THE COLLECTION OF ANTIQUITIES
HONORE DE BALZAC
To Baron Von Hammer-Purgstall, Member of the Aulic Council, Author
of the History of the Ottoman Empire.
Dear Baron,—You have taken so warm an interest in my long, vast
"History of French Manners in the Nineteenth Century," you have
given me so much encouragement to persevere with my work, that you
have given me a right to associate your name with some portion of
it. Are you not one of the most important representatives of
conscientious, studious Germany? Will not your approval win for me
the approval of others, and protect this attempt of mine? So proud
am I to have gained your good opinion, that I have striven to
deserve it by continuing my labors with the unflagging courage
characteristic of your methods of study, and of that exhaustive
research among documents without which you could never have given
your monumental work to the world of letters. Your sympathy with
such labor as you yourself have bestowed upon the most brilliant
civilization of the East, has often sustained my ardor through
nights of toil given to the details of our modern civilization.
And will not you, whose naive kindliness can only be compared with
that of our own La Fontaine, be glad to know of this?
May this token of my respect for you and your work find you at
Dobling, dear Baron, and put you and yours in mind of one of your
most sincere admirers and friends.
THE COLLECTION OF ANTIQUITIES
There stands a house at a corner of a street, in the middle of a town,
in one of the least important prefectures in France, but the name of
the street and the name of the town must be suppressed here. Every one
will appreciate the motives of this sage reticence demanded by
convention; for if a writer takes upon himself the office of annalist
of his own time, he is bound to touch on many sore subjects. The house
was called the Hotel d'Esgrignon; but let d'Esgrignon be considered a
mere fancy name, neither more nor less connected with real people than
the conventional Belval, Floricour, or Derville of the stage, or the
Adalberts and Mombreuses of romance. After all, the names of the
principal characters will be quite as much disguised; for though in
this history the chronicler would prefer to conceal the facts under a
mass of contradictions, anachronisms, improbabilities, and
absurdities, the truth will out in spite of him. You uproot a
vine-stock, as you imagine, and the stem will send up lusty shoots
after you have ploughed your vineyard over.
The "Hotel d'Esgrignon" was nothing more nor less than the house in
which the old Marquis lived; or, in the style of ancient documents,
Charles Marie Victor Ange Carol, Marquis d'Esgrignon. It was only an
ordinary house, but the townspeople and tradesmen had begun by calling
it the Hotel d'Esgrignon in jest, and ended after a score of years by
giving it that name in earnest.
The name of Carol, or Karawl, as the Thierrys would have spelt it, was
glorious among the names of the most powerful chieftains of the
Northmen who conquered Gaul and established the feudal system there.
Never had Carol bent his head before King or Communes, the Church or
Finance. Intrusted in the days of yore with the keeping of a French
March, the title of marquis in their family meant no shadow of
imaginary office; it had been a post of honor with duties to
discharge. Their fief had always been their domain. Provincial nobles
were they in every sense of the word; they might boast of an unbroken
line of great descent; they had been neglected by the court for two
hundred years; they were lords paramount in the estates of a province
where the people looked up to them with superstitious awe, as to the
image of the Holy Virgin that cures the toothache. The house of
d'Esgrignon, buried in its remote border country, was preserved as the
charred piles of one of Caesar's bridges are maintained intact in a
river bed. For thirteen hundred years the daughters of the house had
been married without a dowry or taken the veil; the younger sons of
every generation had been content with their share of their mother's
dower and gone forth to be captains or bishops; some had made a
marriage at court; one cadet of the house became an admiral, a duke,
and a peer of France, and died without issue. Never would the Marquis
d'Esgrignon of the elder branch accept the title of duke.
"I hold my marquisate as His Majesty holds the realm of France, and on
the same conditions," he told the Constable de Luynes, a very paltry
fellow in his eyes at that time.
You may be sure that d'Esgrignons lost their heads on the scaffold
during the troubles. The old blood showed itself proud and high even
in 1789. The Marquis of that day would not emigrate; he was answerable
for his March. The reverence in which he was held by the countryside
saved his head; but the hatred of the genuine sans-culottes was strong
enough to compel him to pretend to fly, and for a while he lived in
hiding. Then, in the name of the Sovereign People, the d'Esgrignon
lands were dishonored by the District, and the woods sold by the
Nation in spite of the personal protest made by the Marquis, then
turned forty. Mlle. d'Esgrignon, his half-sister, saved some portions
of the fief, thanks to the young steward of the family, who claimed on
her behalf the partage de presuccession, which is to say, the right of
a relative to a portion of the emigre's lands. To Mlle. d'Esgrignon,
therefore, the Republic made over the castle itself and a few farms.
Chesnel [Choisnel], the faithful steward, was obliged to buy in his
own name the church, the parsonage house, the castle gardens, and
other places to which his patron was attached—the Marquis advancing
The slow, swift years of the Terror went by, and the Marquis, whose
character had won the respect of the whole country, decided that he
and his sister ought to return to the castle and improve the property
which Maitre Chesnel—for he was now a notary—had contrived to save
for them out of the wreck. Alas! was not the plundered and dismantled
castle all too vast for a lord of the manor shorn of all his ancient
rights; too large for the landowner whose woods had been sold
piecemeal, until he could scarce draw nine thousand francs of income
from the pickings of his old estates?
It was in the month of October 1800 that Chesnel brought the Marquis
back to the old feudal castle, and saw with deep emotion, almost
beyound his control, his patron standing in the midst of the empty
courtyard, gazing round upon the moat, now filled up with rubbish, and
the castle towers razed to the level of the roof. The descendant of
the Franks looked for the missing Gothic turrets and the picturesque
weather vanes which used to rise above them; and his eyes turned to
the sky, as if asking of heaven the reason of this social upheaval. No
one but Chesnel could understand the profound anguish of the great
d'Esgrignon, now known as Citizen Carol. For a long while the Marquis
stood in silence, drinking in the influences of the place, the ancient
home of his forefathers, with the air that he breathed; then he flung
out a most melancholy exclamation.
"Chesnel," he said, "we will come back again some day when the
troubles are over; I could not bring myself to live here until the
edict of pacification has been published; /they/ will not allow me to
set my scutcheon on the wall."
He waved his hand toward the castle, mounted his horse, and rode back
beside his sister, who had driven over in the notary's shabby
The Hotel d'Esgrignon in the town had been demolished; a couple of
factories now stood on the site of the aristocrat's house. So Maitre
Chesnel spent the Marquis' last bag of louis on the purchase of the
old-fashioned building in the square, with its gables, weather-vane,
turret, and dovecote. Once it had been the courthouse of the
bailiwick, and subsequently the presidial; it had belonged to the
d'Esgrignons from generation to generation; and now, in consideration
of five hundred louis d'or, the present owner made it over with the
title given by the Nation to its rightful lord. And so, half in jest,
half in earnest, the old house was christened the Hotel d'Esgrignon.
In 1800 little or no difficulty was made over erasing names from the
fatal list, and some few emigres began to return. Among the very first
nobles to come back to the old town were the Baron de Nouastre and his
daughter. They were completely ruined. M. d'Esgrignon generously
offered them the shelter of his roof; and in his house, two months
later, the Baron died, worn out with grief. The Nouastres came of
the best blood in the province; Mlle. de Nouastre was a girl of
two-and-twenty; the Marquis d'Esgrignon married her to continue his
line. But she died in childbirth, a victim to the unskilfulness of her
physician, leaving, most fortunately, a son to bear the name of the
d'Esgrignons. The old Marquis—he was but fifty-three, but adversity
and sharp distress had added months to every year—the poor old
Marquis saw the death of the loveliest of human creatures, a noble
woman in whom the charm of the feminine figures of the sixteenth
century lived again, a charm now lost save to men's imaginations. With
her death the joy died out of his old age. It was one of those
terrible shocks which reverberate through every moment of the years
that follow. For a few moments he stood beside the bed where his wife
lay, with her hands folded like a saint, then he kissed her on the
forehead, turned away, drew out his watch, broke the mainspring, and
hung it up beside the hearth. It was eleven o'clock in the morning.
"Mlle. d'Esgrignon," he said, "let us pray God that this hour may not
prove fatal yet again to our house. My uncle the archbishop was
murdered at this hour; at this hour also my father died——"
He knelt down beside the bed and buried his face in the coverlet; his
sister did the same, in another moment they both rose to their feet.
Mlle. d'Esgrignon burst into tears; but the old Marquis looked with
dry eyes at the child, round the room, and again on his dead wife. To
the stubbornness of the Frank he united the fortitude of a Christian.
These things came to pass in the second year of the nineteenth
century. Mlle. d'Esgrignon was then twenty-seven years of age. She was
a beautiful woman. An ex-contractor for forage to the armies of the
Republic, a man of the district, with an income of six thousand
francs, persuaded Chesnel to carry a proposal of marriage to the lady.
The Marquis and his sister were alike indignant with such presumption
in their man of business, and Chesnel was almost heartbroken; he could
not forgive himself for yielding to the Sieur du Croisier's [du
Bousquier] blandishments. The Marquis' manner with his old servant
changed somewhat; never again was there quite the old affectionate
kindliness, which might almost have been taken for friendship. From
that time forth the Marquis was grateful, and his magnanimous and
sincere gratitude continually wounded the poor notary's feelings. To
some sublime natures gratitude seems an excessive payment; they would
rather have that sweet equality of feeling which springs from similar
ways of thought, and the blending of two spirits by their own choice
and will. And Maitre Chesnel had known the delights of such high
friendship; the Marquis had raised him to his own level. The old noble
looked on the good notary as something more than a servant, something
less than a child; he was the voluntary liege man of the house, a serf
bound to his lord by all the ties of affection. There was no balancing
of obligations; the sincere affection on either side put them out of
In the eyes of the Marquis, Chesnel's official dignity was as nothing;
his old servitor was merely disguised as a notary. As for Chesnel, the
Marquis was now, as always, a being of a divine race; he believed in
nobility; he did not blush to remember that his father had thrown open
the doors of the salon to announce that "My Lord Marquis is served."
His devotion to the fallen house was due not so much to his creed as
to egoism; he looked on himself as one of the family. So his vexation
was intense. Once he had ventured to allude to his mistake in spite
of the Marquis' prohibition, and the old noble answered gravely
—"Chesnel, before the troubles you would not have permitted yourself
to entertain such injurious suppositions. What can these new doctrines
be if they have spoiled /you/?"
Maitre Chesnel had gained the confidence of the whole town; people
looked up to him; his high integrity and considerable fortune
contributed to make him a person of importance. From that time forth
he felt a very decided aversion for the Sieur du Crosier; and though
there was little rancor in his composition, he set others against the
sometime forage-contractor. Du Croisier, on the other hand, was a man
to bear a grudge and nurse a vengeance for a score of years. He hated
Chesnel and the d'Esgrignon family with the smothered, all-absorbing
hate only to be found in a country town. His rebuff had simply ruined
him with the malicious provincials among whom he had come to live,
thinking to rule over them. It was so real a disaster that he was not
long in feeling the consequences of it. He betook himself in
desperation to a wealthy old maid, and met with a second refusal. Thus
failed the ambitious schemes with which he had started. He had lost
his hope of a marriage with Mlle. d'Esgrignon, which would have opened
the Faubourg Saint-Germain of the province to him; and after the
second rejection, his credit fell away to such an extent that it was
almost as much as he could do to keep his position in the second rank.
In 1805, M. de la Roche-Guyon, the oldest son of an ancient family
which had previously intermarried with the d'Esgrignons, made
proposals in form through Maitre Chesnel for Mlle. Marie Armande Clair
d'Esgrignon. She declined to hear the notary.
"You must have guessed before now that I am a mother, dear Chesnel,"
she said; she had just put her nephew, a fine little boy of five, to
The old Marquis rose and went up to his sister, but just returned from
the cradle; he kissed her hand reverently, and as he sat down again,
found words to say:
"My sister, you are a d'Esgrignon."
A quiver ran through the noble girl; the tears stood in her eyes. M.
d'Esgrignon, the father of the present Marquis, had married a second
wife, the daughter of a farmer of taxes ennobled by Louis XIV. It was
a shocking mesalliance in the eyes of his family, but fortunately of
no importance, since a daughter was the one child of the marriage.
Armande knew this. Kind as her brother had always been, he looked on
her as a stranger in blood. And this speech of his had just recognized
her as one of the family.
And was not her answer the worthy crown of eleven years of her noble
life? Her every action since she came of age had borne the stamp of
the purest devotion; love for her brother was a sort of religion with
"I shall die Mlle. d'Esgrignon," she said simply, turning to the
"For you there could be no fairer title," returned Chesnel, meaning to
convey a compliment. Poor Mlle. d'Esgrignon reddened.
"You have blundered, Chesnel," said the Marquis, flattered by the
steward's words, but vexed that his sister had been hurt. "A
d'Esgrignon may marry a Montmorency; their descent is not so pure as
ours. The d'Esgrignons bear or, two bends, gules," he continued, "and
nothing during nine hundred years has changed their scutcheon; as it
was at first, so it is to-day. Hence our device, Cil est nostre, taken
at a tournament in the reign of Philip Augustus, with the supporters,
a knight in armor or on the right, and a lion gules on the left."
"I do not remember that any woman I have ever met has struck my
imagination as Mlle. d'Esgrignon did," said Emile Blondet, to whom
contemporary literature is indebted for this history among other
things. "Truth to tell, I was a boy, a mere child at the time, and
perhaps my memory-pictures of her owe something of their vivid color
to a boy's natural turn for the marvelous.
"If I was playing with other children on the Parade, and she came to
walk there with her nephew Victurnien, the sight of her in the
distance thrilled me with very much the effect of galvanism on a dead
body. Child as I was, I felt as though new life had been given me.
"Mlle. Armande had hair of tawny gold; there was a delicate fine down
on her cheek, with a silver gleam upon it which I loved to catch,
putting myself so that I could see the outlines of her face lit up by
the daylight, and feel the fascination of those dreamy emerald eyes,
which sent a flash of fire through me whenever they fell upon my face.
I used to pretend to roll on the grass before her in our games, only
to try to reach her little feet, and admire them on a closer view. The
soft whiteness of her skin, her delicate features, the clearly cut
lines of her forehead, the grace of her slender figure, took me with a
sense of surprise, while as yet I did not know that her shape was
graceful, nor her brows beautiful, nor the outline of her face a
perfect oval. I admired as children pray at that age, without too
clearly understanding why they pray. When my piercing gaze attracted
her notice, when she asked me (in that musical voice of hers, with
more volume in it, as it seemed to me, than all other voices), 'What
are you doing little one? Why do you look at me?'—I used to come
nearer and wriggle and bite my finger-nails, and redden and say, 'I do
not know.' And if she chanced to stroke my hair with her white hand,
and ask me how old I was, I would run away and call from a distance,
Every princess and fairy of my visions, as I read the Arabian Nights,
looked and walked like Mlle. d'Esgrignon; and afterwards, when my
drawing-master gave me heads from the antique to copy, I noticed that
their hair was braided like Mlle. d'Esgrignon's. Still later, when the
foolish fancies had vanished one by one, Mlle. Armande remained
vaguely in my memory as a type; that Mlle. Armande for whom men made
way respectfully, following the tall brown-robed figure with their
eyes along the Parade and out of sight. Her exquisitely graceful form,
the rounded curves sometimes revealed by a chance gust of wind, and
always visible to my eyes in spite of the ample folds of stuff,
revisited my young man's dreams. Later yet, when I came to think
seriously over certain mysteries of human thought, it seemed to me
that the feeling of reverence was first inspired in me by something
expressed in Mlle. d'Esgrignon's face and bearing. The wonderful calm
of her face, the suppressed passion in it, the dignity of her
movements, the saintly life of duties fulfilled,—all this touched and
awed me. Children are more susceptible than people imagine to the
subtle influences of ideas; they never make game of real dignity; they
feel the charm of real graciousness, and beauty attracts them, for
childhood itself is beautiful, and there are mysterious ties between
things of the same nature.
"Mlle. d'Esgrignon was one of my religions. To this day I can never
climb the staircase of some old manor-house but my foolish imagination
must needs picture Mlle. Armande standing there, like the spirit of
feudalism. I can never read old chronicles but she appears before my
eyes in the shape of some famous woman of old times; she is Agnes
Sorel, Marie Touchet, Gabrielle; and I lend her all the love that was
lost in her heart, all the love that she never expressed. The angel
shape seen in glimpses through the haze of childish fancies visits me
now sometimes across the mists of dreams."
Keep this portrait in mind; it is a faithful picture and sketch of
character. Mlle. d'Esgrignon is one of the most instructive figures in
this story; she affords an example of the mischief that may be done by
the purest goodness for lack of intelligence.
Two-thirds of the emigres returned to France during 1804 and 1805, and
almost every exile from the Marquis d'Esgrignon's province came back
to the land of his fathers. There were certainly defections. Men of
good birth entered the service of Napoleon, and went into the army or
held places at the Imperial court, and others made alliances with the
upstart families. All those who cast in their lots with the Empire
retrieved their fortunes and recovered their estates, thanks to the
Emperor's munificence; and these for the most part went to Paris and
stayed there. But some eight or nine families still remained true to
the proscribed noblesse and loyal to the fallen monarchy. The La
Roche-Guyons, Nouastres, Verneuils, Casterans, Troisvilles, and the
rest were some of them rich, some of them poor; but money, more or
less, scarcely counted for anything among them. They took an
antiquarian view of themselves; for them the age and preservation of
the pedigree was the one all-important matter; precisely as, for an
amateur, the weight of metal in a coin is a small matter in comparison
with clean lettering, a flawless stamp, and high antiquity. Of these
families, the Marquis d'Esgrignon was the acknowledged head. His house
became their cenacle. There His Majesty, Emperor and King, was never
anything but "M. de Bonaparte"; there "the King" meant Louis XVIII.,
then at Mittau; there the Department was still the Province, and the
prefecture the intendance.
The Marquis was honored among them for his admirable behavior, his
loyalty as a noble, his undaunted courage; even as he was respected
throughout the town for his misfortunes, his fortitude, his steadfast
adherence to his political convictions. The man so admirable in
adversity was invested with all the majesty of ruined greatness. His
chivalrous fair-mindedness was so well known, that litigants many a
time had referred their disputes to him for arbitration. All gently
bred Imperalists and the authorities themselves showed as much
indulgence for his prejudices as respect for his personal character;
but there was another and a large section of the new society which was
destined to be known after the Restoration as the Liberal party; and
these, with du Croisier as their unacknowledged head, laughed at an
aristocratic oasis which nobody might enter without proof of
irreproachable descent. Their animosity was all the more bitter
because honest country squires and the higher officials, with a good
many worthy folk in the town, were of the opinion that all the best
society thereof was to be found in the Marquis d'Esgrignon's salon.
The prefect himself, the Emperor's chamberlain, made overtures to the
d'Esgrignons, humbly sending his wife (a Grandlieu) as ambassadress.
Wherefore, those excluded from the miniature provincial Faubourg
Saint-Germain nicknamed the salon "The Collection of Antiquities," and
called the Marquis himself "M. Carol." The receiver of taxes, for
instance, addressed his applications to "M. Carol (ci-devant des
Grignons)," maliciously adopting the obsolete way of spelling.
"For my own part," said Emile Blondet, "if I try to recall my
childhood memories, I remember that the nickname of 'Collection of
Antiquities' always made me laugh, in spite of my respect—my love, I
ought to say—for Mlle. d'Esgrignon. The Hotel d'Esgrignon stood at
the angle of two of the busiest thoroughfares in the town, and not
five hundred paces away from the market place. Two of the drawing-room
windows looked upon the street and two upon the square; the room was
like a glass cage, every one who came past could look through it from
side to side. I was only a boy of twelve at the time, but I thought,
even then, that the salon was one of those rare curiosities which
seem, when you come to think of them afterwards, to lie just on the
borderland between reality and dreams, so that you can scarcely tell
to which side they most belong.
"The room, the ancient Hall of Audience, stood above a row of cellars
with grated air-holes, once the prison cells of the old court-house,
now converted into a kitchen. I do not know that the magnificent lofty
chimney-piece of the Louvre, with its marvelous carving, seemed more
wonderful to me than the vast open hearth of the salon d'Esgrignon
when I saw it for the first time. It was covered like a melon with a
network of tracery. Over it stood an equestrian portrait of Henri
III., under whom the ancient duchy of appanage reverted to the crown;
it was a great picture executed in low relief, and set in a carved and
gilded frame. The ceiling spaces between the chestnut cross-beams in
the fine old roof were decorated with scroll-work patterns; there was
a little faded gilding still left along the angles. The walls were
covered with Flemish tapestry, six scenes from the Judgment of
Solomon, framed in golden garlands, with satyrs and cupids playing
among the leaves. The parquet floor had been laid down by the present
Marquis, and Chesnel had picked up the furniture at sales of the
wreckage of old chateaux between 1793 and 1795; so that there were
Louis Quatorze consoles, tables, clock-cases, andirons, candle-sconces
and tapestry-covered chairs, which marvelously completed a stately
room, large out of all proportion to the house. Luckily, however,
there was an equally lofty ante-chamber, the ancient Salle des Pas
Perdus of the presidial, which communicated likewise with the
magistrate's deliberating chamber, used by the d'Esgrignons as a
"Beneath the old paneling, amid the threadbare braveries of a bygone
day, some eight or ten dowagers were drawn up in state in a quavering
line; some with palsied heads, others dark and shriveled like mummies;
some erect and stiff, others bowed and bent, but all of them tricked
out in more or less fantastic costumes as far as possible removed from
the fashion of the day, with be-ribboned caps above their curled and
powdered 'heads,' and old discolored lace. No painter however earnest,
no caricature however wild, ever caught the haunting fascination of
those aged women; they come back to me in dreams; their puckered faces
shape themselves in my memory whenever I meet an old woman who puts me
in mind of them by some faint resemblance of dress or feature. And
whether it is that misfortune has initiated me into the secrets of
irremediable and overwhelming disaster; whether that I have come to
understand the whole range of human feelings, and, best of all, the
thoughts of Old Age and Regret; whatever the reason, nowhere and never
again have I seen among the living or in the faces of the dying the
wan look of certain gray eyes that I remember, nor the dreadful
brightness of others that were black.
