AN OLD MAID
HONORE DE BALZAC
Katharine Prescott Wormeley
To Monsieur Eugene-Auguste-Georges-Louis Midy de la Greneraye
Surville, Royal Engineer of the Ponts at Chausses.
As a testimony to the affection of his brother-in-law,
AN OLD MAID
ONE OF MANY CHEVALIERS DE VALOIS
Most persons have encountered, in certain provinces in France, a
number of Chevaliers de Valois. One lived in Normandy, another at
Bourges, a third (with whom we have here to do) flourished in Alencon,
and doubtless the South possesses others. The number of the Valesian
tribe is, however, of no consequence to the present tale. All these
chevaliers, among whom were doubtless some who were Valois as Louis
XIV. was Bourbon, knew so little of one another that it was not
advisable to speak to one about the others. They were all willing to
leave the Bourbons in tranquil possession of the throne of France; for
it was too plainly established that Henri IV. became king for want of
a male heir in the first Orleans branch called the Valois. If there
are any Valois, they descend from Charles de Valois, Duc d'Angouleme,
son of Charles IX. and Marie Touchet, the male line from whom ended,
until proof to the contrary be produced, in the person of the Abbe de
Rothelin. The Valois-Saint-Remy, who descended from Henri II., also
came to an end in the famous Lamothe-Valois implicated in the affair
of the Diamond Necklace.
Each of these many chevaliers, if we may believe reports, was, like
the Chevalier of Alencon, an old gentleman, tall, thin, withered, and
moneyless. He of Bourges had emigrated; he of Touraine hid himself; he
of Alencon fought in La Vendee and "chouanized" somewhat. The youth of
the latter was spend in Paris, where the Revolution overtook him when
thirty years of age in the midst of his conquests and gallantries.
The Chevalier de Valois of Alencon was accepted by the highest
aristocracy of the province as a genuine Valois; and he distinguished
himself, like the rest of his homonyms, by excellent manners, which
proved him a man of society. He dined out every day, and played cards
every evening. He was thought witty, thanks to his foible for relating
a quantity of anecdotes on the reign of Louis XV. and the beginnings
of the Revolution. When these tales were heard for the first time,
they were held to be well narrated. He had, moreover, the great merit
of not repeating his personal bons mots and of never speaking of his
love-affairs, though his smiles and his airs and graces were
delightfully indiscreet. The worthy gentleman used his privilege as a
Voltairean noble to stay away from mass; and great indulgence was
shown to his irreligion because of his devotion to the royal cause.
One of his particular graces was the air and manner (imitated, no
doubt, from Mole) with which he took snuff from a gold box adorned
with the portrait of the Princess Goritza,—a charming Hungarian,
celebrated for her beauty in the last years of the reign of Louis XV.
Having been attached during his youth to that illustrious stranger, he
still mentioned her with emotion. For her sake he had fought a duel
with Monsieur de Lauzun.
The chevalier, now fifty-eight years of age, owned to only fifty; and
he might well allow himself that innocent deception, for, among the
other advantages granted to fair thin persons, he managed to preserve
the still youthful figure which saves men as well as women from an
appearance of old age. Yes, remember this: all of life, or rather all
the elegance that expresses life, is in the figure. Among the
chevalier's other possessions must be counted an enormous nose with
which nature had endowed him. This nose vigorously divided a pale face
into two sections which seemed to have no knowledge of each other, for
one side would redden under the process of digestion, while the other
continued white. This fact is worthy of remark at a period when
physiology is so busy with the human heart. The incandescence, so to
call it, was on the left side. Though his long slim legs, supporting a
lank body, and his pallid skin, were not indicative of health,
Monsieur de Valois ate like an ogre and declared he had a malady
called in the provinces "hot liver," perhaps to excuse his monstrous
appetite. The circumstance of his singular flush confirmed this
declaration; but in a region where repasts are developed on the line
of thirty or forty dishes and last four hours, the chevalier's stomach
would seem to have been a blessing bestowed by Providence on the good
town of Alencon. According to certain doctors, heat on the left side
denotes a prodigal heart. The chevalier's gallantries confirmed this
scientific assertion, the responsibility for which does not rest,
fortunately, on the historian.
In spite of these symptoms, Monsieur de Valois' constitution was
vigorous, consequently long-lived. If his liver "heated," to use an
old-fashioned word, his heart was not less inflammable. His face was
wrinkled and his hair silvered; but an intelligent observer would have
recognized at once the stigmata of passion and the furrows of pleasure
which appeared in the crow's-feet and the marches-du-palais, so prized
at the court of Cythera. Everything about this dainty chevalier
bespoke the "ladies' man." He was so minute in his ablutions that his
cheeks were a pleasure to look upon; they seemed to have been laved in
some miraculous water. The part of his skull which his hair refused to
cover shone like ivory. His eyebrows, like his hair, affected youth by
the care and regularity with which they were combed. His skin, already
white, seemed to have been extra-whitened by some secret compound.
Without using perfumes, the chevalier exhaled a certain fragrance of
youth, that refreshed the atmosphere. His hands, which were those of a
gentleman, and were cared for like the hands of a pretty woman,
attracted the eye to their rosy, well-shaped nails. In short, had it
not been for his magisterial and stupendous nose, the chevalier might
have been thought a trifle too dainty.
We must here compel ourselves to spoil this portrait by the avowal of
a littleness. The chevalier put cotton in his ears, and wore, appended
to them, two little ear-rings representing negroes' heads in diamonds,
of admirable workmanship. He clung to these singular appendages,
explaining that since his ears had been bored he had ceased to have
headaches (he had had headaches). We do not present the chevalier as
an accomplished man; but surely we can pardon, in an old celibate
whose heart sends so much blood to his left cheek, these adorable
qualities, founded, perhaps, on some sublime secret history.
Besides, the Chevalier de Valois redeemed those negroes' heads by so
many other graces that society felt itself sufficiently compensated.
He really took such immense trouble to conceal his age and give
pleasure to his friends. In the first place, we must call attention to
the extreme care he gave to his linen, the only distinction that
well-bred men can nowadays exhibit in their clothes. The linen of the
chevalier was invariably of a fineness and whiteness that were truly
aristocratic. As for his coat, though remarkable for its cleanliness,
it was always half worn-out, but without spots or creases. The
preservation of that garment was something marvellous to those who
noticed the chevalier's high-bred indifference to its shabbiness. He
did not go so far as to scrape the seams with glass,—a refinement
invented by the Prince of Wales; but he did practice the rudiments of
English elegance with a personal satisfaction little understood by the
people of Alencon. The world owes a great deal to persons who take
such pains to please it. In this there is certainly some
accomplishment of that most difficult precept of the Gospel about
rendering good for evil. This freshness of ablution and all the other
little cares harmonized charmingly with the blue eyes, the ivory
teeth, and the blond person of the old chevalier.
The only blemish was that this retired Adonis had nothing manly about
him; he seemed to be employing this toilet varnish to hide the ruins
occasioned by the military service of gallantry only. But we must
hasten to add that his voice produced what might be called an
antithesis to his blond delicacy. Unless you adopted the opinion of
certain observers of the human heart, and thought that the chevalier
had the voice of his nose, his organ of speech would have amazed you
by its full and redundant sound. Without possessing the volume of
classical bass voices, the tone of it was pleasing from a slightly
muffled quality like that of an English bugle, which is firm and
sweet, strong but velvety.
The chevalier had repudiated the ridiculous costume still preserved by
certain monarchical old men; he had frankly modernized himself. He was
always seen in a maroon-colored coat with gilt buttons, half-tight
breeches of poult-de-soie with gold buckles, a white waistcoat without
embroidery, and a tight cravat showing no shirt-collar,—a last
vestige of the old French costume which he did not renounce, perhaps,
because it enabled him to show a neck like that of the sleekest abbe.
His shoes were noticeable for their square buckles, a style of which
the present generation has no knowledge; these buckles were fastened
to a square of polished black leather. The chevalier allowed two
watch-chains to hang parallel to each other from each of his waistcoat
pockets,—another vestige of the eighteenth century, which the
Incroyables had not disdained to use under the Directory. This
transition costume, uniting as it did two centuries, was worn by the
chevalier with the high-bred grace of an old French marquis, the
secret of which is lost to France since the day when Fleury, Mole's
last pupil, vanished.
The private life of this old bachelor was apparently open to all eyes,
though in fact it was quite mysterious. He lived in a lodging that was
modest, to say the best of it, in the rue du Cours, on the second
floor of a house belonging to Madame Lardot, the best and busiest
washerwoman in the town. This circumstance will explain the excessive
nicety of his linen. Ill-luck would have it that the day came when
Alencon was guilty of believing that the chevalier had not always
comported himself as a gentleman should, and that in fact he was
secretly married in his old age to a certain Cesarine,—the mother of
a child which had had the impertinence to come into the world without
being called for.
"He had given his hand," as a certain Monsieur du Bousquier remarked,
"to the person who had long had him under irons."
This horrible calumny embittered the last days of the dainty chevalier
all the more because, as the present Scene will show, he had lost a
hope long cherished to which he had made many sacrifices.
Madame Lardot leased to the chevalier two rooms on the second floor of
her house, for the modest sum of one hundred francs a year. The worthy
gentleman dined out every day, returning only in time to go to bed.
His sole expense therefore was for breakfast, invariably composed of a
cup of chocolate, with bread and butter and fruits in their season. He
made no fire except in the coldest winter, and then only enough to get
up by. Between eleven and four o'clock he walked about, went to read
the papers, and paid visits. From the time of his settling in Alencon
he had nobly admitted his poverty, saying that his whole fortune
consisted in an annuity of six hundred francs a year, the sole remains
of his former opulence,—a property which obliged him to see his man
of business (who held the annuity papers) quarterly. In truth, one of
the Alencon bankers paid him every three months one hundred and fifty
francs, sent down by Monsieur Bordin of Paris, the last of the
/procureurs du Chatelet/. Every one knew these details because the
chevalier exacted the utmost secrecy from the persons to whom he first
Monsieur de Valois gathered the fruit of his misfortunes. His place at
table was laid in all the most distinguished houses in Alencon, and he
was bidden to all soirees. His talents as a card-player, a narrator,
an amiable man of the highest breeding, were so well known and
appreciated that parties would have seemed a failure if the dainty
connoisseur was absent. Masters of houses and their wives felt the
need of his approving grimace. When a young woman heard the chevalier
say at a ball, "You are delightfully well-dressed!" she was more
pleased at such praise than she would have been at mortifying a rival.
Monsieur de Valois was the only man who could perfectly pronounce
certain phrases of the olden time. The words, "my heart," "my jewel,"
"my little pet," "my queen," and the amorous diminutives of 1770, had
a grace that was quite irresistible when they came from his lips. In
short, the chevalier had the privilege of superlatives. His
compliments, of which he was stingy, won the good graces of all the
old women; he made himself agreeable to every one, even to the
officials of the government, from whom he wanted nothing. His behavior
at cards had a lofty distinction which everybody noticed: he never
complained; he praised his adversaries when they lost; he did not
rebuke or teach his partners by showing them how they ought to have
played. When, in the course of a deal, those sickening dissertations
on the game would take place, the chevalier invariably drew out his
snuff-box with a gesture that was worthy of Mole, looked at the
Princess Goritza, raised the cover with dignity, shook, sifted, massed
the snuff, and gathered his pinch, so that by the time the cards were
dealt he had decorated both nostrils and replaced the princess in his
waistcoat pocket,—always on his left side. A gentleman of the "good"
century (in distinction from the "grand" century) could alone have
invented that compromise between contemptuous silence and a sarcasm
which might not have been understood. He accepted poor players and
knew how to make the best of them. His delightful equability of temper
made many persons say,—
"I do admire the Chevalier de Valois!"
His conversation, his manners, seemed bland, like his person. He
endeavored to shock neither man nor woman. Indulgent to defects both
physical and mental, he listened patiently (by the help of the
Princess Goritza) to the many dull people who related to him the petty
miseries of provincial life,—an egg ill-boiled for breakfast, coffee
with feathered cream, burlesque details about health, disturbed sleep,
dreams, visits. The chevalier could call up a languishing look, he
could take on a classic attitude to feign compassion, which made him a
most valuable listener; he could put in an "Ah!" and a "Bah!" and a
"What DID you do?" with charming appropriateness. He died without any
one suspecting him of even an allusion to the tender passages of his
romance with the Princess Goritza. Has any one ever reflected on the
service a dead sentiment can do to society; how love may become both
social and useful? This will serve to explain why, in spite of his
constant winning at play (he never left a salon without carrying off
with him about six francs), the old chevalier remained the spoilt
darling of the town. His losses—which, by the bye, he always
proclaimed, were very rare.
All who know him declare that they have never met, not even in the
Egyptian museum at Turin, so agreeable a mummy. In no country in the
world did parasitism ever take on so pleasant a form. Never did
selfishness of a most concentrated kind appear less forth-putting,
less offensive, than in this old gentleman; it stood him in place of
devoted friendship. If some one asked Monsieur de Valois to do him a
little service which might have discommoded him, that some one did not
part from the worthy chevalier without being truly enchanted with him,
and quite convinced that he either could not do the service demanded,
or that he should injure the affair if he meddled in it.
To explain the problematic existence of the chevalier, the historian,
whom Truth, that cruel wanton, grasps by the throat, is compelled to
say that after the "glorious" sad days of July, Alencon discovered
that the chevalier's nightly winnings amounted to about one hundred
and fifty francs every three months; and that the clever old nobleman
had had the pluck to send to himself his annuity in order not to
appear in the eyes of a community, which loves the main chance, to be
entirely without resources. Many of his friends (he was by that time
dead, you will please remark) have contested mordicus this curious
fact, declaring it to be a fable, and upholding the Chevalier de
Valois as a respectable and worthy gentleman whom the liberals
calumniated. Luckily for shrewd players, there are people to be found
among the spectators who will always sustain them. Ashamed of having
to defend a piece of wrong-doing, they stoutly deny it. Do not accuse
them of wilful infatuation; such men have a sense of their dignity;
governments set them the example of a virtue which consists in burying
their dead without chanting the Misere of their defeats. If the
chevalier did allow himself this bit of shrewd practice,—which, by
the bye, would have won him the regard of the Chevalier de Gramont, a
smile from the Baron de Foeneste, a shake of the hand from the Marquis
de Moncade,—was he any the less that amiable guest, that witty
talker, that imperturbable card-player, that famous teller of
anecdotes, in whom all Alencon took delight? Besides, in what way was
this action, which is certainly within the rights of a man's own will,
—in what way was it contrary to the ethics of a gentleman? When so
many persons are forced to pay annuities to others, what more natural
than to pay one to his own best friend? But Laius is dead—
To return to the period of which we are writing: after about fifteen
years of this way of life the chevalier had amassed ten thousand and
some odd hundred francs. On the return of the Bourbons, one of his old
friends, the Marquis de Pombreton, formerly lieutenant in the Black
mousquetaires, returned to him—so he said—twelve hundred pistoles
which he had lent to the marquis for the purpose of emigrating. This
event made a sensation; it was used later to refute the sarcasms of
the "Constitutionnel," on the method employed by some emigres in
paying their debts. When this noble act of the Marquis de Pombreton
was lauded before the chevalier, the good man reddened even to his
right cheek. Every one rejoiced frankly at this windfall for Monsieur
de Valois, who went about consulting moneyed people as to the safest
manner of investing this fragment of his past opulence. Confiding in
the future of the Restoration, he finally placed his money on the
Grand-Livre at the moment when the funds were at fifty-six francs and
twenty-five centimes. Messieurs de Lenoncourt, de Navarreins, de
Verneuil, de Fontaine, and La Billardiere, to whom he was known, he
said, obtained for him, from the king's privy purse, a pension of
three hundred francs, and sent him, moreover, the cross of
Saint-Louis. Never was it known positively by what means the old
chevalier obtained these two solemn consecrations of his title and
merits. But one thing is certain; the cross of Saint-Louis authorized
him to take the rank of retired colonel in view of his service in the
Catholic armies of the West.
Besides his fiction of an annuity, about which no one at the present
time knew anything, the chevalier really had, therefore, a bona fide
income of a thousand francs. But in spite of this bettering of his
circumstances, he made no change in his life, manners, or appearance,
except that the red ribbon made a fine effect on his maroon-colored
coat, and completed, so to speak, the physiognomy of a gentleman.
After 1802, the chevalier sealed his letters with a very old seal,
ill-engraved to be sure, by which the Casterans, the d'Esgrignons, the
Troisvilles were enabled to see that he bore: /Party of France, two
cottises gemelled gules, and gules, five mascles or, placed end to
end; on a chief sable, a cross argent/. For crest, a knight's helmet.
For motto: "Valeo." Bearing such noble arms, the so-called bastard of
the Valois had the right to get into all the royal carriages of the
Many persons envied the quiet existence of this old bachelor, spent on
whist, boston, backgammon, reversi, and piquet, all well played, on
dinners well digested, snuff gracefully inhaled, and tranquil walks
about the town. Nearly all Alencon believed this life to be exempt
from ambitions and serious interests; but no man has a life as simple
as envious neighbors attribute to him. You will find in the most
out-of-the way villages human mollusks, creatures apparently dead, who
have passions for lepidoptera or for conchology, let us say,—beings
who will give themselves infinite pains about moths, butterflies, or
the concha Veneris. Not only did the chevalier have his own particular
shells, but he cherished an ambitious desire which he pursued with a
craft so profound as to be worthy of Sixtus the Fifth: he wanted to
marry a certain rich old maid, with the intention, no doubt, of making
her a stepping-stone by which to reach the more elevated regions of
the court. There, then, lay the secret of his royal bearing and of his
residence in Alencon.
SUSANNAH AND THE ELDERS
On a Wednesday morning, early, toward the middle of spring, in the
year 16,—such was his mode of reckoning,—at the moment when the
chevalier was putting on his old green-flowered damask dressing-gown,
he heard, despite the cotton in his ears, the light step of a young
girl who was running up the stairway. Presently three taps were
discreetly struck upon the door; then, without waiting for any
response, a handsome girl slipped like an eel into the room occupied
by the old bachelor.
"Ah! is it you, Suzanne?" said the Chevalier de Valois, without
discontinuing his occupation, which was that of stropping his razor.
"What have you come for, my dear little jewel of mischief?"
"I have come to tell you something which may perhaps give you as much
pleasure as pain?"
"Is it anything about Cesarine?"
"Cesarine! much I care about your Cesarine!" she said with a saucy
air, half serious, half indifferent.
This charming Suzanne, whose present comical performance was to
exercise a great influence in the principal personages of our history,
was a work-girl at Madame Lardot's. One word here on the topography of
the house. The wash-rooms occupied the whole of the ground floor. The
little courtyard was used to hang out on wire cords embroidered
handkerchiefs, collarets, capes, cuffs, frilled shirts, cravats,
laces, embroidered dresses,—in short, all the fine linen of the best
families of the town. The chevalier assumed to know from the number of
her capes in the wash how the love-affairs of the wife of the prefect
were going on. Though he guessed much from observations of this kind,
the chevalier was discretion itself; he was never betrayed into an
epigram (he had plenty of wit) which might have closed to him an
agreeable salon. You are therefore to consider Monsieur de Valois as a
man of superior manners, whose talents, like those of many others,
were lost in a narrow sphere. Only—for, after all, he was a man—he
permitted himself certain penetrating glances which could make some
women tremble; although they all loved him heartily as soon as they
discovered the depth of his discretion and the sympathy that he felt
for their little weaknesses.
The head woman, Madame Lardot's factotum, an old maid of forty-six,
hideous to behold, lived on the opposite side of the passage to the
chevalier. Above them were the attics where the linen was dried in
winter. Each apartment had two rooms,—one lighted from the street,
the other from the courtyard. Beneath the chevalier's room there lived
a paralytic, Madame Lardot's grandfather, an old buccaneer named
Grevin, who had served under Admiral Simeuse in India, and was now
stone-deaf. As for Madame Lardot, who occupied the other lodging on
the first floor, she had so great a weakness for persons of condition
that she may well have been thought blind to the ways of the
chevalier. To her, Monsieur de Valois was a despotic monarch who did
right in all things. Had any of her workwomen been guilty of a
happiness attributed to the chevalier she would have said, "He is so
lovable!" Thus, though the house was of glass, like all provincial
houses, it was discreet as a robber's cave.
A born confidant to all the little intrigues of the work-rooms, the
chevalier never passed the door, which usually stood open, without
giving something to his little ducks,—chocolate, bonbons, ribbons,
laces, gilt crosses, and such like trifles adored by grisettes;
consequently, the kind old gentleman was adored in return. Women have
an instinct which enables them to divine the men who love them, who
like to be near them, and exact no payment for gallantries. In this
respect women have the instinct of dogs, who in a mixed company will
go straight to the man to whom animals are sacred.
The poor Chevalier de Valois retained from his former life the need of
bestowing gallant protection, a quality of the seigneurs of other
days. Faithful to the system of the "petite maison," he liked to
enrich women,—the only beings who know how to receive, because they
can always return. But the poor chevalier could no longer ruin himself
for a mistress. Instead of the choicest bonbons wrapped in bank-bills,
he gallantly presented paper-bags full of toffee. Let us say to the
glory of Alencon that the toffee was accepted with more joy than la
Duthe ever showed at a gilt service or a fine equipage offered by the
Comte d'Artois. All these grisettes fully understood the fallen
majesty of the Chevalier de Valois, and they kept their private
familiarities with him a profound secret for his sake. If they were
questioned about him in certain houses when they carried home the
linen, they always spoke respectfully of the chevalier, and made him
out older than he really was; they talked of him as a most respectable
monsieur, whose life was a flower of sanctity; but once in their own
regions they perched on his shoulders like so many parrots. He liked
to be told the secrets which washerwomen discover in the bosom of
households, and day after day these girls would tell him the cancans
which were going the round of Alencon. He called them his "petticoat
gazettes," his "talking feuilletons." Never did Monsieur de Sartines
have spies more intelligent and less expensive, or minions who showed
more honor while displaying their rascality of mind. So it may be said
that in the mornings, while breakfasting, the chevalier usually amused
himself as much as the saints in heaven.
Suzanne was one of his favorites, a clever, ambitious girl, made of
the stuff of a Sophie Arnold, and handsome withal, as the handsomest
courtesan invited by Titian to pose on black velvet for a model of
Venus; although her face, fine about the eyes and forehead,
degenerated, lower down, into commonness of outline. Hers was a Norman
beauty, fresh, high-colored, redundant, the flesh of Rubens covering
the muscles of the Farnese Hercules, and not the slender articulations
of the Venus de' Medici, Apollo's graceful consort.
"Well, my child, tell me your great or your little adventure, whatever
The particular point about the chevalier which would have made him
noticeable from Paris to Pekin, was the gentle paternity of his manner
to grisettes. They reminded him of the illustrious operatic queens of
his early days, whose celebrity was European during a good third of
the eighteenth century. It is certain that the old gentleman, who had
lived in days gone by with that feminine nation now as much forgotten
as many other great things,—like the Jesuits, the Buccaneers, the
Abbes, and the Farmers-General,—had acquired an irresistible
good-humor, a kindly ease, a laisser-aller devoid of egotism, the
self-effacement of Jupiter with Alcmene, of the king intending to be
duped, who casts his thunderbolts to the devil, wants his Olympus full
of follies, little suppers, feminine profusions—but with Juno out of
the way, be it understood.
In spite of his old green damask dressing-gown and the bareness of the
room in which he sat, where the floor was covered with a shabby
tapestry in place of carpet, and the walls were hung with tavern-paper
presenting the profiles of Louis XVI. and members of his family,
traced among the branches of a weeping willow with other
sentimentalities invented by royalism during the Terror,—in spite of
his ruins, the chevalier, trimming his beard before a shabby old
toilet-table, draped with trumpery lace, exhaled an essence of the
eighteenth century. All the libertine graces of his youth reappeared;
he seemed to have the wealth of three hundred thousand francs of debt,
while his vis-a-vis waited before the door. He was grand,—like
Berthier on the retreat from Moscow, issuing orders to an army that
existed no longer.
"Monsieur le chevalier," replied Suzanne, drolly, "seems to me I
needn't tell you anything; you've only to look."
And Suzanne presented a side view of herself which gave a sort of
lawyer's comment to her words. The chevalier, who, you must know, was
a sly old bird, lowered his right eye on the grisette, still holding
the razor at his throat, and pretended to understand.
"Well, well, my little duck, we'll talk about that presently. But you
are rather previous, it seems to me."
"Why, Monsieur le chevalier, ought I to wait until my mother beats me
and Madame Lardot turns me off? If I don't get away soon to Paris, I
shall never be able to marry here, where men are so ridiculous."
"It can't be helped, my dear; society is changing; women are just as
much victims to the present state of things as the nobility
themselves. After political overturn comes the overturn of morals.
Alas! before long woman won't exist" (he took out the cotton-wool to
arrange his ears): "she'll lose everything by rushing into sentiment;
she'll wring her nerves; good-bye to all the good little pleasures of
our time, desired without shame, accepted without nonsense." (He
polished up the little negroes' heads.) "Women had hysterics in those
days to get their ends, but now" (he began to laugh) "their vapors end
in charcoal. In short, marriage" (here he picked up his pincers to
remove a hair) "will become a thing intolerable; whereas it used to be
so gay in my day! The reigns of Louis XIV. and Louis XV.—remember
this, my child—said farewell to the finest manners and morals ever
known to the world."
"But, Monsieur le chevalier," said the grisette, "the matter now
concerns the morals and honor of your poor little Suzanne, and I hope
you won't abandon her."
"Abandon her!" cried the chevalier, finishing his hair; "I'd sooner
abandon my own name."
"Ah!" exclaimed Suzanne.
"Now, listen to me, you little mischief," said the chevalier, sitting
down on a huge sofa, formerly called a duchesse, which Madame Lardot
had been at some pains to find for him.
He drew the magnificent Suzanne before him, holding her legs between
his knees. She let him do as he liked, although in the street she was
offish enough to other men, refusing their familiarities partly from
decorum and partly for contempt for their commonness. She now stood
audaciously in front of the chevalier, who, having fathomed in his day
many other mysteries in minds that were far more wily, took in the
situation at a single glance. He knew very well that no young girl
would joke about a real dishonor; but he took good care not to knock
over the pretty scaffolding of her lie as he touched it.
"We slander ourselves," he said with inimitable craft; "we are as
virtuous as that beautiful biblical girl whose name we bear; we can
always marry as we please, but we are thirsty for Paris, where
charming creatures—and we are no fool—get rich without trouble. We
want to go and see if the great capital of pleasures hasn't some young
Chevalier de Valois in store for us, with a carriage, diamonds, an
opera-box, and so forth. Russians, Austrians, Britons, have millions
on which we have an eye. Besides, we are patriotic; we want to help
France in getting back her money from the pockets of those gentry.
Hey! hey! my dear little devil's duck! it isn't a bad plan. The world
you live in may cry out a bit, but success justifies all things. The
worst thing in this world, my dear, is to be without money; that's our
disease, yours and mine. Now inasmuch as we have plenty of wit, we
thought it would be a good thing to parade our dear little honor, or
dishonor, to catch an old boy; but that old boy, my dear heart, knows
the Alpha and Omega of female tricks,—which means that you could
easier put salt on a sparrow's tail than to make me believe I have
anything to do with your little affair. Go to Paris, my dear; go at
the cost of an old celibate, I won't prevent it; in fact, I'll help
you, for an old bachelor, Suzanne, is the natural money-box of a young
girl. But don't drag me into the matter. Listen, my queen, you who
know life pretty well; you would me great harm and give me much pain,
—harm, because you would prevent my marriage in a town where people
cling to morality; pain, because if you are in trouble (which I deny,
you sly puss!) I haven't a penny to get you out of it. I'm as poor as
a church mouse; you know that, my dear. Ah! if I marry Mademoiselle
Cormon, if I am once more rich, of course I would prefer you to
Cesarine. You've always seemed to me as fine as the gold they gild on
lead; you were made to be the love of a great seigneur. I think you so
clever that the trick you are trying to play off on me doesn't
surprise me one bit; I expected it. You are flinging the scabbard
after the sword, and that's daring for a girl. It takes nerve and
superior ideas to do it, my angel, and therefore you have won my
"Monsieur le chevalier, I assure you, you are mistaken, and—"
She colored, and did not dare to say more. The chevalier, with a
single glance, had guessed and fathomed her whole plan.
