said, "I hear much talk in this place about Posterity. I should be glad to know what that power has ever done for England."
Under these circumstances the heroic Chevalier de Valois would bring to the succor of the old maid all the powers of his clever diplomacy, whenever he saw the pitiless smile of wiser heads. The old gentleman, who loved to assist women, turned Mademoiselle Cormon's sayings into wit by sustaining them paradoxically, and he often covered the retreat so well that it seemed as if the good woman had said nothing silly. She asserted very seriously one evening that she did not see any difference between an ox and a bull. The dear chevalier instantly arrested the peals of laughter by asserting that there was only the difference between a sheep and a lamb.
But the Chevalier de Valois served an ungrateful dame, for never did Mademoiselle Cormon comprehend his chivalrous services. Observing that the conversation grew lively, she simply thought that she was not so stupid as she was,--the result being that she settled down into her ignorance with some complacency; she lost her timidity, and acquired a self-possession which gave to her "speeches" something of the solemnity with which the British enunciate their patriotic absurdities,--the self-conceit of stupidity, as it may be called.
As she approached her uncle, on this occasion, with a majestic step, she was ruminating over a question that might draw him from a silence, which always troubled her, for she feared he was dull.
"Uncle," she said, leaning on his arm and clinging to his side (this was one of her fictions; for she said to herself "If I had a husband I should do just so"),--"uncle, if everything here below happens according to the will of God, there must be a reason for everything."
"Certainly," replied the abbe, gravely. The worthy man, who cherished his niece, always allowed her to tear him from his meditations with angelic patience.
"Then if I remain unmarried,--supposing that I do,--God wills it?"
"Yes, my child," replied the abbe.
"And yet, as nothing prevents me from marrying to-morrow if I choose, His will can be destroyed by mine?"
"That would be true if we knew what was really the will of God," replied the former prior of the Sorbonne. "Observe, my daughter, that you put in an IF."
The poor woman, who expected to draw her uncle into a matrimonial discussion by an argument ad omnipotentem, was stupefied; but persons of obtuse mind have the terrible logic of children, which consists in turning from answer to question,--a logic that is frequently embarrassing.
"But, uncle, God did not make women intending them not to marry; otherwise they ought all to stay unmarried; if not, they ought all to marry. There's great injustice in the distribution of parts."
"Daughter," said the worthy abbe, "you are blaming the Church, which declares celibacy to be the better way to God."
"But if the Church is right, and all the world were good Catholics, wouldn't the human race come to an end, uncle?"
"You have too much mind, Rose; you don't need so much to be happy."
That remark brought a smile of satisfaction to the lips of the poor woman, and confirmed her in the good opinion she was beginning to acquire about herself. That is how the world, our friends, and our enemies are the accomplices of our defects!
At this moment the conversation was interrupted by the successive arrival of the guests. On these ceremonial days, friendly familiarities were exchanged between the servants of the house and the company. Mariette remarked to the chief-justice as he passed the kitchen:--
"Ah, Monsieur du Ronceret, I've cooked the cauliflowers au gratin expressly for you, for mademoiselle knows how you like them; and she said to me: 'Now don't forget, Mariette, for Monsieur du Ronceret is coming.'"
"That good Mademoiselle Cormon!" ejaculated the chief legal authority of the town. "Mariette, did you steep them in gravy instead of soup- stock? it is much richer."
The chief-justice was not above entering the chamber of council where Mariette held court; he cast the eye of a gastronome around it, and offered the advice of a past master in cookery.
"Good-day, madame," said Josette to Madame Granson, who courted the maid. "Mademoiselle has thought of you, and there's fish for dinner."
As for the Chevalier de Valois, he remarked to Mariette, in the easy tone of a great seigneur who condescends to be familiar:--
"Well, my dear cordon-bleu, to whom I should give the cross of the Legion of honor, is there some little dainty for which I had better reserve myself?"
"Yes, yes, Monsieur de Valois,--a hare sent from Prebaudet; weighs fourteen pounds."