"Neither Hoffmann nor Maturin, the two weirdest imaginations of our
time, ever gave me such a thrill of terror as I used to feel when I
watched the automaton movements of those bodies sheathed in whalebone.
The paint on actors' faces never caused me a shock; I could see below
it the rouge in grain, the rouge de naissance, to quote a comrade at
least as malicious as I can be. Years had leveled those women's faces,
and at the same time furrowed them with wrinkles, till they looked
like the heads on wooden nutcrackers carved in Germany. Peeping
in through the window-panes, I gazed at the battered bodies, and
ill-jointed limbs (how they were fastened together, and, indeed,
their whole anatomy was a mystery I never attempted to explain); I saw
the lantern jaws, the protuberant bones, the abnormal development of
the hips; and the movements of these figures as they came and went
seemed to me no whit less extraordinary than their sepulchral
immobility as they sat round the card-tables.
"The men looked gray and faded like the ancient tapestries on the
wall, in dress they were much more like the men of the day, but even
they were not altogether convincingly alive. Their white hair, their
withered waxen-hued faces, their devastated foreheads and pale eyes,
revealed their kinship to the women, and neutralized any effects of
reality borrowed from their costume.
"The very certainty of finding all these folk seated at or among the
tables every day at the same hours invested them at length in my eyes
with a sort of spectacular interest as it were; there was something
theatrical, something unearthly about them.
"Whenever, in after times, I have gone through museums of old
furniture in Paris, London, Munich, or Vienna, with the gray-headed
custodian who shows you the splendors of time past, I have peopled the
rooms with figures from the Collection of Antiquities. Often, as
little schoolboys of eight or ten we used to propose to go and take a
look at the curiosities in their glass cage, for the fun of the thing.
But as soon as I caught sight of Mlle. Armande's sweet face, I used to
tremble; and there was a trace of jealousy in my admiration for the
lovely child Victurnien, who belonged, as we all instinctively felt,
to a different and higher order of being from our own. It struck me as
something indescribably strange that the young fresh creature should
be there in that cemetery awakened before the time. We could not have
explained our thoughts to ourselves, yet we felt that we were
bourgeois and insignificant in the presence of that proud court."
The disasters of 1813 and 1814, which brought about the downfall of
Napoleon, gave new life to the Collection of Antiquities, and what was
more than life, the hope of recovering their past importance; but the
events of 1815, the troubles of the foreign occupation, and the
vacillating policy of the Government until the fall of M. Decazes, all
contributed to defer the fulfilment of the expectations of the
personages so vividly described by Blondet. This story, therefore,
only begins to shape itself in 1822.
In 1822 the Marquis d'Esgrignon's fortunes had not improved in spite
of the changes worked by the Restoration in the condition of emigres.
Of all the nobles hardly hit by Revolutionary legislation, his case
was the hardest. Like other great families, the d'Esgrignons before
1789 derived the greater part of their income from their rights as
lords of the manor in the shape of dues paid by those who held of
them; and, naturally, the old seigneurs had reduced the size of the
holdings in order to swell the amounts paid in quit-rents and heriots.
Families in this position were hopelessly ruined. They were not
affected by the ordinance by which Louis XVIII. put the emigres into
possession of such of their lands as had not been sold; and at a later
date it was impossible that the law of indemnity should indemnify
them. Their suppressed rights, as everybody knows, were revived in the
shape of a land tax known by the very name of domaines, but the money
went into the coffers of the State.
The Marquis by his position belonged to that small section of the
Royalist party which would hear of no kind of compromise with those
whom they styled, not Revolutionaries, but revolted subjects, or, in
more parliamentary language, they had no dealings with Liberals or
Constitutionnels. Such Royalists, nicknamed Ultras by the opposition,
took for leaders and heroes those courageous orators of the Right, who
from the very beginning attempted, with M. de Polignac, to protest
against the charter granted by Louis XVIII. This they regarded as an
ill-advised edict extorted from the Crown by the necessity of the
moment, only to be annulled later on. And, therefore, so far from
co-operating with the King to bring about a new condition of things,
the Marquis d'Esgrignon stood aloof, an upholder of the straitest sect
of the Right in politics, until such time as his vast fortune should
be restored to him. Nor did he so much as admit the thought of the
indemnity which filled the minds of the Villele ministry, and formed a
part of a design of strengthening the Crown by putting an end to those
fatal distinctions of ownership which still lingered on in spite of
The miracles of the Restoration of 1814, the still greater miracle of
Napoleon's return in 1815, the portents of a second flight of the
Bourbons, and a second reinstatement (that almost fabulous phase of
contemporary history), all these things took the Marquis by
surprise at the age of sixty-seven. At that time of life, the most
high-spirited men of their age were not so much vanquished as worn out
in the struggle with the Revolution; their activity, in their remote
provincial retreats, had turned into a passionately held and immovable
conviction; and almost all of them were shut in by the enervating,
easy round of daily life in the country. Could worse luck befall a
political party than this—to be represented by old men at a time when
its ideas are already stigmatized as old-fashioned?
When the legitimate sovereign appeared to be firmly seated on the
throne again in 1818, the Marquis asked himself what a man of seventy
should do at court; and what duties, what office he could discharge
there? The noble and high-minded d'Esgrignon was fain to be content
with the triumph of the Monarchy and Religion, while he waited for the
results of that unhoped-for, indecisive victory, which proved to be
simply an armistice. He continued as before, lord-paramount of his
salon, so felicitously named the Collection of Antiquities.
But when the victors of 1793 became the vanquished in their turn, the
nickname given at first in jest began to be used in bitter earnest.
The town was no more free than other country towns from the hatreds
and jealousies bred of party spirit. Du Croisier, contrary to all
expectation, married the old maid who had refused him at first;
carrying her off from his rival, the darling of the aristocratic
quarter, a certain Chevalier whose illustrious name will be
sufficiently hidden by suppressing it altogether, in accordance with
the usage formerly adopted in the place itself, where he was known by
his title only. He was "the Chevalier" in the town, as the Comte
d'Artois was "Monsieur" at court. Now, not only had that marriage
produced a war after the provincial manner, in which all weapons are
fair; it had hastened the separation of the great and little noblesse,
of the aristocratic and bourgeois social elements, which had been
united for a little space by the heavy weight of Napoleonic rule.
After the pressure was removed, there followed that sudden revival of
class divisions which did so much harm to the country.
The most national of all sentiments in France is vanity. The wounded
vanity of the many induced a thirst for Equality; though, as the most
ardent innovator will some day discover, Equality is an impossibility.
The Royalists pricked the Liberals in the most sensitive spots, and
this happened specially in the provinces, where either party accused
the other of unspeakable atrocities. In those days the blackest deeds
were done in politics, to secure public opinion on one side or the
other, to catch the votes of that public of fools which holds up hands
for those that are clever enough to serve out weapons to them.
Individuals are identified with their political opinions, and
opponents in public life forthwith became private enemies. It is very
difficult in a country town to avoid a man-to-man conflict of this
kind over interests or questions which in Paris appear in a more
general and theoretical form, with the result that political
combatants also rise to a higher level; M. Laffitte, for example, or
M. Casimir-Perier can respect M. de Villele or M. de Payronnet as a
man. M. Laffitte, who drew the fire on the Ministry, would have given
them an asylum in his house if they had fled thither on the 29th of
July 1830. Benjamin Constant sent a copy of his work on Religion to
the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, with a flattering letter acknowledging
benefits received from the former Minister. At Paris men are systems,
whereas in the provinces systems are identified with men; men,
moreover, with restless passions, who must always confront one
another, always spy upon each other in private life, and pull their
opponents' speeches to pieces, and live generally like two duelists
on the watch for a chance to thrust six inches of steel between an
antagonist's ribs. Each must do his best to get under his enemy's
guard, and a political hatred becomes as all-absorbing as a duel to
the death. Epigram and slander are used against individuals to bring
the party into discredit.
In such warfare as this, waged ceremoniously and without rancor on the
side of the Antiquities, while du Croisier's faction went so far as to
use the poisoned weapons of savages—in this warfare the advantages of
wit and delicate irony lay on the side of the nobles. But it should
never be forgotten that the wounds made by the tongue and the eyes, by
gibe or slight, are the last of all to heal. When the Chevalier turned
his back on mixed society and entrenched himself on the Mons Sacer of
the aristocracy, his witticisms thenceforward were directed at du
Croisier's salon; he stirred up the fires of war, not knowing how far
the spirit of revenge was to urge the rival faction. None but purists
and loyal gentlemen and women sure one of another entered the Hotel
d'Esgrignon; they committed no indiscretions of any kind; they had
their ideas, true or false, good or bad, noble or trivial, but there
was nothing to laugh at in all this. If the Liberals meant to make the
nobles ridiculous, they were obliged to fasten on the political
actions of their opponents; while the intermediate party, composed of
officials and others who paid court to the higher powers, kept the
nobles informed of all that was done and said in the Liberal camp, and
much of it was abundantly laughable. Du Croisier's adherents smarted
under a sense of inferiority, which increased their thirst for
In 1822, du Croisier put himself at the head of the manufacturing
interest of the province, as the Marquis d'Esgrignon headed the
noblesse. Each represented his party. But du Croisier, instead of
giving himself out frankly for a man of the extreme Left, ostensibly
adopted the opinions formulated at a later date by the 221 deputies.
By taking up this position, he could keep in touch with the
magistrates and local officials and the capitalists of the department.
Du Croisier's salon, a power at least equal to the salon d'Esgrignon,
larger numerically, as well as younger and more energetic, made itself
felt all over the countryside; the Collection of Antiquities, on the
other hand, remained inert, a passive appendage, as it were, of a
central authority which was often embarrassed by its own partisans;
for not merely did they encourage the Government in a mistaken policy,
but some of its most fatal blunders were made in consequence of the
pressure brought to bear upon it by the Conservative party.
The Liberals, so far, had never contrived to carry their candidate.
The department declined to obey their command knowing that du
Croisier, if elected, would take his place on the Left Centre benches,
and as far as possible to the Left. Du Croisier was in correspondence
with the Brothers Keller, the bankers, the oldest of whom shone
conspicuous among "the nineteen deputies of the Left," that phalanx
made famous by the efforts of the entire Liberal press. This same M.
Keller, moreover, was related by marriage to the Comte de Gondreville,
a Constitutional peer who remained in favor with Louis XVIII. For
these reasons, the Constitutional Opposition (as distinct from the
Liberal party) was always prepared to vote at the last moment, not for
the candidate whom they professed to support, but for du Croisier, if
that worthy could succeed in gaining a sufficient number of Royalist
votes; but at every election du Croisier was regularly thrown out by
the Royalists. The leaders of that party, taking their tone from the
Marquis d'Esgrignon, had pretty thoroughly fathomed and gauged their
man; and with each defeat, du Croisier and his party waxed more
bitter. Nothing so effectually stirs up strife as the failure of some
snare set with elaborate pains.
In 1822 there seemed to be a lull in hostilities which had been kept
up with great spirit during the first four years of the Restoration.
The salon du Croisier and the salon d'Esgrignon, having measured their
strength and weakness, were in all probability waiting for
opportunity, that Providence of party strife. Ordinary persons were
content with the surface quiet which deceived the Government; but
those who knew du Croisier better, were well aware that the passion of
revenge in him, as in all men whose whole life consists in mental
activity, is implacable, especially when political ambitions are
involved. About this time du Croisier, who used to turn white and red
at the bare mention of d'Esgrignon or the Chevalier, and shuddered at
the name of the Collection of Antiquities, chose to wear the impassive
countenance of a savage. He smiled upon his enemies, hating them but
the more deeply, watching them the more narrowly from hour to hour.
One of his own party, who seconded him in these calculations of cold
wrath, was the President of the Tribunal, M. du Ronceret, a little
country squire, who had vainly endeavored to gain admittance among the
The d'Esgrignons' little fortune, carefully administered by Maitre
Chesnel, was barely sufficient for the worthy Marquis' needs; for
though he lived without the slightest ostentation, he also lived like
a noble. The governor found by his Lordship the Bishop for the hope of
the house, the young Comte Victurnien d'Esgrignon, was an elderly
Oratorian who must be paid a certain salary, although he lived with
the family. The wages of a cook, a waiting-woman for Mlle. Armande, an
old valet for M. le Marquis, and a couple of other servants, together
with the daily expenses of the household, and the cost of an education
for which nothing was spared, absorbed the whole family income, in
spite of Mlle. Armande's economies, in spite of Chesnel's careful
management, and the servants' affection. As yet, Chesnel had not been
able to set about repairs at the ruined castle; he was waiting till
the leases fell in to raise the rent of the farms, for rents had been
rising lately, partly on account of improved methods of agriculture,
partly by the fall in the value of money, of which the landlord would
get the benefit at the expiration of leases granted in 1809.
The Marquis himself knew nothing of the details of the management of
the house or of his property. He would have been thunderstruck if he
had been told of the excessive precautions needed "to make both ends
of the year meet in December," to use the housewife's saying, and he
was so near the end of his life, that every one shrank from opening
his eyes. The Marquis and his adherents believed that a House, to
which no one at Court or in the Government gave a thought, a House
that was never heard of beyond the gates of the town, save here and
there in the same department, was about to revive its ancient
greatness, to shine forth in all its glory. The d'Esgrignons' line
should appear with renewed lustre in the person of Victurnien, just as
the despoiled nobles came into their own again, and the handsome heir
to a great estate would be in a position to go to Court, enter the
King's service, and marry (as other d'Esgrignons had done before him)
a Navarreins, a Cadignan, a d'Uxelles, a Beausant, a Blamont-Chauvry;
a wife, in short, who should unite all the distinctions of birth and
beauty, wit and wealth, and character.
The intimates who came to play their game of cards of an evening—the
Troisvilles (pronounced Treville), the La Roche-Guyons, the Casterans
(pronounced Cateran), and the Duc de Verneuil—had all so long been
accustomed to look up to the Marquis as a person of immense
consequence, that they encouraged him in such notions as these. They
were perfectly sincere in their belief; and indeed, it would have been
well founded if they could have wiped out the history of the last
forty years. But the most honorable and undoubted sanctions of right,
such as Louis XVIII. had tried to set on record when he dated the
Charter from the one-and-twentieth year of his reign, only exist when
ratified by the general consent. The d'Esgrignons not only lacked the
very rudiments of the language of latter-day politics, to wit, money,
the great modern /relief/, or sufficient rehabilitation of nobility;
but, in their case, too, "historical continuity" was lacking, and that
is a kind of renown which tells quite as much at Court as on the
battlefield, in diplomatic circles as in Parliament, with a book, or
in connection with an adventure; it is, as it were, a sacred ampulla
poured upon the heads of each successive generation. Whereas a noble
family, inactive and forgotten, is very much in the position of a
hard-featured, poverty-stricken, simple-minded, and virtuous maid,
these qualifications being the four cardinal points of misfortune. The
marriage of a daughter of the Troisvilles with General Montcornet, so
far from opening the eyes of the Antiquities, very nearly brought
about a rupture between the Troisvilles and the salon d'Esgrignon, the
latter declaring that the Troisvilles were mixing themselves up with
all sorts of people.
There was one, and one only, among all these folk who did not share
their illusions. And that one, needless to say, was Chesnel the
notary. Although his devotion, sufficiently proved already, was simply
unbounded for the great house now reduced to three persons; although
he accepted all their ideas, and thought them nothing less than right,
he had too much common sense, he was too good a man of business to
more than half the families in the department, to miss the
significance of the great changes that were taking place in people's
minds, or to be blind to the different conditions brought about by
industrial development and modern manners. He had watched the
Revolution pass through the violent phase of 1793, when men, women,
and children wore arms, and heads fell on the scaffold, and victories
were won in pitched battles with Europe; and now he saw the same
forces quietly at work in men's minds, in the shape of ideas which
sanctioned the issues. The soil had been cleared, the seed sown, and
now came the harvest. To his thinking, the Revolution had formed the
mind of the younger generation; he touched the hard facts, and knew
that although there were countless unhealed wounds, what had been done
was past recall. The death of a king on the scaffold, the protracted
agony of a queen, the division of the nobles' lands, in his eyes were
so many binding contracts; and where so many vested interests were
involved, it was not likely that those concerned would allow them to
be attacked. Chesnel saw clearly. His fanatical attachment to the
d'Esgrignons was whole-hearted, but it was not blind, and it was all
the fairer for this. The young monk's faith that sees heaven laid open
and beholds the angels, is something far below the power of the old
monk who points them out to him. The ex-steward was like the old monk;
he would have given his life to defend a worm-eaten shrine.
He tried to explain the "innovations" to his old master, using a
thousand tactful precautions; sometimes speaking jestingly, sometimes
affecting surprise or sorrow over this or that; but he always met the
same prophetic smile on the Marquis' lips, the same fixed conviction
in the Marquis' mind, that these follies would go by like others.
Events contributed in a way which has escaped attention to assist such
noble champions of forlorn hope to cling to their superstitions. What
could Chesnel do when the old Marquis said, with a lordly gesture,
"God swept away Bonaparte with his armies, his new great vassals, his
crowned kings, and his vast conceptions! God will deliver us from the
rest." And Chesnel hung his head sadly, and did not dare to answer,
"It cannot be God's will to sweep away France." Yet both of them were
grand figures; the one, standing out against the torrent of facts like
an ancient block of lichen-covered granite, still upright in the
depths of an Alpine gorge; the other, watching the course of the flood
to turn it to account. Then the good gray-headed notary would groan
over the irreparable havoc which the superstitions were sure to work
in the mind, the habits, and ideas of the Comte Victurnien
Idolized by his father, idolized by his aunt, the young heir was a
spoilt child in every sense of the word; but still a spoilt child who
justified paternal and maternal illusions. Maternal, be it said, for
Victurnien's aunt was truly a mother to him; and yet, however careful
and tender she may be that never bore a child, there is something
lacking in her motherhood. A mother's second sight cannot be acquired.
An aunt, bound to her nursling by ties of such pure affection as
united Mlle. Armande to Victurnien, may love as much as a mother
might; may be as careful, as kind, as tender, as indulgent, but she
lacks the mother's instinctive knowledge when and how to be severe;
she has no sudden warnings, none of the uneasy presentiments of the
mother's heart; for a mother, bound to her child from the beginnings
of life by all the fibres of her being, still is conscious of the
communication, still vibrates with the shock of every trouble, and
thrills with every joy in the child's life as if it were her own. If
Nature has made of woman, physically speaking, a neutral ground, it
has not been forbidden to her, under certain conditions, to identify
herself completely with her offspring. When she has not merely given
life, but given of her whole life, you behold that wonderful,
unexplained, and inexplicable thing—the love of a woman for one of
her children above the others. The outcome of this story is one more
proof of a proven truth—a mother's place cannot be filled. A mother
foresees danger long before a Mlle. Armande can admit the possibility
of it, even if the mischief is done. The one prevents the evil, the
other remedies it. And besides, in the maiden's motherhood there is an
element of blind adoration, she cannot bring herself to scold a
A practical knowledge of life, and the experience of business, had
taught the old notary a habit of distrustful clear-sighted observation
something akin to the mother's instinct. But Chesnel counted for so
little in the house (especially since he had fallen into something
like disgrace over that unlucky project of a marriage between a
d'Esgrignon and a du Croisier), that he had made up his mind to adhere
blindly in future to the family doctrines. He was a common soldier,
faithful to his post, and ready to give his life; it was never likely
that they would take his advice, even in the height of the storm;
unless chance should bring him, like the King's bedesman in The
Antiquary, to the edge of the sea, when the old baronet and his
daughter were caught by the high tide.
Du Croisier caught a glimpse of his revenge in the anomalous education
given to the lad. He hoped, to quote the expressive words of the
author quoted above, "to drown the lamb in its mother's milk." /This/
was the hope which had produced his taciturn resignation and brought
that savage smile on his lips.
The young Comte Victurnien was taught to believe in his own supremacy
as soon as an idea could enter his head. All the great nobles of the
realm were his peers, his one superior was the King, and the rest of
mankind were his inferiors, people with whom he had nothing in common,
towards whom he had no duties. They were defeated and conquered
enemies, whom he need not take into account for a moment; their
opinions could not affect a noble, and they all owed him respect.
Unluckily, with the rigorous logic of youth, which leads children and
young people to proceed to extremes whether good or bad, Victurnien
pushed these conclusions to their utmost consequences. His own
external advantages, moreover, confirmed him in his beliefs. He had
been extraordinarily beautiful as a child; he became as accomplished a
young man as any father could wish.
He was of average height, but well proportioned, slender, and almost
delicate-looking, but muscular. He had the brilliant blue eyes of the
d'Esgrignons, the finely-moulded aquiline nose, the perfect oval of
the face, the auburn hair, the white skin, and the graceful gait of
his family; he had their delicate extremities, their long taper
fingers with the inward curve, and that peculiar distinction of
shapeliness of the wrist and instep, that supple felicity of line,
which is as sure a sign of race in men as in horses. Adroit and alert
in all bodily exercises, and an excellent shot, he handled arms like a
St. George, he was a paladin on horseback. In short, he gratified the
pride which parents take in their children's appearance; a pride
founded, for that matter, on a just idea of the enormous influence
exercised by physical beauty. Personal beauty has this in common with
noble birth; it cannot be acquired afterwards; it is everywhere
recognized, and often is more valued than either brains or money;
beauty has only to appear and triumph; nobody asks more of beauty than
that it should simply exist.