"Yes, yes! I understand: you want me to believe it," he said. "Well! I
do believe it. But take my advice: go to Monsieur du Bousquier.
Haven't you taken linen there for the last six or eight months? I'm
not asking what went on between you; but I know the man: he has
immense conceit; he is an old bachelor, and very rich; and he only
spends a quarter of a comfortable income. If you are as clever as I
suppose, you can go to Paris at his expense. There, run along, my
little doe; go and twist him round your finger. Only, mind this: be as
supple as silk; at every word take a double turn round him and make a
knot. He is a man to fear scandal, and if he has given you a chance to
put him in the pillory—in short, understand; threaten him with the
ladies of the Maternity Hospital. Besides, he's ambitious. A man
succeeds through his wife, and you are handsome and clever enough to
make the fortune of a husband. Hey! the mischief! you could hold your
own against all the court ladies."
Suzanne, whose mind took in at a flash the chevalier's last words, was
eager to run off to du Bousquier, but, not wishing to depart too
abruptly, she questioned the chevalier about Paris, all the while
helping him to dress. The chevalier, however, divined her desire to be
off, and favored it by asking her to tell Cesarine to bring up his
chocolate, which Madame Lardot made for him every morning. Suzanne
then slipped away to her new victim, whose biography must here be
Born of an old Alencon family, du Bousquier was a cross between the
bourgeois and the country squire. Finding himself without means on the
death of his father, he went, like other ruined provincials, to Paris.
On the breaking out of the Revolution he took part in public affairs.
In spite of revolutionary principles, which made a hobby of republican
honesty, the management of public business in those days was by no
means clean. A political spy, a stock-jobber, a contractor, a man who
confiscated in collusion with the syndic of a commune the property of
emigres in order to sell them and buy them in, a minister, and a
general were all equally engaged in public business. From 1793 to 1799
du Bousquier was commissary of provisions to the French armies. He
lived in a magnificent hotel and was one of the matadors of finance,
did business with Ouvrard, kept open house, and led the scandalous
life of the period,—the life of a Cincinnatus, on sacks of corn
harvested without trouble, stolen rations, "little houses" full of
mistresses, in which were given splendid fetes to the Directors of the
The citizen du Bousquier was one of Barras' familiars; he was on the
best of terms with Fouche, stood very well with Bernadotte, and fully
expected to become a minister by throwing himself into the party which
secretly caballed against Bonaparte until Marengo. If it had not been
for Kellermann's charge and Desaix's death, du Bousquier would
probably have become a minister. He was one of the chief assistances
of that secret government whom Napoleon's luck send behind the scenes
in 1793. (See "An Historical Mystery.") The unexpected victory of
Marengo was the defeat of that party who actually had their
proclamations printed to return to the principles of the Montagne in
case the First Consul succumbed.
Convinced of the impossibility of Bonaparte's triumph, du Bousquier
staked the greater part of his property on a fall in the Funds, and
kept two couriers on the field of battle. The first started for Paris
when Melas' victory was certain; the second, starting four hours
later, brought the news of the defeat of the Austrians. Du Bousquier
cursed Kellermann and Desaix; he dared not curse Bonaparte, who might
owe him millions. This alternative of millions to be earned and
present ruin staring him in the face, deprived the purveyor of most of
his faculties: he became nearly imbecile for several days; the man had
so abused his health by excesses that when the thunderbolt fell upon
him he had no strength to resist. The payment of his bills against the
Exchequer gave him some hopes for the future, but, in spite of all
efforts to ingratiate himself, Napoleon's hatred to the contractors
who had speculated on his defeat made itself felt; du Bousquier was
left without a sou. The immorality of his private life, his intimacy
with Barras and Bernadotte, displeased the First Consul even more than
his manoeuvres at the Bourse, and he struck du Bousquier's name from
the list of the government contractors.
Out of all his past opulence du Bousquier saved only twelve hundred
francs a year from an investment in the Grand Livre, which he had
happened to place there by pure caprice, and which saved him from
penury. A man ruined by the First Consul interested the town of
Alencon, to which he now returned, where royalism was secretly
dominant. Du Bousquier, furious against Bonaparte, relating stories
against him of his meanness, of Josephine's improprieties, and all the
other scandalous anecdotes of the last ten years, was well received.
About this time, when he was somewhere between forty and fifty, du
Bousquier's appearance was that of a bachelor of thirty-six, of medium
height, plump as a purveyor, proud of his vigorous calves, with a
strongly marked countenance, a flattened nose, the nostrils garnished
with hair, black eyes with thick lashes, from which darted shrewd
glances like those of Monsieur de Talleyrand, though somewhat dulled.
He still wore republican whiskers and his hair very long; his hands,
adorned with bunches of hair on each knuckle, showed the power of his
muscular system in their prominent blue veins. He had the chest of the
Farnese Hercules, and shoulders fit to carry the stocks. Such
shoulders are seen nowadays only at Tortoni's. This wealth of
masculine vigor counted for much in du Bousquier's relations with
others. And yet in him, as in the chevalier, symptoms appeared which
contrasted oddly with the general aspect of their persons. The late
purveyor had not the voice of his muscles. We do not mean that his
voice was a mere thread, such as we sometimes hear issuing from the
mouth of these walruses; on the contrary, it was a strong voice, but
stifled, an idea of which can be given only by comparing it with the
noise of a saw cutting into soft and moistened wood,—the voice of a
In spite of the claims which the enmity of the First Consul gave
Monsieur du Bousquier to enter the royalist society of the province,
he was not received in the seven or eight families who composed the
faubourg Saint-Germain of Alencon, among whom the Chevalier de Valois
was welcome. He had offered himself in marriage, through her notary,
to Mademoiselle Armande, sister of the most distinguished noble in the
town; to which offer he received a refusal. He consoled himself as
best he could in the society of a dozen rich families, former
manufacturers of the old point d'Alencon, owners of pastures and
cattle, or merchants doing a wholesale business in linen, among whom,
as he hoped, he might find a wealthy wife. In fact, all his hopes now
converged to the perspective of a fortunate marriage. He was not
without a certain financial ability, which many persons used to their
profit. Like a ruined gambler who advises neophytes, he pointed out
enterprises and speculations, together with the means and chances of
conducting them. He was thought a good administrator, and it was often
a question of making him mayor of Alencon; but the memory of his
underhand jobbery still clung to him, and he was never received at the
prefecture. All the succeeding governments, even that of the Hundred
Days, refused to appoint him mayor of Alencon,—a place he coveted,
which, could he have had it, would, he thought, have won him the hand
of a certain old maid on whom his matrimonial views now turned.
Du Bousquier's aversion to the Imperial government had thrown him at
first into the royalist circles of Alencon, where he remained in spite
of the rebuffs he received there; but when, after the first return of
the Bourbons, he was still excluded from the prefecture, that
mortification inspired him with a hatred as deep as it was secret
against the royalists. He now returned to his old opinions, and became
the leader of the liberal party in Alencon, the invisible manipulator
of elections, and did immense harm to the Restoration by the
cleverness of his underhand proceedings and the perfidy of his outward
behavior. Du Bousquier, like all those who live by their heads only,
carried on his hatreds with the quiet tranquillity of a rivulet,
feeble apparently, but inexhaustible. His hatred was that of a negro,
so peaceful that it deceived the enemy. His vengeance, brooded over
for fifteen years, was as yet satisfied by no victory, not even that
of July, 1830.
It was not without some private intention that the Chevalier de Valois
had turned Suzanne's designs upon Monsieur du Bousquier. The liberal
and the royalist had mutually divined each other in spite of the wide
dissimulation with which they hid their common hope from the rest of
the town. The two old bachelors were secretly rivals. Each had formed
a plan to marry the Demoiselle Cormon, whom Monsieur de Valois had
mentioned to Suzanne. Both, ensconced in their idea and wearing the
armor of apparent indifference, awaited the moment when some lucky
chance might deliver the old maid over to them. Thus, if the two old
bachelors had not been kept asunder by the two political systems of
which they each offered a living expression, their private rivalry
would still have made them enemies. Epochs put their mark on men.
These two individuals proved the truth of that axiom by the opposing
historic tints that were visible in their faces, in their
conversation, in their ideas, and in their clothes. One, abrupt,
energetic, with loud, brusque manners, curt, rude speech, dark in
tone, in hair, in look, terrible apparently, in reality as impotent as
an insurrection, represented the republic admirably. The other, gentle
and polished, elegant and nice, attaining his ends by the slow and
infallible means of diplomacy, faithful to good taste, was the express
image of the old courtier regime.
The two enemies met nearly every evening on the same ground. The war
was courteous and benign on the side of the chevalier; but du
Bousquier showed less ceremony on his, though still preserving the
outward appearances demanded by society, for he did not wish to be
driven from the place. They themselves fully understood each other;
but in spite of the shrewd observation which provincials bestow on the
petty interests of their own little centre, no one in the town
suspected the rivalry of these two men. Monsieur le Chevalier de
Valois occupied a vantage-ground: he had never asked for the hand of
Mademoiselle Cormon; whereas du Bousquier, who entered the lists soon
after his rejection by the most distinguished family in the place, had
been refused. But the chevalier believed that his rival had still such
strong chances of success that he dealt him this coup de Jarnac with a
blade (namely, Suzanne) that was finely tempered for the purpose. The
chevalier had cast his plummet-line into the waters of du Bousquier;
and, as we shall see by the sequel, he was not mistaken in any of his
Suzanne tripped with a light foot from the rue du Cours, by the rue de
la Porte de Seez and the rue du Bercail, to the rue du Cygne, where,
about five years earlier, du Bousquier had bought a little house built
of gray Jura stone, which is something between Breton slate and Norman
granite. There he established himself more comfortably than any
householder in town; for he had managed to preserve certain furniture
and decorations from the days of his splendor. But provincial manners
and morals obscured, little by little, the rays of this fallen
Sardanapalus; these vestiges of his former luxury now produced the
effect of a glass chandelier in a barn. Harmony, that bond of all
work, human or divine, was lacking in great things as well as in
little ones. The stairs, up which everybody mounted without wiping
their feet, were never polished; the walls, painted by some wretched
artisan of the neighborhood, were a terror to the eye; the stone
mantel-piece, ill-carved, "swore" with the handsome clock, which was
further degraded by the company of contemptible candlesticks. Like the
period which du Bousquier himself represented, the house was a jumble
of dirt and magnificence. Being considered a man of leisure, du
Bousquier led the same parasite life as the chevalier; and he who does
not spend his income is always rich. His only servant was a sort of
Jocrisse, a lad of the neighborhood, rather a ninny, trained slowly
and with difficulty to du Bousquier's requirements. His master had
taught him, as he might an orang-outang, to rub the floors, dust the
furniture, black his boots, brush his coats, and bring a lantern to
guide him home at night if the weather were cloudy, and clogs if it
rained. Like many other human beings, this lad hadn't stuff enough in
him for more than one vice; he was a glutton. Often, when du Bousquier
went to a grand dinner, he would take Rene to wait at table; on such
occasions he made him take off his blue cotton jacket, with its big
pockets hanging round his hips, and always bulging with handkerchiefs,
clasp-knives, fruits, or a handful of nuts, and forced him to put on a
regulation coat. Rene would then stuff his fill with the other
servants. This duty, which du Bousquier had turned into a reward, won
him the most absolute discretion from the Breton servant.
"You here, mademoiselle!" said Rene to Suzanne when she entered;
"'t'isn't your day. We haven't any linen for the wash, tell Madame
"Old stupid!" said Suzanne, laughing.
The pretty girl went upstairs, leaving Rene to finish his porringer of
buckwheat in boiled milk. Du Bousquier, still in bed, was revolving in
his mind his plans of fortune; for ambition was all that was left to
him, as to other men who have sucked dry the orange of pleasure.
Ambition and play are inexhaustible; in a well-organized man the
passions which proceed from the brain will always survive the passions
of the heart.
"Here am I," said Suzanne, sitting down on the bed and jangling the
curtain-rings back along the rod with despotic vehemence.
"Quesaco, my charmer?" said the old bachelor, sitting up in bed.
"Monsieur," said Suzanne, gravely, "you must be astonished to see me
here at this hour; but I find myself in a condition which obliges me
not to care for what people may say about it."
"What does all that mean?" said du Bousquier, crossing his arms.
"Don't you understand me?" said Suzanne. "I know," she continued,
making a pretty little face, "how ridiculous it is in a poor girl to
come and nag at a man for what he thinks a mere nothing. But if you
really knew me, monsieur, if you knew all that I am capable of for a
man who would attach himself to me as much as I'm attached to you, you
would never repent having married me. Of course it isn't here, in
Alencon, that I should be of service to you; but if we went to Paris,
you would see where I could lead a man with your mind and your
capacities; and just at this time too, when they are remaking the
government from top to toe. So—between ourselves, be it said—/is/
what has happened a misfortune? Isn't it rather a piece of luck, which
will pay you well? Who and what are you working for now?"
"For myself, of course!" cried du Bousquier, brutally.
"Monster! you'll never be a father!" said Suzanne, giving a tone of
prophetic malediction to the words.
"Come, don't talk nonsense, Suzanne," replied du Bousquier; "I really
think I am still dreaming."
"How much more reality do you want?" cried Suzanne, standing up.
Du Bousquier rubbed his cotton night-cap to the top of his head with a
rotatory motion, which plainly indicated the tremendous fermentation
of his ideas.
"He actually believes it!" thought Suzanne, "and he's flattered.
Heaven! how easy it is to gull men!"
"Suzanne, what the devil must I do? It is so extraordinary—I, who
thought— The fact is that— No, no, it can't be—"
"What? you can't marry me?"
"Oh! as for that, no; I have engagements."
"With Mademoiselle Armande or Mademoiselle Cormon, who have both
refused you? Listen to me, Monsieur du Bousquier, my honor doesn't
need gendarmes to drag you to the mayor's office. I sha'n't lack for
husbands, thank goodness! and I don't want a man who can't appreciate
what I'm worth. But some day you'll repent of the way you are
behaving; for I tell you now that nothing on earth, neither gold nor
silver, will induce me to return the good thing that belongs to you,
if you refuse to accept it to-day."
"But, Suzanne, are you sure?"
"Oh, monsieur!" cried the grisette, wrapping her virtue round her,
"what do you take me for? I don't remind you of the promises you made
me, which have ruined a poor young girl whose only blame was to have
as much ambition as love."
Du Bousquier was torn with conflicting sentiments, joy, distrust,
calculation. He had long determined to marry Mademoiselle Cormon; for
the Charter, on which he had just been ruminating, offered to his
ambition, through the half of her property, the political career of a
deputy. Besides, his marriage with the old maid would put him socially
so high in the town that he would have great influence. Consequently,
the storm upraised by that malicious Suzanne drove him into the
wildest embarrassment. Without this secret scheme, he would have
married Suzanne without hesitation. In which case, he could openly
assume the leadership of the liberal party in Alencon. After such a
marriage he would, of course, renounce the best society and take up
with the bourgeois class of tradesmen, rich manufacturers and
graziers, who would certainly carry him in triumph as their candidate.
Du Bousquier already foresaw the Left side.
This solemn deliberation he did not conceal; he rubbed his hands over
his head, displacing the cap which covered its disastrous baldness.
Suzanne, meantime, like all those persons who succeed beyond their
hopes, was silent and amazed. To hide her astonishment, she assumed
the melancholy pose of an injured girl at the mercy of her seducer;
inwardly she was laughing like a grisette at her clever trick.
"My dear child," said du Bousquier at length, "I'm not to be taken in
with such /bosh/, not I!"
Such was the curt remark which ended du Bousquier's meditation. He
plumed himself on belonging to the class of cynical philosophers who
could never be "taken in" by women,—putting them, one and all, unto
the same category, as /suspicious/. These strong-minded persons are
usually weak men who have a special catechism in the matter of
womenkind. To them the whole sex, from queens of France to milliners,
are essentially depraved, licentious, intriguing, not a little
rascally, fundamentally deceitful, and incapable of thought about
anything but trifles. To them, women are evil-doing queens, who must
be allowed to dance and sing and laugh as they please; they see
nothing sacred or saintly in them, nor anything grand; to them there
is no poetry in the senses, only gross sensuality. Where such
jurisprudence prevails, if a woman is not perpetually tyrannized over,
she reduces the man to the condition of a slave. Under this aspect du
Bousquier was again the antithesis of the chevalier. When he made his
final remark, he flung his night-cap to the foot of the bed, as Pope
Gregory did the taper when he fulminated an excommunication; Suzanne
then learned for the first time that du Bousquier wore a toupet
covering his bald spot.
"Please to remember, Monsieur du Bousquier," she replied majestically,
"that in coming here to tell you of this matter I have done my duty;
remember that I have offered you my hand, and asked for yours; but
remember also that I behaved with the dignity of a woman who respects
herself. I have not abased myself to weep like a silly fool; I have
not insisted; I have not tormented you. You now know my situation. You
must see that I cannot stay in Alencon: my mother would beat me, and
Madame Lardot rides a hobby of principles; she'll turn me off. Poor
work-girl that I am, must I go to the hospital? must I beg my bread?
No! I'd rather throw myself into the Brillante or the Sarthe. But
isn't it better that I should go to Paris? My mother could find an
excuse to send me there,—an uncle who wants me, or a dying aunt, or a
lady who sends for me. But I must have some money for the journey and
for—you know what."
This extraordinary piece of news was far more startling to du
Bousquier than to the Chevalier de Valois. Suzanne's fiction
introduced such confusion into the ideas of the old bachelor that he
was literally incapable of sober reflection. Without this agitation
and without his inward delight (for vanity is a swindler which never
fails of its dupe), he would certainly have reflected that, supposing
it were true, a girl like Suzanne, whose heart was not yet spoiled,
would have died a thousand deaths before beginning a discussion of
this kind and asking for money.
"Will you really go to Paris, then?" he said.
A flash of gayety lighted Suzanne's gray eyes as she heard these
words; but the self-satisfied du Bousquier saw nothing.
"Yes, monsieur," she said.
Du Bousquier then began bitter lamentations: he had the last payments
to make on his house; the painter, the mason, the upholsterers must be
paid. Suzanne let him run on; she was listening for the figures. Du
Bousquier offered her three hundred francs. Suzanne made what is
called on the stage a false exit; that is, she marched toward the
"Stop, stop! where are you going?" said du Bousquier, uneasily. "This
is what comes of a bachelor's life!" thought he. "The devil take me if
I ever did anything more than rumple her collar, and, lo and behold!
she makes THAT a ground to put her hand in one's pocket!"
"I'm going, monsieur," replied Suzanne, "to Madame Granson, the
treasurer of the Maternity Society, who, to my knowledge, has saved
many a poor girl in my condition from suicide."
"Yes," said Suzanne, "a relation of Mademoiselle Cormon, the president
of the Maternity Society. Saving your presence, the ladies of the town
have created an institution to protect poor creatures from destroying
their infants, like that handsome Faustine of Argentan who was
executed for it three years ago."
"Here, Suzanne," said du Bousquier, giving her a key, "open that
secretary, and take out the bag you'll find there: there's about six
hundred francs in it; it is all I possess."
"Old cheat!" thought Suzanne, doing as he told her, "I'll tell about
your false toupet."
She compared du Bousquier with that charming chevalier, who had given
her nothing, it is true, but who had comprehended her, advised her,
and carried all grisettes in his heart.
"If you deceive me, Suzanne," cried du Bousquier, as he saw her with
her hand in the drawer, "you—"
"Monsieur," she said, interrupting him with ineffable impertinence,
"wouldn't you have given me money if I had asked for it?"
Recalled to a sense of gallantry, du Bousquier had a remembrance of
past happiness and grunted his assent. Suzanne took the bag and
departed, after allowing the old bachelor to kiss her, which he did
with an air that seemed to say, "It is a right which costs me dear;
but it is better than being harried by a lawyer in the court of
assizes as the seducer of a girl accused of infanticide."
Suzanne hid the sack in a sort of gamebag made of osier which she had
on her arm, all the while cursing du Bousquier for his stinginess; for
one thousand francs was the sum she wanted. Once tempted of the devil
to desire that sum, a girl will go far when she has set foot on the
path of trickery. As she made her way along the rue du Bercail, it
came into her head that the Maternity Society, presided over by
Mademoiselle Cormon, might be induced to complete the sum at which she
had reckoned her journey to Paris, which to a grisette of Alencon
seemed considerable. Besides, she hated du Bousquier. The latter had
evidently feared a revelation of his supposed misconduct to Madame
Granson; and Suzanne, at the risk of not getting a penny from the
society, was possessed with the desire, on leaving Alencon, of
entangling the old bachelor in the inextricable meshes of a provincial
slander. In all grisettes there is something of the malevolent
mischief of a monkey. Accordingly, Suzanne now went to see Madame
Granson, composing her face to an expression of the deepest dejection.
Madame Granson, widow of a lieutenant-colonel of artillery killed at
Jena, possessed, as her whole means of livelihood, a meagre pension of
nine hundred francs a year, and three hundred francs from property of
her own, plus a son whose support and education had eaten up all her
savings. She occupied, in the rue du Bercail, one of those melancholy
ground-floor apartments which a traveller passing along the principal
street of a little provincial town can look through at a glance. The
street door opened at the top of three steep steps; a passage led to
an interior courtyard, at the end of which was the staircase covered
by a wooden gallery. On one side of the passage was the dining-room
and the kitchen; on the other side, a salon put to many uses, and the
Athanase Granson, a young man twenty-three years of age, who slept in
an attic room above the second floor of the house, added six hundred
francs to the income of his poor mother, by the salary of a little
place which the influence of his relation, Mademoiselle Cormon, had
obtained for him in the mayor's office, where he was placed in charge
of the archives.
From these indications it is easy to imagine Madame Granson in her
cold salon with its yellow curtains and Utrecht velvet furniture, also
yellow, as she straightened the round straw mats which were placed
before each chair, that visitors might not soil the red-tiled floor
while they sat there; after which she returned to her cushioned
armchair and little work-table placed beneath the portrait of the
lieutenant-colonel of artillery between two windows,—a point from
which her eye could rake the rue du Bercail and see all comers. She
was a good woman, dressed with bourgeois simplicity in keeping with
her wan face furrowed by grief. The rigorous humbleness of poverty
made itself felt in all the accessories of this household, the very
air of which was charged with the stern and upright morals of the
provinces. At this moment the son and mother were together in the
dining-room, where they were breakfasting with a cup of coffee, with
bread and butter and radishes. To make the pleasure which Suzanne's
visit was to give to Madame Granson intelligible, we must explain
certain secret interests of the mother and son.
Athanase Granson was a thin and pale young man, of medium height, with
a hollow face in which his two black eyes, sparkling with thoughts,
gave the effect of bits of coal. The rather irregular lines of his
face, the curve of his lips, a prominent chin, the fine modelling of
his forehead, his melancholy countenance, caused by a sense of his
poverty warring with the powers that he felt within him, were all
indications of repressed and imprisoned talent. In any other place
than the town of Alencon the mere aspect of his person would have won
him the assistance of superior men, or of women who are able to
recognize genius in obscurity. If his was not genius, it was at any
rate the form and aspect of it; if he had not the actual force of a
great heart, the glow of such a heart was in his glance. Although he
was capable of expressing the highest feeling, a casing of timidity
destroyed all the graces of his youth, just as the ice of poverty kept
him from daring to put forth all his powers. Provincial life, without
an opening, without appreciation, without encouragement, described a
circle about him in which languished and died the power of thought,—a
power which as yet had scarcely reached its dawn. Moreover, Athanase
possessed that savage pride which poverty intensifies in noble minds,
exalting them in their struggle with men and things; although at their
start in life it is an obstacle to their advancement. Genius proceeds
in two ways: either it takes its opportunity—like Napoleon, like
Moliere—the moment that it sees it, or it waits to be sought when it
has patiently revealed itself. Young Granson belonged to that class of
men of talent who distrust themselves and are easily discouraged. His
soul was contemplative. He lived more by thought than by action.
Perhaps he might have seemed deficient or incomplete to those who
cannot conceive of genius without the sparkle of French passion; but
he was powerful in the world of mind, and he was liable to reach,
through a series of emotions imperceptible to common souls, those
sudden determinations which make fools say of a man, "He is mad."
The contempt which the world pours out on poverty was death to
Athanase; the enervating heat of solitude, without a breath or current
of air, relaxed the bow which ever strove to tighten itself; his soul
grew weary in this painful effort without results. Athanase was a man
who might have taken his place among the glories of France; but, eagle
as he was, cooped in a cage without his proper nourishment, he was
about to die of hunger after contemplating with an ardent eye the
fields of air and the mountain heights where genius soars. His work in
the city library escaped attention, and he buried in his soul his
thoughts of fame, fearing that they might injure him; but deeper than
all lay buried within him the secret of his heart,—a passion which
hollowed his cheeks and yellowed his brow. He loved his distant
cousin, this very Mademoiselle Cormon whom the Chevalier de Valois and
du Bousquier, his hidden rivals, were stalking. This love had had its
origin in calculation. Mademoiselle Cormon was thought to be one of
the richest persons in the town: the poor lad had therefore been led
to love her by desires for material happiness, by the hope, long
indulged, of gilding with comfort his mother's last years, by eager
longing for the ease of life so needful to men who live by thought;
but this most innocent point of departure degraded his passion in his
own eyes. Moreover, he feared the ridicule the world would cast upon
the love of a young man of twenty-three for an old maid of forty.
And yet his passion was real; whatever may seem false about such a
love elsewhere, it can be realized as a fact in the provinces, where,
manners and morals being without change or chance or movement or
mystery, marriage becomes a necessity of life. No family will accept a
young man of dissolute habits. However natural the liaison of a young
man, like Athanase, with a handsome girl, like Suzanne, for instance,
might seem in a capital, it alarms provincial parents, and destroys
the hopes of marriage of a poor young man when possibly the fortune of
a rich one might cause such an unfortunate antecedent to be
overlooked. Between the depravity of certain liaisons and a sincere
love, a man of honor and no fortune will not hesitate: he prefers the
misfortunes of virtue to the evils of vice. But in the provinces women
with whom a young man call fall in love are rare. A rich young girl he
cannot obtain in a region where all is calculation; a poor young girl
he is prevented from loving; it would be, as provincials say, marrying
hunger and thirst. Such monkish solitude is, however, dangerous to
These reflections explain why provincial life is so firmly based on
marriage. Thus we find that ardent and vigorous genius, forced to rely
on the independence of its own poverty, quits these cold regions where
thought is persecuted by brutal indifference, where no woman is
willing to be a sister of charity to a man of talent, of art, of
Who will really understand Athanase Granson's love for Mademoiselle
Cormon? Certainly neither rich men—those sultans of society who fill
their harems—nor middle-class men, who follow the well-beaten
high-road of prejudices; nor women who, not choosing to understand the
passions of artists, impose the yoke of their virtues upon men of
genius, imagining that the two sexes are governed by the same laws.