Du Bousquier was not invited. Mademoiselle Cormon, faithful to the system which we know of, treated that fifty-year-old suitor extremely ill, although she felt inexplicable sentiments towards him in the depths of her heart. She had refused him; yet at times she repented; and a presentiment that she should yet marry him, together with a terror at the idea which prevented her from wishing for the marriage, assailed her. Her mind, stimulated by these feelings, was much occupied by du Bousquier. Without being aware of it, she was influenced by the herculean form of the republican. Madame Granson and the Chevalier de Valois, although they could not explain to themselves Mademoiselle Cormon's inconsistencies, had detected her naive glances in that direction, the meaning of which seemed clear enough to make them both resolve to ruin the hopes of the already rejected purveyor, --hopes which it was evident he still indulged.
Two guests, whose functions excused them, kept the dinner waiting. One was Monsieur du Coudrai, the recorder of mortgages; the other Monsieur Choisnel, former bailiff to the house of Esgrignon, and now the notary of the upper aristocracy, by whom he was received with a distinction due to his virtues; he was also a man of considerable wealth. When the two belated guests arrived, Jacquelin said to them as he saw them about to enter the salon:--
"THEY are all in the garden."
No doubt the assembled stomachs were impatient; for on the appearance of the register of mortgages--who had no defect except that of having married for her money an intolerable old woman, and of perpetrating endless puns, at which he was the first to laugh--the gentle murmur by which such late-comers are welcomed arose. While awaiting the official announcement of dinner, the company were sauntering on the terrace above the river, and gazing at the water-plants, the mosaic of the currents, and the various pretty details of the houses clustering across the river, their old wooden galleries, their mouldering window- frames, their little gardens where clothes were drying, the cabinet- maker's shop,--in short, the many details of a small community to which the vicinity of a river, a weeping willow, flowers, rose-bushes, added a certain grace, making the scene quite worthy of a landscape painter.
The chevalier studied all faces, for he knew that his firebrand had been very successfully introduced into the chief houses of the place. But no one as yet referred openly to the great news of Suzanne and du Bousquier. Provincials possess in the highest degree the art of distilling gossip; the right moment for openly discussing this strange affair had not arrived; it was first necessary that all present should put themselves on record. So the whispers went round from ear to ear:--
"You have heard?"
"And that handsome Suzanne."
"Does Mademoiselle Cormon know of it?"
This was the PIANO of the scandal; the RINFORZANDO would break forth as soon as the first course had been removed. Suddenly Monsieur de Valois's eyes lighted on Madame Granson, arrayed in her green hat with bunches of auriculas, and beaming with evident joy. Was it merely the joy of opening the concert? Though such a piece of news was like a gold mine to work in the monotonous lives of these personages, the observant and distrustful chevalier thought he recognized in the worthy woman a far more extended sentiment; namely, the joy caused by the triumph of self-interest. Instantly he turned to examine Athanase, and detected him in the significant silence of deep meditation. Presently, a look cast by the young man on Mademoiselle Cormon carried to the soul of the chevalier a sudden gleam. That momentary flash of lightning enabled him to read the past.
"Ha! the devil!" he said to himself; "what a checkmate I'm exposed to!"
Monsieur de Valois now approached Mademoiselle Cormon, and offered his arm. The old maid's feeling to the chevalier was that of respectful consideration; and certainly his name, together with the position he occupied among the aristocratic constellations of the department made him the most brilliant ornament of her salon. In her inmost mind Mademoiselle Cormon had wished for the last dozen years to become Madame de Valois. That name was like the branch of a tree, to which the ideas which SWARMED in her mind about rank, nobility, and the external qualities of a husband had fastened. But, though the Chevalier de Valois was the man chosen by her heart, and mind, and ambition, that elderly ruin, combed and curled like a little Saint- John in a procession, alarmed Mademoiselle Cormon. She saw the gentleman in him, but she could not see a husband. The indifference which the chevalier affected as to marriage, above all, the apparent purity of his morals in a house which abounded in grisettes, did singular harm in her mind to Monsieur de Valois against his expectations. The worthy man, who showed such judgment in the matter of his annuity, was at fault here. Without being herself aware of it, the thoughts of Mademoiselle Cormon on the too virtuous chevalier might be translated thus:--
"What a pity that he isn't a trifle dissipated!"