Fate had endowed Victurnien, over and above the privileges of good
looks and noble birth, with a high spirit, a wonderful aptitude of
comprehension, and a good memory. His education, therefore, had been
complete. He knew a good deal more than is usually known by young
provincial nobles, who develop into highly-distinguished sportsmen,
owners of land, and consumers of tobacco; and are apt to treat art,
sciences, letters, poetry, or anything offensively above their
intellects, cavalierly enough. Such gifts of nature and education
surely would one day realize the Marquis d'Esgrignon's ambitions; he
already saw his son a Marshal of France if Victurnien's tastes were
for the army; an ambassador if diplomacy held any attractions for him;
a cabinet minister if that career seemed good in his eyes; every place
in the state belonged to Victurnien. And, most gratifying thought of
all for a father, the young Count would have made his way in the world
by his own merits even if he had not been a d'Esgrignon.
All through his happy childhood and golden youth, Victurnien had never
met with opposition to his wishes. He had been the king of the house;
no one curbed the little prince's will; and naturally he grew up
insolent and audacious, selfish as a prince, self-willed as the most
high-spirited cardinal of the Middle Ages,—defects of character which
any one might guess from his qualities, essentially those of the
The Chevalier was a man of the good old times when the Gray Musketeers
were the terror of the Paris theatres, when they horsewhipped the
watch and drubbed servers of writs, and played a host of page's
pranks, at which Majesty was wont to smile so long as they were
amusing. This charming deceiver and hero of the ruelles had no small
share in bringing about the disasters which afterwards befell. The
amiable old gentleman, with nobody to understand him, was not a little
pleased to find a budding Faublas, who looked the part to admiration,
and put him in mind of his own young days. So, making no allowance for
the difference of the times, he sowed the maxims of a roue of the
Encyclopaedic period broadcast in the boy's mind. He told wicked
anecdotes of the reign of His Majesty Louis XV.; he glorified the
manners and customs of the year 1750; he told of the orgies in petites
maisons, the follies of courtesans, the capital tricks played on
creditors, the manners, in short, which furnished forth Dancourt's
comedies and Beaumarchais' epigrams. And unfortunately, the corruption
lurking beneath the utmost polish tricked itself out in Voltairean
wit. If the Chevalier went rather too far at times, he always added as
a corrective that a man must always behave himself like a gentleman.
Of all this discourse, Victurnien comprehended just so much as
flattered his passions. From the first he saw his old father laughing
with the Chevalier. The two elderly men considered that the pride of a
d'Esgrignon was a sufficient safeguard against anything unbefitting;
as for a dishonorable action, no one in the house imagined that a
d'Esgrignon could be guilty of it. /Honor/, the great principle of
Monarchy, was planted firm like a beacon in the hearts of the family;
it lighted up the least action, it kindled the least thought of a
d'Esgrignon. "A d'Esgrignon ought not to permit himself to do such and
such a thing; he bears a name which pledges him to make a future
worthy of the past"—a noble teaching which should have been
sufficient in itself to keep alive the tradition of noblesse—had
been, as it were, the burden of Victurnien's cradle song. He heard
them from the old Marquis, from Mlle. Armande, from Chesnel, from the
intimates of the house. And so it came to pass that good and evil met,
and in equal forces, in the boy's soul.
At the age of eighteen, Victurnien went into society. He noticed some
slight discrepancies between the outer world of the town and the inner
world of the Hotel d'Esgrignon, but he in no wise tried to seek the
causes of them. And, indeed, the causes were to be found in Paris. He
had yet to learn that the men who spoke their minds out so boldly in
evening talk with his father, were extremely careful of what they said
in the presence of the hostile persons with whom their interests
compelled them to mingle. His own father had won the right of freedom
of speech. Nobody dreamed of contradicting an old man of seventy, and
besides, every one was willing to overlook fidelity to the old order
of things in a man who had been violently despoiled.
Victurnien was deceived by appearances, and his behavior set up the
backs of the townspeople. In his impetuous way he tried to carry
matters with too high a hand over some difficulties in the way of
sport, which ended in formidable lawsuits, hushed up by Chesnel for
money paid down. Nobody dared to tell the Marquis of these things. You
may judge of his astonishment if he had heard that his son had been
prosecuted for shooting over his lands, his domains, his covers, under
the reign of a son of St. Louis! People were too much afraid of the
possible consequences to tell him about such trifles, Chesnel said.
The young Count indulged in other escapades in the town. These the
Chevalier regarded as "amourettes," but they cost Chesnel something
considerable in portions for forsaken damsels seduced under imprudent
promises of marriage: yet other cases there were which came under an
article of the Code as to the abduction of minors; and but for
Chesnel's timely intervention, the new law would have been allowed to
take its brutal course, and it is hard to say where the Count might
have ended. Victurnien grew the bolder for these victories over
bourgeois justice. He was so accustomed to be pulled out of scrapes,
that he never thought twice before any prank. Courts of law, in his
opinion, were bugbears to frighten people who had no hold on him.
Things which he would have blamed in common people were for him only
pardonable amusements. His disposition to treat the new laws
cavalierly while obeying the maxims of a Code for aristocrats, his
behavior and character, were all pondered, analyzed, and tested by a
few adroit persons in du Croisier's interests. These folk supported
each other in the effort to make the people believe that Liberal
slanders were revelations, and that the Ministerial policy at bottom
meant a return to the old order of things.
What a bit of luck to find something by way of proof of their
assertions! President du Ronceret, and the public prosecutor likewise,
lent themselves admirably, so far as was compatible with their duty as
magistrates, to the design of letting off the offender as easily as
possible; indeed, they went deliberately out of their way to do this,
well pleased to raise a Liberal clamor against their overlarge
concessions. And so, while seeming to serve the interests of the
d'Esgrignons, they stirred up feeling against them. The treacherous de
Ronceret had it in his mind to pose as incorruptible at the right
moment over some serious charge, with public opinion to back him up.
The young Count's worst tendencies, moreover, were insidiously
encouraged by two or three young men who followed in his train, paid
court to him, won his favor, and flattered and obeyed him, with a view
to confirming his belief in a noble's supremacy; and all this at a
time when a noble's one chance of preserving his power lay in using it
with the utmost discretion for half a century to come.
Du Croisier hoped to reduce the d'Esgrignons to the last extremity of
poverty; he hoped to see their castle demolished, and their lands sold
piecemeal by auction, through the follies which this harebrained boy
was pretty certain to commit. This was as far as he went; he did not
think, with President du Ronceret, that Victurnien was likely to give
justice another kind of hold upon him. Both men found an ally for
their schemes of revenge in Victurnien's overweening vanity and love
of pleasure. President du Ronceret's son, a lad of seventeen, was
admirably fitted for the part of instigator. He was one of the Count's
companions, a new kind of spy in du Croisier's pay; du Croisier taught
him his lesson, set him to track down the noble and beautiful boy
through his better qualities, and sardonically prompted him to
encourage his victim in his worst faults. Fabien du Ronceret was a
sophisticated youth, to whom such a mystification was attractive; he
had precisely the keen brain and envious nature which finds in such a
pursuit as this the absorbing amusement which a man of an ingenious
turn lacks in the provinces.
In three years, between the ages of eighteen and one-and-twenty,
Victurnien cost poor Chesnel nearly eighty thousand francs! And this
without the knowledge of Mlle. Armande or the Marquis. More than half
of the money had been spent in buying off lawsuits; the lad's
extravagance had squandered the rest. Of the Marquis' income of ten
thousand livres, five thousand were necessary for the housekeeping;
two thousand more represented Mlle. Armande's allowance (parsimonious
though she was) and the Marquis' expenses. The handsome young
heir-presumptive, therefore, had not a hundred louis to spend. And what
sort of figure can a man make on two thousand livres? Victurnien's
tailor's bills alone absorbed his whole allowance. He had his linen,
his clothes, gloves, and perfumery from Paris. He wanted a good
English saddle-horse, a tilbury, and a second horse. M. du Croisier
had a tilbury and a thoroughbred. Was the bourgeoisie to cut out the
noblesse? Then, the young Count must have a man in the d'Esgrignon
livery. He prided himself on setting the fashion among young men in
the town and the department; he entered that world of luxuries and
fancies which suit youth and good looks and wit so well. Chesnel paid
for it all, not without using, like ancient parliaments, the right of
protest, albeit he spoke with angelic kindness.
"What a pity it is that so good a man should be so tiresome!"
Victurnien would say to himself every time that the notary staunched
some wound in his purse.
Chesnel had been left a widower, and childless; he had taken his old
master's son to fill the void in his heart. It was a pleasure to him
to watch the lad driving up the High Street, perched aloft on the
box-seat of the tilbury, whip in hand, and a rose in his button-hole,
handsome, well turned out, envied by every one.
Pressing need would bring Victurnien with uneasy eyes and coaxing
manner, but steady voice, to the modest house in the Rue du Bercail;
there had been losses at cards at the Troisvilles, or the Duc de
Verneuil's, or the prefecture, or the receiver-general's, and the
Count had come to his providence, the notary. He had only to show
himself to carry the day.
"Well, what is it, M. le Comte? What has happened?" the old man would
ask, with a tremor in his voice.
On great occasions Victurnien would sit down, assume a melancholy,
pensive expression, and submit with little coquetries of voice and
gesture to be questioned. Then when he had thoroughly roused the old
man's fears (for Chesnel was beginning to fear how such a course of
extravagance would end), he would own up to a peccadillo which a bill
for a thousand francs would absolve. Chesnel possessed a private
income of some twelve thousand livres, but the fund was not
inexhaustible. The eighty thousand francs thus squandered represented
his savings, accumulated for the day when the Marquis should send his
son to Paris, or open negotiations for a wealthy marriage.
Chesnel was clear-sighted so long as Victurnien was not there before
him. One by one he lost the illusions which the Marquis and his sister
still fondly cherished. He saw that the young fellow could not be
depended upon in the least, and wished to see him married to some
modest, sensible girl of good birth, wondering within himself how a
young man could mean so well and do so ill, for he made promises one
day only to break them all on the next.
But there is never any good to be expected of young men who confess
their sins and repent, and straightway fall into them again. A man of
strong character only confesses his faults to himself, and punishes
himself for them; as for the weak, they drop back into the old ruts
when they find that the bank is too steep to climb. The springs of
pride which lie in a great man's secret soul had been slackened in
Victurnien. With such guardians as he had, such company as he kept,
such a life as he led, he had suddenly became an enervated voluptuary
at that turning-point in his life when a man most stands in need of
the harsh discipline of misfortune and adversity which formed a Prince
Eugene, a Frederick II., a Napoleon. Chesnel saw that Victurnien
possessed that uncontrollable appetite for enjoyments which should be
the prerogative of men endowed with giant powers; the men who feel the
need of counterbalancing their gigantic labors by pleasures which
bring one-sided mortals to the pit.
At times the good man stood aghast; then, again, some profound sally,
some sign of the lad's remarkable range of intellect, would reassure
him. He would say, as the Marquis said at the rumor of some escapade,
"Boys will be boys." Chesnel had spoken to the Chevalier, lamenting
the young lord's propensity for getting into debt; but the Chevalier
manipulated his pinch of snuff, and listened with a smile of
"My dear Chesnel, just explain to me what a national debt is," he
answered. "If France has debts, egad! why should not Victurnien have
debts? At this time and at all times princes have debts, every
gentleman has debts. Perhaps you would rather that Victurnien should
bring you his savings?—Do you know that our great Richelieu (not the
Cardinal, a pitiful fellow that put nobles to death, but the
Marechal), do you know what he did once when his grandson the Prince
de Chinon, the last of the line, let him see that he had not spent his
pocket-money at the University?"
"No, M. le Chevalier."
"Oh, well; he flung the purse out of the window to a sweeper in the
courtyard, and said to his grandson, 'Then they do not teach you to be
a prince here?'"
Chesnel bent his head and made no answer. But that night, as he lay
awake, he thought that such doctrines as these were fatal in times
when there was one law for everybody, and foresaw the first beginnings
of the ruin of the d'Esgrignons.
But for these explanations which depict one side of provincial life in
the time of the Empire and the Restoration, it would not be easy to
understand the opening scene of this history, an incident which took
place in the great salon one evening towards the end of October 1822.
The card-tables were forsaken, the Collection of Antiquities—elderly
nobles, elderly countesses, young marquises, and simple baronesses
—had settled their losses and winnings. The master of the house was
pacing up and down the room, while Mlle. Armande was putting out the
candles on the card-tables. He was not taking exercise alone, the
Chevalier was with him, and the two wrecks of the eighteenth century
were talking of Victurnien. The Chevalier had undertaken to broach the
subject with the Marquis.
"Yes, Marquis," he was saying, "your son is wasting his time and his
youth; you ought to send him to court."
"I have always thought," said the Marquis, "that if my great age
prevents me from going to court—where, between ourselves, I do not
know what I should do among all these new people whom his Majesty
receives, and all that is going on there—that if I could not go
myself, I could at least send my son to present our homage to His
Majesty. The King surely would do something for the Count—give him a
company, for instance, or a place in the Household, a chance, in
short, for the boy to win his spurs. My uncle the Archbishop suffered
a cruel martyrdom; I have fought for the cause without deserting the
camp with those who thought it their duty to follow the Princes. I
held that while the King was in France, his nobles should rally round
him.—Ah! well, no one gives us a thought; a Henry IV. would have
written before now to the d'Esgrignons, 'Come to me, my friends; we
have won the day!'—After all, we are something better than the
Troisvilles, yet here are two Troisvilles made peers of France; and
another, I hear, represents the nobles in the Chamber." (He took the
upper electoral colleges for assemblies of his own order.) "Really,
they think no more of us than if we did not exist. I was waiting for
the Princes to make their journey through this part of the world; but
as the Princes do not come to us, we must go to the Princes."
"I am enchanted to learn that you think of introducing our dear
Victurnien into society," the Chevalier put in adroitly. "He ought not
to bury his talents in a hole like this town. The best fortune that he
can look for here is to come across some Norman girl" (mimicking the
accent), "country-bred, stupid, and rich. What could he make of
her?—his wife? Oh! good Lord!"
"I sincerely hope that he will defer his marriage until he has
obtained some great office or appointment under the Crown," returned
the gray-haired Marquis. "Still, there are serious difficulties in the
And these were the only difficulties which the Marquis saw at the
outset of his son's career.
"My son, the Comte d'Esgrignon, cannot make his appearance at court
like a tatterdemalion," he continued after a pause, marked by a sigh;
"he must be equipped. Alas! for these two hundred years we have had no
retainers. Ah! Chevalier, this demolition from top to bottom always
brings me back to the first hammer stroke delivered by M. de Mirabeau.
The one thing needful nowadays is money; that is all that the
Revolution has done that I can see. The King does not ask you whether
you are a descendant of the Valois or a conquerer of Gaul; he asks
whether you pay a thousand francs in tailles which nobles never used
to pay. So I cannot well send the Count to court without a matter of
twenty thousand crowns——"
"Yes," assented the Chevalier, "with that trifling sum he could cut a
"Well," said Mlle. Armande, "I have asked Chesnel to come to-night.
Would you believe it, Chevalier, ever since the day when Chesnel
proposed that I should marry that miserable du Croisier——"
"Ah! that was truly unworthy, mademoiselle!" cried the Chevalier.
"Unpardonable!" said the Marquis.
"Well, since then my brother has never brought himself to ask anything
whatsoever of Chesnel," continued Mlle. Armande.
"Of your old household servant? Why, Marquis, you would do Chesnel
honor—an honor which he would gratefully remember till his latest
"No," said the Marquis, "the thing is beneath one's dignity, it seems
"There is not much question of dignity; it is a matter of necessity,"
said the Chevalier, with the trace of a shrug.
"Never," said the Marquis, riposting with a gesture which decided the
Chevalier to risk a great stroke to open his old friend's eyes.
"Very well," he said, "since you do not know it, I will tell you
myself that Chesnel has let your son have something already, something
"My son is incapable of accepting anything whatever from Chesnel," the
Marquis broke in, drawing himself up as he spoke. "He might have come
to /you/ to ask you for twenty-five louis——"
"Something like a hundred thousand livres," said the Chevalier,
finishing his sentence.
"The Comte d'Esgrignon owes a hundred thousand livres to a Chesnel!"
cried the Marquis, with every sign of deep pain. "Oh! if he were not
an only son, he should set out to-night for Mexico with a captain's
commission. A man may be in debt to money-lenders, they charge a heavy
interest, and you are quits; that is right enough; but /Chesnel/! a man
to whom one is attached!——"
"Yes, our adorable Victurnien has run through a hundred thousand
livres, dear Marquis," resumed the Chevalier, flicking a trace of
snuff from his waistcoat; "it is not much, I know. I myself at his
age—— But, after all, let us let old memories be, Marquis. The Count
is living in the provinces; all things taken into consideration, it is
not so much amiss. He will not go far; these irregularities are common
in men who do great things afterwards——"
"And he is sleeping upstairs, without a word of this to his father,"
exclaimed the Marquis.
"Sleeping innocently as a child who has merely got five or six little
bourgeoises into trouble, and now must have duchesses," returned the
"Why, he deserves a lettre de cachet!"
"'They' have done away with lettres de cachet," said the Chevalier.
"You know what a hubbub there was when they tried to institute a law
for special cases. We could not keep the provost's courts, which
M. /de/ Bonaparte used to call commissions militaires."
"Well, well; what are we to do if our boys are wild, or turn out
scapegraces? Is there no locking them up in these days?" asked the
The Chevalier looked at the heartbroken father and lacked courage to
answer, "We shall be obliged to bring them up properly."
"And you have never said a word of this to me, Mlle. d'Esgrignon,"
added the Marquis, turning suddenly round upon Mlle. Armande. He never
addressed her as Mlle. d'Esgrignon except when he was vexed; usually
she was called "my sister."
"Why, monsieur, when a young man is full of life and spirits, and
leads an idle life in a town like this, what else can you expect?"
asked Mlle. d'Esgrignon. She could not understand her brother's anger.
"Debts! eh! why, hang it all!" added the Chevalier. "He plays cards,
he has little adventures, he shoots,—all these things are horribly
"Come," said the Marquis, "it is time to send him to the King. I will
spend to-morrow morning in writing to our kinsmen."
"I have some acquaintance with the Ducs de Navarreins, de Lenoncourt,
de Maufrigneuse, and de Chaulieu," said the Chevalier, though he knew,
as he spoke, that he was pretty thoroughly forgotten.
"My dear Chevalier, there is no need of such formalities to present a
d'Esgrignon at court," the Marquis broke in.—"A hundred thousand
livres," he muttered; "this Chesnel makes very free. This is what
comes of these accursed troubles. M. Chesnel protects my son. And now
I must ask him. . . . No, sister, you must undertake this business.
Chesnel shall secure himself for the whole amount by a mortgage on our
lands. And just give this harebrained boy a good scolding; he will end
by ruining himself if he goes on like this."
The Chevalier and Mlle. d'Esgrignon thought these words perfectly
simple and natural, absurd as they would have sounded to any other
listener. So far from seeing anything ridiculous in the speech, they
were both very much touched by a look of something like anguish in the
old noble's face. Some dark premonition seemed to weigh upon M.
d'Esgrignon at that moment, some glimmering of an insight into the
changed times. He went to the settee by the fireside and sat down,
forgetting that Chesnel would be there before long; that Chesnel, of
whom he could not bring himself to ask anything.
Just then the Marquis d'Esgrignon looked exactly as any imagination
with a touch of romance could wish. He was almost bald, but a fringe
of silken, white locks, curled at the tips, covered the back of his
head. All the pride of race might be seen in a noble forehead, such as
you may admire in a Louis XV., a Beaumarchais, a Marechal de
Richelieu, it was not the square, broad brow of the portraits of the
Marechal de Saxe; nor yet the small hard circle of Voltaire, compact
to overfulness; it was graciously rounded and finely moulded, the
temples were ivory tinted and soft; and mettle and spirit, unquenched
by age, flashed from the brilliant eyes. The Marquis had the Conde
nose and the lovable Bourbon mouth, from which, as they used to say of
the Comte d'Artois, only witty and urbane words proceed. His cheeks,
sloping rather than foolishly rounded to the chin, were in keeping
with his spare frame, thin legs, and plump hands. The strangulation
cravat at his throat was of the kind which every marquis wears in all
the portraits which adorn eighteenth century literature; it is common
alike to Saint-Preux and to Lovelace, to the elegant Montesquieu's
heroes and to Diderot's homespun characters (see the first editions of
those writers' works).
The Marquis always wore a white, gold-embroidered, high waistcoat,
with the red ribbon of a commander of the Order of St. Louis blazing
upon his breast; and a blue coat with wide skirts, and fleur-de-lys on
the flaps, which were turned back—an odd costume which the King had
adopted. But the Marquis could not bring himself to give up the
Frenchman's knee-breeches nor yet the white silk stockings or the
buckles at the knees. After six o'clock in the evening he appeared in
He read no newspapers but the Quotidienne and the Gazette de France,
two journals accused by the Constitutional press of obscurantist views
and uncounted "monarchical and religious" enormities; while the
Marquis d'Esgrignon, on the other hand, found heresies and
revolutionary doctrines in every issue. No matter to what extremes the
organs of this or that opinion may go, they will never go quite far
enough to please the purists on their own side; even as the portrayer
of this magnificent personage is pretty certain to be accused of
exaggeration, whereas he has done his best to soften down some of the
cruder tones and dim the more startling tints of the original.