Here, perhaps, we should appeal to those young men who suffer from the
repression of their first desires at the moment when all their forces
are developing; to artists sick of their own genius smothering under
the pressure of poverty; to men of talent, persecuted and without
influence, often without friends at the start, who have ended by
triumphing over that double anguish, equally agonizing, of soul and
body. Such men will well understand the lancinating pains of the
cancer which was now consuming Athanase; they have gone through those
long and bitter deliberations made in presence of some grandiose
purpose they had not the means to carry out; they have endured those
secret miscarriages in which the fructifying seed of genius falls on
arid soil. Such men know that the grandeur of desires is in proportion
to the height and breadth of the imagination. The higher they spring,
the lower they fall; and how can it be that ties and bonds should not
be broken by such a fall? Their piercing eye has seen—as did Athanase
—the brilliant future which awaited them, and from which they fancied
that only a thin gauze parted them; but that gauze through which their
eyes could see is changed by Society into a wall of iron. Impelled by
a vocation, by a sentiment of art, they endeavor again and again to
live by sentiments which society as incessantly materializes. Alas!
the provinces calculate and arrange marriage with the one view of
material comfort, and a poor artist or man of science is forbidden to
double its purpose and make it the saviour of his genius by securing
to him the means of subsistence!
Moved by such ideas, Athanase Granson first thought of marriage with
Mademoiselle Cormon as a means of obtaining a livelihood which would
be permanent. Thence he could rise to fame, and make his mother happy,
knowing at the same time that he was capable of faithfully loving his
wife. But soon his own will created, although he did not know it, a
genuine passion. He began to study the old maid, and, by dint of the
charm which habit gives, he ended by seeing only her beauties and
ignoring her defects.
In a young man of twenty-three the senses count for much in love;
their fire produces a sort of prism between his eyes and the woman.
From this point of view the clasp with which Beaumarchis' Cherubin
seizes Marceline is a stroke of genius. But when we reflect that in
the utter isolation to which poverty condemned poor Athanase,
Mademoiselle Cormon was the only figure presented to his gaze, that
she attracted his eye incessantly, that all the light he had was
concentrated on her, surely his love may be considered natural.
This sentiment, so carefully hidden, increased from day to day.
Desires, sufferings, hopes, and meditations swelled in quietness and
silence the lake widening ever in the young man's breast, as hour by
hour added its drop of water to the volume. And the wider this inward
circle, drawn by the imagination, aided by the senses, grew, the more
imposing Mademoiselle Cormon appeared to Athanase, and the more his
own timidity increased.
The mother had divined the truth. Like all provincial mothers, she
calculated candidly in her own mind the advantages of the match. She
told herself that Mademoiselle Cormon would be very lucky to secure a
husband in a young man of twenty-three, full of talent, who would
always be an honor to his family and the neighborhood; at the same
time the obstacles which her son's want of fortune and Mademoiselle
Cormon's age presented to the marriage seemed to her almost
insurmountable; she could think of nothing but patience as being able
to vanquish them. Like du Bousquier, like the Chevalier de Valois, she
had a policy of her own; she was on the watch for circumstances,
awaiting the propitious moment for a move with the shrewdness of
maternal instinct. Madame Granson had no fears at all as to the
chevalier, but she did suppose that du Bousquier, although refused,
retained certain hopes. As an able and underhand enemy to the latter,
she did him much secret harm in the interests of her son; from whom,
by the bye, she carefully concealed all such proceedings.
After this explanation it is easy to understand the importance which
Suzanne's lie, confided to Madame Granson, was about to acquire. What
a weapon put into the hands of this charitable lady, the treasurer of
the Maternity Society! How she would gently and demurely spread the
news while collecting assistance for the chaste Suzanne!
At the present moment Athanase, leaning pensively on his elbow at the
breakfast table, was twirling his spoon in his empty cup and
contemplating with a preoccupied eye the poor room with its red brick
floor, its straw chairs, its painted wooden buffet, its pink and white
curtains chequered like a backgammon board, which communicated with
the kitchen through a glass door. As his back was to the chimney which
his mother faced, and as the chimney was opposite to the door, his
pallid face, strongly lighted from the window, framed in beautiful
black hair, the eyes gleaming with despair and fiery with morning
thoughts, was the first object which met the eyes of the incoming
Suzanne. The grisette, who belonged to a class which certainly has the
instinct of misery and the sufferings of the heart, suddenly felt that
electric spark, darting from Heaven knows where, which can never be
explained, which some strong minds deny, but the sympathetic stroke of
which has been felt by many men and many women. It is at once a light
which lightens the darkness of the future, a presentiment of the
sacred joys of a shared love, the certainty of mutual comprehension.
Above all, it is like the touch of a firm and able hand on the
keyboard of the senses. The eyes are fascinated by an irresistible
attraction; the heart is stirred; the melodies of happiness echo in
the soul and in the ears; a voice cries out, "It is he!" Often
reflection casts a douche of cold water on this boiling emotion, and
all is over.
In a moment, as rapid as the flash of the lightning, Suzanne received
the broadside of this emotion in her heart. The flame of a real love
burned up the evil weeds fostered by a libertine and dissipated life.
She saw how much she was losing of decency and value by accusing
herself falsely. What had seemed to her a joke the night before became
to her eyes a serious charge against herself. She recoiled at her own
success. But the impossibility of any result; the poverty of the young
man; a vague hope of enriching herself, of going to Paris, and
returning with full hands to say, "I love you! here are the means of
happiness!" or mere fate, if you will have it so, dried up the next
moment this beneficent dew.
The ambitious grisette asked with a timid air for a moment's interview
with Madame Granson, who took her at once into her bedchamber. When
Suzanne came out she looked again at Athanase; he was still in the
same position, and the tears came into her eyes. As for Madame
Granson, she was radiant with joy. At last she had a weapon, and a
terrible one, against du Bousquier; she could now deal him a mortal
blow. She had of course promised the poor seduced girl the support of
all charitable ladies and that of the members of the Maternity Society
in particular; she foresaw a dozen visits which would occupy her whole
day, and brew up a frightful storm on the head of the guilty du
Bousquier. The Chevalier de Valois, while foreseeing the turn the
affair would take, had really no idea of the scandal which would
result from his own action.
"My dear child," said Madame Granson to her son, "we are to dine, you
know, with Mademoiselle Cormon; do take a little pains with your
appearance. You are wrong to neglect your dress as you do. Put on that
handsome frilled shirt and your green coat of Elbeuf cloth. I have my
reasons," she added slyly. "Besides, Mademoiselle Cormon is going to
Prebaudet, and many persons will doubtless call to bid her good-bye.
When a young man is marriageable he ought to take every means to make
himself agreeable. If girls would only tell the truth, heavens! my
dear boy, you'd be astonished at what makes them fall in love. Often
it suffices for a man to ride past them at the head of a company of
artillery, or show himself at a ball in tight clothes. Sometimes a
mere turn of the head, a melancholy attitude, makes them suppose a
man's whole life; they'll invent a romance to match the hero—who is
often a mere brute, but the marriage is made. Watch the Chevalier de
Valois: study him; copy his manners; see with what ease he presents
himself; he never puts on a stiff air, as you do. Talk a little more;
one would really think you didn't know anything,—you, who know Hebrew
Athanase listened to his mother with a surprised but submissive air;
then he rose, took his cap, and went off to the mayor's office, saying
to himself, "Can my mother suspect my secret?"
He passed through the rue du Val-Noble, where Mademoiselle Cormon
lived,—a little pleasure which he gave himself every morning,
thinking, as usual, a variety of fanciful things:—
"How little she knows that a young man is passing before her house who
loves her well, who would be faithful to her, who would never cause
her any grief; who would leave her the entire management of her
fortune without interference. Good God! what fatality! here, side by
side, in the same town, are two persons in our mutual condition, and
yet nothing can bring them together. Suppose I were to speak to her
During this time Suzanne had returned to her mother's house thinking
of Athanase; and, like many other women who have longed to help an
adored man beyond the limit of human powers, she felt herself capable
of making her body a stepping-stone on which he could rise to attain
It is now necessary to enter the house of this old maid toward whom so
many interests are converging, where the actors in this scene, with
the exception of Suzanne, were all to meet this very evening. As for
Suzanne, that handsome individual bold enough to burn her ships like
Alexander at her start in life, and to begin the battle by a
falsehood, she disappears from the stage, having introduced upon it a
violent element of interest. Her utmost wishes were gratified. She
quitted her native town a few days later, well supplied with money and
good clothes, among which was a fine dress of green reps and a
charming green bonnet lined with pink, the gift of Monsieur de Valois,
—a present which she preferred to all the rest, even the money. If
the chevalier had gone to Paris in the days of her future brilliancy,
she would certainly have left every one for him. Like the chaste
Susannah of the Bible, whom the Elders hardly saw, she established
herself joyously and full of hope in Paris, while all Alencon was
deploring her misfortunes, for which the ladies of two Societies
(Charity and Maternity) manifested the liveliest sympathy. Though
Suzanne is a fair specimen of those handsome Norman women whom a
learned physician reckons as comprising one third of her fallen class
whom our monstrous Paris absorbs, it must be stated that she remained
in the upper and more decent regions of gallantry. At an epoch when,
as Monsieur de Valois said, Woman no longer existed, she was simply
"Madame du Val-Noble"; in other days she would have rivalled the
Rhodopes, the Imperias, the Ninons of the past. One of the most
distinguished writers of the Restoration has taken her under his
protection; perhaps he may marry her. He is a journalist, and
consequently above public opinion, inasmuch as he manufactures it
afresh every year or two.
In nearly all the second-class prefectures of France there exists one
salon which is the meeting-ground of those considerable and
well-considered persons of the community who are, nevertheless, /not/
the cream of the best society. The master and mistress of such an
establishment are counted among the leading persons of the town; they
are received wherever it may please them to visit; no fete is given,
no formal or diplomatic dinner takes place, to which they are not
invited. But the chateau people, heads of families possessing great
estates, in short, the highest personages in the department, do not go
to their houses; social intercourse between them is carried on by
cards from one to the other, and a dinner or soiree accepted and
This salon, in which the lesser nobility, the clergy, and the
magistracy meet together, exerts a great influence. The judgment and
mind of the region reside in that solid, unostentatious society, where
each man knows the resources of his neighbor, where complete
indifference is shown to luxury and dress,—pleasures which are
thought childish in comparison to that of obtaining ten or twelve
acres of pasture land,—a purchase coveted for years, which has
probably given rise to endless diplomatic combinations. Immovable in
its prejudices, good or evil, this social circle follows a beaten
track, looking neither before it nor behind it. It accepts nothing
from Paris without long examination and trial; it rejects cashmeres as
it does investments on the Grand-Livre; it scoffs at fashions and
novelties; reads nothing, prefers ignorance, whether of science,
literature, or industrial inventions. It insists on the removal of a
prefect when that official does not suit it; and if the administration
resists, it isolates him, after the manner of bees who wall up a snail
in wax when it gets into their hive.
In this society gossip is often turned into solemn verdicts. Young
women are seldom seen there; when they come it is to seek approbation
of their conduct,—a consecration of their self-importance. This
supremacy granted to one house is apt to wound the sensibilities of
other natives of the region, who console themselves by adding up the
cost it involves, and by which they profit. If it so happens that
there is no fortune large enough to keep open house in this way, the
big-wigs of the place choose a place of meeting, as they did at
Alencon, in the house of some inoffensive person, whose settled life
and character and position offers no umbrage to the vanities or the
interests of any one.
For some years the upper classes of Alencon had met in this way at the
house of an old maid, whose fortune was, unknown to herself, the aim
and object of Madame Granson, her second cousin, and of the two old
bachelors whose secret hopes in that direction we have just unveiled.
This lady lived with her maternal uncle, a former grand-vicar of the
bishopric of Seez, once her guardian, and whose heir she was. The
family of which Rose-Marie-Victoire Cormon was the present
representative had been in earlier days among the most considerable in
the province. Though belonging to the middle classes, she consorted
with the nobility, among whom she was more or less allied, her family
having furnished, in past years, stewards to the Duc d'Alencon, many
magistrates to the long robe, and various bishops to the clergy.
Monsieur de Sponde, the maternal grandfather of Mademoiselle Cormon,
was elected by the Nobility to the States-General, and Monsieur
Cormon, her father, by the Tiers-Etat, though neither accepted the
mission. For the last hundred years the daughters of the family had
married nobles belonging to the provinces; consequently, this family
had thrown out so many suckers throughout the duchy as to appear on
nearly all the genealogical trees. No bourgeois family had ever seemed
so like nobility.
The house in which Mademoiselle Cormon lived, build in Henri IV.'s
time, by Pierre Cormon, the steward of the last Duc d'Alencon, had
always belonged to the family; and among the old maid's visible
possessions this one was particularly stimulating to the covetous
desires of the two old lovers. Yet, far from producing revenue, the
house was a cause of expense. But it is so rare to find in the very
centre of a provincial town a private dwelling without unpleasant
surroundings, handsome in outward structure and convenient within,
that Alencon shared the envy of the lovers.
This old mansion stands exactly in the middle of the rue du Val-Noble.
It is remarkable for the strength of its construction,—a style of
building introduced by Marie de' Medici. Though built of granite,—a
stone which is hard to work,—its angles, and the casings of the doors
and windows, are decorated with corner blocks cut into diamond facets.
It has only one clear story above the ground-floor; but the roof,
rising steeply, has several projecting windows, with carved spandrels
rather elegantly enclosed in oaken frames, and externally adorned with
balustrades. Between each of these windows is a gargoyle presenting
the fantastic jaws of an animal without a body, vomiting the
rain-water upon large stones pierced with five holes. The two gables
are surmounted by leaden bouquets,—a symbol of the bourgeoisie; for
nobles alone had the privilege in former days of having weather-vanes.
To right of the courtyard are the stables and coach-house; to left,
the kitchen, wood-house, and laundry.
One side of the porte-cochere, being left open, allowed the passers in
the street to see in the midst of the vast courtyard a flower-bed, the
raised earth of which was held in place by a low privet hedge. A few
monthly roses, pinkes, lilies, and Spanish broom filled this bed,
around which in the summer season boxes of paurestinus, pomegranates,
and myrtle were placed. Struck by the scrupulous cleanliness of the
courtyard and its dependencies, a stranger would at once have divined
that the place belonged to an old maid. The eye which presided there
must have been an unoccupied, ferreting eye; minutely careful, less
from nature than for want of something to do. An old maid, forced to
employ her vacant days, could alone see to the grass being hoed from
between the paving stones, the tops of the walls kept clean, the broom
continually going, and the leather curtains of the coach-house always
closed. She alone would have introduced, out of busy idleness, a sort
of Dutch cleanliness into a house on the confines of Bretagne and
Normandie,—a region where they take pride in professing an utter
indifference to comfort.
Never did the Chevalier de Valois, or du Bousquier, mount the steps of
the double stairway leading to the portico of this house without
saying to himself, one, that it was fit for a peer of France, the
other, that the mayor of the town ought to live there.
A glass door gave entrance from this portico into an antechamber, a
species of gallery paved in red tiles and wainscoted, which served as
a hospital for the family portraits,—some having an eye put out,
others suffering from a dislocated shoulder; this one held his hat in
a hand that no longer existed; that one was a case of amputation at
the knee. Here were deposited the cloaks, clogs, overshoes, umbrellas,
hoods, and pelisses of the guests. It was an arsenal where each
arrival left his baggage on arriving, and took it up when departing.
Along each wall was a bench for the servants who arrived with
lanterns, and a large stove, to counteract the north wind, which blew
through this hall from the garden to the courtyard.
The house was divided in two equal parts. On one side, toward the
courtyard, was the well of the staircase, a large dining-room looking
to the garden, and an office or pantry which communicated with the
kitchen. On the other side was the salon, with four windows, beyond
which were two smaller rooms,—one looking on the garden, and used as
a boudoir, the other lighted from the courtyard, and used as a sort of
The upper floor contained a complete apartment for a family household,
and a suite of rooms where the venerable Abbe de Sponde had his abode.
The garrets offered fine quarters to the rats and mice, whose
nocturnal performances were related by Mademoiselle Cormon to the
Chevalier de Valois, with many expressions of surprise at the
inutility of her efforts to get rid of them. The garden, about half an
acre in size, is margined by the Brillante, so named from the
particles of mica which sparkle in its bed elsewhere than in the
Val-Noble, where its shallow waters are stained by the dyehouses, and
loaded with refuse from the other industries of the town. The shore
opposite to Mademoiselle Cormon's garden is crowded with houses where
a variety of trades are carried on; happily for her, the occupants are
quiet people,—a baker, a cleaner, an upholsterer, and several
bourgeois. The garden, full of common flowers, ends in a natural
terrace, forming a quay, down which are several steps leading to the
river. Imagine on the balustrade of this terrace a number of tall
vases of blue and white pottery, in which are gilliflowers; and to
right and left, along the neighboring walls, hedges of linden closely
trimmed in, and you will gain an idea of the landscape, full of
tranquil chastity, modest cheerfulness, but commonplace withal, which
surrounded the venerable edifice of the Cormon family. What peace!
what tranquillity! nothing pretentious, but nothing transitory; all
seems eternal there!
The ground-floor is devoted wholly to the reception-rooms. The old,
unchangeable provincial spirit pervades them. The great square salon
has four windows, modestly cased in woodwork painted gray. A single
oblong mirror is placed above the fireplace; the top of its frame
represented the Dawn led by the Hours, and painted in camaieu (two
shades of one color). This style of painting infested the decorative
art of the day, especially above door-frames, where the artist
displayed his eternal Seasons, and made you, in most houses in the
centre of France, abhor the odious Cupids, endlessly employed in
skating, gleaning, twirling, or garlanding one another with flowers.
Each window was draped in green damask curtains, looped up by heavy
cords, which made them resemble a vast dais. The furniture, covered
with tapestry, the woodwork, painted and varnished, and remarkable for
the twisted forms so much the fashion in the last century, bore scenes
from the fables of La Fontaine on the chair-backs; some of this
tapestry had been mended. The ceiling was divided at the centre of the
room by a huge beam, from which depended an old chandelier of
rock-crystal swathed in green gauze. On the fireplace were two vases
in Sevres blue, and two old girandoles attached to the frame of the
mirror, and a clock, the subject of which, taken from the last scene
of the "Deserteur," proved the enormous popularity of Sedaine's work.
This clock, of bronze-gilt, bore eleven personages upon it, each about
four inches tall. At the back the Deserter was seen issuing from
prison between the soldiers; in the foreground the young woman lay
fainting, and pointing to his pardon. On the walls of this salon were
several of the more recent portraits of the family,—one or two by
Rigaud, and three pastels by Latour. Four card tables, a backgammon
board, and a piquet table occupied the vast room, the only one in the
house, by the bye, which was ceiled.
The dining-room, paved in black and white stone, not ceiled, and its
beams painted, was furnished with one of those enormous sideboards
with marble tops, required by the war waged in the provinces against
the human stomach. The walls, painted in fresco, represented a flowery
trellis. The seats were of varnished cane, and the doors of natural
wood. All things about the place carried out the patriarchal air which
emanated from the inside as well as the outside of the house. The
genius of the provinces preserved everything; nothing was new or old,
neither young nor decrepit. A cold precision made itself felt
Tourists in Normandy, Brittany, Maine, and Anjou must all have seen in
the capitals of those provinces many houses which resemble more or
less that of the Cormons; for it is, in its way, an archetype of the
burgher houses in that region of France, and it deserves a place in
this history because it serves to explain manners and customs, and
represents ideas. Who does not already feel that life must have been
calm and monotonously regular in this old edifice? It contained a
library; but that was placed below the level of the river. The books
were well bound and shelved, and the dust, far from injuring them,
only made them valuable. They were preserved with the care given in
these provinces deprived of vineyards to other native products,
desirable for their antique perfume, and issued by the presses of
Bourgogne, Touraine, Gascogne, and the South. The cost of
transportation was too great to allow any but the best products to be
The basis of Mademoiselle Cormon's society consisted of about one
hundred and fifty persons; some went at times to the country; others
were occasionally ill; a few travelled about the department on
business; but certain of the faithful came every night (unless invited
elsewhere), and so did certain others compelled by duties or by habit
to live permanently in the town. All the personages were of ripe age;
few among them had ever travelled; nearly all had spent their lives in
the provinces, and some had taken part in the chouannerie. The latter
were beginning to speak fearlessly of that war, now that rewards were
being showered on the defenders of the good cause. Monsieur de Valois,
one of the movers in the last uprising (during which the Marquis de
Montauran, betrayed by his mistress, perished in spite of the devotion
of Marche-a-Terre, now tranquilly raising cattle for the market near
Mayenne),—Monsieur de Valois had, during the last six months, given
the key to several choice stratagems practised upon an old republican
named Hulot, the commander of a demi-brigade stationed at Alencon from
1798 to 1800, who had left many memories in the place. [See "The
The women of this society took little pains with their dress, except
on Wednesdays, when Mademoiselle Cormon gave a dinner, on which
occasion the guests invited on the previous Wednesday paid their
"visit of digestion." Wednesdays were gala days: the assembly was
numerous; guests and visitors appeared in fiocchi; some women brought
their sewing, knitting, or worsted work; the young girls were not
ashamed to make patterns for the Alencon point lace, with the proceeds
of which they paid for their personal expenses. Certain husbands
brought their wives out of policy, for young men were few in that
house; not a word could be whispered in any ear without attracting the
attention of all; there was therefore no danger, either for young
girls or wives, of love-making.
Every evening, at six o'clock, the long antechamber received its
furniture. Each habitue brought his cane, his cloak, his lantern. All
these persons knew each other so well, and their habits and ways were
so familiarly patriarchal, that if by chance the old Abbe de Sponde
was lying down, or Mademoiselle Cormon was in her chamber, neither
Josette, the maid, nor Jacquelin, the man-servant, nor Mariette, the
cook, informed them. The first comer received the second; then, when
the company were sufficiently numerous for whist, piquet, or boston,
they began the game without awaiting either the Abbe de Sponde or
mademoiselle. If it was dark, Josette or Jacquelin would hasten to
light the candles as soon as the first bell rang. Seeing the salon
lighted up, the abbe would slowly hurry to come down. Every evening
the backgammon and the piquet tables, the three boston tables, and the
whist table were filled,—which gave occupation to twenty-five or
thirty persons; but as many as forty were usually present. Jacquelin
would then light the candles in the other rooms.
Between eight and nine o'clock the servants began to arrive in the
antechamber to accompany their masters home; and, short of a
revolution, no one remained in the salon at ten o'clock. At that hour
the guests were departing in groups along the street, discoursing on
the game, or continuing conversations on the land they were covetous
of buying, on the terms of some one's will, on quarrels among heirs,
on the haughty assumption of the aristocratic portion of the
community. It was like Paris when the audience of a theatre disperses.
Certain persons who talk much of poesy and know nothing about it,
declaim against the habits of life in the provinces. But put your
forehead in your left hand, rest one foot on the fender, and your
elbow on your knee; then, if you compass the idea of this quiet and
uniform scene, this house and its interior, this company and its
interests, heightened by the pettiness of its intellect like goldleaf
beaten between sheets of parchment, ask yourself, What is human life?
Try to decide between him who scribbles jokes on Egyptian obelisks,
and him who has "bostoned" for twenty years with Du Bousquier,
Monsieur de Valois, Mademoiselle Cormon, the judge of the court, the
king's attorney, the Abbe de Sponde, Madame Granson, and tutti quanti.
If the daily and punctual return of the same steps to the same path is
not happiness, it imitates happiness so well that men driven by the
storms of an agitated life to reflect upon the blessings of
tranquillity would say that here was happiness /enough/.
To reckon the importance of Mademoiselle Cormon's salon at its true
value, it will suffice to say that the born statistician of the
society, du Bousquier, had estimated that the persons who frequented
it controlled one hundred and thirty-one votes in the electoral
college, and mustered among themselves eighteen hundred thousand
francs a year from landed estate in the neighborhood.
The town of Alencon, however, was not entirely represented by this
salon. The higher aristocracy had a salon of their own; moreover, that
of the receiver-general was like an administration inn kept by the
government, where society danced, plotted, fluttered, loved, and
supped. These two salons communicated by means of certain mixed
individuals with the house of Cormon, and vice-versa; but the Cormon
establishment sat severely in judgment on the two other camps. The
luxury of their dinners was criticised; the ices at their balls were
pondered; the behavior of the women, the dresses, and "novelties"
there produced were discussed and disapproved.
Mademoiselle Cormon, a species of firm, as one might say, under whose
name was comprised an imposing coterie, was naturally the aim and
object of two ambitious men as deep and wily as the Chevalier de
Valois and du Bousquier. To the one as well as to the other, she meant
election as deputy, resulting, for the noble, in the peerage, for the
purveyor, in a receiver-generalship. A leading salon is a difficult
thing to create, whether in Paris or the provinces, and here was one
already created. To marry Mademoiselle Cormon was to reign in Alencon.
Athanase Granson, the only one of the three suitors for the hand of
the old maid who no longer calculated profits, now loved her person as
well as her fortune.
To employ the jargon of the day, is there not a singular drama in the
situation of these four personages? Surely there is something odd and
fantastic in three rivalries silently encompassing a woman who never
guessed their existence, in spite of an eager and legitimate desire to
be married. And yet, though all these circumstances make the
spinsterhood of this old maid an extraordinary thing, it is not
difficult to explain how and why, in spite of her fortune and her
three lovers, she was still unmarried. In the first place,
Mademoiselle Cormon, following the custom and rule of her house, had
always desired to marry a nobleman; but from 1788 to 1798 public
circumstances were very unfavorable to such pretensions. Though she
wanted to be a woman of condition, as the saying is, she was horribly
afraid of the Revolutionary tribunal. The two sentiments, equal in
force, kept her stationary by a law as true in ethics as it is in
statics. This state of uncertain expectation is pleasing to unmarried
women as long as they feel themselves young, and in a position to
choose a husband. France knows that the political system of Napoleon
resulted in making many widows. Under that regime heiresses were
entirely out of proportion in numbers to the bachelors who wanted to
marry. When the Consulate restored internal order, external
difficulties made the marriage of Mademoiselle Cormon as difficult to
arrange as it had been in the past. If, on the one hand,
Rose-Marie-Victoire refused to marry an old man, on the other, the
fear of ridicule forbade her to marry a very young one.
In the provinces, families marry their sons early to escape the
conscription. In addition to all this, she was obstinately determined
not to marry a soldier: she did not intend to take a man and then give
him up to the Emperor; she wanted him for herself alone. With these
views, she found it therefore impossible, from 1804 to 1815, to enter
the lists with young girls who were rivalling each other for suitable
Besides her predilection for the nobility, Mademoiselle Cormon had
another and very excusable mania: that of being loved for herself. You
could hardly believe the lengths to which this desire led her. She
employed her mind on setting traps for her possible lovers, in order
to test their real sentiments. Her nets were so well laid that the
luckless suitors were all caught, and succumbed to the test she
applied to them without their knowledge. Mademoiselle Cormon did not
study them; she watched them. A single word said heedlessly, a joke
(that she often was unable to understand), sufficed to make her reject
an aspirant as unworthy: this one had neither heart nor delicacy; that
one told lies, and was not religious; a third only wanted to coin
money under the cloak of marriage; another was not of a nature to make
a woman happy; here she suspected hereditary gout; there certain
immoral antecedents alarmed her. Like the Church, she required a noble
priest at her altar; she even wanted to be married for imaginary
ugliness and pretended defects, just as other women wish to be loved
for the good qualities they have not, and for imaginary beauties.