Observers of the human heart have remarked the leaning of pious women toward scamps; some have expressed surprise at this taste, considering it opposed to Christian virtue. But, in the first place, what nobler destiny can you offer to a virtuous woman than to purify, like charcoal, the muddy waters of vice? How is it some observers fail to see that these noble creatures, obliged by the sternness of their own principles never to infringe on conjugal fidelity, must naturally desire a husband of wider practical experience than their own? The scamps of social life are great men in love. Thus the poor woman groaned in spirit at finding her chosen vessel parted into two pieces. God alone could solder together a Chevalier de Valois and a du Bousquier.
In order to explain the importance of the few words which the chevalier and Mademoiselle Cormon are about to say to each other, it is necessary to reveal two serious matters which agitated the town, and about which opinions were divided; besides, du Bousquier was mysteriously connected with them.
One concerns the rector of Alencon, who had formerly taken the constitutional oath, and who was now conquering the repugnance of the Catholics by a display of the highest virtues. He was Cheverus on a small scale, and became in time so fully appreciated that when he died the whole town mourned him. Mademoiselle Cormon and the Abbe de Sponde belonged to that "little Church," sublime in its orthodoxy, which was to the court of Rome what the Ultras were to be to Louis XVIII. The abbe, more especially, refused to recognize a Church which had compromised with the constitutionals. The rector was therefore not received in the Cormon household, whose sympathies were all given to the curate of Saint-Leonard, the aristocratic parish of Alencon. Du Bousquier, that fanatic liberal now concealed under the skin of a royalist, knowing how necessary rallying points are to all discontents (which are really at the bottom of all oppositions), had drawn the sympathies of the middle classes around the rector. So much for the first case; the second was this:--
Under the secret inspiration of du Bousquier the idea of building a theatre had dawned on Alencon. The henchmen of the purveyor did not know their Mohammed; and they thought they were ardent in carrying out their own conception. Athanase Granson was one of the warmest partisans for the theatre; and of late he had urged at the mayor's office a cause which all the other young clerks had eagerly adopted.
The chevalier, as we have said, offered his arm to the old maid for a turn on the terrace. She accepted it, not without thanking him by a happy look for this attention, to which the chevalier replied by motioning toward Athanase with a meaning eye.
"Mademoiselle," he began, "you have so much sense and judgment in social proprieties, and also, you are connected with that young man by certain ties--"
"Distant ones," she said, interrupting him.
"Ought you not," he continued, "to use the influence you have over his mother and over himself by saving him from perdition? He is not very religious, as you know; indeed he approves of the rector; but that is not all; there is something far more serious; isn't he throwing himself headlong into an opposition without considering what influence his present conduct may exert upon his future? He is working for the construction of a theatre. In this affair he is simply the dupe of that disguised republican du Bousquier--"
"Good gracious! Monsieur de Valois," she replied; "his mother is always telling me he has so much mind, and yet he can't say two words; he stands planted before me as mum as a post--"
"Which doesn't think at all!" cried the recorder of mortgages. "I caught your words on the fly. I present my compliments to Monsieur de Valois," he added, bowing to that gentleman with much emphasis.
The chevalier returned the salutation stiffly, and drew Mademoiselle Cormon toward some flower-pots at a little distance, in order to show the interrupter that he did not choose to be spied upon.
"How is it possible," he continued, lowering his voice, and leaning towards Mademoiselle Cormon's ear, "that a young man brought up in those detestable lyceums should have ideas? Only sound morals and noble habits will ever produce great ideas and a true love. It is easy to see by a mere look at him that the poor lad is likely to be imbecile, and come, perhaps, to some sad end. See how pale and haggard he is!"
"His mother declares he works too hard," replied the old maid, innocently. "He sits up late, and for what? reading books and writing! What business ought to require a young man to write at night?"
"It exhausts him," replied the chevalier, trying to bring the old maid's thoughts back to the ground where he hoped to inspire her with horror for her youthful lover. "The morals of those Imperial lyceums are really shocking."