The Marquis d'Esgrignon rested his elbows on his knees and leant his
head on his hands. During his meditations Mlle. Armande and the
Chevalier looked at one another without uttering the thoughts in their
minds. Was he pained by the discovery that his son's future must
depend upon his sometime land steward? Was he doubtful of the
reception awaiting the young Count? Did he regret that he had made no
preparation for launching his heir into that brilliant world of court?
Poverty had kept him in the depths of his province; how should he have
appeared at court? He sighed heavily as he raised his head.
That sigh, in those days, came from the real aristocracy all over
France; from the loyal provincial noblesse, consigned to neglect with
most of those who had drawn sword and braved the storm for the cause.
"What have the Princes done for the du Guenics, or the Fontaines, or
the Bauvans, who never submitted?" he muttered to himself. "They fling
miserable pensions to the men who fought most bravely, and give them a
royal lieutenancy in a fortress somewhere on the outskirts of the
Evidently the Marquis doubted the reigning dynasty. Mlle. d'Esgrignon
was trying to reassure her brother as to the prospects of the journey,
when a step outside on the dry narrow footway gave them notice of
Chesnel's coming. In another moment Chesnel appeared; Josephin, the
Count's gray-aired valet, admitted the notary without announcing him.
"Chesnel, my boy——" (Chesnel was a white-haired man of sixty-nine,
with a square-jawed, venerable countenance; he wore knee-breeches,
ample enough to fill several chapters of dissertation in the manner
of Sterne, ribbed stockings, shoes with silver clasps, an
ecclesiastical-looking coat and a high waistcoat of scholastic cut.)
"Chesnel, my boy, it was very presumptuous of you to lend money to the
Comte d'Esgrignon! If I repaid you at once and we never saw each other
again, it would be no more than you deserve for giving wings to his
There was a pause, a silence such as there falls at court when the
King publicly reprimands a courtier. The old notary looked humble and
"I am anxious about that boy, Chesnel," continued the Marquis in a
kindly tone; "I should like to send him to Paris to serve His Majesty.
Make arrangements with my sister for his suitable appearance at
court.—And we will settle accounts——"
The Marquis looked grave as he left the room with a friendly gesture
of farewell to Chesnel.
"I thank M. le Marquis for all his goodness," returned the old man,
who still remained standing.
Mlle. Armande rose to go to the door with her brother; she had rung
the bell, old Josephin was in readiness to light his master to his
"Take a seat, Chesnel," said the lady, as she returned, and with
womanly tact she explained away and softened the Marquis' harshness.
And yet beneath that harshness Chesnel saw a great affection. The
Marquis' attachment for his old servant was something of the same
order as a man's affection for his dog; he will fight any one who
kicks the animal, the dog is like a part of his existence, a something
which, if not exactly himself, represents him in that which is nearest
and dearest—his sensibilities.
"It is quite time that M. le Comte should be sent away from the town,
mademoiselle," he said sententiously.
"Yes," returned she. "Has he been indulging in some new escapade?"
"Well, why do you blame him?"
"I am not blaming him, mademoiselle. No, I am not blaming him. I am
very far from blaming him. I will even say that I shall never blame
him, whatever he may do."
There was a pause. The Chevalier, nothing if not quick to take in a
situation, began to yawn like a sleep-ridden mortal. Gracefully he
made his excuses and went, with as little mind to sleep as to go and
drown himself. The imp Curiosity kept the Chevalier wide awake, and
with airy fingers plucked away the cotton wool from his ears.
"Well, Chesnel, is it something new?" Mlle. Armande began anxiously.
"Yes, things that cannot be told to M. le Marquis; he would drop down
in an apoplectic fit."
"Speak out," she said. With her beautiful head leant on the back of
her low chair, and her arms extended listlessly by her side, she
looked as if she were waiting passively for her deathblow.
"Mademoiselle, M. le Comte, with all his cleverness, is a plaything in
the hands of mean creatures, petty natures on the lookout for a
crushing revenge. They want to ruin us and bring us low! There is the
President of the Tribunal, M. de Ronceret; he has, as you know, a very
great notion of his descent——"
"His grandfather was an attorney," interposed Mlle. Armande.
"I know he was. And for that reason you have not received him; nor
does he go to M. de Troisville's, nor to M. le Duc de Verneuil's, nor
to the Marquis de Casteran's; but he is one of the pillars of du
Croisier's salon. Your nephew may rub shoulders with young M. Fabien
du Ronceret without condescending too far, for he must have companions
of his own age. Well and good. That young fellow is at the bottom of
all M. le Comte's follies; he and two or three of the rest of them
belong to the other side, the side of M. le Chevalier's enemy, who
does nothing but breathe threats of vengeance against you and all the
nobles together. They all hope to ruin you through your nephew. The
ringleader of the conspiracy is this sycophant of a du Croisier, the
pretended Royalist. Du Croisier's wife, poor thing, knows nothing
about it; you know her, I should have heard of it before this if she
had ears to hear evil. For some time these wild young fellows were not
in the secret, nor was anybody else; but the ringleaders let something
drop in jest, and then the fools got to know about it, and after the
Count's recent escapades they let fall some words while they were
drunk. And those words were carried to me by others who are sorry to
see such a fine, handsome, noble, charming lad ruining himself with
pleasure. So far people feel sorry for him; before many days are over
they will—I am afraid to say what——"
"They will despise him; say it out, Chesnel!" Mlle. Armande cried
"Ah! How can you keep the best people in the town from finding out
faults in their neighbors? They do not know what to do with themselves
from morning to night. And so M. le Comte's losses at play are all
reckoned up. Thirty thousand francs have taken flight during these two
months, and everybody wonders where he gets the money. If they mention
it when I am present, I just call them to order. Ah! but—'Do you
suppose' (I told them this morning), 'do you suppose that if the
d'Esgrignon family have lost their manorial rights, that therefore
they have been robbed of their hoard of treasure? The young Count has
a right to do as he pleases; and so long as he does not owe you a
half-penny, you have no right to say a word.'"
Mlle, Armande held out her hand, and the notary kissed it
"Good Chesnel! . . . But, my friend, how shall we find the money for
this journey? Victurnien must appear as befits his rank at court."
"Oh! I have borrowed money on Le Jard, mademoiselle."
"What? You have nothing left! Ah, heaven! what can we do to reward
"You can take the hundred thousand francs which I hold at your
disposal. You can understand that the loan was negotiated in
confidence, so that it might not reflect on you; for it is known in
the town that I am closely connected with the d'Esgrignon family."
Tears came into Mlle. Armande's eyes. Chesnel saw them, took a fold of
the noble woman's dress in his hands, and kissed it.
"Never mind," he said, "a lad must sow his wild oats. In great salons
in Paris his boyish ideas will take a new turn. And, really, though
our old friends here are the worthiest folk in the world, and no one
could have nobler hearts than they, they are not amusing. If M. le
Comte wants amusement, he is obliged to look below his rank, and he
will end by getting into low company."
Next day the old traveling coach saw the light, and was sent to be put
in repair. In a solemn interview after breakfast, the hope of the
house was duly informed of his father's intentions regarding him—he
was to go to court and ask to serve His Majesty. He would have time
during the journey to make up his mind about his career. The navy or
the army, the privy council, an embassy, or the Royal Household,—all
were open to a d'Esgrignon, a d'Esgrignon had only to choose. The King
would certainly look favorably upon the d'Esgrignons, because they had
asked nothing of him, and had sent the youngest representative of
their house to receive the recognition of Majesty.
But young d'Esgrignon, with all his wild pranks, had guessed
instinctively what society in Paris meant, and formed his own opinions
of life. So when they talked of his leaving the country and the
paternal roof, he listened with a grave countenance to his revered
parent's lecture, and refrained from giving him a good deal of
information in reply. As, for instance, that young men no longer went
into the army or the navy as they used to do; that if a man had a mind
to be a second lieutenant in a cavalry regiment without passing
through a special training in the Ecoles, he must first serve in the
Pages; that sons of the greatest houses went exactly like commoners to
Saint-Cyr and the Ecole polytechnique, and took their chances of being
beaten by base blood. If he had enlightened his relatives on these
points, funds might not have been forthcoming for a stay in Paris; so
he allowed his father and Aunt Armande to believe that he would be
permitted a seat in the King's carriages, that he must support his
dignity at court as the d'Esgrignon of the time, and rub shoulders
with great lords of the realm.
It grieved the Marquis that he could send but one servant with his
son; but he gave him his own valet Josephin, a man who can be trusted
to take care of his young master, and to watch faithfully over his
interests. The poor father must do without Josephin, and hope to
replace him with a young lad.
"Remember that you are a Carol, my boy," he said; "remember that you
come of an unalloyed descent, and that your scutcheon bears the motto
Cil est nostre; with such arms you may hold your head high everywhere,
and aspire to queens. Render grace to your father, as I to mine. We
owe it to the honor of our ancestors, kept stainless until now, that
we can look all men in the face, and need bend the knee to none save a
mistress, the King, and God. This is the greatest of your privileges."
Chesnel, good man, was breakfasting with the family. He took no part
in counsels based on heraldry, nor in the inditing of letters
addressed to divers mighty personages of the day; but he had spent the
night in writing to an old friend of his, one of the oldest
established notaries of Paris. Without this letter it is not possible
to understand Chesnel's real and assumed fatherhood. It almost recalls
Daedalus' address to Icarus; for where, save in old mythology, can you
look for comparisons worthy of this man of antique mould?
"MY DEAR AND ESTIMABLE SORBIER,—I remember with no little
pleasure that I made my first campaign in our honorable profession
under your father, and that you had a liking for me, poor little
clerk that I was. And now I appeal to old memories of the days
when we worked in the same office, old pleasant memories for our
hearts, to ask you to do me the one service that I have ever asked
of you in the course of our long lives, crossed as they have been
by political catastrophes, to which, perhaps, I owe it that I have
the honor to be your colleague. And now I ask this service of you,
my friend, and my white hairs will be brought with sorrow to the
grave if you should refuse my entreaty. It is no question of
myself or of mine, Sorbier, for I lost poor Mme. Chesnel, and I
have no child of my own. Something more to me than my own family
(if I had one) is involved—it is the Marquis d'Esgrignon's only
son. I have had the honor to be the Marquis' land steward ever
since I left the office to which his father sent me at his own
expense, with the idea of providing for me. The house which
nurtured me has passed through all the troubles of the Revolution.
I have managed to save some of their property; but what is it,
after all, in comparison with the wealth that they have lost? I
cannot tell you, Sorbier, how deeply I am attached to the great
house, which has been all but swallowed up under my eyes by the
abyss of time. M. le Marquis was proscribed, and his lands
confiscated, he was getting on in years, he had no child.
Misfortunes upon misfortunes! Then M. le Marquis married, and his
wife died when the young Count was born, and to-day this noble,
dear, and precious child is all the life of the d'Esgrignon
family; the fate of the house hangs upon him. He has got into debt
here with amusing himself. What else should he do in the provinces
with an allowance of a miserable hundred louis? Yes, my friend, a
hundred louis, the great house has come to this.
"In this extremity his father thinks it necessary to send the
Count to Paris to ask for the King's favor at court. Paris is a
very dangerous place for a lad; if he is to keep steady there, he
must have the grain of sense which makes notaries of us. Besides,
I should be heartbroken to think of the poor boy living amid such
hardships as we have known.—Do you remember the pleasure with
which we spent a day and a night there waiting to see The Marriage
of Figaro? Oh, blind that we were!—We were happy and poor, but a
noble cannot be happy in poverty. A noble in want—it is a thing
against nature! Ah! Sorbier, when one has known the satisfaction
of propping one of the grandest genealogical trees in the kingdom
in its fall, it is so natural to interest oneself in it and to
grow fond of it, and love it and water it and look to see it
blossom. So you will not be surprised at so many precautions on my
part; you will not wonder when I beg the help of your lights, so
that all may go well with our young man.
"Keep yourself informed of his movements and doings, of the
company which he keeps, and watch over his connections with women.
M. le Chevalier says that an opera dancer often costs less than a
court lady. Obtain information on that point and let me know. If
you are too busy, perhaps Mme. Sorbier might know what becomes of
the young man, and where he goes. The idea of playing the part of
guardian angel to such a noble and charming boy might have
attractions for her. God will remember her for accepting the
sacred trust. Perhaps when you see M. le Comte Victurnien, her
heart may tremble at the thought of all the dangers awaiting him
in Paris; he is very young, and handsome; clever, and at the same
time disposed to trust others. If he forms a connection with some
designing woman, Mme. Sorbier could counsel him better than you
yourself could do. The old man-servant who is with him can tell
you many things; sound Josephin, I have told him to go to you in
"But why should I say more? We once were clerks together, and a
pair of scamps; remember our escapades, and be a little bit young
again, my old friend, in your dealings with him. The sixty
thousand francs will be remitted to you in the shape of a bill on
the Treasury by a gentlemen who is going to Paris," and so forth.
If the old couple to whom this epistle was addressed had followed out
Chesnel's instructions, they would have been compelled to take three
private detectives into their pay. And yet there was ample wisdom
shown in Chesnel's choice of a depositary. A banker pays money to any
one accredited to him so long as the money lasts; whereas, Victurnien
was obliged, every time that he was in want of money, to make a
personal visit to the notary, who was quite sure to use the right of
Victurnien heard that he was to be allowed two thousand francs every
month, and thought that he betrayed his joy. He knew nothing of Paris.
He fancied that he could keep up princely state on such a sum.
Next day he started on his journey. All the benedictions of the
Collection of Antiquities went with him; he was kissed by the
dowagers; good wishes were heaped on his head; his old father, his
aunt, and Chesnel went with him out of the town, tears filling the
eyes of all three. The sudden departure supplied material for
conversation for several evenings; and what was more, it stirred the
rancorous minds of the salon du Croisier to the depths. The
forage-contractor, the president, and others who had vowed to ruin
the d'Esgrignons, saw their prey escaping out of their hands. They
had based their schemes of revenge on a young man's follies, and now
he was beyond their reach.
The tendency in human nature, which often gives a bigot a rake for a
daughter, and makes a frivolous woman the mother of a narrow pietist;
that rule of contraries, which, in all probability, is the "resultant"
of the law of similarities, drew Victurnien to Paris by a desire to
which he must sooner or later have yielded. Brought up as he had been
in the old-fashioned provincial house, among the quiet, gentle faces
that smiled upon him, among sober servants attached to the family, and
surroundings tinged with a general color of age, the boy had only seen
friends worthy of respect. All of those about him, with the exception
of the Chevalier, had example of venerable age, were elderly men and
women, sedate of manner, decorous and sententious of speech. He had
been petted by those women in gray gowns and embroidered mittens
described by Blondet. The antiquated splendors of his father's house
were as little calculated as possible to suggest frivolous thoughts;
and lastly, he had been educated by a sincerely religious abbe,
possessed of all the charm of old age, which has dwelt in two
centuries, and brings to the Present its gifts of the dried roses of
experience, the faded flowers of the old customs of its youth.
Everything should have combined to fashion Victurnien to serious
habits; his whole surroundings from childhood bade him continue the
glory of a historic name, by taking his life as something noble and
great; and yet Victurnien listened to dangerous promptings.
For him, his noble birth was a stepping-stone which raised him above
other men. He felt that the idol of Noblesse, before which they burned
incense at home, was hollow; he had come to be one of the commonest as
well as one of the worst types from a social point of view—a
consistent egoist. The aristocratic cult of the /ego/ simply taught him
to follow his own fancies; he had been idolized by those who had the
care of him in childhood, and adored by the companions who shared in
his boyish escapades, and so he had formed a habit of looking and
judging everything as it affected his own pleasure; he took it as a
matter of course when good souls saved him from the consequences of
his follies, a piece of mistaken kindness which could only lead to his
ruin. Victurnien's early training, noble and pious though it was, had
isolated him too much. He was out of the current of the life of the
time, for the life of a provincial town is certainly not in the main
current of the age; Victurnien's true destiny lifted him above it. He
had learned to think of an action, not as it affected others, nor
relatively, but absolutely from his own point of view. Like despots,
he made the law to suit the circumstance, a system which works in the
lives of prodigal sons the same confusion which fancy brings into art.
Victurnien was quick-sighted, he saw clearly and without illusion, but
he acted on impulse, and unwisely. An indefinable flaw of character,
often seen in young men, but impossible to explain, led him to will
one thing and do another. In spite of an active mind, which showed
itself in unexpected ways, the senses had but to assert themselves,
and the darkened brain seemed to exist no longer. He might have
astonished wise men; he was capable of setting fools agape. His
desires, like a sudden squall of bad weather, overclouded all the
clear and lucid spaces of his brain in a moment; and then, after the
dissipations which he could not resist, he sank, utterly exhausted in
body, heart, and mind, into a collapsed condition bordering upon
imbecility. Such a character will drag a man down into the mire if he
is left to himself, or bring him to the highest heights of political
power if he has some stern friend to keep him in hand. Neither
Chesnel, nor the lad's father, nor Aunt Armande had fathomed the
depths of a nature so nearly akin on many sides to the poetic
temperament, yet smitten with a terrible weakness at its core.
By the time the old town lay several miles away, Victurnien felt not
the slightest regret; he thought no more about the father, who had
loved ten generations in his son, nor of the aunt, and her almost
insane devotion. He was looking forward to Paris with vehement
ill-starred longings; in thought he had lived in that fairyland, it
had been the background of his brightest dreams. He imagined that he
would be first in Paris, as he had been in the town and the department
where his father's name was potent; but it was vanity, not pride, that
filled his soul, and in his dreams his pleasures were to be magnified
by all the greatness of Paris. The distance was soon crossed. The
traveling coach, like his own thoughts, left the narrow horizon of the
province for the vast world of the great city, without a break in the
journey. He stayed in the Rue de Richelieu, in a handsome hotel close
to the boulevard, and hastened to take possession of Paris as a
famished horse rushes into a meadow.
He was not long in finding out the difference between country and
town, and was rather surprised than abashed by the change. His mental
quickness soon discovered how small an entity he was in the midst of
this all-comprehending Babylon; how insane it would be to attempt to
stem the torrent of new ideas and new ways. A single incident was
enough. He delivered his father's letter of introduction to the Duc de
Lenoncourt, a noble who stood high in favor with the King. He saw the
duke in his splendid mansion, among surroundings befitting his rank.
Next day he met him again. This time the Peer of France was lounging
on foot along the boulevard, just like any ordinary mortal, with an
umbrella in his hand; he did not even wear the Blue Ribbon, without
which no knight of the order could have appeared in public in other
times. And, duke and peer and first gentleman of the bedchamber though
he was, M. de Lenoncourt, in spite of his high courtesy, could not
repress a smile as he read his relative's letter; and that smile told
Victurnien that the Collection of Antiquities and the Tuileries were
separated by more than sixty leagues of road; the distance of several
centuries lay between them.
The names of the families grouped about the throne are quite different
in each successive reign, and the characters change with the names. It
would seem that, in the sphere of court, the same thing happens over
and over again in each generation; but each time there is a quite
different set of personages. If history did not prove that this is so,
it would seem incredible. The prominent men at the court of Louis
XVIII., for instance, had scarcely any connection with the
Rivieres, Blacas, d'Avarays, Vitrolles, d'Autichamps, Pasquiers,
Larochejaqueleins, Decazes, Dambrays, Laines, de Villeles, La
Bourdonnayes, and others who shone at the court of Louis XV. Compare
the courtiers of Henri IV. with those of Louis XIV.; you will hardly
find five great families of the former time still in existence. The
nephew of the great Richelieu was a very insignificant person at the
court of Louis XIV.; while His Majesty's favorite, Villeroi, was the
grandson of a secretary ennobled by Charles IX. And so it befell that
the d'Esgrignons, all but princes under the Valois, and all-powerful
in the time of Henri IV., had no fortune whatever at the court of
Louis XVIII., which gave them not so much as a thought. At this day
there are names as famous as those of royal houses—the Foix-Graillys,
for instance, or the d'Herouvilles—left to obscurity tantamount to
extinction for want of money, the one power of the time.
All which things Victurnien beheld entirely from his own point of
view; he felt the equality that he saw in Paris as a personal wrong.
The monster Equality was swallowing down the last fragments of social
distinction in the Restoration. Having made up his mind on this head,
he immediately proceeded to try to win back his place with such
dangerous, if blunted weapons, as the age left to the noblesse. It is
an expensive matter to gain the attention of Paris. To this end,
Victurnien adopted some of the ways then in vogue. He felt that it was
a necessity to have horses and fine carriages, and all the accessories
of modern luxury; he felt, in short, "that a man must keep abreast of
the times," as de Marsay said—de Marsay, the first dandy that he came
across in the first drawing-room to which he was introduced. For his
misfortune, he fell in with a set of roues, with de Marsay, de
Ronquerolles, Maxime de Trailles, des Lupeaulx, Rastignac,
Ajuda-Pinto, Beaudenord, de la Roche-Hugon, de Manerville, and the
Vandenesses, whom he met wherever he went, and a great many houses
were open to a young man with his ancient name and reputation for
wealth. He went to the Marquise d'Espard's, to the Duchesses de
Grandlieu, de Carigliano, and de Chaulieu, to the Marquises
d'Aiglemont and de Listomere, to Mme. de Serizy's, to the Opera, to
the embassies and elsewhere. The Faubourg Saint-Germain has its
provincial genealogies at its fingers' ends; a great name once
recognized and adopted therein is a passport which opens many a door
that will scarcely turn on its hinges for unknown names or the lions
of a lower rank.