Mademoiselle Cormon's ambition took its rise in the most delicate and
sensitive feminine feeling; she longed to reward a lover by revealing
to him a thousand virtues after marriage, as other women then betray
the imperfections they have hitherto concealed. But she was ill
understood. The noble woman met with none but common souls in whom the
reckoning of actual interests was paramount, and who knew nothing of
the nobler calculations of sentiment.
The farther she advanced towards that fatal epoch so adroitly called
the "second youth," the more her distrust increased. She affected to
present herself in the most unfavorable light, and played her part so
well that the last wooers hesitated to link their fate to that of a
person whose virtuous blind-man's-buff required an amount of
penetration that men who want the virtuous ready-made would not bestow
upon it. The constant fear of being married for her money rendered her
suspicious and uneasy beyond all reason. She turned to the rich men;
but the rich are in search of great marriages; she feared the poor
men, in whom she denied the disinterestedness she sought so eagerly.
After each disappointment in marriage, the poor lady, led to despise
mankind, began to see them all in a false light. Her character
acquired, necessarily, a secret misanthropy, which threw a tinge of
bitterness into her conversation, and some severity into her eyes.
Celibacy gave to her manners and habits a certain increasing rigidity;
for she endeavored to sanctify herself in despair of fate. Noble
vengeance! she was cutting for God the rough diamond rejected by man.
Before long public opinion was against her; for society accepts the
verdict an independent woman renders on herself by not marrying,
either through losing suitors or rejecting them. Everybody supposed
that these rejections were founded on secret reasons, always ill
interpreted. One said she was deformed; another suggested some hidden
fault; but the poor girl was really as pure as a saint, as healthy as
an infant, and full of loving kindness; Nature had intended her for
all the pleasures, all the joys, and all the fatigues of motherhood.
Mademoiselle Cormon did not possess in her person an obliging
auxiliary to her desires. She had no other beauty than that very
improperly called la beaute du diable, which consists of a buxom
freshness of youth that the devil, theologically speaking, could never
have,—though perhaps the expression may be explained by the constant
desire that must surely possess him to cool and refresh himself. The
feet of the heiress were broad and flat. Her leg, which she often
exposed to sight by her manner (be it said without malice) of lifting
her gown when it rained, could never have been taken for the leg of a
woman. It was sinewy, with a thick projecting calf like a sailor's. A
stout waist, the plumpness of a wet-nurse, strong dimpled arms, red
hands, were all in keeping with the swelling outlines and the fat
whiteness of Norman beauty. Projecting eyes, undecided in color, gave
to her face, the rounded outline of which had no dignity, an air of
surprise and sheepish simplicity, which was suitable perhaps for an
old maid. If Rose had not been, as she was, really innocent, she would
have seemed so. An aquiline nose contrasted curiously with the
narrowness of her forehead; for it is rare that that form of nose does
not carry with it a fine brow. In spite of her thick red lips, a sign
of great kindliness, the forehead revealed too great a lack of ideas
to allow of the heart being guided by intellect; she was evidently
benevolent without grace. How severely we reproach Virtue for its
defects, and how full of indulgence we all are for the pleasanter
qualities of Vice!
Chestnut hair of extraordinary length gave to Rose Cormon's face a
beauty which results from vigor and abundance,—the physical qualities
most apparent in her person. In the days of her chief pretensions,
Rose affected to hold her head at the three-quarter angle, in order to
exhibit a very pretty ear, which detached itself from the blue-veined
whiteness of her throat and temples, set off, as it was, by her wealth
of hair. Seen thus in a ball-dress, she might have seemed handsome.
Her protuberant outlines and her vigorous health did, in fact, draw
from the officers of the Empire the approving exclamation,—
"What a fine slip of a girl!"
But, as years rolled on, this plumpness, encouraged by a tranquil,
wholesome life, had insensibly so ill spread itself over the whole of
Mademoiselle Cormon's body that her primitive proportions were
destroyed. At the present moment, no corset could restore a pair of
hips to the poor lady, who seemed to have been cast in a single mould.
The youthful harmony of her bosom existed no longer; and its excessive
amplitude made the spectator fear that if she stooped its heavy masses
might topple her over. But nature had provided against this by giving
her a natural counterpoise, which rendered needless the deceitful
adjunct of a bustle; in Rose Cormon everything was genuine. Her chin,
as it doubled, reduced the length of her neck, and hindered the easy
carriage of her head. Rose had no wrinkles, but she had folds of
flesh; and jesters declared that to save chafing she powdered her skin
as they do an infant's.
This ample person offered to a young man full of ardent desires like
Athanase an attraction to which he had succumbed. Young imaginations,
essentially eager and courageous, like to rove upon these fine living
sheets of flesh. Rose was like a plump partridge attracting the knife
of a gourmet. Many an elegant deep in debt would very willingly have
resigned himself to make the happiness of Mademoiselle Cormon. But,
alas! the poor girl was now forty years old. At this period, after
vainly seeking to put into her life those interests which make the
Woman, and finding herself forced to be still unmarried, she fortified
her virtue by stern religious practices. She had recourse to religion,
the great consoler of oppressed virginity. A confessor had, for the
last three years, directed Mademoiselle Cormon rather stupidly in the
path of maceration; he advised the use of scourging, which, if modern
medical science is to be believed, produces an effect quite the
contrary to that expected by the worthy priest, whose hygienic
knowledge was not extensive.
These absurd practices were beginning to shed a monastic tint over the
face of Rose Cormon, who now saw with something like despair her white
skin assuming the yellow tones which proclaim maturity. A slight down
on her upper lip, about the corners, began to spread and darken like a
trail of smoke; her temples grew shiny; decadence was beginning! It
was authentic in Alencon that Mademoiselle Cormon suffered from rush
of blood to the head. She confided her ills to the Chevalier de
Valois, enumerating her foot-baths, and consulting him as to
refrigerants. On such occasions the shrewd old gentleman would pull
out his snuff-box, gaze at the Princess Goritza, and say, by way of
"The right composing draught, my dear lady, is a good and kind
"But whom can one trust?" she replied.
The chevalier would then brush away the snuff which had settled in the
folds of his waistcoat or his paduasoy breeches. To the world at large
this gesture would have seemed very natural; but it always gave
extreme uneasiness to the poor woman.
The violence of this hope without an object was so great that Rose was
afraid to look a man in the face lest he should perceive in her eyes
the feelings that filled her soul. By a wilfulness, which was perhaps
only the continuation of her earlier methods, though she felt herself
attracted toward the men who might still suit her, she was so afraid
of being accused of folly that she treated them ungraciously. Most
persons in her society, being incapable of appreciating her motives,
which were always noble, explained her manner towards her co-celibates
as the revenge of a refusal received or expected. When the year 1815
began, Rose had reached that fatal age which she dared not avow. She
was forty-two years old. Her desire for marriage then acquired an
intensity which bordered on monomania, for she saw plainly that all
chance of progeny was about to escape her; and the thing which in her
celestial ignorance she desired above all things was the possession of
children. Not a person in all Alencon ever attributed to this virtuous
woman a single desire for amorous license. She loved, as it were, in
bulk without the slightest imagination of love. Rose was a Catholic
Agnes, incapable of inventing even one of the wiles of Moliere's
For some months past she had counted on chance. The disbandment of the
Imperial troops and the reorganization of the Royal army caused a
change in the destination of many officers, who returned, some on
half-pay, others with or without a pension, to their native towns,
—all having a desire to counteract their luckless fate, and to end
their life in a way which might to Rose Cormon be a happy beginning of
hers. It would surely be strange if, among those who returned to
Alencon or its neighborhood, no brave, honorable, and, above all,
sound and healthy officer of suitable age could be found, whose
character would be a passport among Bonaparte opinions; or some
ci-devant noble who, to regain his lost position, would join the ranks
of the royalists. This hope kept Mademoiselle Cormon in heart during
the early months of that year. But, alas! all the soldiers who thus
returned were either too old or too young; too aggressively
Bonapartist, or too dissipated; in short, their several situations
were out of keeping with the rank, fortune, and morals of Mademoiselle
Cormon, who now grew daily more and more desperate. The poor woman in
vain prayed to God to send her a husband with whom she could be
piously happy: it was doubtless written above that she should die both
virgin and martyr; no man suitable for a husband presented himself.
The conversations in her salon every evening kept her informed of the
arrival of all strangers in Alencon, and of the facts of their
fortunes, rank, and habits. But Alencon is not a town which attracts
visitors; it is not on the road to any capital; even sailors,
travelling from Brest to Paris, never stop there. The poor woman ended
by admitting to herself that she was reduced to the aborigines. Her
eye now began to assume a certain savage expression, to which the
malicious chevalier responded by a shrewd look as he drew out his
snuff-box and gazed at the Princess Goritza. Monsieur de Valois was
well aware that in the feminine ethics of love fidelity to a first
attachment is considered a pledge for the future.
But Mademoiselle Cormon—we must admit it—was wanting in intellect,
and did not understand the snuff-box performance. She redoubled her
vigilance against "the evil spirit"; her rigid devotion and fixed
principles kept her cruel sufferings hidden among the mysteries of
private life. Every evening, after the company had left her, she
thought of her lost youth, her faded bloom, the hopes of thwarted
nature; and, all the while immolating her passions at the feet of the
Cross (like poems condemned to stay in a desk), she resolved firmly
that if, by chance, any suitor presented himself, to subject him to no
tests, but to accept him at once for whatever he might be. She even
went so far as to think of marrying a sub-lieutenant, a man who smoked
tobacco, whom she proposed to render, by dint of care and kindness,
one of the best men in the world, although he was hampered with debts.
But it was only in the silence of night watches that these fantastic
marriages, in which she played the sublime role of guardian angel,
took place. The next day, though Josette found her mistress' bed in a
tossed and tumbled condition, Mademoiselle Cormon had recovered her
dignity, and could only think of a man of forty, a land-owner, well
preserved, and a quasi-young man.
The Abbe de Sponde was incapable of giving his niece the slightest aid
in her matrimonial manoeuvres. The worthy soul, now seventy years of
age, attributed the disasters of the French Revolution to the design
of Providence, eager to punish a dissolute Church. He had therefore
flung himself into the path, long since abandoned, which anchorites
once followed in order to reach heaven: he led an ascetic life without
proclaiming it, and without external credit. He hid from the world his
works of charity, his continual prayers, his penances; he thought that
all priests should have acted thus during the days of wrath and
terror, and he preached by example. While presenting to the world a
calm and smiling face, he had ended by detaching himself utterly from
earthly interests; his mind turned exclusively to sufferers, to the
needs of the Church, and to his own salvation. He left the management
of his property to his niece, who gave him the income of it, and to
whom he paid a slender board in order to spend the surplus in secret
alms and gifts to the Church.
All the abbe's affections were concentrated on his niece, who regarded
him as a father, but an abstracted father, unable to conceive the
agitations of the flesh, and thanking God for maintaining his dear
daughter in a state of celibacy; for he had, from his youth up,
adopted the principles of Saint John Chrysostom, who wrote that "the
virgin state is as far above the marriage state as the angel is above
humanity." Accustomed to reverence her uncle, Mademoiselle Cormon
dared not initiate him into the desires which filled her soul for a
change of state. The worthy man, accustomed, on his side, to the ways
of the house, would scarcely have liked the introduction of a husband.
Preoccupied by the sufferings he soothed, lost in the depths of
prayer, the Abbe de Sponde had periods of abstraction which the
habitues of the house regarded as absent-mindedness. In any case, he
talked little; but his silence was affable and benevolent. He was a
man of great height and spare, with grave and solemn manners, though
his face expressed all gentle sentiments and an inward calm; while his
mere presence carried with it a sacred authority. He was very fond of
the Voltairean chevalier. Those two majestic relics of the nobility
and clergy, though of very different habits and morals, recognized
each other by their generous traits. Besides, the chevalier was as
unctuous with the abbe as he was paternal with the grisettes.
Some persons may fancy that Mademoiselle Cormon used every means to
attain her end; and that among the legitimate lures of womanhood she
devoted herself to dress, wore low-necked gowns, and employed the
negative coquetries of a magnificent display of arms. Not at all! She
was as heroic and immovable in her high-necked chemisette as a sentry
in his box. Her gowns, bonnets, and chiffons were all cut and made by
the dressmaker and the milliner of Alencon, two hump-backed sisters,
who were not without some taste. In spite of the entreaties of these
artists, Mademoiselle Cormon refused to employ the airy deceits of
elegance; she chose to be substantial in all things, flesh and
feathers. But perhaps the heavy fashion of her gowns was best suited
to her cast of countenance. Let those laugh who will at this poor
girl; you would have thought her sublime, O generous souls! who care
but little what form true feeling takes, but admire it where it /is/.
Here some light-minded person may exclaim against the truth of this
statement; they will say that there is not in all France a girl so
silly as to be ignorant of the art of angling for men; that
Mademoiselle Cormon is one of those monstrous exceptions which
commonsense should prevent a writer from using as a type; that the
most virtuous and also the silliest girl who desires to catch her fish
knows well how to bait the hook. But these criticisms fall before the
fact that the noble catholic, apostolic, and Roman religion is still
erect in Brittany and in the ancient duchy of Alencon. Faith and piety
admit of no subtleties. Mademoiselle Cormon trod the path of
salvation, preferring the sorrows of her virginity so cruelly
prolonged to the evils of trickery and the sin of a snare. In a woman
armed with a scourge virtue could never compromise; consequently both
love and self-interest were forced to seek her, and seek her
resolutely. And here let us have the courage to make a cruel
observation, in days when religion is nothing more than a useful means
to some, and a poesy to others. Devotion causes a moral ophthalmia. By
some providential grace, it takes from souls on the road to eternity
the sight of many little earthly things. In a word, pious persons,
devotes, are stupid on various points. This stupidity proves with what
force they turn their minds to celestial matters; although the
Voltairean Chevalier de Valois declared that it was difficult to
decide whether stupid people became naturally pious, or whether piety
had the effect of making intelligent young women stupid. But reflect
upon this carefully: the purest catholic virtue, with its loving
acceptance of all cups, with its pious submission to the will of God,
with its belief in the print of the divine finger on the clay of all
earthly life, is the mysterious light which glides into the innermost
folds of human history, setting them in relief and magnifying them in
the eyes of those who still have Faith. Besides, if there be
stupidity, why not concern ourselves with the sorrows of stupidity as
well as with the sorrows of genius? The former is a social element
infinitely more abundant than the latter.
So, then, Mademoiselle Cormon was guilty in the eyes of the world of
the divine ignorance of virgins. She was no observer, and her behavior
with her suitors proved it. At this very moment, a young girl of
sixteen, who had never opened a novel, would have read a hundred
chapters of a love story in the eyes of Athanase Granson, where
Mademoiselle Cormon saw absolutely nothing. Shy herself, she never
suspected shyness in others; she did not recognize in the quavering
tones of his speech the force of a sentiment he could not utter.
Capable of inventing those refinements of sentimental grandeur which
hindered her marriage in her early years, she yet could not recognize
them in Athanase. This moral phenomenon will not seem surprising to
persons who know that the qualities of the heart are as distinct from
those of the mind as the faculties of genius are from the nobility of
soul. A perfect, all-rounded man is so rare that Socrates, one of the
noblest pearls of humanity, declared (as a phrenologist of that day)
that he was born to be a scamp, and a very bad one. A great general
may save his country at Zurich, and take commissions from purveyors. A
great musician may conceive the sublimest music and commit a forgery.
A woman of true feeling may be a fool. In short, a devote may have a
sublime soul and yet be unable to recognize the tones of a noble soul
beside her. The caprices produced by physical infirmities are equally
to be met with in the mental and moral regions.
This good creature, who grieved at making her yearly preserves for no
one but her uncle and herself, was becoming almost ridiculous. Those
who felt a sympathy for her on account of her good qualities, and
others on account of her defects, now made fun of her abortive
marriages. More than one conversation was based on what would become
of so fine a property, together with the old maid's savings and her
uncle's inheritance. For some time past she had been suspected of
being au fond, in spite of appearances, an "original." In the
provinces it was not permissible to be original: being original means
having ideas that are not understood by others; the provinces demand
equality of mind as well as equality of manners and customs.
The marriage of Mademoiselle Cormon seemed, after 1804, a thing so
problematical that the saying "married like Mademoiselle Cormon"
became proverbial in Alencon as applied to ridiculous failures. Surely
the sarcastic mood must be an imperative need in France, that so
excellent a woman should excite the laughter of Alencon. Not only did
she receive the whole society of the place at her house, not only was
she charitable, pious, incapable of saying an unkind thing, but she
was fully in accord with the spirit of the place and the habits and
customs of the inhabitants, who liked her as the symbol of their
lives; she was absolutely inlaid into the ways of the provinces; she
had never quitted them; she imbibed all their prejudices; she espoused
all their interests; she adored them.
In spite of her income of eighteen thousand francs from landed
property, a very considerable fortune in the provinces, she lived on a
footing with families who were less rich. When she went to her
country-place at Prebaudet, she drove there in an old wicker carriole,
hung on two straps of white leather, drawn by a wheezy mare, and
scarcely protected by two leather curtains rusty with age. This
carriole, known to all the town, was cared for by Jacquelin as though
it were the finest coupe in all Paris. Mademoiselle valued it; she had
used it for twelve years,—a fact to which she called attention with
the triumphant joy of happy avarice. Most of the inhabitants of the
town were grateful to Mademoiselle Cormon for not humiliating them by
the luxury she could have displayed; we may even believe that had she
imported a caleche from Paris they would have gossiped more about that
than about her various matrimonial failures. The most brilliant
equipage would, after all, have only taken her, like the old carriole,
to Prebaudet. Now the provinces, which look solely to results, care
little about the beauty or elegance of the means, provided they are
AN OLD MAID'S HOUSEHOLD
To complete the picture of the internal habits and ways of this house,
it is necessary to group around Mademoiselle Cormon and the Abbe de
Sponde Jacquelin, Josette, and Mariette, the cook, who employed
themselves in providing for the comfort of uncle and niece.
Jacquelin, a man of forty, short, fat, ruddy, and brown, with a face
like a Breton sailor, had been in the service of the house for
twenty-two years. He waited at table, groomed the mare, gardened,
blacked the abbe's boots, went on errands, chopped the wood, drove the
carriole, and fetched the oats, straw, and hay from Prebaudet. He sat
in the antechamber during the evening, where he slept like a dormouse.
He was in love with Josette, a girl of thirty, whom Mademoiselle would
have dismissed had she married him. So the poor fond pair laid by
their wages, and loved each other silently, waiting, hoping for
mademoiselle's own marriage, as the Jews are waiting for the Messiah.
Josette, born between Alencon and Mortagne, was short and plump; her
face, which looked like a dirty apricot, was not wanting in sense and
character; it was said that she ruled her mistress. Josette and
Jacquelin, sure of results, endeavored to hide an inward satisfaction
which allows it to be supposed that, as lovers, they had discounted
the future. Mariette, the cook, who had been fifteen years in the
household, knew how to make all the dishes held in most honor in
Perhaps we ought to count for much the fat old Norman brown-bay mare,
which drew Mademoiselle Cormon to her country-seat at Prebaudet; for
the five inhabitants of the house bore to this animal a maniacal
affection. She was called Penelope, and had served the family for
eighteen years; but she was kept so carefully and fed with such
regularity that mademoiselle and Jacquelin both hoped to use her for
ten years longer. This beast was the subject of perpetual talk and
occupation; it seemed as if poor Mademoiselle Cormon, having no
children on whom her repressed motherly feelings could expend
themselves, had turned those sentiments wholly on this most fortunate
The four faithful servants—for Penelope's intelligence raised her to
the level of the other good servants; while they, on the other hand,
had lowered themselves to the mute, submissive regularity of the beast
—went and came daily in the same occupations with the infallible
accuracy of mechanism. But, as they said in their idiom, they had
eaten their white bread first. Mademoiselle Cormon, like all persons
nervously agitated by a fixed idea, became hard to please, and
nagging, less by nature than from the need of employing her activity.
Having no husband or children to occupy her, she fell back on petty
details. She talked for hours about mere nothings, on a dozen napkins
marked "Z," placed in the closet before the "O's."
"What can Josette be thinking of?" she exclaimed. "Josette is
beginning to neglect things."
Mademoiselle inquired for eight days running whether Penelope had had
her oats at two o'clock, because on one occasion Jacquelin was a
trifle late. Her narrow imagination spent itself on trifles. A layer
of dust forgotten by the feather-duster, a slice of toast ill-made by
Mariette, Josette's delay in closing the blinds when the sun came
round to fade the colors of the furniture,—all these great little
things gave rise to serious quarrels in which mademoiselle grew angry.
"Everything was changing," she would cry; "she did not know her own
servants; the fact was she spoiled them!" On one occasion Josette gave
her the "Journee du Chretien" instead of the "Quinzaine de Paques."
The whole town heard of this disaster the same evening. Mademoiselle
had been forced to leave the church and return home; and her sudden
departure, upsetting the chairs, made people suppose a catastrophe had
happened. She was therefore obliged to explain the facts to her
"Josette," she said gently, "such a thing must never happen again."
Mademoiselle Cormon was, without being aware of it, made happier by
such little quarrels, which served as cathartics to relieve her
bitterness. The soul has its needs, and, like the body, its
gymnastics. These uncertainties of temper were accepted by Josette and
Jacquelin as changes in the weather are accepted by husbandmen. Those
worthy souls remark, "It is fine to-day," or "It rains," without
arraigning the heavens. And so when they met in the morning the
servants would wonder in what humor mademoiselle would get up, just as
a farmer wonders about the mists at dawn.
Mademoiselle Cormon had ended, as it was natural she should end, in
contemplating herself only in the infinite pettinesses of her life.
Herself and God, her confessor and the weekly wash, her preserves and
the church services, and her uncle to care for, absorbed her feeble
intellect. To her the atoms of life were magnified by an optic
peculiar to persons who are selfish by nature or self-absorbed by some
accident. Her perfect health gave alarming meaning to the least little
derangement of her digestive organs. She lived under the iron rod of
the medical science of our forefathers, and took yearly four
precautionary doses, strong enough to have killed Penelope, though
they seemed to rejuvenate her mistress. If Josette, when dressing her,
chanced to discover a little pimple on the still satiny shoulders of
mademoiselle, it became the subject of endless inquiries as to the
various alimentary articles of the preceding week. And what a triumph
when Josette reminded her mistress of a certain hare that was rather
"high," and had doubtless raised that accursed pimple! With what joy
they said to each other: "No doubt, no doubt, it /was/ the hare!"
"Mariette over-seasoned it," said mademoiselle. "I am always telling
her to do so lightly for my uncle and for me; but Mariette has no more
"The hare," said Josette.
"Just so," replied Mademoiselle; "she has no more memory than a hare,
—a very just remark."
Four times a year, at the beginning of each season, Mademoiselle
Cormon went to pass a certain number of days on her estate of
Prebaudet. It was now the middle of May, the period at which she
wished to see how her apple-trees had "snowed," a saying of that
region which expressed the effect produced beneath the trees by the
falling of their blossoms. When the circular deposit of these fallen
petals resembled a layer of snow the owner of the trees might hope for
an abundant supply of cider. While she thus gauged her vats,
Mademoiselle Cormon also attended to the repairs which the winter
necessitated; she ordered the digging of her flower-beds and her
vegetable garden, from which she supplied her table. Every season had
its own business. Mademoiselle always gave a dinner of farewell to her
intimate friends the day before her departure, although she was
certain to see them again within three weeks. It was always a piece of
news which echoed through Alencon when Mademoiselle Cormon departed.
All her visitors, especially those who had missed a visit, came to bid
her good-bye; the salon was thronged, and every one said farewell as
though she were starting for Calcutta. The next day the shopkeepers
would stand at their doors to see the old carriole pass, and they
seemed to be telling one another some news by repeating from shop to
"So Mademoiselle Cormon is going to Prebaudet!"
Some said: "/Her/ bread is baked."
"Hey! my lad," replied the next man. "She's a worthy woman; if money
always came into such hands we shouldn't see a beggar in the country."
Another said: "Dear me, I shouldn't be surprised if the vineyards were
in bloom; here's Mademoiselle Cormon going to Prebaudet. How happens
it she doesn't marry?"
"I'd marry her myself," said a wag; "in fact, the marriage is
half-made, for here's one consenting party; but the other side won't.
Pooh! the oven is heating for Monsieur du Bousquier."
"Monsieur du Bousquier! Why, she has refused him."
That evening at all the gatherings it was told gravely:—
"Mademoiselle Cormon has gone."
"So you have really let Mademoiselle Cormon go."
The Wednesday chosen by Suzanne to make known her scandal happened to
be this farewell Wednesday,—a day on which Mademoiselle Cormon drove
Josette distracted on the subject of packing. During the morning,
therefore, things had been said and done in the town which lent the
utmost interest to this farewell meeting. Madame Granson had gone the
round of a dozen houses while the old maid was deliberating on the
things she needed for the journey; and the malicious Chevalier de
Valois was playing piquet with Mademoiselle Armande, sister of a
distinguished old marquis, and the queen of the salon of the
aristocrats. If it was not uninteresting to any one to see what figure
the seducer would cut that evening, it was all important for the
chevalier and Madame Granson to know how Mademoiselle Cormon would
take the news in her double capacity of marriageable woman and
president of the Maternity Society. As for the innocent du Bousquier,
he was taking a walk on the promenade, and beginning to suspect that
Suzanne had tricked him; this suspicion confirmed him in his
principles as to women.
On gala days the table was laid at Mademoiselle Cormon's about
half-past three o'clock. At that period the fashionable people of
Alencon dined at four. Under the Empire they still dined as in former
times at half-past two; but then they supped! One of the pleasures
which Mademoiselle Cormon valued most was (without meaning any malice,
although the fact certainly rests on egotism) the unspeakable
satisfaction she derived from seeing herself dressed as mistress of
the house to receive her guests. When she was thus under arms a ray of
hope would glide into the darkness of her heart; a voice told her that
nature had not so abundantly provided for her in vain, and that some
man, brave and enterprising, would surely present himself. Her desire
was refreshed like her person; she contemplated herself in her heavy
stuffs with a sort of intoxication, and this satisfaction continued
when she descended the stairs to cast her redoubtable eye on the
salon, the dinner-table, and the boudoir. She would then walk about
with the naive contentment of the rich,—who remember at all moments
that they are rich and will never want for anything. She looked at her
eternal furniture, her curiosities, her lacquers, and said to herself
that all these fine things wanted was a master. After admiring the
dining-room, and the oblong dinner-table, on which was spread a
snow-white cloth adorned with twenty covers placed at equal distances;
after verifying the squadron of bottles she had ordered to be brought
up, and which all bore honorable labels; after carefully verifying the
names written on little bits of paper in the trembling handwriting of
the abbe (the only duty he assumed in the household, and one which
gave rise to grave discussions on the place of each guest),—after
going through all these preliminary acts mademoiselle went, in her
fine clothes, to her uncle, who was accustomed at this, the best hour
in the day, to take his walk on the terrace which overlooked the
Brillante, where he could listen to the warble of birds which were
resting in the coppice, unafraid of either sportsmen or children. At
such times of waiting she never joined the Abbe de Sponde without
asking him some ridiculous question, in order to draw the old man into
a discussion which might serve to amuse him. And her reason was this,
—which will serve to complete our picture of this excellent woman's
Mademoiselle Cormon regarded it as one of her duties to talk; not that
she was talkative, for she had unfortunately too few ideas, and did
not know enough phrases to converse readily. But she believed she was
accomplishing one of the social duties enjoined by religion, which
orders us to make ourselves agreeable to our neighbor. This obligation
cost her so much that she consulted her director, the Abbe Couturier,
upon the subject of this honest but puerile civility. In spite of the
humble remark of his penitent, confessing the inward labor of her mind
in finding anything to say, the old priest, rigid on the point of
discipline, read her a passage from Saint-Francois de Sales on the
duties of women in society, which dwelt on the decent gayety of pious
Christian women, who were bound to reserve their sternness for
themselves, and to be amiable and pleasing in their homes, and see
that their neighbors enjoyed themselves. Thus, filled with a sense of
duty, and wishing, at all costs, to obey her director, who bade her
converse with amenity, the poor soul perspired in her corset when the
talk around her languished, so much did she suffer from the effort of
emitting ideas in order to revive it. Under such circumstances she
would put forth the silliest statements, such as: "No one can be in
two places at once—unless it is a little bird," by which she one day
roused, and not without success, a discussion on the ubiquity of the
apostles, which she was unable to comprehend. Such efforts at
conversation won her the appellation of "that good Mademoiselle
Cormon," which, from the lips of the beaux esprits of society, means
that she was as ignorant as a carp, and rather a poor fool; but many
persons of her own calibre took the remark in its literal sense, and
"Yes; oh yes! Mademoiselle Cormon is an excellent woman."