"Oh, yes!" said the ingenuous creature. "They march the pupils about with drums at their head. The masters have no more religion than pagans. And they put the poor lads in uniform, as if they were troops. What ideas!"
"And behold the product!" said the chevalier, motioning to Athanase. "In my day, young men were not so shy of looking at a pretty woman. As for him, he drops his eyes whenever he sees you. That young man frightens me because I am really interested in him. Tell him not to intrigue with the Bonapartists, as he is now doing about that theatre. When all these petty folks cease to ask for it insurrectionally,-- which to my mind is the synonym of constitutionally,--the government will build it. Besides which, tell his mother to keep an eye on him."
"Oh, I'm sure she will prevent him from seeing those half-pay, questionable people. I'll talk to her," said Mademoiselle Cormon, "for he might lose his place in the mayor's office; and then what would he and his mother have to live on? It makes me shudder."
As Monsieur de Talleyrand said of his wife, so the chevalier said to himself, looking at Mademoiselle Cormon:--
"Find me another as stupid! Good powers! isn't virtue which drives out intellect vice? But what an adorable wife for a man of my age! What principles! what ignorance!"
Remember that this monologue, addressed to the Princess Goritza, was mentally uttered while he took a pinch of snuff.
Madame Granson had divined that the chevalier was talking about Athanase. Eager to know the result of the conversation, she followed Mademoiselle Cormon, who was now approaching the young man with much dignity. But at this moment Jacquelin appeared to announce that mademoiselle was served. The old maid gave a glance of appeal to the chevalier; but the gallant recorder of mortgages, who was beginning to see in the manners of that gentleman the barrier which the provincial nobles were setting up about this time between themselves and the bourgeoisie, made the most of his chance to cut out Monsieur de Valois. He was close to Mademoiselle Cormon, and promptly offered his arm, which she found herself compelled to accept. The chevalier then darted, out of policy, upon Madame Granson.
"Mademoiselle Cormon, my dear lady," he said to her, walking slowly after all the other guests, "feels the liveliest interest in your dear Athanase; but I fear it will vanish through his own fault. He is irreligious and liberal; he is agitating this matter of the theatre; he frequents the Bonapartists; he takes the side of that rector. Such conduct may make him lose his place in the mayor's office. You know with what care the government is beginning to weed out such opinions. If your dear Athanase loses his place, where can he find other employment? I advise him not to get himself in bad odor with the administration."
"Monsieur le Chevalier," said the poor frightened mother, "how grateful I am to you! You are right: my son is the tool of a bad set of people; I shall enlighten him."
The chevalier had long since fathomed the nature of Athanase, and recognized in it that unyielding element of republican convictions to which in his youth a young man is willing to sacrifice everything, carried away by the word "liberty," so ill-defined and so little understood, but which to persons disdained by fate is a banner of revolt; and to such, revolt is vengeance. Athanase would certainly persist in that faith, for his opinions were woven in with his artistic sorrows, with his bitter contemplation of the social state. He was ignorant of the fact that at thirty-six years of age,--the period of life when a man has judged men and social interests and relations,--the opinions for which he was ready to sacrifice his future would be modified in him, as they are in all men of real superiority. To remain faithful to the Left side of Alencon was to gain the aversion of Mademoiselle Cormon. There, indeed, the chevalier saw true.
Thus we see that this society, so peaceful in appearance, was internally as agitated as any diplomatic circle, where craft, ability, and passions group themselves around the grave questions of an empire. The guests were now seated at the table laden with the first course, which they ate as provincials eat, without shame at possessing a good appetite, and not as in Paris, where it seems as if jaws gnashed under sumptuary laws, which made it their business to contradict the laws of anatomy. In Paris people eat with their teeth, and trifle with their pleasure; in the provinces things are done naturally, and interest is perhaps rather too much concentrated on the grand and universal means of existence to which God has condemned his creatures.
It was at the end of the first course that Mademoiselle Cormon made the most celebrated of her "speeches"; it was talked about for fully two years, and is still told at the gatherings of the lesser bourgeoisie whenever the topic of her marriage comes up.