Victurnien found his relatives both amiable and ready to welcome him
so long as he did not appear as a suppliant; he saw at once that the
surest way of obtaining nothing was to ask for something. At Paris, if
the first impulse moves people to protect, second thoughts (which last
a good deal longer) impel them to despise the protege. Independence,
vanity, and pride, all the young Count's better and worse feelings
combined, led him, on the contrary, to assume an aggressive attitude.
And therefore the Ducs de Verneuil, de Lenoncourt, de Chaulieu, de
Navarreins, d'Herouville, de Grandlieu, and de Maufrigneuse, the
Princes de Cadignan and de Blamont-Chauvry, were delighted to present
the charming survivor of the wreck of an ancient family at court.
Victurnien went to the Tuileries in a splendid carriage with his
armorial bearings on the panels; but his presentation to His Majesty
made it abundantly clear to him that the people occupied the royal
mind so much that his nobility was like to be forgotten. The restored
dynasty, moreover, was surrounded by triple ranks of eligible old men
and gray-headed courtiers; the young noblesse was reduced to a cipher,
and this Victurnien guessed at once. He saw that there was no suitable
place for him at court, nor in the government, nor the army, nor,
indeed, anywhere else. So he launched out into the world of pleasure.
Introduced at the Elyess-Bourbon, at the Duchesse d'Angouleme's, at
the Pavillon Marsan, he met on all sides with the surface civilities
due to the heir of an old family, not so old but it could be called to
mind by the sight of a living member. And, after all, it was not a
small thing to be remembered. In the distinction with which Victurnien
was honored lay the way to the peerage and a splendid marriage; he had
taken the field with a false appearance of wealth, and his vanity
would not allow him to declare his real position. Besides, he had been
so much complimented on the figure that he made, he was so pleased
with his first success, that, like many other young men, he felt
ashamed to draw back. He took a suite of rooms in the Rue du Bac, with
stables and a complete equipment for the fashionable life to which he
had committed himself. These preliminaries cost him fifty thousand
francs, which money, moreover, the young gentleman managed to draw in
spite of all Chesnel's wise precautions, thanks to a series of
Chesnel's letter certainly reached his friend's office, but Maitre
Sorbier was dead; and Mme. Sorbier, a matter-of-fact person, seeing it
was a business letter, handed it on to her husband's successor. Maitre
Cardot, the new notary, informed the young Count that a draft on the
Treasury made payable to the deceased would be useless; and by way of
reply to the letter, which had cost the old provincial notary so much
thought, Cardot despatched four lines intended not to reach Chesnel's
heart, but to produce the money. Chesnel made the draft payable to
Sorbier's young successor; and the latter, feeling but little
inclination to adopt his correspondent's sentimentality, was delighted
to put himself at the Count's orders, and gave Victurnien as much
money as he wanted.
Now those who know what life in Paris means, know that fifty thousand
francs will not go very far in furniture, horses, carriages, and
elegance generally; but it must be borne in mind that Victurnien
immediately contracted some twenty thousand francs' worth of debts
besides, and his tradespeople at first were not at all anxious to be
paid, for our young gentleman's fortune had been prodigiously
increased, partly by rumor, partly by Josephin, that Chesnel in
Victurnien had not been in town a month before he was obliged to
repair to his man of business for ten thousand francs; he had only
been playing whist with the Ducs de Navarreins, de Chaulieu, and de
Lenoncourt, and now and again at his club. He had begun by winning
some thousands of francs but pretty soon lost five or six thousand,
which brought home to him the necessity of a purse for play.
Victurnien had the spirit that gains goodwill everywhere, and puts a
young man of a great family on a level with the very highest. He was
not merely admitted at once into the band of patrician youth, but was
even envied by the rest. It was intoxicating to him to feel that he
was envied, nor was he in this mood very likely to think of reform.
Indeed, he had completely lost his head. He would not think of the
means; he dipped into his money-bags as if they could be refilled
indefinitely; he deliberately shut his eyes to the inevitable results
of the system. In that dissipated set, in the continual whirl of
gaiety, people take the actors in their brilliant costumes as they
find them, no one inquires whether a man can afford to make the figure
he does, there is nothing in worse taste than inquiries as to ways and
means. A man ought to renew his wealth perpetually, and as Nature does
—below the surface and out of sight. People talk if somebody comes to
grief; they joke about a newcomer's fortune till their minds are set
at rest, and at this they draw the line. Victurnien d'Esgrignon, with
all the Faubourg Saint-Germain to back him, with all his protectors
exaggerating the amount of his fortune (were it only to rid themselves
of responsibility), and magnifying his possessions in the most refined
and well-bred way, with a hint or a word; with all these advantages
—to repeat—Victurnien was, in fact, an eligible Count. He was
handsome, witty, sound in politics; his father still possessed the
ancestral castle and the lands of the marquisate. Such a young fellow
is sure of an admirable reception in houses where there are
marriageable daughters, fair but portionless partners at dances, and
young married women who find that time hangs heavy on their hands. So
the world, smiling, beckoned him to the foremost benches in its booth;
the seats reserved for marquises are still in the same place in Paris;
and if the names are changed, the things are the same as ever.
In the most exclusive circle of society in the Faubourg Saint-Germain,
Victurnien found the Chevalier's double in the person of the Vidame de
Pamiers. The Vidame was a Chevalier de Valois raised to the tenth
power, invested with all the prestige of wealth, enjoying all the
advantages of high position. The dear Vidame was a repositary for
everybody's secrets, and the gazette of the Faubourg besides;
nevertheless, he was discreet, and, like other gazettes, only said
things that might safely be published. Again Victurnien listened to
the Chevalier's esoteric doctrines. The Vidame told young d'Esgrignon,
without mincing matters, to make conquests among women of quality,
supplementing the advice with anecdotes from his own experience. The
Vicomte de Pamiers, it seemed, had permitted himself much that it
would serve no purpose to relate here; so remote was it all from our
modern manners, in which soul and passion play so large a part, that
nobody would believe it. But the excellent Vidame did more than this.
"Dine with me at a tavern to-morrow," said he, by way of conclusion.
"We will digest our dinner at the Opera, and afterwards I will take
you to a house where several people have the greatest wish to meet
The Vidame gave a delightful little dinner at the Rocher de Cancale;
three guests only were asked to meet Victurnien—de Marsay, Rastignac,
and Blondet. Emile Blondet, the young Count's fellow-townsman, was a
man of letters on the outskirts of society to which he had been
introduced by a charming woman from the same province. This was one of
the Vicomte de Troisville's daughters, now married to the Comte de
Montcornet, one of those of Napoleon's generals who went over to the
Bourbons. The Vidame held that a dinner-party of more than six persons
was beneath contempt. In that case, according to him, there was an end
alike of cookery and conversation, and a man could not sip his wine in
a proper frame of mind.
"I have not yet told you, my dear boy, where I mean to take you
to-night," he said, taking Victurnien's hands and tapping on them.
"You are going to see Mlle. des Touches; all the pretty women with any
pretensions to wit will be at her house en petit comite. Literature,
art, poetry, any sort of genius, in short, is held in great esteem
there. It is one of our old-world bureaux d'esprit, with a veneer of
monarchical doctrine, the livery of this present age."
"It is sometimes as tiresome and tedious there as a pair of new boots,
but there are women with whom you cannot meet anywhere else," said de
"If all the poets who went there to rub up their muse were like our
friend here," said Rastignac, tapping Blondet familiarly on the
shoulder, "we should have some fun. But a plague of odes, and ballads,
and driveling meditations, and novels with wide margins, pervades the
sofas and the atmosphere."
"I don't dislike them," said de Marsay, "so long as they corrupt
girls' minds, and don't spoil women."
"Gentlemen," smiled Blondet, "you are encroaching on my field of
"You need not talk. You have robbed us of the most charming woman in
the world, you lucky rogue; we may be allowed to steal your less
brilliant ideas," cried Rastignac.
"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 his penetration.
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.
"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,
finishing her sentence by a wistful shake of the head.
As the First Consul, beaten on the field of Marengo till five o'clock
in the evening, by six o'clock saw the tide of battle turned by
Desaix's desperate attack and Kellermann's terrific charge, so Chesnel
in the midst of defeat saw the beginnings of victory. No one but a
Chesnel, an old notary, an ex-steward of the manor, old Maitre
Sorbier's junior clerk, in the sudden flash of lucidity which comes
with despair, could rise thus, high as a Napoleon, nay, higher. This
was not Marengo, it was Waterloo, and the Prussians had come up;
Chesnel saw this, and was determined to beat them off the field.
"Madame," he said, "remember that I have been your man of business for
twenty years; remember that if the d'Esgrignons mean the honor of the
province, you represent the honor of the bourgeoisie; it rests with
you, and you alone, to save the ancient house. Now, answer me; are you
going to allow dishonor to fall on the shade of your dead uncle, on
the d'Esgrignons, on poor Chesnel? Do you want to kill Mlle. Armande
weeping yonder? Or do you wish to expiate wrongs done to others by a
deed which will rejoice your ancestors, the intendants of the dukes of
Alencon, and bring comfort to the soul of our dear Abbe? If he could
rise from his grave, he would command you to do this thing that I beg
of you upon my knees."
"What is it?" asked Mme. du Croisier.
"Well. Here are the hundred thousand crowns," said Chesnel, drawing
the bundles of notes from his pocket. "Take them, and there will be an
end of it."
"If that is all," she began, "and if no harm can come of it to my
"Nothing but good," Chesnel replied. "You are saving him from eternal
punishment in hell, at the cost of a slight disappointment here
"He will not be compromised, will he?" she asked, looking into
Then Chesnel read the depths of the poor wife's mind. Mme. du Croisier
was hesitating between her two creeds; between wifely obedience to her
husband as laid down by the Church, and obedience to the altar and the
throne. Her husband, in her eyes, was acting wrongly, but she dared
not blame him; she would fain save the d'Esgrignons, but she was loyal
to her husband's interests.
"Not in the least," Chesnel answered; "your old notary swears it by
the Holy Gospels——"
He had nothing left to lose for the d'Esgrignons but his soul; he
risked it now by this horrible perjury, but Mme. du Croisier must be
deceived, there was no other choice but death. Without losing a
moment, he dictated a form of receipt by which Mme. du Croisier
acknowledged payment of a hundred thousand crowns five days before the
fatal letter of exchange appeared; for he recollected that du Croisier
was away from home, superintending improvements on his wife's property
at the time.
"Now swear to me that you will declare before the examining magistrate
that you received the money on that date," he said, when Mme. du
Croisier had taken the notes and he held the receipt in his hand.
"It will be a lie, will it not?"
"Venial sin," said Chesnel.
"I could not do it without consulting my director, M. l'Abbe
"Very well," said Chesnel, "will you be guided entirely by his advice
in this affair?"
"I promise that."
"And you must not give the money to M. du Croisier until you have been
before the magistrate."
"No. Ah! God give me strength to appear in a Court of Justice and
maintain a lie before men!"
Chesnel kissed Mme. du Croisier's hand, then stood upright, and
majestic as one of the prophets that Raphael painted in the Vatican.
"You uncle's soul is thrilled with joy," he said; "you have wiped out
for ever the wrong that you did by marrying an enemy of altar and
throne"—words that made a lively impression on Mme. du Croisier's
Then Chesnel all at once bethought himself that he must make sure of
the lady's director, the Abbe Couturier. He knew how obstinately
devout souls can work for the triumph of their views when once they
come forward for their side, and wished to secure the concurrence of
the Church as early as possible. So he went to the Hotel d'Esgrignon,
roused up Mlle. Armande, gave her an account of that night's work, and
sped her to fetch the Bishop himself into the forefront of the battle.
"Ah, God in heaven! Thou must save the house of d'Esgrignon!" he
exclaimed, as he went slowly home again. "The affair is developing now
into a fight in a Court of Law. We are face to face with men that have
passions and interests of their own; we can get anything out of them.
This du Croisier has taken advantage of the public prosecutor's
absence; the public prosecutor is devoted to us, but since the opening
of the Chambers he has gone to Paris. Now, what can they have done to
get round his deputy? They have induced him to take up the charge
without consulting his chief. This mystery must be looked into, and
the ground surveyed to-morrow; and then, perhaps, when I have
unraveled this web of theirs, I will go back to Paris to set great
powers at work through Mme. de Maufrigneuse."
So he reasoned, poor, aged, clear-sighted wrestler, before he lay down
half dead with bearing the weight of so much emotion and fatigue. And
yet, before he fell asleep he ran a searching eye over the list of
magistrates, taking all their secret ambitions into account, casting
about for ways of influencing them, calculating his chances in the
coming struggle. Chesnel's prolonged scrutiny of consciences, given in
a condensed form, will perhaps serve as a picture of the judicial
world in a country town.
Magistrates and officials generally are obliged to begin their career
in the provinces; judicial ambition there ferments. At the outset
every man looks towards Paris; they all aspire to shine in the vast
theatre where great political causes come before the courts, and the
higher branches of the legal profession are closely connected with the
palpitating interests of society. But few are called to that paradise
of the man of law, and nine-tenths of the profession are bound sooner
or later to regard themselves as shelved for good in the provinces.
Wherefore, every Tribunal of First Instance and every Court-Royal is
sharply divided in two. The first section has given up hope, and is
either torpid or content; content with the excessive respect paid to
office in a country town, or torpid with tranquillity. The second
section is made up of the younger sort, in whom the desire of success
is untempered as yet by disappointment, and of the really clever men
urged on continually by ambition as with a goad; and these two are
possessed with a sort of fanatical belief in their order.
At this time the younger men were full of Royalist zeal against the
enemies of the Bourbons. The most insignificant deputy official was
dreaming of conducting a prosecution, and praying with all his might
for one of those political cases which bring a man's zeal into
prominence, draw the attention of the higher powers, and mean
advancement for King's men. Was there a member of an official staff of
prosecuting counsel who could hear of a Bonapartist conspiracy
breaking out somewhere else without a feeling of envy? Where was the
man that did not burn to discover a Caron, or a Berton, or a revolt of
some sort? With reasons of State, and the necessity of diffusing the
monarchical spirit throughout France as their basis, and a fierce
ambition stirred up whenever party spirit ran high, these ardent
politicians on their promotion were lucid, clear-sighted, and
perspicacious. They kept up a vigorous detective system throughout the
kingdom; they did the work of spies, and urged the nation along a path
of obedience, from which it had no business to swerve.
Justice, thus informed with monarchical enthusiasm, atoned for the
errors of the ancient parliaments, and walked, perhaps, too
ostentatiously hand in hand with religion. There was more zeal than
discretion shown; but justice sinned not so much in the direction of
machiavelism as by giving the candid expression to its views, when
those views appeared to be opposed to the general interests of a
country which must be put safely out of reach of revolutions. But
taken as a whole, there was still too much of the bourgeois element in
the administration; it was too readily moved by petty liberal
agitation; and as a result, it was inevitable that it should incline
sooner or later to the Constitutional party, and join ranks with the
bourgeoisie in the day of battle. In the great body of legal
functionaries, as in other departments of the administration, there
was not wanting a certain hypocrisy, or rather that spirit of
imitation which always leads France to model herself on the Court,
and, quite unintentionally, to deceive the powers that be.
Officials of both complexions were to be found in the court in which
young d'Esgrignon's fate depended. M. le President du Ronceret and an
elderly judge, Blondet by name, represented the section of
functionaries shelved for good, and resigned to stay where they were;
while the young and ambitious party comprised the examining magistrate
M. Camusot, and his deputy M. Michu, appointed through the interests
of the Cinq-Cygnes, and certain of promotion to the Court of Appeal of
Paris at the first opportunity.
President du Ronceret held a permanent post; it was impossible to turn
him out. The aristocratic party declined to give him what he
considered to be his due, socially speaking; so he declared for the
bourgeoisie, glossed over his disappointment with the name of
independence, and failed to realize that his opinions condemned him to
remain a president of a court of the first instance for the rest of
his life. Once started in this track the sequence of events led du
Ronceret to place his hopes of advancement on the triumph of du
Croisier and the Left. He was in no better odor at the Prefecture than
at the Court-Royal. He was compelled to keep on good terms with the
authorities; the Liberals distrusted him, consequently he belonged to
neither party. He was obliged to resign his chances of election to du
Croisier, he exercised no influence, and played a secondary part. The
false position reacted on his character; he was soured and
discontented; he was tired of political ambiguity, and privately had
made up his mind to come forward openly as leader of the Liberal
party, and so to strike ahead of du Croisier. His behavior in the
d'Esgrignon affair was the first step in this direction. To begin
with, he was an admirable representative of that section of the middle
classes which allows its petty passions to obscure the wider interests
of the country; a class of crotchety politicians, upholding the
government one day and opposing it the next, compromising every cause
and helping none; helpless after they have done the mischief till they
set about brewing more; unwilling to face their own incompetence,
thwarting authority while professing to serve it. With a compound of
arrogance and humility they demand of the people more submission than
kings expect, and fret their souls because those above them are not
brought down to their level, as if greatness could be little, as if
power existed without force.
President du Ronceret was a tall, spare man with a receding forehead
and scanty, auburn hair. He was wall-eyed, his complexion was
blotched, his lips thin and hard, his scarcely audible voice came out
like the husky wheezings of asthma. He had for a wife a great, solemn,
clumsy creature, tricked out in the most ridiculous fashion, and
outrageously overdressed. Mme. la Presidente gave herself the airs of
a queen; she wore vivid colors, and always appeared at balls adorned
with the turban, dear to the British female, and lovingly cultivated
in out-of-the-way districts in France. Each of the pair had an income
of four or five thousand francs, which with the President's salary,
reached a total of some twelve thousand. In spite of a decided
tendency to parsimony, vanity required that they should receive one
evening in the week. Du Croisier might import modern luxury into the
town, M. and Mme. de Ronceret were faithful to the old traditions.
They had always lived in the old-fashioned house belonging to Mme. du
Ronceret, and had made no changes in it since their marriage. The
house stood between a garden and a courtyard. The gray old gable end,
with one window in each story, gave upon the road. High walls enclosed
the garden and the yard, but the space taken up beneath them in the
garden by a walk shaded with chestnut trees was filled in the yard by
a row of outbuildings. An old rust-devoured iron gate in the garden
wall balanced the yard gateway, a huge, double-leaved carriage
entrance with a buttress on either side, and a mighty shell on the
top. The same shell was repeated over the house-door.
The whole place was gloomy, close, and airless. The row of iron-gated
openings in the opposite wall, as you entered, reminded you of prison
windows. Every passer-by could look in through the railings to see how
the garden grew; the flowers in the little square borders never seemed
to thrive there.
The drawing-room on the ground floor was lighted by a single window on
the side of the street, and a French window above a flight of steps,
which gave upon the garden. The dining-room on the other side of the
great ante-chamber, with its windows also looking out into the garden,
was exactly the same size as the drawing-room, and all three
apartments were in harmony with the general air of gloom. It wearied
your eyes to look at the ceilings all divided up by huge painted
crossbeams and adorned with a feeble lozenge pattern or a rosette in
the middle. The paint was old, startling in tint, and begrimed with
smoke. The sun had faded the heavy silk curtains in the drawing-room;
the old-fashioned Beauvais tapestry which covered the white-painted
furniture had lost all its color with wear. A Louis Quinze clock on
the chimney-piece stood between two extravagant, branched sconces
filled with yellow wax candles, which the Presidente only lighted on
occasions when the old-fashioned rock-crystal chandelier emerged from
its green wrapper. Three card-tables, covered with threadbare baize,
and a backgammon box, sufficed for the recreations of the company; and
Mme. du Ronceret treated them to such refreshments as cider,
chestnuts, pastry puffs, glasses of eau sucree, and home-made orgeat.
For some time past she had made a practice of giving a party once a
fortnight, when tea and some pitiable attempts at pastry appeared to
grace the occasion.
Once a quarter the du Roncerets gave a grand three-course dinner,
which made a great sensation in the town, a dinner served up in
execrable ware, but prepared with the science for which the provincial
cook is remarkable. It was a Gargantuan repast, which lasted for six
whole hours, and by abundance the President tried to vie with du
And so du Ronceret's life and its accessories were just what might
have been expected from his character and his false position. He felt
dissatisfied at home without precisely knowing what was the matter;
but he dared not go to any expense to change existing conditions, and
was only too glad to put by seven or eight thousand francs every year,
so as to leave his son Fabien a handsome private fortune. Fabien du
Ronceret had no mind for the magistracy, the bar, or the civil
service, and his pronounced turn for doing nothing drove his parent to
On this head there was rivalry between the President and the
Vice-President, old M. Blondet. M. Blondet, for a long time past, had
been sedulously cultivating an acquaintance between his son and the
Blandureau family. The Blandureaus were well-to-do linen
manufacturers, with an only daughter, and it was on this daughter that
the President had fixed his choice of a wife for Fabien. Now, Joseph
Blondet's marriage with Mlle. Blandureau depended on his nomination to
the post which his father, old Blondet, hoped to obtain for him when
he himself should retire. But President du Ronceret, in underhand
ways, was thwarting the old man's plans, and working indirectly upon
the Blandureaus. Indeed, if it had not been for this affair of young
d'Esgrignon's, the astute President might have cut them out, father
and son, for their rivals were very much richer.