Sometimes she would put such absurd questions (always for the purpose
of fulfilling her duties to society, and making herself agreeable to
her guests) that everybody burst out laughing. She asked, for
instance, what the government did with the taxes they were always
receiving; and why the Bible had not been printed in the days of Jesus
Christ, inasmuch as it was written by Moses. Her mental powers were
those of the English "country gentleman" who, hearing constant mention
of "posterity" in the House of Commons, rose to make the speech that
has since become celebrated: "Gentlemen," he said, "I hear much talk
in this place about Posterity. I should be glad to know what that
power has ever done for England."
Under these circumstances the heroic Chevalier de Valois would bring
to the succor of the old maid all the powers of his clever diplomacy,
whenever he saw the pitiless smile of wiser heads. The old gentleman,
who loved to assist women, turned Mademoiselle Cormon's sayings into
wit by sustaining them paradoxically, and he often covered the retreat
so well that it seemed as if the good woman had said nothing silly.
She asserted very seriously one evening that she did not see any
difference between an ox and a bull. The dear chevalier instantly
arrested the peals of laughter by asserting that there was only the
difference between a sheep and a lamb.
But the Chevalier de Valois served an ungrateful dame, for never did
Mademoiselle Cormon comprehend his chivalrous services. Observing that
the conversation grew lively, she simply thought that she was not so
stupid as she was,—the result being that she settled down into her
ignorance with some complacency; she lost her timidity, and acquired a
self-possession which gave to her "speeches" something of the
solemnity with which the British enunciate their patriotic
absurdities,—the self-conceit of stupidity, as it may be called.
As she approached her uncle, on this occasion, with a majestic step,
she was ruminating over a question that might draw him from a silence,
which always troubled her, for she feared he was dull.
"Uncle," she said, leaning on his arm and clinging to his side (this
was one of her fictions; for she said to herself "If I had a husband I
should do just so"),—"uncle, if everything here below happens
according to the will of God, there must be a reason for everything."
"Certainly," replied the abbe, gravely. The worthy man, who cherished
his niece, always allowed her to tear him from his meditations with
"Then if I remain unmarried,—supposing that I do,—God wills it?"
"Yes, my child," replied the abbe.
"And yet, as nothing prevents me from marrying to-morrow if I choose,
His will can be destroyed by mine?"
"That would be true if we knew what was really the will of God,"
replied the former prior of the Sorbonne. "Observe, my daughter, that
you put in an /if/."
The poor woman, who expected to draw her uncle into a matrimonial
discussion by an argument ad omnipotentem, was stupefied; but persons
of obtuse mind have the terrible logic of children, which consists in
turning from answer to question,—a logic that is frequently
"But, uncle, God did not make women intending them not to marry;
otherwise they ought all to stay unmarried; if not, they ought all to
marry. There's great injustice in the distribution of parts."
"Daughter," said the worthy abbe, "you are blaming the Church, which
declares celibacy to be the better way to God."
"But if the Church is right, and all the world were good Catholics,
wouldn't the human race come to an end, uncle?"
"You have too much mind, Rose; you don't need so much to be happy."
That remark brought a smile of satisfaction to the lips of the poor
woman, and confirmed her in the good opinion she was beginning to
acquire about herself. That is how the world, our friends, and our
enemies are the accomplices of our defects!
At this moment the conversation was interrupted by the successive
arrival of the guests. On these ceremonial days, friendly
familiarities were exchanged between the servants of the house and the
company. Mariette remarked to the chief-justice as he passed the
"Ah, Monsieur du Ronceret, I've cooked the cauliflowers au gratin
expressly for you, for mademoiselle knows how you like them; and she
said to me: 'Now don't forget, Mariette, for Monsieur du Ronceret is
"That good Mademoiselle Cormon!" ejaculated the chief legal authority
of the town. "Mariette, did you steep them in gravy instead of
soup-stock? it is much richer."
The chief-justice was not above entering the chamber of council where
Mariette held court; he cast the eye of a gastronome around it, and
offered the advice of a past master in cookery.
"Good-day, madame," said Josette to Madame Granson, who courted the
maid. "Mademoiselle has thought of you, and there's fish for dinner."
As for the Chevalier de Valois, he remarked to Mariette, in the easy
tone of a great seigneur who condescends to be familiar:—
"Well, my dear cordon-bleu, to whom I should give the cross of the
Legion of honor, is there some little dainty for which I had better
"Yes, yes, Monsieur de Valois,—a hare sent from Prebaudet; weighs
Du Bousquier was not invited. Mademoiselle Cormon, faithful to the
system which we know of, treated that fifty-year-old suitor extremely
ill, although she felt inexplicable sentiments towards him in the
depths of her heart. She had refused him; yet at times she repented;
and a presentiment that she should yet marry him, together with a
terror at the idea which prevented her from wishing for the marriage,
assailed her. Her mind, stimulated by these feelings, was much
occupied by du Bousquier. Without being aware of it, she was
influenced by the herculean form of the republican. Madame Granson and
the Chevalier de Valois, although they could not explain to themselves
Mademoiselle Cormon's inconsistencies, had detected her naive glances
in that direction, the meaning of which seemed clear enough to make
them both resolve to ruin the hopes of the already rejected purveyor,
—hopes which it was evident he still indulged.
Two guests, whose functions excused them, kept the dinner waiting. One
was Monsieur du Coudrai, the recorder of mortgages; the other Monsieur
Choisnel, former bailiff to the house of Esgrignon, and now the notary
of the upper aristocracy, by whom he was received with a distinction
due to his virtues; he was also a man of considerable wealth. When the
two belated guests arrived, Jacquelin said to them as he saw them
about to enter the salon:—
"/They/ are all in the garden."
No doubt the assembled stomachs were impatient; for on the appearance
of the register of mortgages—who had no defect except that of having
married for her money an intolerable old woman, and of perpetrating
endless puns, at which he was the first to laugh—the gentle murmur by
which such late-comers are welcomed arose. While awaiting the official
announcement of dinner, the company were sauntering on the terrace
above the river, and gazing at the water-plants, the mosaic of the
currents, and the various pretty details of the houses clustering
across the river, their old wooden galleries, their mouldering
window-frames, their little gardens where clothes were drying, the
cabinet-maker's shop,—in short, the many details of a small community
to which the vicinity of a river, a weeping willow, flowers,
rose-bushes, added a certain grace, making the scene quite worthy of a
The chevalier studied all faces, for he knew that his firebrand had
been very successfully introduced into the chief houses of the place.
But no one as yet referred openly to the great news of Suzanne and du
Bousquier. Provincials possess in the highest degree the art of
distilling gossip; the right moment for openly discussing this strange
affair had not arrived; it was first necessary that all present should
put themselves on record. So the whispers went round from ear to
"You have heard?"
"And that handsome Suzanne."
"Does Mademoiselle Cormon know of it?"
This was the /piano/ of the scandal; the /rinforzando/ would break
forth as soon as the first course had been removed. Suddenly Monsieur
de Valois's eyes lighted on Madame Granson, arrayed in her green hat
with bunches of auriculas, and beaming with evident joy. Was it merely
the joy of opening the concert? Though such a piece of news was like a
gold mine to work in the monotonous lives of these personages, the
observant and distrustful chevalier thought he recognized in the
worthy woman a far more extended sentiment; namely, the joy caused by
the triumph of self-interest. Instantly he turned to examine Athanase,
and detected him in the significant silence of deep meditation.
Presently, a look cast by the young man on Mademoiselle Cormon carried
to the soul of the chevalier a sudden gleam. That momentary flash of
lightning enabled him to read the past.
"Ha! the devil!" he said to himself; "what a checkmate I'm exposed
Monsieur de Valois now approached Mademoiselle Cormon, and offered his
arm. The old maid's feeling to the chevalier was that of respectful
consideration; and certainly his name, together with the position he
occupied among the aristocratic constellations of the department made
him the most brilliant ornament of her salon. In her inmost mind
Mademoiselle Cormon had wished for the last dozen years to become
Madame de Valois. That name was like the branch of a tree, to which
the ideas which /swarmed/ in her mind about rank, nobility, and the
external qualities of a husband had fastened. But, though the
Chevalier de Valois was the man chosen by her heart, and mind, and
ambition, that elderly ruin, combed and curled like a little
Saint-John in a procession, alarmed Mademoiselle Cormon. She saw the
gentleman in him, but she could not see a husband. The indifference
which the chevalier affected as to marriage, above all, the apparent
purity of his morals in a house which abounded in grisettes, did
singular harm in her mind to Monsieur de Valois against his
expectations. The worthy man, who showed such judgment in the matter
of his annuity, was at fault here. Without being herself aware of it,
the thoughts of Mademoiselle Cormon on the too virtuous chevalier
might be translated thus:—
"What a pity that he isn't a trifle dissipated!"
Observers of the human heart have remarked the leaning of pious women
toward scamps; some have expressed surprise at this taste, considering
it opposed to Christian virtue. But, in the first place, what nobler
destiny can you offer to a virtuous woman than to purify, like
charcoal, the muddy waters of vice? How is it some observers fail to
see that these noble creatures, obliged by the sternness of their own
principles never to infringe on conjugal fidelity, must naturally
desire a husband of wider practical experience than their own? The
scamps of social life are great men in love. Thus the poor woman
groaned in spirit at finding her chosen vessel parted into two pieces.
God alone could solder together a Chevalier de Valois and a du
In order to explain the importance of the few words which the
chevalier and Mademoiselle Cormon are about to say to each other, it
is necessary to reveal two serious matters which agitated the town,
and about which opinions were divided; besides, du Bousquier was
mysteriously connected with them.
One concerns the rector of Alencon, who had formerly taken the
constitutional oath, and who was now conquering the repugnance of the
Catholics by a display of the highest virtues. He was Cheverus on a
small scale, and became in time so fully appreciated that when he died
the whole town mourned him. Mademoiselle Cormon and the Abbe de Sponde
belonged to that "little Church," sublime in its orthodoxy, which was
to the court of Rome what the Ultras were to be to Louis XVIII. The
abbe, more especially, refused to recognize a Church which had
compromised with the constitutionals. The rector was therefore not
received in the Cormon household, whose sympathies were all given to
the curate of Saint-Leonard, the aristocratic parish of Alencon. Du
Bousquier, that fanatic liberal now concealed under the skin of a
royalist, knowing how necessary rallying points are to all discontents
(which are really at the bottom of all oppositions), had drawn the
sympathies of the middle classes around the rector. So much for the
first case; the second was this:—
Under the secret inspiration of du Bousquier the idea of building a
theatre had dawned on Alencon. The henchmen of the purveyor did not
know their Mohammed; and they thought they were ardent in carrying out
their own conception. Athanase Granson was one of the warmest
partisans for the theatre; and of late he had urged at the mayor's
office a cause which all the other young clerks had eagerly adopted.
The chevalier, as we have said, offered his arm to the old maid for a
turn on the terrace. She accepted it, not without thanking him by a
happy look for this attention, to which the chevalier replied by
motioning toward Athanase with a meaning eye.
"Mademoiselle," he began, "you have so much sense and judgment in
social proprieties, and also, you are connected with that young man by
"Distant ones," she said, interrupting him.
"Ought you not," he continued, "to use the influence you have over his
mother and over himself by saving him from perdition? He is not very
religious, as you know; indeed he approves of the rector; but that is
not all; there is something far more serious; isn't he throwing
himself headlong into an opposition without considering what influence
his present conduct may exert upon his future? He is working for the
construction of a theatre. In this affair he is simply the dupe of
that disguised republican du Bousquier—"
"Good gracious! Monsieur de Valois," she replied; "his mother is
always telling me he has so much mind, and yet he can't say two words;
he stands planted before me as mum as a post—"
"Which doesn't think at all!" cried the recorder of mortgages. "I
caught your words on the fly. I present my compliments to Monsieur de
Valois," he added, bowing to that gentleman with much emphasis.
The chevalier returned the salutation stiffly, and drew Mademoiselle
Cormon toward some flower-pots at a little distance, in order to show
the interrupter that he did not choose to be spied upon.
"How is it possible," he continued, lowering his voice, and leaning
towards Mademoiselle Cormon's ear, "that a young man brought up in
those detestable lyceums should have ideas? Only sound morals and
noble habits will ever produce great ideas and a true love. It is easy
to see by a mere look at him that the poor lad is likely to be
imbecile, and come, perhaps, to some sad end. See how pale and haggard
"His mother declares he works too hard," replied the old maid,
innocently. "He sits up late, and for what? reading books and writing!
What business ought to require a young man to write at night?"
"It exhausts him," replied the chevalier, trying to bring the old
maid's thoughts back to the ground where he hoped to inspire her with
horror for her youthful lover. "The morals of those Imperial lyceums
are really shocking."
"Oh, yes!" said the ingenuous creature. "They march the pupils about
with drums at their head. The masters have no more religion than
pagans. And they put the poor lads in uniform, as if they were troops.
"And behold the product!" said the chevalier, motioning to Athanase.
"In my day, young men were not so shy of looking at a pretty woman. As
for him, he drops his eyes whenever he sees you. That young man
frightens me because I am really interested in him. Tell him not to
intrigue with the Bonapartists, as he is now doing about that theatre.
When all these petty folks cease to ask for it insurrectionally,
—which to my mind is the synonym of constitutionally,—the government
will build it. Besides which, tell his mother to keep an eye on him."
"Oh, I'm sure she will prevent him from seeing those half-pay,
questionable people. I'll talk to her," said Mademoiselle Cormon, "for
he might lose his place in the mayor's office; and then what would he
and his mother have to live on? It makes me shudder."
As Monsieur de Talleyrand said of his wife, so the chevalier said to
himself, looking at Mademoiselle Cormon:—
"Find me another as stupid! Good powers! isn't virtue which drives out
intellect vice? But what an adorable wife for a man of my age! What
principles! what ignorance!"
Remember that this monologue, addressed to the Princess Goritza, was
mentally uttered while he took a pinch of snuff.
Madame Granson had divined that the chevalier was talking about
Athanase. Eager to know the result of the conversation, she followed
Mademoiselle Cormon, who was now approaching the young man with much
dignity. But at this moment Jacquelin appeared to announce that
mademoiselle was served. The old maid gave a glance of appeal to the
chevalier; but the gallant recorder of mortgages, who was beginning to
see in the manners of that gentleman the barrier which the provincial
nobles were setting up about this time between themselves and the
bourgeoisie, made the most of his chance to cut out Monsieur de
Valois. He was close to Mademoiselle Cormon, and promptly offered his
arm, which she found herself compelled to accept. The chevalier then
darted, out of policy, upon Madame Granson.
"Mademoiselle Cormon, my dear lady," he said to her, walking slowly
after all the other guests, "feels the liveliest interest in your dear
Athanase; but I fear it will vanish through his own fault. He is
irreligious and liberal; he is agitating this matter of the theatre;
he frequents the Bonapartists; he takes the side of that rector. Such
conduct may make him lose his place in the mayor's office. You know
with what care the government is beginning to weed out such opinions.
If your dear Athanase loses his place, where can he find other
employment? I advise him not to get himself in bad odor with the
"Monsieur le Chevalier," said the poor frightened mother, "how
grateful I am to you! You are right: my son is the tool of a bad set
of people; I shall enlighten him."
The chevalier had long since fathomed the nature of Athanase, and
recognized in it that unyielding element of republican convictions to
which in his youth a young man is willing to sacrifice everything,
carried away by the word "liberty," so ill-defined and so little
understood, but which to persons disdained by fate is a banner of
revolt; and to such, revolt is vengeance. Athanase would certainly
persist in that faith, for his opinions were woven in with his
artistic sorrows, with his bitter contemplation of the social state.
He was ignorant of the fact that at thirty-six years of age,—the
period of life when a man has judged men and social interests and
relations,—the opinions for which he was ready to sacrifice his
future would be modified in him, as they are in all men of real
superiority. To remain faithful to the Left side of Alencon was to
gain the aversion of Mademoiselle Cormon. There, indeed, the chevalier
Thus we see that this society, so peaceful in appearance, was
internally as agitated as any diplomatic circle, where craft, ability,
and passions group themselves around the grave questions of an empire.
The guests were now seated at the table laden with the first course,
which they ate as provincials eat, without shame at possessing a good
appetite, and not as in Paris, where it seems as if jaws gnashed under
sumptuary laws, which made it their business to contradict the laws of
anatomy. In Paris people eat with their teeth, and trifle with their
pleasure; in the provinces things are done naturally, and interest is
perhaps rather too much concentrated on the grand and universal means
of existence to which God has condemned his creatures.
It was at the end of the first course that Mademoiselle Cormon made
the most celebrated of her "speeches"; it was talked about for fully
two years, and is still told at the gatherings of the lesser
bourgeoisie whenever the topic of her marriage comes up.
The conversation, becoming lively as the penultimate entree was
reached, had turned naturally on the affair of the theatre and the
constitutionally sworn rector. In the first fervor of royalty, during
the year 1816, those who later were called Jesuits were all for the
expulsion of the Abbe Francois from his parish. Du Bousquier,
suspected by Monsieur de Valois of sustaining the priest and being at
the bottom of the theatre intrigues, and on whose back the adroit
chevalier would in any case have put those sins with his customary
cleverness, was in the dock with no lawyer to defend him. Athanase,
the only guest loyal enough to stand by du Bousquier, had not the
nerve to emit his ideas in the presence of those potentates of
Alencon, whom in his heart he thought stupid. None but provincial
youths now retain a respectful demeanor before men of a certain age,
and dare neither to censure nor contradict them. The talk, diminished
under the effect of certain delicious ducks dressed with olives, was
falling flat. Mademoiselle Cormon, feeling the necessity of
maintaining it against her own ducks, attempted to defend du
Bousquier, who was being represented as a pernicious fomenter of
intrigues, capable of any trickery.
"As for me," she said, "I thought that Monsieur du Bousquier cared
chiefly for childish things."
Under existing circumstances the remark had enormous success.
Mademoiselle Cormon obtained a great triumph; she brought the nose of
the Princess Goritza flat on the table. The chevalier, who little
expected such an apt remark from his Dulcinea, was so amazed that he
could at first find no words to express his admiration; he applauded
noiselessly, as they do at the Opera, tapping his fingers together to
"She is adorably witty," he said to Madame Granson. "I always said
that some day she would unmask her batteries."
"In private she is always charming," replied the widow.
"In private, madame, all women have wit," returned the chevalier.
The Homeric laugh thus raised having subsided, Mademoiselle Cormon
asked the reason of her success. Then began the /forte/ of the gossip.
Du Bousquier was depicted as a species of celibate Pere Gigogne, a
monster, who for the last fifteen years had kept the Foundling
Hospital supplied. His immoral habits were at last revealed! these
Parisian saturnalias were the result of them, etc., etc. Conducted by
the Chevalier de Valois, a most able leader of an orchestra of this
kind, the opening of the /cancan/ was magnificent.
"I really don't know," he said, "what should hinder a du Bousquier
from marrying a Mademoiselle Suzanne What's-her-name. What /is/ her
name, do you know? Suzette! Though I have lodgings at Madame Lardot's,
I know her girls only by sight. If this Suzette is a tall, fine, saucy
girl, with gray eyes, a slim waist, and a pretty foot, whom I have
occasionally seen, and whose behavior always seemed to me extremely
insolent, she is far superior in manners to du Bousquier. Besides, the
girl has the nobility of beauty; from that point of view the marriage
would be a poor one for her; she might do better. You know how the
Emperor Joseph had the curiosity to see the du Barry at Luciennes. He
offered her his arm to walk about, and the poor thing was so surprised
at the honor that she hesitated to accept it: 'Beauty is ever a
queen,' said the Emperor. And he, you know, was an Austrian-German,"
added the chevalier. "But I can tell you that Germany, which is
thought here very rustic, is a land of noble chivalry and fine
manners, especially in Poland and Hungary, where—"
Here the chevalier stopped, fearing to slip into some allusion to his
personal happiness; he took out his snuff-box, and confided the rest
of his remarks to the princess, who had smiled upon him for thirty-six
years and more.
"That speech was rather a delicate one for Louis XV.," said du
"But it was, I think, the Emperor Joseph who made it, and not Louis
XV.," remarked Mademoiselle Cormon, in a correcting tone.
"Mademoiselle," said the chevalier, observing the malicious glance
exchanged between the judge, the notary, and the recorder, "Madame du
Barry was the Suzanne of Louis XV.,—a circumstance well known to
scamps like ourselves, but unsuitable for the knowledge of young
ladies. Your ignorance proves you to be a flawless diamond; historical
corruptions do not enter your mind."
The Abbe de Sponde looked graciously at the Chevalier de Valois, and
nodded his head in sign of his laudatory approbation.
"Doesn't mademoiselle know history?" asked the recorder of mortgages.
"If you mix up Louis XV. and this girl Suzanne, how am I to know
history?" replied Mademoiselle Cormon, angelically, glad to see that
the dish of ducks was empty at last, and the conversation so ready to
revive that all present laughed with their mouths full at her last
"Poor girl!" said the Abbe de Sponde. "When a great misfortune
happens, charity, which is divine love, and as blind as pagan love,
ought not to look into the causes of it. Niece, you are president of
the Maternity Society; you must succor that poor girl, who will now
find it difficult to marry."
"Poor child!" ejaculated Mademoiselle Cormon.
"Do you suppose du Bousquier would marry her?" asked the judge.
"If he is an honorable man he ought to do so," said Madame Granson;
"but really, to tell the truth, my dog has better morals than he—"
"Azor is, however, a good purveyor," said the recorder of mortgages,
with the air of saying a witty thing.
At dessert du Bousquier was still the topic of conversation, having
given rise to various little jokes which the wine rendered sparkling.
Following the example of the recorder, each guest capped his
neighbor's joke with another: Du Bousquier was a father, but not a
confessor; he was father less; he was father LY; he was not a reverend
father; nor yet a conscript-father—
"Nor can he be a foster-father," said the Abbe de Sponde, with a
gravity which stopped the laughter.
"Nor a noble father," added the chevalier.
The Church and the nobility descended thus into the arena of puns,
without, however, losing their dignity.
"Hush!" exclaimed the recorder of mortgages. "I hear the creaking of
du Bousquier's boots."
It usually happens that a man is ignorant of rumors that are afloat
about him. A whole town may be talking of his affairs; may calumniate
and decry him, but if he has no good friends, he will know nothing
about it. Now the innocent du Bousquier was superb in his ignorance.
No one had told him as yet of Suzanne's revelations; he therefore
appeared very jaunty and slightly conceited when the company, leaving
the dining-room, returned to the salon for their coffee; several other
guests had meantime assembled for the evening. Mademoiselle Cormon,
from a sense of shamefacedness, dared not look at the terrible
seducer. She seized upon Athanase, and began to lecture him with the
queerest platitudes about royalist politics and religious morality.
Not possessing, like the Chevalier de Valois, a snuff-box adorned with
a princess, by the help of which he could stand this torrent of
silliness, the poor poet listened to the words of her whom he loved
with a stupid air, gazing, meanwhile, at her enormous bust, which held
itself before him in that still repose which is the attribute of all
great masses. His love produced in him a sort of intoxication which
changed the shrill voice of the old maid into a soft murmur, and her
flat remarks into witty speeches. Love is a maker of false coin,
continually changing copper pennies into gold-pieces, and sometimes
turning its real gold into copper.
"Well, Athanase, will you promise me?"
This final sentence struck the ear of the absorbed young man like one
of those noises which wake us with a bound.
Mademoiselle Cormon rose hastily, and looked at du Bousquier, who at
that moment resembled the stout god of Fable which the Republic
stamped upon her coins. She walked up to Madame Granson, and said in
"My dear friend, you son is an idiot. That lyceum has ruined him," she
added, remembering the insistence with which the chevalier had spoken
of the evils of education in such schools.
What a catastrophe! Unknown to himself, the luckless Athanase had had
an occasion to fling an ember of his own fire upon the pile of brush
gathered in the heart of the old maid. Had he listened to her, he
might have made her, then and there, perceive his passion; for, in the
agitated state of Mademoiselle Cormon's mind, a single word would have
sufficed. But that stupid absorption in his own sentiments, which
characterizes young and true love, had ruined him, as a child full of
life sometimes kills itself out of ignorance.
"What have you been saying to Mademoiselle Cormon?" demanded his
"Nothing; well, I can explain that," she thought to herself, putting
off till the next day all further reflection on the matter, and
attaching but little importance to Mademoiselle Cormon's words; for
she fully believed that du Bousquier was forever lost in the old
maid's esteem after the revelation of that evening.
Soon the four tables were filled with their sixteen players. Four
persons were playing piquet,—an expensive game, at which the most
money was lost. Monsieur Choisnel, the procureur-du-roi, and two
ladies went into the boudoir for a game at backgammon. The glass
lustres were lighted; and then the flower of Mademoiselle Cormon's
company gathered before the fireplace, on sofas, and around the
tables, and each couple said to her as they arrived,—
"So you are going to-morrow to Prebaudet?"
"Yes, I really must," she replied.
On this occasion the mistress of the house appeared preoccupied.
Madame Granson was the first to perceive the quite unnatural state of
the old maid's mind,—Mademoiselle Cormon was thinking!
"What are you thinking of, cousin?" she said at last, finding her
seated in the boudoir.
"I am thinking," she replied, "of that poor girl. As the president of
the Maternity Society, I will give you fifty francs for her."
"Fifty francs!" cried Madame Granson. "But you have never given as
much as that."
"But, my dear cousin, it is so natural to have children."
That immoral speech coming from the heart of the old maid staggered
the treasurer of the Maternity Society. Du Bousquier had evidently
advanced in the estimation of Mademoiselle Cormon.
"Upon my word," said Madame Granson, "du Bousquier is not only a
monster, he is a villain. When a man has done a wrong like that, he
ought to pay the indemnity. Isn't it his place rather than ours to
look after the girl?—who, to tell you the truth, seems to me rather
questionable; there are plenty of better men in Alencon than that
cynic du Bousquier. A girl must be depraved, indeed, to go after him."
"Cynic! Your son teaches you to talk Latin, my dear, which is wholly
incomprehensible. Certainly I don't wish to excuse Monsieur du
Bousquier; but pray explain to me why a woman is depraved because she
prefers one man to another."
"My dear cousin, suppose you married my son Athanase; nothing could be
more natural. He is young and handsome, full of promise, and he will
be the glory of Alencon; and yet everybody will exclaim against you:
evil tongues will say all sorts of things; jealous women will accuse
you of depravity,—but what will that matter? you will be loved, and
loved truly. If Athanase seemed to you an idiot, my dear, it is that
he has too many ideas; extremes meet. He lives the life of a girl of
fifteen; he has never wallowed in the impurities of Paris, not he!