The conversation, becoming lively as the penultimate entree was reached, had turned naturally on the affair of the theatre and the constitutionally sworn rector. In the first fervor of royalty, during the year 1816, those who later were called Jesuits were all for the expulsion of the Abbe Francois from his parish. Du Bousquier, suspected by Monsieur de Valois of sustaining the priest and being at the bottom of the theatre intrigues, and on whose back the adroit chevalier would in any case have put those sins with his customary cleverness, was in the dock with no lawyer to defend him. Athanase, the only guest loyal enough to stand by du Bousquier, had not the nerve to emit his ideas in the presence of those potentates of Alencon, whom in his heart he thought stupid. None but provincial youths now retain a respectful demeanor before men of a certain age, and dare neither to censure nor contradict them. The talk, diminished under the effect of certain delicious ducks dressed with olives, was falling flat. Mademoiselle Cormon, feeling the necessity of maintaining it against her own ducks, attempted to defend du Bousquier, who was being represented as a pernicious fomenter of intrigues, capable of any trickery.
"As for me," she said, "I thought that Monsieur du Bousquier cared chiefly for childish things."
Under existing circumstances the remark had enormous success. Mademoiselle Cormon obtained a great triumph; she brought the nose of the Princess Goritza flat on the table. The chevalier, who little expected such an apt remark from his Dulcinea, was so amazed that he could at first find no words to express his admiration; he applauded noiselessly, as they do at the Opera, tapping his fingers together to imitate applause.
"She is adorably witty," he said to Madame Granson. "I always said that some day she would unmask her batteries."
"In private she is always charming," replied the widow.
"In private, madame, all women have wit," returned the chevalier.
The Homeric laugh thus raised having subsided, Mademoiselle Cormon asked the reason of her success. Then began the FORTE of the gossip. Du Bousquier was depicted as a species of celibate Pere Gigogne, a monster, who for the last fifteen years had kept the Foundling Hospital supplied. His immoral habits were at last revealed! these Parisian saturnalias were the result of them, etc., etc. Conducted by the Chevalier de Valois, a most able leader of an orchestra of this kind, the opening of the CANCAN was magnificent.
"I really don't know," he said, "what should hinder a du Bousquier from marrying a Mademoiselle Suzanne What's-her-name. What IS her name, do you know? Suzette! Though I have lodgings at Madame Lardot's, I know her girls only by sight. If this Suzette is a tall, fine, saucy girl, with gray eyes, a slim waist, and a pretty foot, whom I have occasionally seen, and whose behavior always seemed to me extremely insolent, she is far superior in manners to du Bousquier. Besides, the girl has the nobility of beauty; from that point of view the marriage would be a poor one for her; she might do better. You know how the Emperor Joseph had the curiosity to see the du Barry at Luciennes. He offered her his arm to walk about, and the poor thing was so surprised at the honor that she hesitated to accept it: 'Beauty is ever a queen,' said the Emperor. And he, you know, was an Austrian-German," added the chevalier. "But I can tell you that Germany, which is thought here very rustic, is a land of noble chivalry and fine manners, especially in Poland and Hungary, where--"
Here the chevalier stopped, fearing to slip into some allusion to his personal happiness; he took out his snuff-box, and confided the rest of his remarks to the princess, who had smiled upon him for thirty-six years and more.
"That speech was rather a delicate one for Louis XV.," said du Ronceret.
"But it was, I think, the Emperor Joseph who made it, and not Louis XV.," remarked Mademoiselle Cormon, in a correcting tone.
"Mademoiselle," said the chevalier, observing the malicious glance exchanged between the judge, the notary, and the recorder, "Madame du Barry was the Suzanne of Louis XV.,--a circumstance well known to scamps like ourselves, but unsuitable for the knowledge of young ladies. Your ignorance proves you to be a flawless diamond; historical corruptions do not enter your mind."
The Abbe de Sponde looked graciously at the Chevalier de Valois, and nodded his head in sign of his laudatory approbation.
"Doesn't mademoiselle know history?" asked the recorder of mortgages.