M. Blondet, the victim of the machiavelian President's intrigues, was
one of the curious figures which lie buried away in the provinces like
old coins in a crypt. He was at that time a man of sixty-seven or
thereabouts, but he carried his years well; he was very tall, and in
build reminded you of the canons of the good old times. The smallpox
had riddled his face with numberless dints, and spoilt the shape of
his nose by imparting to it a gimlet-like twist; it was a countenance
by no means lacking in character, very evenly tinted with a diffused
red, lighted up by a pair of bright little eyes, with a sardonic look
in them, while a certain sarcastic twitch of the purpled lips gave
expression to that feature.
Before the Revolution broke out, Blondet senior had been a barrister;
afterwards he became the public accuser, and one of the mildest of
those formidable functionaries. Goodman Blondet, as they used to call
him, deadened the force of the new doctrines by acquiescing in them
all, and putting none of them in practice. He had been obliged to send
one or two nobles to prison; but his further proceedings were marked
with such deliberation, that he brought them through to the 9th
Thermidor with a dexterity which won respect for him on all sides. As
a matter of fact, Goodman Blondet ought to have been President of the
Tribunal, but when the courts of law were reorganized he had been set
aside; Napoleon's aversion for Republicans was apt to reappear in the
smallest appointments under his government. The qualification of
ex-public accuser, written in the margin of the list against Blondet's
name, set the Emperor inquiring of Cambaceres whether there might not
be some scion of an ancient parliamentary stock to appoint instead.
The consequence was that du Ronceret, whose father had been a
councillor of parliament, was nominated to the presidency; but, the
Emperor's repugnance notwithstanding, Cambaceres allowed Blondet to
remain on the bench, saying that the old barrister was one of the best
jurisconsults in France.
Blondet's talents, his knowledge of the old law of the land and
subsequent legislation, should by rights have brought him far in his
profession; but he had this much in common with some few great
spirits: he entertained a prodigious contempt for his own special
knowledge, and reserved all his pretentions, leisure, and capacity for
a second pursuit unconnected with the law. To this pursuit he gave his
almost exclusive attention. The good man was passionately fond of
gardening. He was in correspondence with some of the most celebrated
amateurs; it was his ambition to create new species; he took an
interest in botanical discoveries, and lived, in short, in the world
of flowers. Like all florists, he had a predilection for one
particular plant; the pelargonium was his especial favorite. The
court, the cases that came before it, and his outward life were as
nothing to him compared with the inward life of fancies and abundant
emotions which the old man led. He fell more and more in love with his
flower-seraglio; and the pains which he bestowed on his garden, the
sweet round of the labors of the months, held Goodman Blondet fast in
his greenhouse. But for that hobby he would have been a deputy under
the Empire, and shone conspicuous beyond a doubt in the Corps
His marriage was the second cause of his obscurity. As a man of forty,
he was rash enough to marry a girl of eighteen, by whom he had a son
named Joseph in the first year of their marriage. Three years
afterwards Mme. Blondet, then the prettiest woman in the town,
inspired in the prefect of the department a passion which ended only
with her death. The prefect was the father of her second son Emile;
the whole town knew this, old Blondet himself knew it. The wife who
might have roused her husband's ambition, who might have won him away
from his flowers, positively encouraged the judge in his botanical
tastes. She no more cared to leave the place than the prefect cared to
leave his prefecture so long as his mistress lived.
Blondet felt himself unequal at his age to a contest with a young
wife. He sought consolation in his greenhouse, and engaged a very
pretty servant-maid to assist him to tend his ever-changing bevy of
beauties. So while the judge potted, pricked out, watered, layered,
slipped, blended, and induced his flowers to break, Mme. Blondet spent
his substance on the dress and finery in which she shone at the
prefecture. One interest alone had power to draw her away from the
tender care of a romantic affection which the town came to admire in
the end; and this interest was Emile's education. The child of love
was a bright and pretty boy, while Joseph was no less heavy and
plain-featured. The old judge, blinded by paternal affection loved
Joseph as his wife loved Emile.
For a dozen years M. Blondet bore his lot with perfect resignation. He
shut his eyes to his wife's intrigue with a dignified, well-bred
composure, quite in the style of an eighteenth century grand seigneur;
but, like all men with a taste for a quiet life, he could cherish a
profound dislike, and he hated his younger son. When his wife died,
therefore, in 1818, he turned the intruder out of the house, and
packed him off to Paris to study law on an allowance of twelve hundred
francs for all resource, nor could any cry of distress extract another
penny from his purse. Emile Blondet would have gone under if it had
not been for his real father.
M. Blondet's house was one of the prettiest in the town. It stood
almost opposite the prefecture, with a neat little court in front. A
row of old-fashioned iron railings between two brick-work piers
enclosed it from the street; and a low wall, also of brick, with a
second row of railings along the top, connected the piers with the
neighboring house. The little court, a space about ten fathoms in
width by twenty in length, was cut in two by a brick pathway which ran
from the gate to the house door between a border on either side. Those
borders were always renewed; at every season of the year they
exhibited a successful show of blossom, to the admiration of the
public. All along the back of the gardenbeds a quantity of climbing
plants grew up and covered the walls of the neighboring houses with a
magnificent mantle; the brick-work piers were hidden in clusters of
honeysuckle; and, to crown all, in a couple of terra-cotta vases at
the summit, a pair of acclimatized cactuses displayed to the
astonished eyes of the ignorant those thick leaves bristling with
spiny defences which seem to be due to some plant disease.
It was a plain-looking house, built of brick, with brick-work arches
above the windows, and bright green Venetian shutters to make it gay.
Through the glass door you could look straight across the house to the
opposite glass door, at the end of a long passage, and down the
central alley in the garden beyond; while through the windows of the
dining-room and drawing-room, which extended, like the passage from
back to front of the house, you could often catch further glimpses of
the flower-beds in a garden of about two acres in extent. Seen from
the road, the brick-work harmonized with the fresh flowers and shrubs,
for two centuries had overlaid it with mosses and green and russet
tints. No one could pass through the town without falling in love with
a house with such charming surroundings, so covered with flowers and
mosses to the roof-ridge, where two pigeons of glazed crockery ware
were perched by way of ornament.
M. Blondet possessed an income of about four thousand livres derived
from land, besides the old house in the town. He meant to avenge his
wrongs legitimately enough. He would leave his house, his lands, his
seat on the bench to his son Joseph, and the whole town knew what he
meant to do. He had made a will in that son's favor; he had gone as
far as the Code will permit a man to go in the way of disinheriting
one child to benefit another; and what was more, he had been putting
by money for the past fifteen years to enable his lout of a son to buy
back from Emile that portion of his father's estate which could not
legally be taken away from him.
Emile Blondet thus turned adrift had contrived to gain distinction in
Paris, but so far it was rather a name than a practical result.
Emile's indolence, recklessness, and happy-go-lucky ways drove his
real father to despair; and when that father died, a half-ruined man,
turned out of office by one of the political reactions so frequent
under the Restoration, it was with a mind uneasy as to the future of a
man endowed with the most brilliant qualities.
Emile Blondet found support in a friendship with a Mlle. de
Troisville, whom he had known before her marriage with the Comte de
Montcornet. His mother was living when the Troisvilles came back after
the emigration; she was related to the family, distantly it is true,
but the connection was close enough to allow her to introduce Emile to
the house. She, poor woman, foresaw the future. She knew that when she
died her son would lose both mother and father, a thought which made
death doubly bitter, so she tried to interest others in him. She
encouraged the liking that sprang up between Emile and the eldest
daughter of the house of Troisville; but while the liking was
exceedingly strong on the young lady's part, a marriage was out of the
question. It was a romance on the pattern of Paul et Virginie. Mme.
Blondet did what she could to teach her son to look to the
Troisvilles, to found a lasting attachment on a children's game of
"make-believe" love, which was bound to end as boy-and-girl romances
usually do. When Mlle. de Troisville's marriage with General
Montcornet was announced, Mme. Blondet, a dying woman, went to the
bride and solemnly implored her never to abandon Emile, and to use her
influence for him in society in Paris, whither the General's fortune
summoned her to shine.
Luckily for Emile, he was able to make his own way. He made his
appearance, at the age of twenty, as one of the masters of modern
literature; and met with no less success in the society into which he
was launched by the father who at first could afford to bear the
expense of the young man's extravagance. Perhaps Emile's precocious
celebrity and the good figure that he made strengthened the bonds of
his friendship with the Countess. Perhaps Mme. de Montcornet, with the
Russian blood in her veins (her mother was the daughter of the
Princess Scherbelloff), might have cast off the friend of her
childhood if he had been a poor man struggling with all his might
among the difficulties which beset a man of letters in Paris; but by
the time that the real strain of Emile's adventurous life began, their
attachment was unalterable on either side. He was looked upon as one
of the leading lights of journalism when young d'Esgrignon met him at
his first supper party in Paris; his acknowledged position in the
world of letters was very high, and he towered above his reputation.
Goodman Blondet had not the faintest conception of the power which the
Constitutional Government had given to the press; nobody ventured to
talk in his presence of the son of whom he refused to hear. And so it
came to pass that he knew nothing of Emile whom he had cursed and
Old Blondet's integrity was as deeply rooted in him as his passion for
flowers; he knew nothing but law and botany. He would have interviews
with litigants, listen to them, chat with them, and show them his
flowers; he would accept rare seeds from them; but once on the bench,
no judge on earth was more impartial. Indeed, his manner of proceeding
was so well known, that litigants never went near him except to hand
over some document which might enlighten him in the performance of his
duty, and nobody tried to throw dust in his eyes. With his learning,
his lights, and his way of holding his real talents cheap, he was so
indispensable to President du Ronceret, that, matrimonial schemes
apart, that functionary would have done all that he could, in an
underhand way, to prevent the vice-president from retiring in favor of
his son. If the learned old man left the bench, the President would be
utterly unable to do without him.
Goodman Blondet did not know that it was in Emile's power to fulfil
all his wishes in a few hours. The simplicity of his life was worthy
of one of Plutarch's men. In the evening he looked over his cases;
next morning he worked among his flowers; and all day long he gave
decisions on the bench. The pretty maid-servant, now of ripe age, and
wrinkled like an Easter pippin, looked after the house, and they lived
according to the established customs of the strictest parsimony. Mlle.
Cadot always carried the keys of her cupboards and fruit-loft about
with her. She was indefatigable. She went to market herself, she
cooked and dusted and swept, and never missed mass of a morning. To
give some idea of the domestic life of the household, it will be
enough to remark that the father and son never ate fruit till it was
beginning to spoil, because Mlle. Cadot always brought out anything
that would not keep. No one in the house ever tasted the luxury of new
bread, and all the fast days in the calendar were punctually observed.
The gardener was put on rations like a soldier; the elderly Valideh
always kept an eye upon him. And she, for her part, was so
deferentially treated, that she took her meals with the family, and in
consequence was continually trotting to and fro between the kitchen
and the parlor at breakfast and dinner time.
Mlle. Blandureau's parents had consented to her marriage with Joseph
Blondet upon one condition—the penniless and briefless barrister must
be an assistant judge. So, with the desire of fitting his son to fill
the position, old M. Blondet racked his brains to hammer the law into
his son's head by dint of lessons, so as to make a cut-and-dried
lawyer of him. As for Blondet junior, he spent almost every evening at
the Blandureaus' house, to which also young Fabien du Ronceret had
been admitted since his return, without raising the slightest
suspicion in the minds of father or son.
Everything in this life of theirs was measured with an accuracy worthy
of Gerard Dow's Money Changer; not a grain of salt too much, not a
single profit foregone; but the economical principles by which it was
regulated were relaxed in favor of the greenhouse and garden. "The
garden was the master's craze," Mlle. Cadot used to say. The master's
blind fondness for Joseph was not a craze in her eyes; she shared the
father's predilection; she pampered Joseph; she darned his stockings;
and would have been better pleased if the money spent on the garden
had been put by for Joseph's benefit.
That garden was kept in marvelous order by a single man; the paths,
covered with river-sand, continually turned over with the rake,
meandered among the borders full of the rarest flowers. Here were all
kinds of color and scent, here were lizards on the walls, legions of
little flower-pots standing out in the sun, regiments of forks and
hoes, and a host of innocent things, a combination of pleasant results
to justify the gardener's charming hobby.
At the end of the greenhouse the judge had set up a grandstand, an
amphitheatre of benches to hold some five or six thousand pelargoniums
in pots—a splendid and famous show. People came to see his geraniums
in flower, not only from the neighborhood, but even from the
departments round about. The Empress Marie Louise, passing through the
town, had honored the curiously kept greenhouse with a visit; so much
was she impressed with the sight, that she spoke of it to Napoleon,
and the old judge received the Cross of the Legion of Honor. But as
the learned gardener never mingled in society at all, and went nowhere
except to the Blandureaus, he had no suspicion of the President's
underhand manoeuvres; and others who could see the President's
intentions were far too much afraid of him to interfere or to warn the
As for Michu, that young man with his powerful connections gave much
more thought to making himself agreeable to the women in the upper
social circles to which he was introduced by the Cinq-Cygnes, than to
the extremely simple business of a provincial Tribunal. With his
independent means (he had an income of twelve thousand livres), he was
courted by mothers of daughters, and led a frivolous life. He did just
enough at the Tribunal to satisfy his conscience, much as a schoolboy
does his exercises, saying ditto on all occasions, with a "Yes, dear
President." But underneath the appearance of indifference lurked the
unusual powers of the Paris law student who had distinguished himself
as one of the staff of prosecuting counsel before he came to the
provinces. He was accustomed to taking broad views of things; he could
do rapidly what the President and Blondet could only do after much
thinking, and very often solved knotty points for them. In delicate
conjunctures the President and Vice-President took counsel with their
junior, confided thorny questions to him, and never failed to wonder
at the readiness with which he brought back a task in which old
Blondet found nothing to criticise. Michu was sure of the influence of
the most crabbed aristocrats, and he was young and rich; he lived,
therefore, above the level of departmental intrigues and pettinesses.
He was an indispensable man at picnics, he frisked with young ladies
and paid court to their mothers, he danced at balls, he gambled like a
capitalist. In short, he played his part of young lawyer of fashion to
admiration; without, at the same time, compromising his dignity, which
he knew how to assert at the right moment like a man of spirit. He won
golden opinions by the manner in which he threw himself into
provincial ways, without criticising them; and for these reasons,
every one endeavored to make his time of exile endurable.
The public prosecutor was a lawyer of the highest ability; he had
taken the plunge into political life, and was one of the most
distinguished speakers on the ministerialist benches. The President
stood in awe of him; if he had not been away in Paris at the time, no
steps would have been taken against Victurnien; his dexterity, his
experience of business, would have prevented the whole affair. At that
moment, however, he was in the Chamber of Deputies, and the President
and du Croisier had taken advantage of his absence to weave their
plot, calculating, with a certain ingenuity, that if once the law
stepped in, and the matter was noised abroad, things would have gone
too far to be remedied.
As a matter of fact, no staff of prosecuting counsel in any Tribunal,
at that particular time, would have taken up a charge of forgery
against the eldest son of one of the noblest houses in France without
going into the case at great length, and a special reference, in all
probability, to the Attorney-General. In such a case as this, the
authorities and the Government would have tried endless ways of
compromising and hushing up an affair which might send an imprudent
young man to the hulks. They would very likely have done the same for
a Liberal family in a prominent position, so long as the Liberals were
not too openly hostile to the throne and the altar. So du Croisier's
charge and the young Count's arrest had not been very easy to manage.
The President and du Croisier had compassed their ends in the
M. Sauvager, a young Royalist barrister, had reached the position of
deputy public prosecutor by dint of subservience to the Ministry. In
the absence of his chief he was head of the staff of counsel for
prosecution, and, consequently, it fell to him to take up the charge
made by du Croisier. Sauvager was a self-made man; he had nothing but
his stipend; and for that reason the authorities reckoned upon some
one who had everything to gain by devotion. The President now
exploited the position. No sooner was the document with the alleged
forgery in du Croisier's hands, than Mme. la Presidente du Ronceret,
prompted by her spouse, had a long conversation with M. Sauvager. In
the course of it she pointed out the uncertainties of a career in the
magistrature debout compared with the magistrature assise, and the
advantages of the bench over the bar; she showed how a freak on the
part of some official, or a single false step, might ruin a man's
"If you are conscientious and give your conclusions against the powers
that be, you are lost," continued she. "Now, at this moment, you might
turn your position to account to make a fine match that would put you
above unlucky chances for the rest of your life; you may marry a wife
with fortune sufficient to land you on the bench, in the magistrature
assise. There is a fine chance for you. M. du Croisier will never have
any children; everybody knows why. His money, and his wife's as well,
will go to his niece, Mlle. Duval. M. Duval is an ironmaster, his
purse is tolerably filled, to begin with, and his father is still
alive, and has a little property besides. The father and son have a
million of francs between them; they will double it with du Croisier's
help, for du Croisier has business connections among great capitalists
and manufacturers in Paris. M. and Mme. Duval the younger would be
certain to give their daughter to a suitor brought forward by du
Croisier, for he is sure to leave two fortunes to his niece; and, in
all probability, he will settle the reversion of his wife's property
upon Mlle. Duval in the marriage contract, for Mme. du Croisier has no
kin. You know how du Croisier hates the d'Esgrignons. Do him a
service, be his man, take up this charge of forgery which he is going
to make against young d'Esgrignon, and follow up the proceedings at
once without consulting the public prosecutor at Paris. And, then,
pray Heaven that the Ministry dismisses you for doing your office
impartially, in spite of the powers that be; for if they do, your
fortune is made! You will have a charming wife and thirty thousand
francs a year with her, to say nothing of four millions expectations
in ten years' time."
In two evenings Sauvager was talked over. Both he and the President
kept the affair a secret from old Blondet, from Michu, and from the
second member of the staff of prosecuting counsel. Feeling sure of
Blondet's impartiality on a question of fact, the President made
certain of a majority without counting Camusot. And now Camusot's
unexpected defection had thrown everything out. What the President
wanted was a committal for trial before the public prosecutor got
warning. How if Camusot or the second counsel for the prosecution
should send word to Paris?
And here some portion of Camusot's private history may perhaps explain
how it came to pass that Chesnel took it for granted that the
examining magistrate would be on the d'Esgrignons' side, and how he
had the boldness to tamper in the open street with that representative
Camusot's father, a well-known silk mercer in the Rue des Bourdonnais,
was ambitious for the only son of his first marriage, and brought him
up to the law. When Camusot junior took a wife, he gained with her the
influence of an usher of the Royal cabinet, backstairs influence, it
is true, but still sufficient, since it had brought him his first
appointment as justice of the peace, and the second as examining
magistrate. At the time of his marriage, his father only settled an
income of six thousand francs upon him (the amount of his mother's
fortune, which he could legally claim), and as Mlle. Thirion brought
him no more than twenty thousand francs as her portion, the young
couple knew the hardships of hidden poverty. The salary of a
provincial justice of the peace does not exceed fifteen hundred
francs, while an examining magistrate's stipend is augmented by
something like a thousand francs, because his position entails
expenses and extra work. The post, therefore, is much coveted, though
it is not permanent, and the work is heavy, and that was why Mme.
Camusot had just scolded her husband for allowing the President to
read his thoughts.
Marie Cecile Amelie Thirion, after three years of marriage, perceived
the blessing of Heaven upon it in the regularity of two auspicious
events—the births of a girl and a boy; but she prayed to be less
blessed in the future. A few more of such blessings would turn
straitened means into distress. M. Camusot's father's money was not
likely to come to them for a long time; and, rich as he was, he would
scarcely leave more than eight or ten thousand francs a year to each
of his children, four in number, for he had been married twice. And
besides, by the time that all "expectations," as matchmakers call
them, were realized, would not the magistrate have children of his own
to settle in life? Any one can imagine the situation for a little
woman with plenty of sense and determination, and Mme. Camusot was
such a woman. She did not refrain from meddling in matters judicial.
She had far too strong a sense of the gravity of a false step in her
She was the only child of an old servant of Louis XVIII., a valet who
had followed his master in his wanderings in Italy, Courland, and
England, till after the Restoration the King awarded him with the one
place that he could fill at Court, and made him usher by rotation to
the royal cabinet. So in Amelie's home there had been, as it were, a
sort of reflection of the Court. Thirion used to tell her about the
lords, and ministers, and great men whom he announced and introduced
and saw passing to and fro. The girl, brought up at the gates of the
Tuileries, had caught some tincture of the maxims practised there, and
adopted the dogma of passive obedience to authority. She had sagely
judged that her husband, by ranging himself on the side of the
d'Esgrignons, would find favor with Mme. la Duchesse de Maufrigneuse,
and with two powerful families on whose influence with the King the
Sieur Thirion could depend at an opportune moment. Camusot might get
an appointment at the first opportunity within the jurisdiction of
Paris, and afterwards at Paris itself. That promotion, dreamed of and
longed for at every moment, was certain to have a salary of six
thousand francs attached to it, as well as the alleviation of living
in her own father's house, or under the Camusots' roof, and all the
advantages of a father's fortune on either side. If the adage, "Out of
sight is out of mind," holds good of most women, it is particularly
true where family feeling or royal or ministerial patronage is
concerned. The personal attendants of kings prosper at all times; you
take an interest in a man, be it only a man in livery, if you see him
Mme. Camusot, regarding herself as a bird of passage, had taken a
little house in the Rue du Cygne. Furnished lodgings there were none;
the town was not enough of a thoroughfare, and the Camusots could not
afford to live at an inn like M. Michu. So the fair Parisian had no
choice for it but to take such furniture as she could find; and as she
paid a very moderate rent, the house was remarkably ugly, albeit a
certain quaintness of detail was not wanting. It was built against a
neighboring house in such a fashion that the side with only one window
in each story, gave upon the street, and the front looked out upon a
yard where rose-bushes and buckhorn were growing along the wall on
either side. On the farther side, opposite the house, stood a shed, a
roof over two brick arches. A little wicket-gate gave entrance into
the gloomy place (made gloomier still by the great walnut-tree
which grew in the yard), but a double flight of steps, with an
elaborately-wrought but rust-eaten handrail, led to the house door.