Well, change the terms, as my poor husband used to say; it is the same
thing with du Bousquier in connection with Suzanne. /You/ would be
calumniated; but in the case of du Bousquier, the charge would be
true. Don't you understand me?"
"No more than if you were talking Greek," replied Mademoiselle Cormon,
who opened her eyes wide, and strained all the forces of her
"Well, cousin, if I must dot all the i's, it is impossible for Suzanne
to love du Bousquier. And if the heart counts for nothing in this
"But, cousin, what do people love with if not their hearts?"
Here Madame Granson said to herself, as the chevalier had previously
thought: "My poor cousin is altogether too innocent; such stupidity
passes all bounds!—Dear child," she continued aloud, "it seems to me
that children are not conceived by the spirit only."
"Why, yes, my dear; the Holy Virgin herself—"
"But, my love, du Bousquier isn't the Holy Ghost!"
"True," said the old maid; "he is a man!—a man whose personal
appearance makes him dangerous enough for his friends to advise him to
"You could yourself bring about that result, cousin."
"How so?" said the old maid, with the meekness of Christian charity.
"By not receiving him in your house until he marries. You owe it to
good morals and to religion to manifest under such circumstances an
"On my return from Prebaudet we will talk further of this, my dear
Madame Granson. I will consult my uncle and the Abbe Couturier," said
Mademoiselle Cormon, returning to the salon, where the animation was
now at its height.
The lights, the group of women in their best clothes, the solemn tone,
the dignified air of the assembly, made Mademoiselle Cormon not a
little proud of her company. To many persons nothing better could be
seen in Paris in the highest society.
At this moment du Bousquier, who was playing whist with the chevalier
and two old ladies,—Madame du Coudrai and Madame du Ronceret,—was
the object of deep but silent curiosity. A few young women arrived,
who, under pretext of watching the game, gazed fixedly at him in so
singular a manner, though slyly, that the old bachelor began to think
that there must be some deficiency in his toilet.
"Can my false front be crooked?" he asked himself, seized by one of
those anxieties which beset old bachelors.
He took advantage of a lost trick, which ended a seventh rubber, to
rise and leave the table.
"I can't touch a card without losing," he said. "I am decidedly too
"But you are lucky in other ways," said the chevalier, giving him a
That speech naturally made the rounds of the salon, where every one
exclaimed on the exquisite taste of the chevalier, the Prince de
Talleyrand of the province.
"There's no one like Monsieur de Valois for such wit."
Du Bousquier went to look at himself in a little oblong mirror, placed
above the "Deserter," but he saw nothing strange in his appearance.
After innumerable repetitions of the same text, varied in all keys,
the departure of the company took place about ten o'clock, through the
long antechamber, Mademoiselle Cormon conducting certain of her
favorite guests to the portico. There the groups parted; some followed
the Bretagne road towards the chateau; the others went in the
direction of the river Sarthe. Then began the usual conversation,
which for twenty years had echoed at that hour through this particular
street of Alencon. It was invariably:—
"Mademoiselle Cormon looked very well to-night."
"Mademoiselle Cormon? why, I thought her rather strange."
"How that poor abbe fails! Did you notice that he slept? He does not
know what cards he holds; he is getting very absent-minded."
"We shall soon have the grief of losing him."
"What a fine night! It will be a fine day to-morrow."
"Good weather for the apple-blossoms."
"You beat us; but when you play with Monsieur de Valois you never do
"How much did he win?"
"Well, to-night, three or four francs; he never loses."
"True; and don't you know there are three hundred and sixty-five days
a year? At that price his gains are the value of a farm."
"Ah! what hands we had to-night!"
"Here you are at home, monsieur and madame, how lucky you are, while
we have half the town to cross!"
"I don't pity you; you could afford a carriage, and dispense with the
fatigue of going on foot."
"Ah, monsieur! we have a daughter to marry, which takes off one wheel,
and the support of our son in Paris carries off another."
"You persist in making a magistrate of him?"
"What else can be done with a young man? Besides, there's no shame in
serving the king."
Sometimes a discussion on ciders and flax, always couched in the same
terms, and returning at the same time of year, was continued on the
homeward way. If any observer of human customs had lived in this
street, he would have known the months and seasons by simply
overhearing the conversations.
On this occasion it was exclusively jocose; for du Bousquier, who
chanced to march alone in front of the groups, was humming the
well-known air,—little thinking of its appropriateness,—"Tender
woman! hear the warble of the birds," etc. To some, du Bousquier was
a strong man and a misjudged man. Ever since he had been confirmed in
his present office by a royal decree, Monsieur du Ronceret had been in
favor of du Bousquier. To others the purveyor seemed dangerous,—a man
of bad habits, capable of anything. In the provinces, as in Paris, men
before the public eye are like that statue in the fine allegorical
tale of Addison, for which two knights on arriving near it fought; for
one saw it white, the other saw it black. Then, when they were both
off their horses, they saw it was white one side and black the other.
A third knight coming along declared it red.
When the chevalier went home that night, he made many reflections, as
"It is high time now to spread a rumor of my marriage with
Mademoiselle Cormon. It will leak out from the d'Esgrignon salon, and
go straight to the bishop at Seez, and so get round through the grand
vicars to the curate of Saint-Leonard's, who will be certain to tell
it to the Abbe Couturier; and Mademoiselle Cormon will get the shot in
her upper works. The old Marquis d'Esgrignon shall invite the Abbe de
Sponde to dinner, so as to stop all gossip about Mademoiselle Cormon
if I decide against her, or about me if she refuses me. The abbe shall
be well cajoled; and Mademoiselle Cormon will certainly not hold out
against a visit from Mademoiselle Armande, who will show her the
grandeur and future chances of such an alliance. The abbe's property
is undoubtedly as much as three hundred thousand; her own savings must
amount to more than two hundred thousand; she has her house and
Prebaudet and fifteen thousand francs a year. A word to my friend the
Comte de Fontaine, and I should be mayor of Alencon to-morrow, and
deputy. Then, once seated on the Right benches, we shall reach the
peerage, shouting, 'Cloture!' 'Ordre!'"
As soon as she reached home Madame Granson had a lively argument with
her son, who could not be made to see the connection which existed
between his love and his political opinions. It was the first quarrel
that had ever troubled that poor household.
FINAL DISAPPOINTMENT AND ITS FIRST RESULT
The next day, Mademoiselle Cormon, packed into the old carriole with
Josette, and looking like a pyramid on a vast sea of parcels, drove up
the rue Saint-Blaise on her way to Prebaudet, where she was overtaken
by an event which hurried on her marriage,—an event entirely unlooked
for by either Madame Granson, du Bousquier, Monsieur de Valois, or
Mademoiselle Cormon himself. Chance is the greatest of all artificers.
The day after her arrival at Prebaudet, she was innocently employed,
about eight o'clock in the morning, in listening, as she breakfasted,
to the various reports of her keeper and her gardener, when Jacquelin
made a violent irruption into the dining-room.
"Mademoiselle," he cried, out of breath, "Monsieur l'abbe sends you an
express, the son of Mere Grosmort, with a letter. The lad left Alencon
before daylight, and he has just arrived; he ran like Penelope! Can't
I give him a glass of wine?"
"What can have happened, Josette? Do you think my uncle can be—"
"He couldn't write if he were," said Josette, guessing her mistress's
"Quick! quick!" cried Mademoiselle Cormon, as soon as she had read the
first lines. "Tell Jacquelin to harness Penelope— Get ready, Josette;
pack up everything in half an hour. We must go back to town—"
"Jacquelin!" called Josette, excited by the sentiment she saw on her
Jacquelin, informed by Josette, came in to say,—
"But, mademoiselle, Penelope is eating her oats."
"What does that signify? I must start at once."
"But, mademoiselle, it is going to rain."
"Then we shall get wet."
"The house is on fire!" muttered Josette, piqued at the silence her
mistress kept as to the contents of the letter, which she read and
"Finish your coffee, at any rate, mademoiselle; don't excite your
blood; just see how red you are."
"Am I red, Josette?" she said, going to a mirror, from which the
quicksilver was peeling, and which presented her features to her
"Good heavens!" thought Mademoiselle Cormon, "suppose I should look
ugly! Come, Josette; come, my dear, dress me at once; I want to be
ready before Jacquelin has harnessed Penelope. If you can't pack my
things in time, I will leave them here rather than lose a single
If you have thoroughly comprehended the positive monomania to which
the desire of marriage had brought Mademoiselle Cormon, you will share
her emotion. The worthy uncle announced in this sudden missive that
Monsieur de Troisville, of the Russian army during the Emigration,
grandson of one of his best friends, was desirous of retiring to
Alencon, and asked his, the abbe's hospitality, on the ground of his
friendship for his grandfather, the Vicomte de Troisville. The old
abbe, alarmed at the responsibility, entreated his niece to return
instantly and help him to receive this guest, and do the honors of the
house; for the viscount's letter had been delayed, and he might
descend upon his shoulders that very night.
After reading this missive could there be a question of the demands of
Prebaudet? The keeper and the gardener, witnesses to Mademoiselle
Cormon's excitement, stood aside and awaited her orders. But when, as
she was about to leave the room, they stopped her to ask for
instructions, for the first time in her life the despotic old maid,
who saw to everything at Prebaudet with her own eyes, said, to their
stupefaction, "Do what you like." This from a mistress who carried her
administration to the point of counting her fruits, and marking them
so as to order their consumption according to the number and condition
"I believe I'm dreaming," thought Josette, as she saw her mistress
flying down the staircase like an elephant to which God has given
Presently, in spite of a driving rain, Mademoiselle Cormon drove away
from Prebaudet, leaving her factotums with the reins on their necks.
Jacquelin dared not take upon himself to hasten the usual little trot
of the peaceable Penelope, who, like the beautiful queen whose name
she bore, had an appearance of making as many steps backward as she
made forward. Impatient with the pace, mademoiselle ordered Jacquelin
in a sharp voice to drive at a gallop, with the whip, if necessary, to
the great astonishment of the poor beast, so afraid was she of not
having time to arrange the house suitably to receive Monsieur de
Troisville. She calculated that the grandson of her uncle's friend was
probably about forty years of age; a soldier just from service was
undoubtedly a bachelor; and she resolved, her uncle aiding, not to let
Monsieur de Troisville quit their house in the condition he entered
it. Though Penelope galloped, Mademoiselle Cormon, absorbed in
thoughts of her trousseau and the wedding-day, declared again and
again that Jacquelin made no way at all. She twisted about in the
carriole without replying to Josette's questions, and talked to
herself like a person who is mentally revolving important designs.
The carriole at last arrived in the main street of Alencon, called the
rue Saint-Blaise at the end toward Montagne, but near the hotel du
More it takes the name of the rue de la Porte-de-Seez, and becomes the
rue du Bercail as it enters the road to Brittany. If the departure of
Mademoiselle Cormon made a great noise in Alencon, it is easy to
imagine the uproar caused by her sudden return on the following day,
in a pouring rain which beat her face without her apparently minding
it. Penelope at a full gallop was observed by every one, and
Jacquelin's grin, the early hour, the parcels stuffed into the
carriole topsy-turvy, and the evident impatience of Mademoiselle
Cormon were all noted.
The property of the house of Troisville lay between Alencon and
Mortagne. Josette knew the various branches of the family. A word
dropped by mademoiselle as they entered Alencon had put Josette on the
scent of the affair; and a discussion having started between them, it
was settled that the expected de Troisville must be between forty and
forty-two years of age, a bachelor, and neither rich nor poor.
Mademoiselle Cormon beheld herself speedily Vicomtesse de Troisville.
"And to think that my uncle told me nothing! thinks of nothing!
inquires nothing! That's my uncle all over. He'd forget his own nose
if it wasn't fastened to his face."
Have you never remarked that, under circumstances such as these, old
maids become, like Richard III., keen-witted, fierce, bold,
promissory,—if one may so use the word,—and, like inebriate clerks,
no longer in awe of anything?
Immediately the town of Alencon, speedily informed from the farther
end of the rue de Saint-Blaise to the gate of Seez of this precipitate
return, accompanied by singular circumstances, was perturbed
throughout its viscera, both public and domestic. Cooks, shopkeepers,
street passengers, told the news from door to door; thence it rose to
the upper regions. Soon the words: "Mademoiselle Cormon has returned!"
burst like a bombshell into all households. At that moment Jacquelin
was descending from his wooden seat (polished by a process unknown to
cabinet-makers), on which he perched in front of the carriole. He
opened the great green gate, round at the top, and closed in sign of
mourning; for during Mademoiselle Cormon's absence the evening
assemblies did not take place. The faithful invited the Abbe de Sponde
to their several houses; and Monsieur de Valois paid his debt by
inviting him to dine at the Marquis d'Esgrignon's. Jacquelin, having
opened the gate, called familiarly to Penelope, whom he had left in
the middle of the street. That animal, accustomed to this proceeding,
turned in of herself, and circled round the courtyard in a manner to
avoid injuring the flower-bed. Jacquelin then took her bridle, and led
the carriage to the portico.
"Mariette!" cried Mademoiselle Cormon.
"Mademoiselle!" exclaimed Mariette, who was occupied in closing the
"Has the gentleman arrived?"
"Where's my uncle?"
"He is at church, mademoiselle."
Jacquelin and Josette were by this time on the first step of the
portico, holding out their hands to manoeuvre the exit of their
mistress from the carriole as she pulled herself up by the sides of
the vehicle and clung to the curtains. Mademoiselle then threw herself
into their arms; because for the last two years she dared not risk her
weight on the iron step, affixed to the frame of the carriage by a
horrible mechanism of clumsy bolts.
When Mademoiselle Cormon reached the level of the portico she looked
about her courtyard with an air of satisfaction.
"Come, come, Mariette, leave that gate alone; I want you."
"There's something in the wind," whispered Jacquelin, as Mariette
passed the carriole.
"Mariette, what provisions have you in the house?" asked Mademoiselle
Cormon, sitting down on the bench in the long antechamber like a
person overcome with fatigue.
"I haven't anything," replied Mariette, with her hands on her hips.
"Mademoiselle knows very well that during her absence Monsieur l'abbe
dines out every day. Yesterday I went to fetch him from Mademoiselle
"Where is he now?"
"Monsieur l'abbe? Why, at church; he won't be in before three
"He thinks of nothing! he ought to have told you to go to market.
Mariette, go at once; and without wasting money, don't spare it; get
all there is that is good and delicate. Go to the diligence office and
see if you can send for pates; and I want shrimps from the Brillante.
What o'clock is it?"
"A quarter to nine."
"Good heavens! Mariette, don't stop to chatter. The person my uncle
expects may arrive at any moment. If we had to give him breakfast,
where should we be with nothing in the house?"
Mariette turned back to Penelope in a lather, and looked at Jacquelin
as if she would say, "Mademoiselle has put her hand on a husband
"Now, Josette," continued the old maid, "let us see where we had
better put Monsieur de Troisville to sleep."
With what joy she said the words, "Put Monsieur de Troisville"
(pronounced Treville) "to sleep." How many ideas in those few words!
The old maid was bathed in hope.
"Will you put him in the green chamber?"
"The bishop's room? No; that's too near mine," said Mademoiselle
Cormon. "All very well for monseigneur; he's a saintly man."
"Give him your uncle's room."
"Oh, that's so bare; it is actually indecent."
"Well, then, mademoiselle, why not arrange a bed in your boudoir? It
is easily done; and there's a fire-place. Moreau can certainly find in
his warerooms a bed to match the hangings."
"You are right, Josette. Go yourself to Moreau; consult with him what
to do; I authorize you to get what is wanted. If the bed could be put
up to-night without Monsieur de Troisville observing it (in case
Monsieur de Troisville arrives while Moreau is here), I should like
it. If Moreau won't engage to do this, then I must put Monsieur de
Troisville in the green room, although Monsieur de Troisville would be
so very near to me."
Josette was departing when her mistress recalled her.
"Stop! explain the matter to Jacquelin," she cried, in a loud nervous
tone. "Tell /him/ to go to Moreau; I must be dressed! Fancy if Monsieur
de Troisville surprised me as I am now! and my uncle not here to
receive him! Oh, uncle, uncle! Come, Josette; come and dress me at
"But Penelope?" said Josette, imprudently.
"Always Penelope! Penelope this, Penelope that! Is Penelope the
mistress of this house?"
"But she is all of a lather, and she hasn't had time to eat her oats."
"Then let her starve!" cried Mademoiselle Cormon; "provided I marry,"
she thought to herself.
Hearing these words, which seemed to her like homicide, Josette stood
still for a moment, speechless. Then, at a gesture from her mistress,
she ran headlong down the steps of the portico.
"The devil is in her, Jacquelin," were the first words she uttered.
Thus all things conspired on this fateful day to produce the great
scenic effect which decided the future life of Mademoiselle Cormon.
The town was already topsy-turvy in mind, as a consequence of the five
extraordinary circumstances which accompanied Mademoiselle Cormon's
return; to wit, the pouring rain; Penelope at a gallop, in a lather,
and blown; the early hour; the parcels half-packed; and the singular
air of the excited old maid. But when Mariette made an invasion of the
market, and bought all the best things; when Jacquelin went to the
principal upholsterer in Alencon, two doors from the church, in search
of a bed,—there was matter for the gravest conjectures. These
extraordinary events were discussed on all sides; they occupied the
minds of every one, even Mademoiselle Armande herself, with whom was
Monsieur de Valois. Within two days the town of Alencon had been
agitated by such startling events that certain good women were heard
to remark that the world was coming to an end. This last news,
however, resolved itself into a single question, "What is happening at
The Abbe de Sponde, adroitly questioned when he left Saint-Leonard's
to take his daily walk with the Abbe Couturier, replied with his usual
kindliness that he expected the Vicomte de Troisville, a nobleman in
the service of Russia during the Emigration, who was returning to
Alencon to settle there. From two to five o'clock a species of labial
telegraphy went on throughout the town; and all the inhabitants
learned that Mademoiselle Cormon had at last found a husband by
letter, and was about to marry the Vicomte de Troisville. Some said,
"Moreau has sold them a bed." The bed was six feet wide in that
quarter; it was four feet wide at Madame Granson's, in the rue du
Bercail; but it was reduced to a simple couch at Monsieur du
Ronceret's, where du Bousquier was dining. The lesser bourgeoisie
declared that the cost was eleven hundred francs. But generally it was
thought that, as to this, rumor was counting the chickens before they
were hatched. In other quarters it was said that Mariette had made
such a raid on the market that the price of carp had risen. At the end
of the rue Saint-Blaise, Penelope had dropped dead. This decease was
doubted in the house of the receiver-general; but at the Prefecture it
was authenticated that the poor beast had expired as she turned into
the courtyard of the hotel Cormon, with such velocity had the old maid
flown to meet her husband. The harness-maker, who lived at the corner
of the rue de Seez, was bold enough to call at the house and ask if
anything had happened to Mademoiselle Cormon's carriage, in order to
discover whether Penelope was really dead. From the end of the rue
Saint-Blaise to the end of the rue du Bercail, it was then made known
that, thanks to Jacquelin's devotion, Penelope, that silent victim of
her mistress's impetuosity, still lived, though she seemed to be
Along the road to Brittany the Vicomte de Troisville was stated to be
a younger son without a penny, for the estates in Perche belonged to
the Marquis de Troisville, peer of France, who had children; the
marriage would be, therefore, an enormous piece of luck for a poor
emigre. The aristocracy along that road approved of the marriage;
Mademoiselle Cormon could not do better with her money. But among the
Bourgeoisie, the Vicomte de Troisville was a Russian general who had
fought against France, and was now returning with a great fortune made
at the court of Saint-Petersburg; he was a /foreigner/; one of those
/allies/ so hated by the liberals; the Abbe de Sponde had slyly
negotiated this marriage. All the persons who had a right to call upon
Mademoiselle Cormon determined to do so that very evening.
During this transurban excitement, which made that of Suzanne almost a
forgotten affair, Mademoiselle was not less agitated; she was filled
with a variety of novel emotions. Looking about her salon,
dining-room, and boudoir, cruel apprehensions took possession of her.
A species of demon showed her with a sneer her old-fashioned luxury.
The handsome things she had admired from her youth up she suddenly
suspected of age and absurdity. In short, she felt that fear which
takes possession of nearly all authors when they read over a work they
have hitherto thought proof against every exacting or blase critic:
new situations seem timeworn; the best-turned and most highly polished
phrases limp and squint; metaphors and images grin or contradict each
other; whatsoever is false strikes the eye. In like manner this poor
woman trembled lest she should see on the lips of Monsieur de
Troisville a smile of contempt for this episcopal salon; she dreaded
the cold look he might cast over that ancient dining-room; in short,
she feared the frame might injure and age the portrait. Suppose these
antiquities should cast a reflected light of old age upon herself?
This question made her flesh creep. She would gladly, at that moment,
spend half her savings on refitting her house if some fairy wand could
do it in a moment. Where is the general who has not trembled on the
eve of a battle? The poor woman was now between her Austerlitz and her
"Madame la Vicomtesse de Troisville," she said to herself; "a noble
name! Our property will go to a good family, at any rate."
She fell a prey to an irritation which made every fibre of her nerves
quiver to all their papillae, long sunk in flesh. Her blood, lashed by
this new hope, was in motion. She felt the strength to converse, if
necessary, with Monsieur de Troisville.
It is useless to relate the activity with which Josette, Jacquelin,
Mariette, Moreau, and his agents went about their functions. It was
like the busyness of ants about their eggs. All that daily care had
already rendered neat and clean was again gone over and brushed and
rubbed and scrubbed. The china of ceremony saw the light; the damask
linen marked "A, B, C" was drawn from depths where it lay under a
triple guard of wrappings, still further defended by formidable lines
of pins. Above all, Mademoiselle Cormon sacrificed on the altar of her
hopes three bottles of the famous liqueurs of Madame Amphoux, the most
illustrious of all the distillers of the tropics,—a name very dear to
gourmets. Thanks to the devotion of her lieutenants, mademoiselle was
soon ready for the conflict. The different weapons—furniture,
cookery, provisions, in short, all the various munitions of war,
together with a body of reserve forces—were ready along the whole
line. Jacquelin, Mariette, and Josette received orders to appear in
full dress. The garden was raked. The old maid regretted that she
couldn't come to an understanding with the nightingales nesting in the
trees, in order to obtain their finest trilling.
At last, about four o'clock, at the very moment when the Abbe de
Sponde returned home, and just as mademoiselle began to think she had
set the table with the best plate and linen and prepared the choicest
dishes to no purpose, the click-clack of a postilion was heard in the
"'Tis he!" she said to herself, the snap of the whip echoing in her
True enough; heralded by all this gossip, a post-chaise, in which was
a single gentleman, made so great a sensation coming down the rue
Saint-Blaise and turning into the rue du Cours that several little
gamains and some grown persons followed it, and stood in groups about
the gate of the hotel Cormon to see it enter. Jacquelin, who foresaw
his own marriage in that of his mistress, had also heard the
click-clack in the rue Saint-Blaise, and had opened wide the gates
into the courtyard. The postilion, a friend of his, took pride in
making a fine turn-in, and drew up sharply before the portico. The
abbe came forward to greet his guest, whose carriage was emptied with
a speed that highwaymen might put into the operation; the chaise
itself was rolled into the coach-house, the gates closed, and in a few
moments all signs of Monsieur de Troisville's arrival had disappeared.
Never did two chemicals blend into each other with greater rapidity
than the hotel Cormon displayed in absorbing the Vicomte de Troisville.
Mademoiselle, whose heart was beating like a lizard caught by a
herdsman, sat heroically still on her sofa, beside the fire in the
salon. Josette opened the door; and the Vicomte de Troisville,
followed by the Abbe de Sponde, presented himself to the eyes of the
"Niece, this is Monsieur le Vicomte de Troisville, the grandson of one
of my old schoolmates; Monsieur de Troisville, my niece, Mademoiselle
"Ah! that good uncle; how well he does it!" thought
The Vicomte de Troisville was, to paint him in two words, du Bousquier
ennobled. Between the two men there was precisely the difference which
separates the vulgar style from the noble style. If they had both been
present, the most fanatic liberal would not have denied the existence
of aristocracy. The viscount's strength had all the distinction of
elegance; his figure had preserved its magnificent dignity. He had
blue eyes, black hair, an olive skin, and looked to be about forty-six
years of age. You might have thought him a handsome Spaniard preserved
in the ice of Russia. His manner, carriage, and attitude, all denoted
a diplomat who had seen Europe. His dress was that of a well-bred
traveller. As he seemed fatigued, the abbe offered to show him to his
room, and was much amazed when his niece threw open the door of the
boudoir, transformed into a bedroom.
Mademoiselle Cormon and her uncle then left the noble stranger to
attend to his own affairs, aided by Jacquelin, who brought up his
luggage, and went themselves to walk beside the river until their
guest had made his toilet. Although the Abbe de Sponde chanced to be
even more absent-minded than usual, Mademoiselle Cormon was not less
preoccupied. They both walked on in silence. The old maid had never
before met any man as seductive as this Olympean viscount. She might
have said to herself, as the Germans do, "This is my ideal!" instead
of which she felt herself bound from head to foot, and could only say,
"Here's my affair!" Then she flew to Mariette to know if the dinner
could be put back a while without loss of excellence.
"Uncle, your Monsieur de Troisville is very amiable," she said, on
"Why, niece, he hasn't as yet said a word."
"But you can see it in his ways, his manners, his face. Is he a
"I'm sure I don't know," replied the abbe, who was thinking of a
discussion on mercy, lately begun between the Abbe Couturier and
himself. "Monsieur de Troisville wrote me that he wanted to buy a
house here. If he was married, he wouldn't come alone on such an
errand," added the abbe, carelessly, not conceiving the idea that his
niece could be thinking of marriage.
"Is he rich?"
"He is a younger son of the younger branch," replied her uncle. "His
grandfather commanded a squadron, but the father of this young man
made a bad marriage."
"Young man!" exclaimed the old maid. "It seems to me, uncle, that he
must be at least forty-five." She felt the strongest desire to put
their years on a par.
"Yes," said the abbe; "but to a poor priest of seventy, Rose, a man of
forty seems a youth."
All Alencon knew by this time that Monsieur de Troisville had arrived
at the Cormons. The traveller soon rejoined his hosts, and began to
admire the Brillante, the garden, and the house.
"Monsieur l'abbe," he said, "my whole ambition is to have a house like
this." The old maid fancied a declaration lurked in that speech, and
she lowered her eyes. "You must enjoy it very much, mademoiselle,"
added the viscount.
"How could it be otherwise? It has been in our family since 1574, the
period at which one of our ancestors, steward to the Duc d'Alencon,
acquired the land and built the house," replied Mademoiselle Cormon.
"It is built on piles," she added.
Jacquelin announced dinner. Monsieur de Troisville offered his arm to
the happy woman, who endeavored not to lean too heavily upon it; she
feared, as usual, to seem to make advances.
"Everything is so harmonious here," said the viscount, as he seated
himself at table.
"Yes, our trees are full of birds, which give us concerts for nothing;
no one ever frightens them; and the nightingales sing at night," said
"I was speaking of the interior of the house," remarked the viscount,
who did not trouble himself to observe Mademoiselle Cormon, and
therefore did not perceive the dulness of her mind. "Everything is so
in keeping,—the tones of color, the furniture, the general
"But it costs a great deal; taxes are enormous," responded the
"Ah! taxes are high, are they?" said the viscount, preoccupied with
his own ideas.
"I don't know," replied the abbe. "My niece manages the property of
each of us."