"If you mix up Louis XV. and this girl Suzanne, how am I to know history?" replied Mademoiselle Cormon, angelically, glad to see that the dish of ducks was empty at last, and the conversation so ready to revive that all present laughed with their mouths full at her last remark.
"Poor girl!" said the Abbe de Sponde. "When a great misfortune happens, charity, which is divine love, and as blind as pagan love, ought not to look into the causes of it. Niece, you are president of the Maternity Society; you must succor that poor girl, who will now find it difficult to marry."
"Poor child!" ejaculated Mademoiselle Cormon.
"Do you suppose du Bousquier would marry her?" asked the judge.
"If he is an honorable man he ought to do so," said Madame Granson; "but really, to tell the truth, my dog has better morals than he--"
"Azor is, however, a good purveyor," said the recorder of mortgages, with the air of saying a witty thing.
At dessert du Bousquier was still the topic of conversation, having given rise to various little jokes which the wine rendered sparkling. Following the example of the recorder, each guest capped his neighbor's joke with another: Du Bousquier was a father, but not a confessor; he was father less; he was father LY; he was not a reverend father; nor yet a conscript-father--
"Nor can he be a foster-father," said the Abbe de Sponde, with a gravity which stopped the laughter.
"Nor a noble father," added the chevalier.
The Church and the nobility descended thus into the arena of puns, without, however, losing their dignity.
"Hush!" exclaimed the recorder of mortgages. "I hear the creaking of du Bousquier's boots."
It usually happens that a man is ignorant of rumors that are afloat about him. A whole town may be talking of his affairs; may calumniate and decry him, but if he has no good friends, he will know nothing about it. Now the innocent du Bousquier was superb in his ignorance. No one had told him as yet of Suzanne's revelations; he therefore appeared very jaunty and slightly conceited when the company, leaving the dining-room, returned to the salon for their coffee; several other guests had meantime assembled for the evening. Mademoiselle Cormon, from a sense of shamefacedness, dared not look at the terrible seducer. She seized upon Athanase, and began to lecture him with the queerest platitudes about royalist politics and religious morality. Not possessing, like the Chevalier de Valois, a snuff-box adorned with a princess, by the help of which he could stand this torrent of silliness, the poor poet listened to the words of her whom he loved with a stupid air, gazing, meanwhile, at her enormous bust, which held itself before him in that still repose which is the attribute of all great masses. His love produced in him a sort of intoxication which changed the shrill voice of the old maid into a soft murmur, and her flat remarks into witty speeches. Love is a maker of false coin, continually changing copper pennies into gold-pieces, and sometimes turning its real gold into copper.
"Well, Athanase, will you promise me?"
This final sentence struck the ear of the absorbed young man like one of those noises which wake us with a bound.
Mademoiselle Cormon rose hastily, and looked at du Bousquier, who at that moment resembled the stout god of Fable which the Republic stamped upon her coins. She walked up to Madame Granson, and said in her ear:--
"My dear friend, you son is an idiot. That lyceum has ruined him," she added, remembering the insistence with which the chevalier had spoken of the evils of education in such schools.
What a catastrophe! Unknown to himself, the luckless Athanase had had an occasion to fling an ember of his own fire upon the pile of brush gathered in the heart of the old maid. Had he listened to her, he might have made her, then and there, perceive his passion; for, in the agitated state of Mademoiselle Cormon's mind, a single word would have sufficed. But that stupid absorption in his own sentiments, which characterizes young and true love, had ruined him, as a child full of life sometimes kills itself out of ignorance.
"What have you been saying to Mademoiselle Cormon?" demanded his mother.
"Nothing; well, I can explain that," she thought to herself, putting off till the next day all further reflection on the matter, and attaching but little importance to Mademoiselle Cormon's words; for she fully believed that du Bousquier was forever lost in the old maid's esteem after the revelation of that evening.
Soon the four tables were filled with their sixteen players. Four persons were playing piquet,--an expensive game, at which the most money was lost. Monsieur Choisnel, the procureur-du-roi, and two ladies went into the boudoir for a game at backgammon. The glass lustres were lighted; and then the flower of Mademoiselle Cormon's company gathered before the fireplace, on sofas, and around the tables, and each couple said to her as they arrived,--
"So you are going to-morrow to Prebaudet?"