Inside the house there were two rooms on each floor. The dining-room
occupied that part of the ground floor nearest the street, and the
kitchen lay on the other side of a narrow passage almost wholly taken
up by the wooden staircase. Of the two first-floor rooms, one did duty
as the magistrate's study, the other as a bedroom, while the nursery
and the servants' bedroom stood above in the attics. There were no
ceilings in the house; the cross-beams were simply white-washed and the
spaces plastered over. Both rooms on the first floor and the dining-room
below were wainscoted and adorned with the labyrinthine designs which
taxed the patience of the eighteenth century joiner; but the carving
had been painted a dingy gray most depressing to behold.
The magistrate's study looked as though it belonged to a provincial
lawyer; it contained a big bureau, a mahogany armchair, a law
student's books, and shabby belongings transported from Paris.
Mme. Camusot's room was more of a native product; it boasted a
blue-and-white scheme of decoration, a carpet, and that anomalous kind
of furniture which appears to be in the fashion, while it is simply some
style that has failed in Paris. As to the dining-room, it was nothing
but an ordinary provincial dining-room, bare and chilly, with a damp,
faded paper on the walls.
In this shabby room, with nothing to see but the walnut-tree, the dark
leaves growing against the walls, and the almost deserted road beyond
them, a somewhat lively and frivolous woman, accustomed to the
amusements and stir of Paris, used to sit all day long, day after day,
and for the most part of the time alone, though she received tiresome
and inane visits which led her to think her loneliness preferable to
empty tittle-tattle. If she permitted herself the slightest gleam of
intelligence, it gave rise to interminable comment and embittered her
condition. She occupied herself a great deal with her children, not so
much from taste as for the sake of an interest in her almost solitary
life, and exercised her mind on the only subjects which she could find
—to wit, the intrigues which went on around her, the ways of
provincials, and the ambitions shut in by their narrow horizons. So
she very soon fathomed mysteries of which her husband had no idea. As
she sat at her window with a piece of intermittent embroidery work in
her fingers, she did not see her woodshed full of faggots nor the
servant busy at the wash tub; she was looking out upon Paris, Paris
where everything is pleasure, everything is full of life. She dreamed
of Paris gaieties, and shed tears because she must abide in this dull
prison of a country town. She was disconsolate because she lived in a
peaceful district, where no conspiracy, no great affair would ever
occur. She saw herself doomed to sit under the shadow of the
walnut-tree for some time to come.
Mme. Camusot was a little, plump, fresh, fair-haired woman, with a
very prominent forehead, a mouth which receded, and a turned-up chin,
a type of countenance which is passable in youth, but looks old before
the time. Her bright, quick eyes expressed her innocent desire to get
on in the world, and the envy born of her present inferior position,
with rather too much candor; but still they lighted up her commonplace
face and set it off with a certain energy of feeling, which success
was certain to extinguish in later life. At that time she used to give
a good deal of time and thought to her dresses, inventing trimmings
and embroidering them; she planned out her costumes with the maid whom
she had brought with her from Paris, and so maintained the reputation
of Parisiennes in the provinces. Her caustic tongue was dreaded; she
was not loved. In that keen, investigating spirit peculiar to
unoccupied women who are driven to find some occupation for empty
days, she had pondered the President's private opinions, until at
length she discovered what he meant to do, and for some time past she
had advised Camusot to declare war. The young Count's affair was an
excellent opportunity. Was it not obviously Camusot's part to make a
stepping-stone of this criminal case by favoring the d'Esgrignons, a
family with power of a very different kind from the power of the du
"Sauvager will never marry Mlle. Duval. They are dangling her before
him, but he will be the dupe of those Machiavels in the Val-Noble to
whom he is going to sacrifice his position. Camusot, this affair, so
unfortunate as it is for the d'Esgrignons, so insidiously brought on
by the President for du Croisier's benefit, will turn out well for
nobody but /you/," she had said, as they went in.
The shrewd Parisienne had likewise guessed the President's underhand
manoeuvres with the Blandureaus, and his object in baffling old
Blondet's efforts, but she saw nothing to be gained by opening the
eyes of father or son to the perils of the situation; she was enjoying
the beginning of the comedy; she knew about the proposals made by
Chesnel's successor on behalf of Fabien du Ronceret, but she did not
suspect how important that secret might be to her. If she or her
husband were threatened by the President, Mme. Camusot could threaten
too, in her turn, to call the amateur gardener's attention to a scheme
for carrying off the flower which he meant to transplant into his
Chesnel had not penetrated, like Mme. Camusot, into the means by which
Sauvager had been won over; but by dint of looking into the various
lives and interests of the men grouped about the Lilies of the
Tribunal, he knew that he could count upon the public prosecutor, upon
Camusot, and M. Michu. Two judges for the d'Esgrignons would paralyze
the rest. And, finally, Chesnel knew old Blondet well enough to feel
sure that if he ever swerved from impartiality, it would be for the
sake of the work of his whole lifetime,—to secure his son's
appointment. So Chesnel slept, full of confidence, on the resolve to
go to M. Blondet and offer to realize his so long cherished hopes,
while he opened his eyes to President du Ronceret's treachery. Blondet
won over, he would take a peremptory tone with the examining
magistrate, to whom he hoped to prove that if Victurnien was not
blameless, he had been merely imprudent; the whole thing should be
shown in the light of a boy's thoughtless escapade.
But Chesnel slept neither soundly nor for long. Before dawn he was
awakened by his housekeeper. The most bewitching person in this
history, the most adorable youth on the face of the globe, Mme. la
Duchesse de Maufrigneuse herself, in man's attire, had driven alone
from Paris in a caleche, and was waiting to see him.
"I have come to save him or to die with him," said she, addressing the
notary, who thought that he was dreaming. "I have brought a hundred
thousand francs, given me by His Majesty out of his private purse, to
buy Victurnien's innocence, if his adversary can be bribed. If we fail
utterly, I have brought poison to snatch him away before anything
takes place, before even the indictment is drawn up. But we shall not
fail. I have sent word to the public prosecutor; he is on the road
behind me; he could not travel in my caleche, because he wished to
take the instructions of the Keeper of the Seals."
Chesnel rose to the occasion and played up to the Duchess; he wrapped
himself in his dressing-gown, fell at her feet, and kissed them, not
without asking her pardon for forgetting himself in his joy.
"We are saved!" cried he; and gave orders to Brigitte to see that Mme.
la Duchesse had all that she needed after traveling post all night. He
appealed to the fair Diane's spirit, by making her see that it was
absolutely necessary that she should visit the examining magistrate
before daylight, lest any one should discover the secret, or so much
as imagine that the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse had come.
"And have I not a passport in due form?" quoth she, displaying a sheet
of paper, wherein she was described as M. le Vicomte Felix de
Vandeness, Master of Requests, and His Majesty's private secretary.
"And do I not play my man's part well?" she added, running her fingers
through her wig a la Titus, and twirling her riding switch.
"O! Mme. la Duchesse, you are an angel!" cried Chesnel, with tears in
his eyes. (She was destined always to be an angel, even in man's
attire.) "Button up your greatcoat, muffle yourself up to the eyes in
your traveling cloak, take my arm, and let us go as quickly as
possible to Camusot's house before anybody can meet us."
"Then am I going to see a man called Camusot?" she asked.
"With a nose to match his name,"[*] assented Chesnel.
[*] Camus, flat-nosed
The old notary felt his heart dead within him, but he thought it none
the less necessary to humor the Duchess, to laugh when she laughed,
and shed tears when she wept; groaning in spirit, all the same, over
the feminine frivolity which could find matter for a jest while
setting about a matter so serious. What would he not have done to save
the Count? While Chesnel dressed; Mme. de Maufrigneuse sipped the cup
of coffee and cream which Brigitte brought her, and agreed with
herself that provincial women cooks are superior to Parisian chefs,
who despise the little details which make all the difference to an
epicure. Thanks to Chesnel's taste for delicate fare, Brigitte was
found prepared to set an excellent meal before the Duchess.
Chesnel and his charming companion set out for M. and Mme. Camusot's
"Ah! so there is a Mme. Camusot?" said the Duchess. "Then the affair
may be managed."
"And so much the more readily, because the lady is visibly tired
enough of living among us provincials; she comes from Paris," said
"Then we must have no secrets from her?"
"You will judge how much to tell or to conceal," Chesnel replied
humbly. "I am sure that she will be greatly flattered to be the
Duchesse de Maufrigneuse's hostess; you will be obliged to stay in her
house until nightfall, I expect, unless you find it inconvenient to
"Is this Mme. Camusot a good-looking woman?" asked the Duchess, with a
"She is a bit of a queen in her own house."
"Then she is sure to meddle in court-house affairs," returned the
Duchess. "Nowhere but in France, my dear M. Chesnel, do you see women
so much wedded to their husbands that they are wedded to their
husband's professions, work, or business as well. In Italy, England,
and Germany, women make it a point of honor to leave men to fight
their own battles; they shut their eyes to their husbands' work as
perseveringly as our French citizens' wives do all that in them lies
to understand the position of their joint-stock partnership; is not
that what you call it in your legal language? Frenchwomen are so
incredibly jealous in the conduct of their married life, that they
insist on knowing everything; and that is how, in the least
difficulty, you feel the wife's hand in the business; the Frenchwoman
advises, guides, and warns her husband. And, truth to tell, the man is
none the worse off. In England, if a married man is put in prison for
debt for twenty-four hours, his wife will be jealous and make a scene
when he comes back."
"Here we are, without meeting a soul on the way," said Chesnel. "You
are the more sure of complete ascendency here, Mme. la Duchesse, since
Mme. Camusot's father is one Thirion, usher of the royal cabinet."
"And the King never thought of that!" exclaimed the Duchess. "He
thinks of nothing! Thirion introduced us, the Prince de Cadignan, M.
de Vandeness, and me! We shall have it all our own way in this house.
Settle everything with M. Camusot while I talk to his wife."
The maid, who was washing and dressing the children, showed the
visitors into the little fireless dining-room.
"Take that card to your mistress," said the Duchess, lowering her
voice for the woman's ear; "nobody else is to see it. If you are
discreet, child, you shall not lose by it."
At the sound of a woman's voice, and the sight of the handsome young
man's face, the maid looked thunderstruck.
"Wake M. Camusot," said Chesnel, "and tell him, that I am waiting to
see him on important business," and she departed upstairs forthwith.
A few minutes later Mme. Camusot, in her dressing-gown, sprang
downstairs and brought the handsome stranger into her room. She had
pushed Camusot out of bed and into his study with all his clothes,
bidding him dress himself at once and wait there. The transformation
scene had been brought about by a bit of pasteboard with the words
MADAME LA DUCHESSE DE MAUFRIGNEUSE engraved upon it. A daughter of the
usher of the royal cabinet took in the whole situation at once.
"Well!" exclaimed the maid-servant, left with Chesnel in the
dining-room, "Would not any one think that a thunderbolt had dropped
in among us? The master is dressing in his study; you can go upstairs."
"Not a word of all this, mind," said Chesnel.
Now that he was conscious of the support of a great lady who had the
King's consent (by word of mouth) to the measures about to be taken
for rescuing the Comte d'Esgrignon, he spoke with an air of authority,
which served his cause much better with Camusot than the humility with
which he would otherwise have approached him.
"Sir," said he, "the words let fall last evening may have surprised
you, but they are serious. The house of d'Esgrignon counts upon you
for the proper conduct of investigations from which it must issue
without a spot."
"I shall pass over anything in your remarks, sir, which must be
offensive to me personally, and obnoxious to justice; for your
position with regard to the d'Esgrignons excuses you up to a certain
"Pardon me, sir, if I interrupt you," said Chesnel. "I have just
spoken aloud the things which your superiors are thinking and dare not
avow; though what those things are any intelligent man can guess, and
you are an intelligent man.—Grant that the young man had acted
imprudently, can you suppose that the sight of a d'Esgrignon dragged
into an Assize Court can be gratifying to the King, the Court, or the
Ministry? Is it to the interest of the kingdom, or of the country,
that historic houses should fall? Is not the existence of a great
aristocracy, consecrated by time, a guarantee of that Equality which
is the catchword of the Opposition at this moment? Well and good; now
not only has there not been the slightest imprudence, but we are
innocent victims caught in a trap."
"I am curious to know how," said the examining magistrate.
"For the last two years, the Sieur du Croisier has regularly allowed
M. le Comte d'Esgrignon to draw upon him for very large sums," said
Chesnel. "We are going to produce drafts for more than a hundred
thousand crowns, which he continually met; the amounts being remitted
by me—bear that well in mind—either before or after the bills fell
due. M. le Comte d'Esgrignon is in a position to produce a receipt for
the sum paid by him, before this bill, this alleged forgery was drawn.
Can you fail to see in that case that this charge is a piece of spite
and party feeling? And a charge brought against the heir of a great
house by one of the most dangerous enemies of the Throne and Altar,
what is it but an odious slander? There has been no more forgery in
this affair than there has been in my office. Summon Mme. du Croisier,
who knows nothing as yet of the charge of forgery; she will declare to
you that I brought the money and paid it over to her, so that in her
husband's absence she might remit the amount for which he has not
asked her. Examine du Croisier on the point; he will tell you that he
knows nothing of my payment to Mme. du Croisier.
"You may make such assertions as these, sir, in M. d'Esgrignon's
salon, or in any other house where people know nothing of business,
and they may be believed; but no examining magistrate, unless he is a
driveling idiot, can imagine that a woman like Mme. du Croisier, so
submissive as she is to her husband, has a hundred thousand crowns
lying in her desk at this moment, without saying a word to him; nor
yet that an old notary would not have advised M. du Croisier of the
deposit on his return to town."
"The old notary, sir, had gone to Paris to put a stop to the young
"I have not yet examined the Comte d'Esgrignon," Camusot began; "his
answers will point out my duty."
"Is he in close custody?"
"Sir," said Chesnel, seeing danger ahead, "the examination can be made
in our interests or against them. But there are two courses open to
you: you can establish the fact on Mme. du Croisier's deposition that
the amount was deposited with her before the bill was drawn; or you
can examine the unfortunate young man implicated in this affair, and
he in his confusion may remember nothing and commit himself. You will
decide which is the more credible—a slip of memory on the part of a
woman in her ignorance of business, or a forgery committed by a
"All this is beside the point," began Camusot; "the question is,
whether M. le Comte d'Esgrignon has or has not used the lower half of
a letter addressed to him by du Croisier as a bill of exchange."
"Eh! and so he might," a voice cried suddenly, as Mme. Camusot broke
in, followed by the handsome stranger, "so he might when M. Chesnel
had advanced the money to meet the bill——"
She leant over her husband.
"You will have the first vacant appointment as assistant judge at
Paris, you are serving the King himself in this affair; I have proof
of it; you will not be forgotten," she said, lowering her voice in his
ear. "This young man that you see here is the Duchesse de
Maufrigneuse; you must never have seen her, and do all that you can
for the young Count boldly."
"Gentlemen," said Camusot, "even if the preliminary examination is
conducted to prove the young Count's innocence, can I answer for the
view the court may take? M. Chesnel, and you also, my sweet, know what
M. le President wants."
"Tut, tut, tut!" said Mme. Camusot, "go yourself to M. Michu this
morning, and tell him that the Count has been arrested; you will be
two against two in that case, I will be bound. /Michu/ comes from Paris,
and you know he is devoted to the noblesse. Good blood cannot lie."
At that very moment Mlle. Cadot's voice was heard in the doorway. She
had brought a note, and was waiting for an answer. Camusot went out,
and came back again to read the note aloud:
"M. le Vice-President begs M. Camusot to sit in audience to-day and
for the next few days, so that there may be a quorum during M. le
"Then there is an end of the preliminary examination!" cried Mme.
Camusot. "Did I not tell you, dear, that they would play you some ugly
trick? The President has gone off to slander you to the public
prosecutor and the President of the Court-Royal. You will be changed
before you can make the examination. Is that clear?"
"You will stay, monsieur," said the Duchess. "The public prosecutor is
coming, I hope, in time."
"When the public prosecutor arrives," little Mme. Camusot said, with
some heat, "he must find all over.—Yes, my dear, yes," she added,
looking full at her amazed husband.—"Ah! old hypocrite of a
President, you are setting your wits against us; you shall remember
it! You have a mind to help us to a dish of your own making, you shall
have two served up to you by your humble servant Cecile Amelie
Thirion!—Poor old Blondet! It is lucky for him that the President has
taken this journey to turn us out, for now that great oaf of a Joseph
Blondet will marry Mlle. Blandureau. I will let Father Blondet have
some seeds in return.—As for you, Camusot, go to M. Michu's, while
Mme. la Duchesse and I will go to find old Blondet. You must expect to
hear it said all over the town to-morrow that I took a walk with a
lover this morning."
Mme. Camusot took the Duchess' arm, and they went through the town by
deserted streets to avoid any unpleasant adventure on the way to the
old Vice-President's house. Chesnel meanwhile conferred with the young
Count in prison; Camusot had arranged a stolen interview. Cook-maids,
servants, and the other early risers of a country town, seeing Mme.
Camusot and the Duchess taking their way through the back streets,
took the young gentleman for an adorer from Paris. That evening, as
Cecile Amelie had said, the news of her behavior was circulated about
the town, and more than one scandalous rumor was occasioned thereby.
Mme. Camusot and her supposed lover found old Blondet in his
greenhouse. He greeted his colleague's wife and her companion, and
gave the charming young man a keen, uneasy glance.
"I have the honor to introduce one of my husband's cousins," said Mme.
Camusot, bringing forward the Duchess; "he is one of the most
distinguished horticulturists in Paris; and as he cannot spend more
than one day with us, on his way back from Brittany, and has heard of
your flowers and plants, I have taken the liberty of coming early."
"Oh, the gentleman is a horticulturist, is he?" said the old Blondet.
The Duchess bowed.
"This is my coffee-plant," said Blondet, "and here is a tea-plant."
"What can have taken M. le President away from home?" put in Mme.
Camusot. "I will wager that his absence concerns M. Camusot."
"Exactly.—This, monsieur, is the queerest of all cactuses," he
continued, producing a flower-pot which appeared to contain a piece of
mildewed rattan; "it comes from Australia. You are very young, sir, to
be a horticulturist."
"Dear M. Blondet, never mind your flowers," said Mme. Camusot. "/You/
are concerned, you and your hopes, and your son's marriage with Mlle.
Blandureau. You are duped by the President."
"Bah!" said old Blondet, with an incredulous air.
"Yes," retorted she. "If you cultivated people a little more and your
flowers a little less, you would know that the dowry and the hopes you
have sown, and watered, and tilled, and weeded are on the point of
being gathered now by cunning hands."
"Oh, nobody in the town will have the courage to fly in the
President's face and warn you. I, however, do not belong to the town,
and, thanks to this obliging young man, I shall soon be going back to
Paris; so I can inform you that Chesnel's successor has made formal
proposals for Mlle. Claire Blandureau's hand on behalf of young du
Ronceret, who is to have fifty thousand crowns from his parents. As
for Fabien, he has made up his mind to receive a call to the bar, so
as to gain an appointment as judge."
Old Blondet dropped the flower-pot which he had brought out for the
Duchess to see.
"Oh, my cactus! Oh, my son! and Mlle. Blandureau! . . . Look here! the
cactus flower is broken to pieces."
"No," Mme. Camusot answered, laughing; "everything can be put right.
If you have a mind to see your son a judge in another month, we will
tell you how you must set to work——"
"Step this way, sir, and you will see my pelargoniums, an enchanting
sight while they are in flower——" Then he added to Mme. Camusot,
"Why did you speak of these matters while your cousin was present."
"All depends upon him," riposted Mme. Camusot. "Your son's appointment
is lost for ever if you let fall a word about this young man."
"The young man is a flower——"
"He is the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, sent here by His Majesty to save
young d'Esgrignon, whom they arrested yesterday on a charge of forgery
brought against him by du Croisier. Mme. la Duchesse has authority
from the Keeper of the Seals; he will ratify any promises that she
makes to us——"
"My cactus is all right!" exclaimed Blondet, peering at his precious
plant.—"Go on, I am listening."
"Take counsel with Camusot and Michu to hush up the affair as soon as
possible, and your son will get the appointment. It will come in time
enough to baffle du Ronceret's underhand dealings with the
Blandureaus. Your son will be something better than assistant judge;
he will have M. Camusot's post within the year. The public prosecutor
will be here to-day. M. Sauvager will be obliged to resign, I expect,
after his conduct in this affair. At the court my husband will show
you documents which completely exonerate the Count and prove that the
forgery was a trap of du Croisier's own setting."
Old Blondet went into the Olympic circus where his six thousand
pelargoniums stood, and made his bow to the Duchess.
"Monsieur," said he, "if your wishes do not exceed the law, this thing
may be done."
"Monsieur," returned the Duchess, "send in your resignation to M.
Chesnel to-morrow, and I will promise you that your son shall be
appointed within the week; but you must not resign until you have had
confirmation of my promise from the public prosecutor. You men of law
will come to a better understanding among yourselves. Only let him
know that the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse had pledged her word to you.
And not a word as to my journey hither," she added.
The old judge kissed her hand and began recklessly to gather his best
flowers for her.