"Taxes are not of much importance to the rich," said Mademoiselle
Cormon, not wishing to be thought miserly. "As for the furniture, I
shall leave it as it is, and change nothing,—unless I marry; and
then, of course, everything here must suit the husband."
"You have noble principles, mademoiselle," said the viscount, smiling.
"You will make one happy man."
"No one ever made to me such a pretty speech," thought the old maid.
The viscount complimented Mademoiselle Cormon on the excellence of her
service and the admirable arrangements of the house, remarking that he
had supposed the provinces behind the age in that respect; but, on the
contrary, he found them, as the English say, "very comfortable."
"What can that word mean?" she thought. "Oh, where is the chevalier to
explain it to me? 'Comfortable,'—there seem to be several words in
it. Well, courage!" she said to herself. "I can't be expected to
answer a foreign language— But," she continued aloud, feeling her
tongue untied by the eloquence which nearly all human creatures find
in momentous circumstances, "we have a very brilliant society here,
monsieur. It assembles at my house, and you shall judge of it this
evening, for some of my faithful friends have no doubt heard of my
return and your arrival. Among them is the Chevalier de Valois, a
seigneur of the old court, a man of infinite wit and taste; then there
is Monsieur le Marquis d'Esgrignon and Mademoiselle Armande, his
sister" (she bit her tongue with vexation),—"a woman remarkable in
her way," she added. "She resolved to remain unmarried in order to
leave all her fortune to her brother and nephew."
"Ah!" exclaimed the viscount. "Yes, the d'Esgrignons,—I remember
"Alencon is very gay," continued the old maid, now fairly launched.
"There's much amusement: the receiver-general gives balls; the prefect
is an amiable man; and Monseigneur the bishop sometimes honors us with
"Well, then," said the viscount, smiling, "I have done wisely to come
back, like the hare, to die in my form."
"Yes," she said. "I, too, attach myself or I die."
The viscount smiled.
"Ah!" thought the old maid, "all is well; he understands me."
The conversation continued on generalities. By one of those mysterious
unknown and undefinable faculties, Mademoiselle Cormon found in her
brain, under the pressure of her desire to be agreeable, all the
phrases and opinions of the Chevalier de Valois. It was like a duel in
which the devil himself pointed the pistol. Never was any adversary
better aimed at. The viscount was far too well-bred to speak of the
excellence of the dinner; but his silence was praise. As he drank the
delicious wines which Jacquelin served to him profusely, he seemed to
feel he was with friends, and to meet them with pleasure; for the true
connoisseur does not applaud, he enjoys. He inquired the price of
land, of houses, of estates; he made Mademoiselle Cormon describe at
length the confluence of the Sarthe and the Brillante; he expressed
surprise that the town was placed so far from the river, and seemed to
be much interested in the topography of the place.
The silent abbe left his niece to throw the dice of conversation; and
she truly felt that she pleased Monsieur de Troisville, who smiled at
her gracefully, and committed himself during this dinner far more than
her most eager suitors had ever done in ten days. Imagine, therefore,
the little attentions with which he was petted; you might have thought
him a cherished lover, whose return brought joy to the household.
Mademoiselle foresaw the moment when the viscount wanted bread; she
watched his every look; when he turned his head she adroitly put upon
his plate a portion of some dish he seemed to like; had he been a
gourmand, she would almost have killed him; but what a delightful
specimen of the attentions she would show to a husband! She did not
commit the folly of depreciating herself; on the contrary, she set
every sail bravely, ran up all her flags, assumed the bearing of the
queen of Alencon, and boasted of her excellent preserves. In fact, she
fished for compliments in speaking of herself, for she saw that she
pleased the viscount; the truth being that her eager desire had so
transformed her that she became almost a woman.
At dessert she heard, not without emotions of delight, certain sounds
in the antechamber and salon which denoted the arrival of her usual
guests. She called the attention of her uncle and Monsieur de
Troisville to this prompt attendance as a proof of the affection that
was felt for her; whereas it was really the result of the poignant
curiosity which had seized upon the town. Impatient to show herself in
all her glory, Mademoiselle Cormon told Jacquelin to serve coffee and
liqueurs in the salon, where he presently set out, in view of the
whole company, a magnificent liqueur-stand of Dresden china which saw
the light only twice a year. This circumstance was taken note of by
the company, standing ready to gossip over the merest trifle:—
"The deuce!" muttered du Bousquier. "Actually Madame Amphoux's
liqueurs, which they only serve at the four church festivals!"
"Undoubtedly the marriage was arranged a year ago by letter," said the
chief-justice du Ronceret. "The postmaster tells me his office has
received letters postmarked Odessa for more than a year."
Madame Granson trembled. The Chevalier de Valois, though he had dined
with the appetite of four men, turned pale even to the left section of
his face. Feeling that he was about to betray himself, he said
"Don't you think it is very cold to-day? I am almost frozen."
"The neighborhood of Russia, perhaps," said du Bousquier.
The chevalier looked at him as if to say, "Well played!"
Mademoiselle Cormon appeared so radiant, so triumphant, that the
company thought her handsome. This extraordinary brilliancy was not
the effect of sentiment only. Since early morning her blood had been
whirling tempestuously within her, and her nerves were agitated by the
presentiment of some great crisis. It required all these circumstances
combined to make her so unlike herself. With what joy did she now make
her solemn presentation of the viscount to the chevalier, the
chevalier to the viscount, and all Alencon to Monsieur de Troisville,
and Monsieur de Troisville to all Alencon!
By an accident wholly explainable, the viscount and chevalier,
aristocrats by nature, came instantly into unison; they recognized
each other at once as men belonging to the same sphere. Accordingly,
they began to converse together, standing before the fireplace. A
circle formed around them; and their conversation, though uttered in a
low voice, was listened to in religious silence. To give the effect of
this scene it is necessary to dramatize it, and to picture
Mademoiselle Cormon occupied in pouring out the coffee of her
imaginary suitor, with her back to the fireplace.
Monsieur de Valois. "Monsieur le vicomte has come, I am told, to
settle in Alencon?"
Monsieur de Troisville. "Yes, monsieur, I am looking for a house."
[Mademoiselle Cormon, cup in hand, turns round.] "It must be a large
house" [Mademoiselle Cormon offers him the cup] "to lodge my whole
family." [The eyes of the old maid are troubled.]
Monsieur de Valois. "Are you married?"
Monsieur de Troisville. "Yes, for the last sixteen years, to a
daughter of the Princess Scherbellof."
Mademoiselle Cormon fainted; du Bousquier, who saw her stagger, sprang
forward and received her in his arms; some one opened the door and
allowed him to pass out with his enormous burden. The fiery
republican, instructed by Josette, found strength to carry the old
maid to her bedroom, where he laid her out on the bed. Josette, armed
with scissors, cut the corset, which was terribly tight. Du Bousquier
flung water on Mademoiselle Cormon's face and bosom, which, released
from the corset, overflowed like the Loire in flood. The poor woman
opened her eyes, saw du Bousquier, and gave a cry of modesty at the
sight of him. Du Bousquier retired at once, leaving six women, at the
head of whom was Madame Granson, radiant with joy, to take care of the
What had the Chevalier de Valois been about all this time? Faithful to
his system, he had covered the retreat.
"That poor Mademoiselle Cormon," he said to Monsieur de Troisville,
gazing at the assembly, whose laughter was repressed by his cool
aristocratic glances, "her blood is horribly out of order; she
wouldn't be bled before going to Prebaudet (her estate),—and see the
"She came back this morning in the rain," said the Abbe de Sponde,
"and she may have taken cold. It won't be anything; it is only a
little upset she is subject to."
"She told me yesterday she had not had one for three months, adding
that she was afraid it would play her a trick at last," said the
"Ha! so you are married?" said Jacquelin to himself as he looked at
Monsieur de Troisville, who was quietly sipping his coffee.
The faithful servant espoused his mistress's disappointment; he
divined it, and he promptly carried away the liqueurs of Madame
Amphoux, which were offered to a bachelor, and not to the husband of a
All these details were noticed and laughed at. The Abbe de Sponde knew
the object of Monsieur de Troisville's journey; but, absent-minded as
usual, he forgot it, not supposing that his niece could have the
slightest interest in Monsieur de Troisville's marriage. As for the
viscount, preoccupied with the object of his journey, and, like many
husbands, not eager to talk about his wife, he had had no occasion to
say he was married; besides, he would naturally suppose that
Mademoiselle Cormon knew it.
Du Bousquier reappeared, and was questioned furiously. One of the six
women came down soon after, and announced that Mademoiselle Cormon was
much better, and that the doctor had come. She intended to stay in
bed, as it was necessary to bleed her. The salon was now full.
Mademoiselle Cormon's absence allowed the ladies present to discuss
the tragi-comic scene—embellished, extended, historified,
embroidered, wreathed, colored, and adorned—which had just taken
place, and which, on the morrow, was destined to occupy all Alencon.
"That good Monsieur du Bousquier! how well he carried you!" said
Josette to her mistress. "He was really pale at the sight of you; he
loves you still."
That speech served as closure to this solemn and terrible evening.
Throughout the morning of the next day every circumstance of the late
comedy was known in the household of Alencon, and—let us say it to
the shame of that town,—they caused inextinguishable laughter. But on
that day Mademoiselle Cormon (much benefited by the bleeding) would
have seemed sublime even to the boldest scoffers, had they witnessed
the noble dignity, the splendid Christian resignation which influenced
her as she gave her arm to her involuntary deceiver to go into
breakfast. Cruel jesters! why could you not have seen her as she said
to the viscount,—
"Madame de Troisville will have difficulty in finding a suitable
house; do me the favor, monsieur, of accepting the use of mine during
the time you are in search of yours."
"But, mademoiselle, I have two sons and two daughters; we should
greatly inconvenience you."
"Pray do not refuse me," she said earnestly.
"I made you the same offer in the answer I wrote to your letter," said
the abbe; "but you did not receive it."
"What, uncle! then you knew—"
The poor woman stopped. Josette sighed. Neither the viscount nor the
abbe observed anything amiss. After breakfast the Abbe de Sponde
carried off his guest, as agreed upon the previous evening, to show
him the various houses in Alencon which could be bought, and the lots
of lands on which he might build.
Left alone in the salon, Mademoiselle Cormon said to Josette, with a
deeply distressed air, "My child, I am now the talk of the whole
"Well, then, mademoiselle, you should marry."
"But I am not prepared to make a choice."
"Bah! if I were in your place, I should take Monsieur du Bousquier."
"Josette, Monsieur de Valois says he is so republican."
"They don't know what they say, your gentlemen: sometimes they declare
that he robbed the republic; he couldn't love it if he did that," said
"That girl has an amazing amount of sense," thought Mademoiselle
Cormon, who remained alone, a prey to her perplexities.
She saw plainly that a prompt marriage was the only way to silence the
town. This last checkmate, so evidently mortifying, was of a nature to
drive her into some extreme action; for persons deficient in mind find
difficulty in getting out of any path, either good or evil, into which
they have entered.
Each of the two old bachelors had fully understood the situation in
which Mademoiselle Cormon was about to find herself; consequently,
each resolved to call in the course of that morning to ask after her
health, and take occasion, in bachelor language, to "press his point."
Monsieur de Valois considered that such an occasion demanded a
painstaking toilet; he therefore took a bath and groomed himself with
extraordinary care. For the first and last time Cesarine observed him
putting on with incredible art a suspicion of rouge. Du Bousquier, on
the other hand, that coarse republican, spurred by a brisk will, paid
no attention to his dress, and arrived the first.
Such little things decide the fortunes of men, as they do of empires.
Kellerman's charge at Marengo, Blucher's arrival at Waterloo, Louis
XIV.'s disdain for Prince Eugene, the rector of Denain,—all these
great causes of fortune or catastrophe history has recorded; but no
one ever profits by them to avoid the small neglects of their own
life. Consequently, observe what happens: the Duchesse de Langeais
(see "History of the Thirteen") makes herself a nun for the lack of
ten minutes' patience; Judge Popinot (see "Commission in Lunacy") puts
off till the morrow the duty of examining the Marquis d'Espard;
Charles Grandet (see "Eugenie Grandet") goes to Paris from Bordeaux
instead of returning by Nantes; and such events are called chance or
fatality! A touch of rouge carefully applied destroyed the hopes of
the Chevalier de Valois; could that nobleman perish in any other way?
He had lived by the Graces, and he was doomed to die by their hand.
While the chevalier was giving this last touch to his toilet the rough
du Bousquier was entering the salon of the desolate old maid. This
entrance produced a thought in Mademoiselle Cormon's mind which was
favorable to the republican, although in all other respects the
Chevalier de Valois held the advantages.
"God wills it!" she said piously, on seeing du Bousquier.
"Mademoiselle, you will not, I trust, think my eagerness importunate.
I could not trust to my stupid Rene to bring news of your condition,
and therefore I have come myself."
"I am perfectly recovered," she replied, in a tone of emotion. "I
thank you, Monsieur du Bousquier," she added, after a slight pause,
and in a significant tone of voice, "for the trouble you have taken,
and for that which I gave you yesterday—"
She remembered having been in his arms, and that again seemed to her
an order from heaven. She had been seen for the first time by a man
with her laces cut, her treasures violently bursting from their
"I carried you with such joy that you seemed to me light."
Here Mademoiselle Cormon looked at du Bousquier as she had never yet
looked at any man in the world. Thus encouraged, the purveyor cast
upon the old maid a glance which reached her heart.
"I would," he said, "that that moment had given me the right to keep
you as mine forever" [she listened with a delighted air]; "as you lay
fainting upon that bed, you were enchanting. I have never in my life
seen a more beautiful person,—and I have seen many handsome women.
Plump ladies have this advantage: they are superb to look upon; they
have only to show themselves and they triumph."
"I fear you are making fun of me," said the old maid, "and that is not
kind when all the town will probably misinterpret what happened to me
"As true as my name is du Bousquier, mademoiselle, I have never
changed in my feelings toward you; and your first refusal has not
The old maid's eyes were lowered. There was a moment of cruel silence
for du Bousquier, and then Mademoiselle Cormon decided on her course.
She raised her eyelids; tears flowed from her eyes, and she gave du
Bousquier a tender glance.
"If that is so, monsieur," she said, in a trembling voice, "promise me
to live in a Christian manner, and not oppose my religious customs,
but to leave me the right to select my confessors, and I will grant
you my hand"; as she said the words, she held it out to him.
Du Bousquier seized the good fat hand so full of money, and kissed it
"But," she said, allowing him to kiss it, "one thing more I must
require of you."
"If it is a possible thing, it is granted," replied the purveyor.
"Alas!" returned the old maid. "For my sake, I must ask you to take
upon yourself a sin which I feel to be enormous,—for to lie is one of
the capital sins. But you will confess it, will you not? We will do
penance for it together" [they looked at each other tenderly].
"Besides, it may be one of those lies which the Church permits as
"Can she be as Suzanne says she is?" thought du Bousquier. "What luck!
Well, mademoiselle, what is it?" he said aloud.
"That you will take upon yourself to—"
"To say that this marriage has been agreed upon between us for the
last six months."
"Charming woman," said the purveyor, in the tone of a man willing to
devote himself, "such sacrifices can be made only for a creature
adored these ten years."
"In spite of my harshness?" she said.
"Yes, in spite of your harshness."
"Monsieur du Bousquier, I have misjudged you."
Again she held out the fat red hand, which du Bousquier kissed again.
At this moment the door opened; the betrothed pair, looking round to
see who entered, beheld the delightful, but tardy Chevalier de Valois.
"Ah!" he said, on entering, "I see you are about to be up, fair
She smiled at the chevalier, feeling a weight upon her heart. Monsieur
de Valois, remarkably young and seductive, had the air of a Lauzun
re-entering the apartments of the Grande Mademoiselle in the
"Hey! dear du Bousquier," said he, in a jaunty tone, so sure was he of
success, "Monsieur de Troisville and the Abbe de Sponde are examining
your house like appraisers."
"Faith!" said du Bousquier, "if the Vicomte de Troisville wants it, it
it is his for forty thousand francs. It is useless to me now. If
mademoiselle will permit—it must soon be known— Mademoiselle, may I
tell it?— Yes! Well, then, be the first, /my dear Chevalier/, to hear"
[Mademoiselle Cormon dropped her eyes] "of the honor that mademoiselle
has done me, the secret of which I have kept for some months. We shall
be married in a few days; the contract is already drawn, and we shall
sign it to-morrow. You see, therefore, that my house in the rue du
Cygne is useless to me. I have been privately looking for a purchaser
for some time; and the Abbe de Sponde, who knew that fact, has
naturally taken Monsieur de Troisville to see the house."
This falsehood bore such an appearance of truth that the chevalier was
taken in by it. That "my dear chevalier" was like the revenge taken by
Peter the Great on Charles XII. at Pultawa for all his past defeats.
Du Bousquier revenged himself deliciously for the thousand little
shafts he had long borne in silence; but in his triumph he made a
lively youthful gesture by running his hands through his hair, and in
so doing he—knocked aside his false front.
"I congratulate you both," said the chevalier, with an agreeable air;
"and I wish that the marriage may end like a fairy tale: /They were
happy ever after, and had—many—children/!" So saying, he took a pinch
of snuff. "But, monsieur," he added satirically, "you forget—that you
are wearing a false front."
Du Bousquier blushed. The false front was hanging half a dozen inches
from his skull. Mademoiselle Cormon raised her eyes, saw that skull in
all its nudity, and lowered them, abashed. Du Bousquier cast upon the
chevalier the most venomous look that toad ever darted on its prey.
"Dogs of aristocrats who despise me," thought he, "I'll crush you some
The chevalier thought he had recovered his advantage. But Mademoiselle
Cormon was not a woman to understand the connection which the
chevalier intimated between his congratulatory wish and the false
front. Besides, even if she had comprehended it, her word was passed,
her hand given. Monsieur de Valois saw at once that all was lost. The
innocent woman, with the two now silent men before her, wished, true
to her sense of duty, to amuse them.
"Why not play a game of piquet together?" she said artlessly, without
the slightest malice.
Du Bousquier smiled, and went, as the future master of the house, to
fetch the piquet table. Whether the Chevalier de Valois lost his head,
or whether he wanted to stay and study the causes of his disaster and
remedy it, certain it is that he allowed himself to be led like a lamb
to the slaughter. He had received the most violent knock-down blow
that ever struck a man; any nobleman would have lost his senses for
The Abbe de Sponde and the Vicomte de Troisville soon returned.
Mademoiselle Cormon instantly rose, hurried into the antechamber, and
took her uncle apart to tell him her resolution. Learning that the
house in the rue du Cygne exactly suited the viscount, she begged her
future husband to do her the kindness to tell him that her uncle knew
it was for sale. She dared not confide that lie to the abbe, fearing
his absent-mindedness. The lie, however, prospered better than if it
had been a virtuous action. In the course of that evening all Alencon
heard the news. For the last four days the town had had as much to
think of as during the fatal days of 1814 and 1815. Some laughed;
others admitted the marriage. These blamed it; those approved it. The
middle classes of Alencon rejoiced; they regarded it as a victory. The
next day, among friends, the Chevalier de Valois said a cruel thing:—
"The Cormons end as they began; there's only a hand's breadth between
a steward and a purveyor."
The news of Mademoiselle Cormon's choice stabbed poor Athanase Granson
to the heart; but he showed no outward sign of the terrible agitation
within him. When he first heard of the marriage he was at the house of
the chief-justice, du Ronceret, where his mother was playing boston.
Madame Granson looked at her son in a mirror, and thought him pale;
but he had been so all day, for a vague rumor of the matter had
already reached him.
Mademoiselle Cormon was the card on which Athanase had staked his
life; and the cold presentiment of a catastrophe was already upon him.
When the soul and the imagination have magnified a misfortune and made
it too heavy for the shoulders and the brain to bear; when a hope long
cherished, the realization of which would pacify the vulture feeding
on the heart, is balked, and the man has faith neither in himself,
despite his powers, nor in the future, despite of the Divine power,
—then that man is lost. Athanase was a fruit of the Imperial system
of education. Fatality, the Emperor's religion, had filtered down from
the throne to the lowest ranks of the army and the benches of the
lyceums. Athanase sat still, with his eyes fixed on Madame du
Ronceret's cards, in a stupor that might so well pass for indifference
that Madame Granson herself was deceived about his feelings. This
apparent unconcern explained her son's refusal to make a sacrifice for
this marriage of his /liberal/ opinions,—the term "liberal" having
lately been created for the Emperor Alexander by, I think, Madame de
Stael, through the lips of Benjamin Constant.
After that fatal evening the young man took to rambling among the
picturesque regions of the Sarthe, the banks of which are much
frequented by sketchers who come to Alencon for points of view.
Windmills are there, and the river is gay in the meadows. The shores
of the Sarthe are bordered with beautiful trees, well grouped. Though
the landscape is flat, it is not without those modest graces which
distinguish France, where the eye is never wearied by the brilliancy
of Oriental skies, nor saddened by constant fog. The place is
solitary. In the provinces no one pays much attention to a fine view,
either because provincials are blases on the beauty around them, or
because they have no poesy in their souls. If there exists in the
provinces a mall, a promenade, a vantage-ground from which a fine view
can be obtained, that is the point to which no one goes. Athanase was
fond of this solitude, enlivened by the sparkling water, where the
fields were the first to green under the earliest smiling of the
springtide sun. Those persons who saw him sitting beneath a poplar,
and who noticed the vacant eye which he turned to them, would say to
"Something is the matter with your son."
"I know what it is," the mother would reply; hinting that he was
meditating over some great work.
Athanase no longer took part in politics: he ceased to have opinions;
but he appeared at times quite gay,—gay with the satire of those who
think to insult a whole world with their own individual scorn. This
young man, outside of all the ideas and all the pleasures of the
provinces, interested few persons; he was not even an object of
curiosity. If persons spoke of him to his mother, it was for her sake,
not his. There was not a single soul in Alencon that sympathized with
his; not a woman, not a friend came near to dry his tears; they
dropped into the Sarthe. If the gorgeous Suzanne had happened that
way, how many young miseries might have been born of the meeting! for
the two would surely have loved each other.
She did come, however. Suzanne's ambition was early excited by the
tale of a strange adventure which had happened at the tavern of the
More,—a tale which had taken possession of her childish brain. A
Parisian woman, beautiful as the angels, was sent by Fouche to
entangle the Marquis de Montauran, otherwise called "The Gars," in a
love-affair (see "The Chouans"). She met him at the tavern of the More
on his return from an expedition to Mortagne; she cajoled him, made
him love her, and then betrayed him. That fantastic power—the power
of beauty over mankind; in fact, the whole story of Marie de Verneuil
and the Gars—dazzled Suzanne; she longed to grow up in order to play
upon men. Some months after her hasty departure she passed through her
native town with an artist on his way to Brittany. She wanted to see
Fougeres, where the adventure of the Marquis de Montauran culminated,
and to stand upon the scene of that picturesque war, the tragedies of
which, still so little known, had filled her childish mind. Besides
this, she had a fancy to pass through Alencon so elegantly equipped
that no one could recognize her; to put her mother above the reach of
necessity, and also to send to poor Athanase, in a delicate manner, a
sum of money,—which in our age is to genius what in the middle ages
was the charger and the coat of mail that Rebecca conveyed to Ivanhoe.
One month passed away in the strangest uncertainties respecting the
marriage of Mademoiselle Cormon. A party of unbelievers denied the
marriage altogether; the believers, on the other hand, affirmed it. At
the end of two weeks, the faction of unbelief received a vigorous blow
in the sale of du Bousquier's house to the Marquis de Troisville, who
only wanted a simple establishment in Alencon, intending to go to
Paris after the death of the Princess Scherbellof; he proposed to
await that inheritance in retirement, and then to reconstitute his
estates. This seemed positive. The unbelievers, however, were not
crushed. They declared that du Bousquier, married or not, had made an
excellent sale, for the house had only cost him twenty-seven thousand
francs. The believers were depressed by this practical observation of
the incredulous. Choisnel, Mademoiselle Cormon's notary, asserted the
latter, had heard nothing about the marriage contract; but the
believers, still firm in their faith, carried off, on the twentieth
day, a signal victory: Monsieur Lepressoir, the notary of the
liberals, went to Mademoiselle Cormon's house, and the contract was
This was the first of the numerous sacrifices which Mademoiselle
Cormon was destined to make to her husband. Du Bousquier bore the
deepest hatred to Choisnel; to him he owed the refusal of the hand of
Mademoiselle Armande,—a refusal which, as he believed, had influenced
that of Mademoiselle Cormon. This circumstance alone made the marriage
drag along. Mademoiselle received several anonymous letters. She
learned, to her great astonishment, that Suzanne was as truly a virgin
as herself so far as du Bousquier was concerned, for that seducer with
the false toupet could never be the hero of any such adventure.
Mademoiselle Cormon disdained anonymous letters; but she wrote to
Suzanne herself, on the ground of enlightening the Maternity Society.
Suzanne, who had no doubt heard of du Bousquier's proposed marriage,
acknowledged her trick, sent a thousand francs to the society, and did
all the harm she could to the old purveyor. Mademoiselle Cormon
convoked the Maternity Society, which held a special meeting at which
it was voted that the association would not in future assist any
misfortunes about to happen, but solely those that had happened.
In spite of all these various events which kept the town in the
choicest gossip, the banns were published in the churches and at the
mayor's office. Athanase prepared the deeds. As a matter of propriety
and public decency, the bride retired to Prebaudet, where du
Bousquier, bearing sumptuous and horrible bouquets, betook himself
every morning, returning home for dinner.
At last, on a dull and rainy morning in June, the marriage of
Mademoiselle Cormon and the Sieur du Bousquier took place at noon in
the parish church of Alencon, in sight of the whole town. The bridal
pair went from their own house to the mayor's office, and from the
mayor's office to the church in an open caleche, a magnificent vehicle
for Alencon, which du Bousquier had sent for secretly to Paris. The
loss of the old carriole was a species of calamity in the eyes of the
community. The harness-maker of the Porte de Seez bemoaned it, for he
lost the fifty francs a year which it cost in repairs. Alencon saw
with alarm the possibility of luxury being thus introduced into the
town. Every one feared a rise in the price of rents and provisions,
and a coming invasion of Parisian furniture. Some persons were
sufficiently pricked by curiosity to give ten sous to Jacquelin to
allow them a close inspection of the vehicle which threatened to upset
the whole economy of the region. A pair of horses, bought in
Normandie, were also most alarming.
"If we bought our own horses," said the Ronceret circle, "we couldn't
sell them to those who come to buy."
Stupid as it was, this reasoning seemed sound; for surely such a
course would prevent the region from grasping the money of foreigners.
In the eyes of the provinces wealth consisted less in the rapid
turning over of money than in sterile accumulation. It may be
mentioned here that Penelope succumbed to a pleurisy which she
acquired about six weeks before the marriage; nothing could save her.
Madame Granson, Mariette, Madame du Coudrai, Madame du Ronceret, and
through them the whole town, remarked that Madame du Bousquier entered
the church /with her left foot/,—an omen all the more dreadful because
the term Left was beginning to acquire a political meaning. The priest
whose duty it was to read the opening formula opened his book by
chance at the De Profundis. Thus the marriage was accompanied by
circumstances so fateful, so alarming, so annihilating that no one
dared to augur well of it. Matters, in fact, went from bad to worse.
There was no wedding party; the married pair departed immediately for
Prebaudet. Parisian customs, said the community, were about to triumph
over time-honored provincial ways.
The marriage of Jacquelin and Josette now took place: it was gay; and
they were the only two persons in Alencon who refuted the sinister
prophecies relating to the marriage of their mistress.