"Yes, I really must," she replied.
On this occasion the mistress of the house appeared preoccupied. Madame Granson was the first to perceive the quite unnatural state of the old maid's mind,--Mademoiselle Cormon was thinking!
"What are you thinking of, cousin?" she said at last, finding her seated in the boudoir.
"I am thinking," she replied, "of that poor girl. As the president of the Maternity Society, I will give you fifty francs for her."
"Fifty francs!" cried Madame Granson. "But you have never given as much as that."
"But, my dear cousin, it is so natural to have children."
That immoral speech coming from the heart of the old maid staggered the treasurer of the Maternity Society. Du Bousquier had evidently advanced in the estimation of Mademoiselle Cormon.
"Upon my word," said Madame Granson, "du Bousquier is not only a monster, he is a villain. When a man has done a wrong like that, he ought to pay the indemnity. Isn't it his place rather than ours to look after the girl?--who, to tell you the truth, seems to me rather questionable; there are plenty of better men in Alencon than that cynic du Bousquier. A girl must be depraved, indeed, to go after him."
"Cynic! Your son teaches you to talk Latin, my dear, which is wholly incomprehensible. Certainly I don't wish to excuse Monsieur du Bousquier; but pray explain to me why a woman is depraved because she prefers one man to another."
"My dear cousin, suppose you married my son Athanase; nothing could be more natural. He is young and handsome, full of promise, and he will be the glory of Alencon; and yet everybody will exclaim against you: evil tongues will say all sorts of things; jealous women will accuse you of depravity,--but what will that matter? you will be loved, and loved truly. If Athanase seemed to you an idiot, my dear, it is that he has too many ideas; extremes meet. He lives the life of a girl of fifteen; he has never wallowed in the impurities of Paris, not he! Well, change the terms, as my poor husband used to say; it is the same thing with du Bousquier in connection with Suzanne. YOU would be calumniated; but in the case of du Bousquier, the charge would be true. Don't you understand me?"
"No more than if you were talking Greek," replied Mademoiselle Cormon, who opened her eyes wide, and strained all the forces of her intellect.
"Well, cousin, if I must dot all the i's, it is impossible for Suzanne to love du Bousquier. And if the heart counts for nothing in this affair--"
"But, cousin, what do people love with if not their hearts?"
Here Madame Granson said to herself, as the chevalier had previously thought: "My poor cousin is altogether too innocent; such stupidity passes all bounds!--Dear child," she continued aloud, "it seems to me that children are not conceived by the spirit only."
"Why, yes, my dear; the Holy Virgin herself--"
"But, my love, du Bousquier isn't the Holy Ghost!"
"True," said the old maid; "he is a man!--a man whose personal appearance makes him dangerous enough for his friends to advise him to marry."
"You could yourself bring about that result, cousin."
"How so?" said the old maid, with the meekness of Christian charity.
"By not receiving him in your house until he marries. You owe it to good morals and to religion to manifest under such circumstances an exemplary displeasure."
"On my return from Prebaudet we will talk further of this, my dear Madame Granson. I will consult my uncle and the Abbe Couturier," said Mademoiselle Cormon, returning to the salon, where the animation was now at its height.
The lights, the group of women in their best clothes, the solemn tone, the dignified air of the assembly, made Mademoiselle Cormon not a little proud of her company. To many persons nothing better could be seen in Paris in the highest society.
At this moment du Bousquier, who was playing whist with the chevalier and two old ladies,--Madame du Coudrai and Madame du Ronceret,--was the object of deep but silent curiosity. A few young women arrived, who, under pretext of watching the game, gazed fixedly at him in so singular a manner, though slyly, that the old bachelor began to think that there must be some deficiency in his toilet.
"Can my false front be crooked?" he asked himself, seized by one of those anxieties which beset old bachelors.
He took advantage of a lost trick, which ended a seventh rubber, to rise and leave the table.