"Can you think of it? Give them to madame," said the Duchess. "A young
man should not have flowers about him when he has a pretty woman on
"Before you go down to the court," added Mme. Camusot, "ask Chesnel's
successor about those proposals that he made in the name of M. and
Mme. du Ronceret."
Old Blondet, quite overcome by this revelation of the President's
duplicity, stood planted on his feet by the wicket gate, looking after
the two women as they hurried away through by-streets home again. The
edifice raised so painfully during ten years for his beloved son was
crumbling visibly before his eyes. Was it possible? He suspected some
trick, and hurried away to Chesnel's successor.
At half-past nine, before the court was sitting, Vice-President
Blondet, Camusot, and Michu met with remarkable punctuality in the
council chamber. Blondet locked the door with some precautions when
Camusot and Michu came in together.
"Well, Mr. Vice-President," began Michu, "M. Sauvager, without
consulting the public prosecutor, has issued a warrant for the
apprehension of one Comte d'Esgrignon, in order to serve a grudge
borne against him by one du Croisier, an enemy of the King's
government. It is a regular topsy-turvy affair. The President, for his
part, goes away, and thereby puts a stop to the preliminary
examination! And we know nothing of the matter. Do they, by any
chance, mean to force our hand?"
"This is the first word I have heard of it," said the Vice-President.
He was furious with the President for stealing a march on him with the
Blandureaus. Chesnel's successor, the du Roncerets' man, had just
fallen into a snare set by the old judge; the truth was out, he knew
"It is lucky that we spoke to you about the matter, my dear master,"
said Camusot, "or you might have given up all hope of seating your son
on the bench or of marrying him to Mlle. Blandureau."
"But it is no question of my son, nor of his marriage," said the
Vice-President; "we are talking of young Comte d'Esgrignon. Is he or
is he not guilty?"
"It seems that Chesnel deposited the amount to meet the bill with Mme.
du Croisier," said Michu, "and a crime has been made of a mere
irregularity. According to the charge, the Count made use of the lower
half of a letter bearing du Croisier's signature as a draft which he
cashed at the Kellers'."
"An imprudent thing to do," was Camusot's comment.
"But why is du Croisier proceeding against him if the amount was paid
in beforehand?" asked Vice-President Blondet.
"He does not know that the money was deposited with his wife; or he
pretends that he does not know," said Camusot.
"It is a piece of provincial spite," said Michu.
"Still it looks like a forgery to me," said old Blondet. No passion
could obscure judicial clear-sightedness in him.
"Do you think so?" returned Camusot. "But, at the outset, supposing
that the Count had no business to draw upon du Croisier, there would
still be no forgery of the signature; and the Count believed that he
had a right to draw on Croisier when Chesnel advised him that the
money had been placed to his credit."
"Well, then, where is the forgery?" asked Blondet. "It is the intent
to defraud which constitutes forgery in a civil action."
"Oh, it is clear, if you take du Croisier's version for truth, that
the signature was diverted from its purpose to obtain a sum of money
in spite of du Croisier's contrary injunction to his bankers," Camusot
"Gentlemen," said Blondet, "this seems to me to be a mere triffle, a
quibble.—Suppose you had the money, I ought perhaps to have waited
until I had your authorization; but I, Comte d'Esgrignon, was pressed
for money, so I—— Come, come, your prosecution is a piece of
revengeful spite. Forgery is defined by the law as an attempt to
obtain any advantage which rightfully belongs to another. There is no
forgery here, according to the letter of the Roman law, nor according
to the spirit of modern jurisprudence (always from the point of a
civil action, for we are not here concerned with the falsification of
public or authentic documents). Between private individuals the
essence of a forgery is the intent to defraud; where is it in this
case? In what times are we living, gentlemen? Here is the President
going away to balk a preliminary examination which ought to be over by
this time! Until to-day I did not know M. le President, but he shall
have the benefit of arrears; from this time forth he shall draft his
decisions himself. You must set about this affair with all possible
speed, M. Camusot."
"Yes," said Michu. "In my opinion, instead of letting the young man
out on bail, we ought to pull him out of this mess at once. Everything
turns on the examination of du Croisier and his wife. You might
summons them to appear while the court is sitting, M. Camusot; take
down their depositions before four o'clock, send in your report
to-night, and we will give our decision in the morning before the court
"We will settle what course to pursue while the barristers are
pleading," said Vice-President Blondet, addressing Camusot.
And with that the three judges put on their robes and went into court.
At noon Mlle. Armande and the Bishop reached the Hotel d'Esgrignon;
Chesnel and M. Couturier were there to meet them. There was a
sufficiently short conference between the prelate and Mme. du
Croisier's director, and the latter set out at once to visit his
At eleven o'clock that morning du Croisier received a summons to
appear in the examining magistrate's office between one and two in the
afternoon. Thither he betook himself, consumed by well-founded
suspicions. It was impossible that the President should have foreseen
the arrival of the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse upon the scene, the return
of the public prosecutor, and the hasty confabulation of his learned
brethren; so he had omitted to trace out a plan for du Croisier's
guidance in the event of the preliminary examination taking place.
Neither of the pair imagined that the proceedings would be hurried on
in this way. Du Croisier obeyed the summons at once; he wanted to know
how M. Camusot was disposed to act. So he was compelled to answer the
questions put to him. Camusot addressed him in summary fashion with
the six following inquiries:—
"Was the signature on the bill alleged to be a forgery in your
handwriting?—Had you previously done business with M. le Comte
d'Esgrignon?—Was not M. le Comte d'Esgrignon in the habit of drawing
upon you, with or without advice?—Did you not write a letter
authorizing M. d'Esgrignon to rely upon you at any time?— Had not
Chesnel squared the account not once, but many times already?— Were
you not away from home when this took place?"
All these questions the banker answered in the affirmative. In spite
of wordy explanations, the magistrate always brought him back to a
"Yes" or "No." When the questions and answers alike had been resumed
in the proces-verbal, the examining magistrate brought out a final
"Was du Croisier aware that the money destined to meet the bill had
been deposited with him, du Croisier, according to Chesnel's
declaration, and a letter of advice sent by the said Chesnel to the
Comte d'Esgrignon, five days before the date of the bill?"
That last question frightened du Croisier. He asked what was meant by
it, and whether he was supposed to be the defendant and M. le Comte
d'Esgrignon the plaintiff? He called the magistrate's attention to the
fact that if the money had been deposited with him, there was no
ground for the action.
"Justice is seeking information," said the magistrate, as he dismissed
the witness, but not before he had taken down du Croisier's last
"But the money, sir——"
"The money is at your house."
Chesnel, likewise summoned, came forward to explain the matter. The
truth of his assertions was borne out by Mme. du Croisier's
deposition. The Count had already been examined. Prompted by Chesnel,
he produced du Croisier's first letter, in which he begged the Count
to draw upon him without the insulting formality of depositing the
amount beforehand. The Comte d'Esgrignon next brought out a letter in
Chesnel's handwriting, by which the notary advised him of the deposit
of a hundred thousand crowns with M. du Croisier. With such primary
facts as these to bring forward as evidence, the young Count's
innocence was bound to emerge triumphantly from a court of law.
Du Croisier went home from the court, his face white with rage, and
the foam of repressed fury on his lips. His wife was sitting by the
fireside in the drawing-room at work upon a pair of slippers for him.
She trembled when she looked into his face, but her mind was made up.
"Madame," he stammered out, "what deposition is this that you made
before the magistrate? You have dishonored, ruined, and betrayed me!"
"I have saved you, monsieur," answered she. "If some day you will have
the honor of connecting yourself with the d'Esgrignons by marrying
your niece to the Count, it will be entirely owing to my conduct
"A miracle!" cried he. "Balaam's ass has spoken. Nothing will astonish
me after this. And where are the hundred thousand crowns which (so M.
Camusot tells me) are here in my house?"
"Here they are," said she, pulling out a bundle of banknotes from
beneath the cushions of her settee. "I have not committed mortal sin
by declaring that M. Chesnel gave them into my keeping."
"While I was away?"
"You were not here."
"Will you swear that to me on your salvation?"
"I swear it," she said composedly.
"Then why did you say nothing to me about it?" demanded he.
"I was wrong there," said his wife, "but my mistake was all for your
good. Your niece will be Marquise d'Esgrignon some of these days, and
you will perhaps be a deputy, if you behave well in this deplorable
business. You have gone too far; you must find out how to get back
Du Croisier, under stress of painful agitation, strode up and down his
drawing-room; while his wife, in no less agitation, awaited the result
of this exercise. Du Croisier at length rang the bell.
"I am not at home to any one to-night," he said, when the man
appeared; "shut the gates; and if any one calls, tell them that your
mistress and I have gone into the country. We shall start directly
after dinner, and dinner must be half an hour earlier than usual."
The great news was discussed that evening in every drawing-room;
little shopkeepers, working folk, beggars, the noblesse, the merchant
class—the whole town, in short, was talking of the Comte
d'Esgrignon's arrest on a charge of forgery. The Comte d'Esgrignon
would be tried in the Assize Court; he would be condemned and branded.
Most of those who cared for the honor of the family denied the fact.
At nightfall Chesnel went to Mme. Camusot and escorted the stranger to
the Hotel d'Esgrignon. Poor Mlle. Armande was expecting him; she led
the fair Duchess to her own room, which she had given up to her, for
his lordship the Bishop occupied Victurnien's chamber; and, left alone
with her guest, the noble woman glanced at the Duchess with most
"You owed help, indeed, madame, to the poor boy who ruined himself for
your sake," she said, "the boy to whom we are all of us sacrificing
The Duchess had already made a woman's survey of Mlle. d'Esgrignon's
room; the cold, bare, comfortless chamber, that might have been a
nun's cell, was like a picture of the life of the heroic woman before
her. The Duchess saw it all—past, present, and future—with rising
emotion, felt the incongruity of her presence, and could not keep back
the falling tears that made answer for her.
But in Mlle. Armande the Christian overcame Victurnien's aunt. "Ah, I
was wrong; forgive me, Mme. la Duchesse; you did not know how poor we
were, and my nephew was incapable of the admission. And besides, now
that I see you, I can understand all—even the crime!"
And Mlle. Armande, withered and thin and white, but beautiful as those
tall austere slender figures which German art alone can paint, had
tears too in her eyes.
"Do not fear, dear angel," the Duchess said at last; "he is safe."
"Yes, but honor?—and his career? Chesnel told me; the King knows the
"We will think of a way of repairing the evil," said the Duchess.
Mlle. Armande went downstairs to the salon, and found the Collection
of Antiquities complete to a man. Every one of them had come, partly
to do honor to the Bishop, partly to rally round the Marquis; but
Chesnel, posted in the antechamber, warned each new arrival to say no
word of the affair, that the aged Marquis might never know that such a
thing had been. The loyal Frank was quite capable of killing his son
or du Croisier; for either the one or the other must have been guilty
of death in his eyes. It chanced, strangely enough, that he talked
more of Victurnien than usual; he was glad that his son had gone back
to Paris. The King would give Victurnien a place before very long; the
King was interesting himself at last in the d'Esgrignons. And his
friends, their hearts dead within them, praised Victurnien's conduct
to the skies. Mlle. Armande prepared the way for her nephew's sudden
appearance among them by remarking to her brother that Victurnien
would be sure to come to see them, and that he must be even then on
"Bah!" said the Marquis, standing with his back to the hearth, "if he
is doing well where he is, he ought to stay there, and not be thinking
of the joy it would give his old father to see him again. The King's
service has the first claim."
Scarcely one of those present heard the words without a shudder.
Justice might give over a d'Esgrignon to the executioner's branding
iron. There was a dreadful pause. The old Marquise de Casteran could
not keep back a tear that stole down over her rouge, and turned her
head away to hide it.
Next day at noon, in the sunny weather, a whole excited population was
dispersed in groups along the high street, which ran through the heart
of the town, and nothing was talked of but the great affair. Was the
Count in prison or was he not?—All at once the Comte d'Esgrignon's
well-known tilbury was seen driving down the Rue Saint-Blaise; it had
evidently come from the Prefecture, the Count himself was on the box
seat, and by his side sat a charming young man, whom nobody
recognized. The pair were laughing and talking and in great spirits.
They wore Bengal roses in their button-holes. Altogether, it was a
theatrical surprise which words fail to describe.
At ten o'clock the court had decided to dismiss the charge, stating
their very sufficient reasons for setting the Count at liberty, in a
document which contained a thunderbolt for du Croisier, in the shape
of an /inasmuch/ that gave the Count the right to institute
proceedings for libel. Old Chesnel was walking up the Grand Rue, as if
by accident, telling all who cared to hear him that du Croisier had set
the most shameful of snares for the d'Esgrignons' honor, and that it
was entirely owing to the forbearance and magnanimity of the family
that he was not prosecuted for slander.
On the evening of that famous day, after the Marquis d'Esgrignon had
gone to bed, the Count, Mlle. Armande, and the Chevalier were left
with the handsome young page, now about to return to Paris. The
charming cavalier's sex could not be hidden from the Chevalier, and he
alone, besides the three officials and Mme. Camusot, knew that the
Duchess had been among them.
"The house is saved," began Chesnel, "but after this shock it will
take a hundred years to rise again. The debts must be paid now; you
must marry an heiress, M. le Comte, there is nothing left for you to
"And take her where you may find her," said the Duchess.
"A second mesalliance!" exclaimed Mlle. Armande.
The Duchess began to laugh.
"It is better to marry than to die," she said. As she spoke she drew
from her waistcoat pocket a tiny crystal phial that came from the
Mlle. Armande shrank away in horror. Old Chesnel took the fair
Maufrigneuse's hand, and kissed it without permission.
"Are you all out of your minds here?" continued the Duchess. "Do you
really expect to live in the fifteenth century when the rest of the
world has reached the nineteenth? My dear children, there is no
noblesse nowadays; there is no aristocracy left! Napoleon's Code Civil
made an end of the parchments, exactly as cannon made an end of feudal
castles. When you have some money, you will be very much more of
nobles than you are now. Marry anybody you please, Victurnien, you
will raise your wife to your rank; that is the most substantial
privilege left to the French noblesse. Did not M. de Talleyrand marry
Mme. Grandt without compromising his position? Remember that Louis
XIV. took the Widow Scarron for his wife."
"He did not marry her for her money," interposed Mlle. Armande.
"If the Comtesse d'Esgrignon were one du Croisier's niece, for
instance, would you receive her?" asked Chesnel.
"Perhaps," replied the Duchess; "but the King, beyond all doubt, would
be very glad to see her.—So you do not know what is going on in the
world?" continued she, seeing the amazement in their faces.
"Victurnien has been in Paris; he knows how things go there. We had
more influence under Napoleon. Marry Mlle. Duval, Victurnien; she will
be just as much Marquise d'Esgrignon as I am Duchesse de
"All is lost—even honor!" said the Chevalier, with a wave of the
"Good-bye, Victurnien," said the Duchess, kissing her lover on the
forehead; "we shall not see each other again. Live on your lands; that
is the best thing for you to do; the air of Paris is not at all good
"Diane!" the young Count cried despairingly.
"Monsieur, you forget yourself strangely," the Duchess retorted
coolly, as she laid aside her role of man and mistress, and became not
merely an angel again, but a duchess, and not only a duchess, but
The Duchesse de Maufrigneuse made a stately bow to these four
personages, and drew from the Chevalier his last tear of admiration at
the service of le beau sexe.
"How like she is to the Princess Goritza!" he exclaimed in a low
Diane had disappeared. The crack of the postilion's whip told
Victurnien that the fair romance of his first love was over. While
peril lasted, Diane could still see her lover in the young Count; but
out of danger, she despised him for the weakling that he was.
Six months afterwards, Camusot received the appointment of assistant
judge at Paris, and later he became an examining magistrate. Goodman
Blondet was made a councillor to the Royal-Court; he held the post
just long enough to secure a retiring pension, and then went back to
live in his pretty little house. Joseph Blondet sat in his father's
seat at the court till the end of his days; there was not the faintest
chance of promotion for him, but he became Mlle. Blandereau's husband;
and she, no doubt, is leading to-day, in the little flower-covered
brick house, as dull a life as any carp in a marble basin. Michu and
Camusot also received the Cross of the Legion of Honor, while Blondet
became an Officer. As for M. Sauvager, deputy public prosecutor, he
was sent to Corsica, to du Croisier's great relief; he had decidedly
no mind to bestow his niece upon that functionary.
Du Croisier himself, urged by President du Ronceret, appealed from the
finding of the Tribunal to the Court-Royal, and lost his cause. The
Liberals throughout the department held that little d'Esgrignon was
guilty; while the Royalists, on the other hand, told frightful stories
of plots woven by "that abominable du Croisier" to compass his
revenge. A duel was fought indeed; the hazard of arms favored du
Croisier, the young Count was dangerously wounded, and his antagonist
maintained his words. This affair embittered the strife between the
two parties; the Liberals brought it forward on all occasions.
Meanwhile du Croisier never could carry his election, and saw no hope
of marrying his niece to the Count, especially after the duel.
A month after the decision of the Tribunal was confirmed in the
Court-Royal, Chesnel died, exhausted by the dreadful strain, which had
weakened and shaken him mentally and physically. He died in the hour
of victory, like some old faithful hound that has brought the boar to
bay, and gets his death on the tusks. He died as happily as might be,
seeing that he left the great House all but ruined, and the heir in
penury, bored to death by an idle life, and without a hope of
establishing himself. That bitter thought and his own exhaustion, no
doubt, hastened the old man's end. One great comfort came to him as he
lay amid the wreck of so many hopes, sinking under the burden of so
many cares—the old Marquis, at his sister's entreaty, gave him back
all the old friendship. The great lord came to the little house in the
Rue du Bercail, and sat by his old servant's bedside, all unaware how
much that servant had done and sacrificed for him. Chesnel sat
upright, and repeated Simeon's cry.—The Marquis allowed them to bury
Chesnel in the castle chapel; they laid him crosswise at the foot of
the tomb which was waiting for the Marquis himself, the last, in a
sense, of the d'Esgrignons.
And so died one of the last representatives of that great and
beautiful thing, Service; giving to that often discredited word its
original meaning, the relation between feudal lord and servitor. That
relation, only to be found in some out-of-the-way province, or among a
few old servants of the King, did honor alike to a noblesse that could
call forth such affection, and to a bourgeoisie that could conceive
it. Such noble and magnificent devotion is no longer possible among
us. Noble houses have no servitors left; even as France has no longer
a King, nor an hereditary peerage, nor lands that are bound
irrevocably to an historic house, that the glorious names of the
nation may be perpetuated. Chesnel was not merely one of the obscure
great men of private life; he was something more—he was a great fact.
In his sustained self-devotion is there not something indefinably
solemn and sublime, something that rises above the one beneficent
deed, or the heroic height which is reached by a moment's supreme
effort? Chesnel's virtues belong essentially to the classes which
stand between the poverty of the people on the one hand, and the
greatness of the aristocracy on the other; for these can combine
homely burgher virtues with the heroic ideals of the noble,
enlightening both by a solid education.
Victurnien was not well looked upon at Court; there was no more chance
of a great match for him, nor a place. His Majesty steadily refused to
raise the d'Esgrignons to the peerage, the one royal favor which could
rescue Victurnien from his wretched position. It was impossible that
he should marry a bourgeoise heiress in his father's lifetime, so he
was bound to live on shabbily under the paternal roof with memories of
his two years of splendor in Paris, and the lost love of a great lady
to bear him company. He grew moody and depressed, vegetating at home
with a careworn aunt and a half heart-broken father, who attributed
his son's condition to a wasting malady. Chesnel was no longer there.
The Marquis died in 1830. The great d'Esgrignon, with a following of
all the less infirm noblesse from the Collection of Antiquities, went
to wait upon Charles X. at Nonancourt; he paid his respects to his
sovereign, and swelled the meagre train of the fallen king. It was an
act of courage which seems simple enough to-day, but, in that time of
enthusiastic revolt, it was heroism.
"The Gaul has conquered!" These were the Marquis' last words.
By that time du Croisier's victory was complete. The new Marquis
d'Esgrignon accepted Mlle. Duval as his wife a week after his old
father's death. His bride brought him three millions of francs for du
Croisier and his wife settled the reversion of their fortunes upon her
in the marriage-contract. Du Croisier took occasion to say during the
ceremony that the d'Esgrignon family was the most honorable of all the
ancient houses in France.
Some day the present Marquis d'Esgrignon will have an income of more
than a hundred thousand crowns. You may see him in Paris, for he comes
to town every winter and leads a jolly bachelor life, while he treats
his wife with something more than the indifference of the grand
seigneur of olden times; he takes no thought whatever for her.
"As for Mlle. d'Esgrignon," said Emile Blondet, to whom all the detail
of the story is due, "if she is no longer like the divinely fair woman
whom I saw by glimpses in my childhood, she is decidedly, at the age
of sixty-seven, the most pathetic and interesting figure in the
Collection of Antiquities. She queens it among them still. I saw her
when I made my last journey to my native place in search of the
necessary papers for my marriage. When my father knew who it was that
I had married, he was struck dumb with amazement; he had not a word to
say until I told him that I was a prefect.
"'You were born to it,' he said, with a smile.
"As I took a walk around the town, I met Mlle. Armande. She looked
taller than ever. I looked at her, and thought of Marius among the
ruins of Carthage. Had she not outlived her creed, and the beliefs
that had been destroyed? She is a sad and silent woman, with nothing
of her old beauty left except the eyes, that shine with an unearthly
light. I watched her on her way to mass, with her book in her hand,
and could not help thinking that she prayed to God to take her out of
LES JARDIES, July 1837.