"I can't touch a card without losing," he said. "I am decidedly too unlucky."
"But you are lucky in other ways," said the chevalier, giving him a sly look.
That speech naturally made the rounds of the salon, where every one exclaimed on the exquisite taste of the chevalier, the Prince de Talleyrand of the province.
"There's no one like Monsieur de Valois for such wit."
Du Bousquier went to look at himself in a little oblong mirror, placed above the "Deserter," but he saw nothing strange in his appearance.
After innumerable repetitions of the same text, varied in all keys, the departure of the company took place about ten o'clock, through the long antechamber, Mademoiselle Cormon conducting certain of her favorite guests to the portico. There the groups parted; some followed the Bretagne road towards the chateau; the others went in the direction of the river Sarthe. Then began the usual conversation, which for twenty years had echoed at that hour through this particular street of Alencon. It was invariably:--
"Mademoiselle Cormon looked very well to-night."
"Mademoiselle Cormon? why, I thought her rather strange."
"How that poor abbe fails! Did you notice that he slept? He does not know what cards he holds; he is getting very absent-minded."
"We shall soon have the grief of losing him."
"What a fine night! It will be a fine day to-morrow."
"Good weather for the apple-blossoms."
"You beat us; but when you play with Monsieur de Valois you never do otherwise."
"How much did he win?"
"Well, to-night, three or four francs; he never loses."
"True; and don't you know there are three hundred and sixty-five days a year? At that price his gains are the value of a farm."
"Ah! what hands we had to-night!"
"Here you are at home, monsieur and madame, how lucky you are, while we have half the town to cross!"
"I don't pity you; you could afford a carriage, and dispense with the fatigue of going on foot."
"Ah, monsieur! we have a daughter to marry, which takes off one wheel, and the support of our son in Paris carries off another."
"You persist in making a magistrate of him?"
"What else can be done with a young man? Besides, there's no shame in serving the king."
Sometimes a discussion on ciders and flax, always couched in the same terms, and returning at the same time of year, was continued on the homeward way. If any observer of human customs had lived in this street, he would have known the months and seasons by simply overhearing the conversations.
On this occasion it was exclusively jocose; for du Bousquier, who chanced to march alone in front of the groups, was humming the well- known air,--little thinking of its appropriateness,--"Tender woman! hear the warble of the birds," etc. To some, du Bousquier was a strong man and a misjudged man. Ever since he had been confirmed in his present office by a royal decree, Monsieur du Ronceret had been in favor of du Bousquier. To others the purveyor seemed dangerous,--a man of bad habits, capable of anything. In the provinces, as in Paris, men before the public eye are like that statue in the fine allegorical tale of Addison, for which two knights on arriving near it fought; for one saw it white, the other saw it black. Then, when they were both off their horses, they saw it was white one side and black the other. A third knight coming along declared it red.
When the chevalier went home that night, he made many reflections, as follows:--
"It is high time now to spread a rumor of my marriage with Mademoiselle Cormon. It will leak out from the d'Esgrignon salon, and go straight to the bishop at Seez, and so get round through the grand vicars to the curate of Saint-Leonard's, who will be certain to tell it to the Abbe Couturier; and Mademoiselle Cormon will get the shot in her upper works. The old Marquis d'Esgrignon shall invite the Abbe de Sponde to dinner, so as to stop all gossip about Mademoiselle Cormon if I decide against her, or about me if she refuses me. The abbe shall be well cajoled; and Mademoiselle Cormon will certainly not hold out against a visit from Mademoiselle Armande, who will show her the grandeur and future chances of such an alliance. The abbe's property is undoubtedly as much as three hundred thousand; her own savings must amount to more than two hundred thousand; she has her house and Prebaudet and fifteen thousand francs a year. A word to my friend the Comte de Fontaine, and I should be mayor of Alencon to-morrow, and deputy. Then, once seated on the Right benches, we shall reach the peerage, shouting, 'Cloture!' 'Ordre!'"
As soon as she reached home Madame Granson had a lively argument with her son, who could not be made to see the connection which existed between his love and his political opinions. It was the first quarrel that had ever troubled that poor household.