Du Bousquier determined to use the proceeds of the sale of his late
residence in restoring and modernizing the hotel Cormon. He decided to
remain through two seasons at Prebaudet, and took the Abbe de Sponde
with them. This news spread terror through the town, where every
individual felt that du Bousquier was about to drag the community into
the fatal path of "comfort." This fear increased when the inhabitants
of Alencon saw the bridegroom driving in from Prebaudet one morning to
inspect his works, in a fine tilbury drawn by a new horse, having Rene
at his side in livery. The first act of his administration had been to
place his wife's savings on the Grand-Livre, which was then quoted at
67 fr. 50 cent. In the space of one year, during which he played
constantly for a rise, he made himself a personal fortune almost as
considerable as that of his wife.
But all these foreboding prophecies, these perturbing innovations,
were superseded and surpassed by an event connected with this marriage
which gave a still more fatal aspect to it.
On the very evening of the ceremony, Athanase and his mother were
sitting, after their dinner, over a little fire of fagots, which the
servant lighted usually at dessert.
"Well, we will go this evening to the du Roncerets', inasmuch as we
have lost Mademoiselle Cormon," said Madame Granson. "Heavens! how
shall I ever accustom myself to call her Madame du Bousquier! that
name burns my lips."
Athanase looked at his mother with a constrained and melancholy air;
he could not smile; but he seemed to wish to welcome that naive
sentiment which soothed his wound, though it could not cure his
"Mamma," he said, in the voice of his childhood, so tender was it, and
using the name he had abandoned for several years,—"my dear mamma, do
not let us go out just yet; it is so pleasant here before the fire."
The mother heard, without comprehending, that supreme prayer of a
"Yes, let us stay, my child," she said. "I like much better to talk
with you and listen to your projects than to play at boston and lose
"You are so handsome to-night I love to look at you. Besides, I am in
a current of ideas which harmonize with this poor little salon where
we have suffered so much."
"And where we shall still suffer, my poor Athanase, until your works
succeed. For myself, I am trained to poverty; but you, my treasure! to
see your youth go by without a joy! nothing but toil for my poor boy
in life! That thought is like an illness to a mother; it tortures me
at night; it wakes me in the morning. O God! what have I done? for
what crime dost thou punish me thus?"
She left her sofa, took a little chair, and sat close to Athanase, so
as to lay her head on the bosom of her child. There is always the
grace of love in true motherhood. Athanase kissed her on the eyes, on
her gray hair, on her forehead, with the sacred desire of laying his
soul wherever he applied his lips.
"I shall never succeed," he said, trying to deceive his mother as to
the fatal resolution he was revolving in his mind.
"Pooh! don't get discouraged. As you often say, thought can do all
things. With ten bottles of ink, ten reams of paper, and his powerful
will, Luther upset all Europe. Well, you'll make yourself famous; you
will do good things by the same means which he used to do evil things.
Haven't you said so yourself? For my part, I listen to you; I
understand you a great deal more than you think I do,—for I still
bear you in my bosom, and your every thought still stirs me as your
slightest motion did in other days."
"I shall never succeed here, mamma; and I don't want you to witness
the sight of my struggles, my misery, my anguish. Oh, mother, let me
leave Alencon! I want to suffer away from you."
"And I wish to be at your side," replied his mother, proudly. "Suffer
without your mother!—that poor mother who would be your servant if
necessary; who will efface herself rather than injure you; your
mother, who will never shame you. No, no, Athanase; we must not part."
Athanase clung to his mother with the ardor of a dying man who clings
"But I wish it, nevertheless. If not, you will lose me; this double
grief, yours and mine, is killing me. You would rather I lived than
Madame Granson looked at her son with a haggard eye.
"So this is what you have been brooding?" she said. "They told me
right. Do you really mean to go?"
"You will not go without telling me; without warning me? You must have
an outfit and money. I have some louis sewn into my petticoat; I shall
give them to you."
"That's all I wanted to tell you," he said. "Now I'll take you to the
du Roncerets'. Come."
The mother and the son went out. Athanase left his mother at the door
of the house where she intended to pass the evening. He looked long at
the light which came through the shutters; he clung closely to the
wall, and a frenzied joy came over him when he presently heard his
mother say, "He has great independence of heart."
"Poor mother! I have deceived her," he cried, as he made his way to
He reached the noble poplar beneath which he had meditated so much for
the last forty days, and where he had placed two heavy stones on which
he now sat down. He contemplated that beautiful nature lighted by the
moon; he reviewed once more the glorious future he had longed for; he
passed through towns that were stirred by his name; he heard the
applauding crowds; he breathed the incense of his fame; he adored that
life long dreamed of; radiant, he sprang to radiant triumphs; he
raised his stature; he evoked his illusions to bid them farewell in a
last Olympic feast. The magic had been potent for a moment; but now it
vanished forever. In that awful hour he clung to the beautiful tree to
which, as to a friend, he had attached himself; then he put the two
stones into the pockets of his overcoat, which he buttoned across his
breast. He had come intentionally without a hat. He now went to the
deep pool he had long selected, and glided into it resolutely, trying
to make as little noise as possible, and, in fact, making scarcely
When, at half-past nine o'clock, Madame Granson returned home, her
servant said nothing of Athanase, but gave her a letter. She opened it
and read these few words,—
"My good mother, I have departed; don't be angry with me."
"A pretty trick he has played me!" she thought. "And his linen! and
the money! Well, he will write to me, and then I'll follow him. These
poor children think they are so much cleverer than their fathers and
And she went to bed in peace.
During the preceding morning the Sarthe had risen to a height foreseen
by the fisherman. These sudden rises of muddy water brought eels from
their various runlets. It so happened that a fisherman had spread his
net at the very place where poor Athanase had flung himself, believing
that no one would ever find him. About six o'clock in the morning the
man drew in his net, and with it the young body. The few friends of
the poor mother took every precaution in preparing her to receive the
dreadful remains. The news of this suicide made, as may well be
supposed, a great excitement in Alencon. The poor young man of genius
had no protector the night before, but on the morrow of his death a
thousand voices cried aloud, "I would have helped him." It is so easy
and convenient to be charitable gratis!
The suicide was explained by the Chevalier de Valois. He revealed, in
a spirit of revenge, the artless, sincere, and genuine love of
Athanase for Mademoiselle Cormon. Madame Granson, enlightened by the
chevalier, remembered a thousand little circumstances which confirmed
the chevalier's statement. The story then became touching, and many
women wept over it. Madame Granson's grief was silent, concentrated,
and little understood. There are two forms of mourning for mothers.
Often the world can enter fully into the nature of their loss: their
son, admired, appreciated, young, perhaps handsome, with a noble path
before him, leading to fortune, possibly to fame, excites universal
regret; society joins in the grief, and alleviates while it magnifies
it. But there is another sorrow of mothers who alone know what their
child was really; who alone have received his smiles and observed the
treasures of a life too soon cut short. That sorrow hides its woe, the
blackness of which surpasses all other mourning; it cannot be
described; happily there are but few women whose heart-strings are
Before Madame du Bousquier returned to town, Madame du Ronceret, one
of her good friends, had driven out to Prebaudet to fling this corpse
upon the roses of her joy, to show her the love she had ignored, and
sweetly shed a thousand drops of wormwood into the honey of her bridal
month. As Madame du Bousquier drove back to Alencon, she chanced to
meet Madame Granson at the corner of the rue Val-Noble. The glance of
the mother, dying of her grief, struck to the heart of the poor woman.
A thousand maledictions, a thousand flaming reproaches, were in that
look: Madame du Bousquier was horror-struck; that glance predicted and
called down evil upon her head.
The evening after the catastrophe, Madame Granson, one of the persons
most opposed to the rector of the town, and who had hitherto supported
the minister of Saint-Leonard, began to tremble as she thought of the
inflexible Catholic doctrines professed by her own party. After
placing her son's body in its shroud with her own hands, thinking of
the mother of the Saviour, she went, with a soul convulsed by anguish,
to the house of the hated rector. There she found the modest priest in
an outer room, engaged in putting away the flax and yarns with which
he supplied poor women, in order that they might never be wholly out
of work,—a form of charity which saved many who were incapable of
begging from actual penury. The rector left his yarns and hastened to
take Madame Granson into his dining-room, where the wretched mother
noticed, as she looked at his supper, the frugal method of his own
"Monsieur l'abbe," she said, "I have come to implore you—" She burst
into tears, unable to continue.
"I know what brings you," replied the saintly man. "I must trust to
you, madame, and to your relation, Madame du Bousquier, to pacify
Monseigneur the Bishop at Seez. Yes, I will pray for your unhappy
child; yes, I will say the masses. But we must avoid all scandal, and
give no opportunity for evil-judging persons to assemble in the
church. I alone, without other clergy, at night—"
"Yes, yes, as you think best; if only he may lie in consecrated
ground," said the poor mother, taking the priest's hand and kissing
Toward midnight a coffin was clandestinely borne to the parish church
by four young men, comrades whom Athanase had liked the best. A few
friends of Madame Granson, women dressed in black, and veiled, were
present; and half a dozen other young men who had been somewhat
intimate with this lost genius. Four torches flickered on the coffin,
which was covered with crape. The rector, assisted by one discreet
choirboy, said the mortuary mass. Then the body of the suicide was
noiselessly carried to a corner of the cemetery, where a black wooden
cross, without inscription, was all that indicated its place hereafter
to the mother. Athanase lived and died in shadow. No voice was raised
to blame the rector; the bishop kept silence. The piety of the mother
redeemed the impiety of the son's last act.
Some months later, the poor woman, half beside herself with grief, and
moved by one of those inexplicable thirsts which misery feels to steep
its lips in the bitter chalice, determined to see the spot where her
son was drowned. Her instinct may have told her that thoughts of his
could be recovered beneath that poplar; perhaps, too, she desired to
see what his eyes had seen for the last time. Some mothers would die
of the sight; others give themselves up to it in saintly adoration.
Patient anatomists of human nature cannot too often enunciate the
truths before which all educations, laws, and philosophical systems
must give way. Let us repeat continually: it is absurd to force
sentiments into one formula: appearing as they do, in each individual
man, they combine with the elements that form his nature and take his
Madame Granson, as she stood on that fatal spot, saw a woman approach
it, who exclaimed,—
"Was it here?"
That woman wept as the mother wept. It was Suzanne. Arriving that
morning at the hotel du More, she had been told of the catastrophe. If
poor Athanase had been living, she meant to do as many noble souls,
who are moneyless, dream of doing, and as the rich never think of
doing,—she meant to have sent him several thousand francs, writing up
the envelope the words: "Money due to your father from a comrade who
makes restitution to you." This tender scheme had been arranged by
Suzanne during her journey.
The courtesan caught sight of Madame Granson and moved rapidly away,
whispering as she passed her, "I loved him!"
Suzanne, faithful to her nature, did not leave Alencon on this
occasion without changing the orange-blossoms of the bride to rue. She
was the first to declare that Madame du Bousquier would never be
anything but Mademoiselle Cormon. With one stab of her tongue she
revenged poor Athanase and her dear chevalier.
Alencon now witnessed a suicide that was slower and quite differently
pitiful from that of poor Athanase, who was quickly forgotten by
society, which always makes haste to forget its dead. The poor
Chevalier de Valois died in life; his suicide was a daily occurrence
for fourteen years. Three months after the du Bousquier marriage
society remarked, not without astonishment, that the linen of the
chevalier was frayed and rusty, that his hair was irregularly combed
and brushed. With a frowsy head the Chevalier de Valois could no
longer be said to exist! A few of his ivory teeth deserted, though the
keenest observers of human life were unable to discover to what body
they had hitherto belonged, whether to a foreign legion or whether
they were indigenous, vegetable or animal; whether age had pulled them
from the chevalier's mouth, or whether they were left forgotten in the
drawer of his dressing-table. The cravat was crooked, indifferent to
elegance. The negroes' heads grew pale with dust and grease. The
wrinkles of the face were blackened and puckered; the skin became
parchment. The nails, neglected, were often seen, alas! with a black
velvet edging. The waistcoat was tracked and stained with droppings
which spread upon its surface like autumn leaves. The cotton in the
ears was seldom changed. Sadness reigned upon that brow, and slipped
its yellowing tints into the depths of each furrow. In short, the
ruins, hitherto so cleverly hidden, now showed through the cracks and
crevices of that fine edifice, and proved the power of the soul over
the body; for the fair and dainty man, the cavalier, the young blood,
died when hope deserted him. Until then the nose of the chevalier was
ever delicate and nice; never had a damp black blotch, nor an amber
drop fall from it; but now that nose, smeared with tobacco around the
nostrils, degraded by the driblets which took advantage of the natural
gutter placed between itself and the upper lip,—that nose, which no
longer cared to seem agreeable, revealed the infinite pains which the
chevalier had formerly taken with his person, and made observers
comprehend, by the extent of its degradation, the greatness and
persistence of the man's designs upon Mademoiselle Cormon.
Alas, too, the anecdotes went the way of the teeth; the clever sayings
grew rare. The appetite, however, remained; the old nobleman saved
nothing but his stomach from the wreck of his hopes; though he
languidly prepared his pinches of snuff, he ate alarming dinners.
Perhaps you will more fully understand the disaster that this marriage
was to the mind and heart of the chevalier when you learn that his
intercourse with the Princess Goritza became less frequent.
One day he appeared in Mademoiselle Armande's salon with the calf of
his leg on the shin-bone. This bankruptcy of the graces was, I do
assure you, terrible, and struck all Alencon with horror. The late
young man had become an old one; this human being, who, by the
breaking-down of his spirit, had passed at once from fifty to ninety
years of age, frightened society. Besides, his secret was betrayed; he
had waited and watched for Mademoiselle Cormon; he had, like a patient
hunter, adjusted his aim for ten whole years, and finally had missed
the game! In short, the impotent Republic had won the day from Valiant
Chivalry, and that, too, under the Restoration! Form triumphed; mind
was vanquished by matter, diplomacy by insurrection. And, O final
blow! a mortified grisette revealed the secret of the chevalier's
mornings, and he now passed for a libertine. The liberals cast at his
door all the foundlings hitherto attributed to du Bousquier. But the
faubourg Saint-Germain of Alencon accepted them proudly: it even said,
"That poor chevalier, what else could he do?" The faubourg pitied him,
gathered him closer to their circle, and brought back a few rare
smiles to his face; but frightful enmity was piled upon the head of du
Bousquier. Eleven persons deserted the Cormon salon, and passed to
that of the d'Esgrignons.
The old maid's marriage had a signal effect in defining the two
parties in Alencon. The salon d'Esgrignon represented the upper
aristocracy (the returning Troisvilles attached themselves to it); the
Cormon salon represented, under the clever influence of du Bousquier,
that fatal class of opinions which, without being truly liberal or
resolutely royalist, gave birth to the 221 on that famous day when the
struggle openly began between the most august, grandest, and only true
power, /royalty/, and the most false, most changeful, most oppressive of
all powers,—the power called /parliamentary/, which elective assemblies
exercise. The salon du Ronceret, secretly allied to the Cormon salon,
was boldly liberal.
The Abbe de Sponde, after his return from Prebaudet, bore many and
continual sufferings, which he kept within his breast, saying no word
of them to his niece. But to Mademoiselle Armande he opened his heart,
admitting that, folly for folly, he would much have preferred the
Chevalier de Valois to Monsieur du Bousquier. Never would the dear
chevalier have had the bad taste to contradict and oppose a poor old
man who had but a few days more to live; du Bousquier had destroyed
everything in the good old home. The abbe said, with scanty tears
moistening his aged eyes,—
"Mademoiselle, I haven't even the little grove where I have walked for
fifty years. My beloved lindens are all cut down! At the moment of my
death the Republic appears to me more than ever under the form of a
horrible destruction of the Home."
"You must pardon your niece," said the Chevalier de Valois.
"Republican ideas are the first error of youth which seeks for
liberty; later it finds it the worst of despotisms,—that of an
impotent canaille. Your poor niece is punished where she sinned."
"What will become of me in a house where naked women are painted on
the walls?" said the poor abbe. "Where shall I find other lindens
beneath which to read my breviary?"
Like Kant, who was unable to collect his thoughts after the fir-tree
at which he was accustomed to gaze while meditating was cut down, so
the poor abbe could never attain the ardor of his former prayers while
walking up and down the shadeless paths. Du Bousquier had planted an
"It was best," said Madame du Bousquier, without thinking so; but the
Abbe Couterier had authorized her to commit many wrongs to please her
These restorations destroyed all the venerable dignity, cordiality,
and patriarchal air of the old house. Like the Chevalier de Valois,
whose personal neglect might be called an abdication, the bourgeois
dignity of the Cormon salon no longer existed when it was turned to
white and gold, with mahogany ottomans covered in blue satin. The
dining-room, adorned in modern taste, was colder in tone than it used
to be, and the dinners were eaten with less appetite than formerly.
Monsieur du Coudrai declared that he felt his puns stick in his throat
as he glanced at the figures painted on the walls, which looked him
out of countenance. Externally, the house was still provincial; but
internally everything revealed the purveyor of the Directory and the
bad taste of the money-changer,—for instance, columns in stucco,
glass doors, Greek mouldings, meaningless outlines, all styles
conglomerated, magnificence out of place and out of season.
The town of Alencon gabbled for two weeks over this luxury, which
seemed unparalleled; but a few months later the community was proud of
it, and several rich manufacturers restored their houses and set up
fine salons. Modern furniture came into the town, and astral lamps
The Abbe de Sponde was among the first to perceive the secret
unhappiness this marriage now brought to the private life of his
beloved niece. The character of noble simplicity which had hitherto
ruled their lives was lost during the first winter, when du Bousquier
gave two balls every month. Oh, to hear violins and profane music at
these worldly entertainments in the sacred old house! The abbe prayed
on his knees while the revels lasted. Next the political system of the
sober salon was slowly perverted. The abbe fathomed du Bousquier; he
shuddered at his imperious tone; he saw the tears in his niece's eyes
when she felt herself losing all control over her own property; for
her husband now left nothing in her hands but the management of the
linen, the table, and things of a kind which are the lot of women.
Rose had no longer any orders to give. Monsieur's will was alone
regarded by Jacquelin, now become coachman, by Rene, the groom, and by
the chef, who came from Paris, Mariette being reduced to kitchen maid.
Madame du Bousquier had no one to rule but Josette. Who knows what it
costs to relinquish the delights of power? If the triumph of the will
is one of the intoxicating pleasures in the lives of great men, it is
the ALL of life to narrow minds. One must needs have been a minister
dismissed from power to comprehend the bitter pain which came upon
Madame du Bousquier when she found herself reduced to this absolute
servitude. She often got into the carriage against her will; she saw
herself surrounded by servants who were distasteful to her; she no
longer had the handling of her dear money,—she who had known herself
free to spend money, and did not spend it.
All imposed limits make the human being desire to go beyond them. The
keenest sufferings come from the thwarting of self-will. The beginning
of this state of things was, however, rose-colored. Every concession
made to marital authority was an effect of the love which the poor
woman felt for her husband. Du Bousquier behaved, in the first
instance, admirably to his wife: he was wise; he was excellent; he
gave her the best of reasons for each new encroachment. So for the
first two years of her marriage Madame du Bousquier appeared to be
satisfied. She had that deliberate, demure little air which
distinguishes young women who have married for love. The rush of blood
to her head no longer tormented her. This appearance of satisfaction
routed the scoffers, contradicted certain rumors about du Bousquier,
and puzzled all observers of the human heart. Rose-Marie-Victoire was
so afraid that if she displeased her husband or opposed him, she would
lose his affection and be deprived of his company, that she would
willingly have sacrificed all to him, even her uncle. Her silly little
forms of pleasure deceived even the poor abbe for a time, who endured
his own trials all the better for thinking that his niece was happy,
Alencon at first thought the same. But there was one man more
difficult to deceive than the whole town put together. The Chevalier
de Valois, who had taken refuge on the Sacred Mount of the upper
aristocracy, now passed his life at the d'Esgrignons. He listened to
the gossip and the gabble, and he thought day and night upon his
vengeance. He meant to strike du Bousquier to the heart.
The poor abbe fully understood the baseness of this first and last
love of his niece; he shuddered as, little by little, he perceived the
hypocritical nature of his nephew and his treacherous manoeuvres.
Though du Bousquier restrained himself, as he thought of the abbe's
property, and wished not to cause him vexation, it was his hand that
dealt the blow that sent the old priest to his grave. If you will
interpret the word /intolerance/ as /firmness of principle/, if you do
not wish to condemn in the catholic soul of the Abbe de Sponde the
stoicism which Walter Scott has made you admire in the puritan soul of
Jeanie Deans' father; if you are willing to recognize in the Roman
Church the Potius mori quam foedari that you admire in republican
tenets,—you will understand the sorrow of the Abbe de Sponde when he
saw in his niece's salon the apostate priest, the renegade, the
pervert, the heretic, that enemy of the Church, the guilty taker of
the Constitutional oath. Du Bousquier, whose secret ambition was to
lay down the law to the town, wished, as a first proof of his power,
to reconcile the minister of Saint-Leonard with the rector of the
parish, and he succeeded. His wife thought he had accomplished a work
of peace where the immovable abbe saw only treachery. The bishop came
to visit du Bousquier, and seemed glad of the cessation of
hostilities. The virtues of the Abbe Francois had conquered prejudice,
except that of the aged Roman Catholic, who exclaimed with Cornelle,
"Alas! what virtues do you make me hate!"
The abbe died when orthodoxy thus expired in the diocese.
In 1819, the property of the Abbe de Sponde increased Madame du
Bousquier's income from real estate to twenty-five thousand francs
without counting Prebaudet or the house in the Val-Noble. About this
time du Bousquier returned to his wife the capital of her savings
which she had yielded to him; and he made her use it in purchasing
lands contiguous to Prebaudet, which made that domain one of the most
considerable in the department, for the estates of the Abbe de Sponde
also adjoined it. Du Bousquier thus passed for one of the richest men
of the department. This able man, the constant candidate of the
liberals, missing by seven or eight votes only in all the electoral
battles fought under the Restoration, and who ostensibly repudiated
the liberals by trying to be elected as a ministerial royalist
(without ever being able to conquer the aversion of the
administration),—this rancorous republican, mad with ambition,
resolved to rival the royalism and aristocracy of Alencon at the
moment when they once more had the upper hand. He strengthened himself
with the Church by the deceitful appearance of a well-feigned piety:
he accompanied his wife to mass; he gave money for the convents of the
town; he assisted the congregation of the Sacre-Coeur; he took sides
with the clergy on all occasions when the clergy came into collision
with the town, the department, or the State. Secretly supported by the
liberals, protected by the Church, calling himself a constitutional
royalist, he kept beside the aristocracy of the department in the one
hope of ruining it,—and he did ruin it. Ever on the watch for the
faults and blunders of the nobility and the government, he laid plans
for his vengeance against the "chateau-people," and especially against
the d'Esgrignons, in whose bosom he was one day to thrust a poisoned
Among other benefits to the town he gave money liberally to revive the
manufacture of point d'Alencon; he renewed the trade in linens, and
the town had a factory. Inscribing himself thus upon the interests and
heart of the masses, by doing what the royalists did not do, du
Bousquier did not really risk a farthing. Backed by his fortune, he
could afford to wait results which enterprising persons who involve
themselves are forced to abandon to luckier successors.
Du Bousquier now posed as a banker. This miniature Lafitte was a
partner in all new enterprises, taking good security. He served
himself while apparently serving the interests of the community. He
was the prime mover of insurance companies, the protector of new
enterprises for public conveyance; he suggested petitions for asking
the administration for the necessary roads and bridges. Thus warned,
the government considered this action an encroachment of its own
authority. A struggle was begun injudiciously, for the good of the
community compelled the authorities to yield in the end. Du Bousquier
embittered the provincial nobility against the court nobility and the
peerage; and finally he brought about the shocking adhesion of a
strong party of constitutional royalists to the warfare sustained by
the "Journal des Debats," and M. de Chateaubriand against the throne,
—an ungrateful opposition based on ignoble interests, which was one
cause of the triumph of the bourgeoisie and journalism in 1830.
Thus du Bousquier, in common with the class he represented, had the
satisfaction of beholding the funeral of royalty. The old republican,
smothered with masses, who for fifteen years had played that comedy to
satisfy his vendetta, himself threw down with his own hand the white
flag of the mayoralty to the applause of the multitude. No man in
France cast upon the new throne raised in August, 1830, a glance of
more intoxicated, joyous vengeance. The accession of the Younger
Branch was the triumph of the Revolution. To him the victory of the
tricolor meant the resurrection of Montagne, which this time should
surely bring the nobility down to the dust by means more certain than
that of the guillotine, because less violent. The peerage without
heredity; the National Guard, which puts on the same camp-bed the
corner grocer and the marquis; the abolition of the entails demanded
by a bourgeois lawyer; the Catholic Church deprived of its supremacy;
and all the other legislative inventions of August, 1830,—were to du
Bousquier the wisest possible application of the principles of 1793.
Since 1830 this man has been a receiver-general. He relied for his
advancement on his relations with the Duc d'Orleans, father of Louis
Philippe, and with Monsieur de Folmon, formerly steward to the
Duchess-dowager of Orleans. He receives about eighty thousand francs a
year. In the eyes of the people about him Monsieur du Bousquier is a
man of means,—a respectable man, steady in his principles, upright,
and obliging. Alencon owes to him its connection with the industrial
movement by which Brittany may possibly some day be joined to what is
popularly called modern civilization. Alencon, which up to 1816 could
boast of only two private carriages, saw, without amazement, in the
course of ten years, coupes, landaus, tilburies, and cabriolets
rolling through her streets. The burghers and the land-owners, alarmed
at first lest the price of everything should increase, recognized
later that this increase in the style of living had a contrary effect
upon their revenues. The prophetic remark of du Ronceret, "Du
Bousquier is a very strong man," was adopted by the whole
But, unhappily for the wife, that saying has a double meaning. The
husband does not in any way resemble the public politician. This great
citizen, so liberal to the world about him, so kindly inspired with
love for his native place, is a despot in his own house, and utterly
devoid of conjugal affection. This man, so profoundly astute,
hypocritical, and sly; this Cromwell of the Val-Noble,—behaves in his
home as he behaves to the aristocracy, whom he caresses in hopes to
throttle them. Like his friend Bernadotte, he wears a velvet glove
upon his iron hand. His wife has given him no children. Suzanne's
remark and the chevalier's insinuations were therefore justified. But
the liberal bourgeoisie, the constitutional-royalist-bourgeoisie, the
country-squires, the magistracy, and the "church party" laid the blame
on Madame du Bousquier. "She was too old," they said; "Monsieur du
Bousquier had married her too late. Besides, it was very lucky for the
poor woman; it was dangerous at her age to bear children!" When Madame
du Bousquier confided, weeping, her periodic despair to Mesdames du
Coudrai and du Ronceret, those ladies would reply,—
"But you are crazy, my dear; you don't know what you are wishing for;
a child would be your death."
Many men, whose hopes were fastened on du Bousquier's triumph, sang
his praises to their wives, who in turn repeated them to the poor wife
in some such speech as this:—
"You are very lucky, dear, to have married such an able man; you'll
escape the misery of women whose husbands are men without energy,
incapable of managing their property, or bringing up their children."
"Your husband is making you queen of the department, my love. He'll
never leave you embarrassed, not he! Why, he leads all Alencon."
"But I wish," said the poor wife, "that he gave less time to the
"You are hard to please, my dear Madame du Bousquier. I assure you
that all the women in town envy you your husband."
Misjudged by society, which began by blaming her, the pious woman
found ample opportunity in her home to display her virtues. She lived
in tears, but she never ceased to present to others a placid face. To
so Christian a soul a certain thought which pecked forever at her
heart was a crime: "I loved the Chevalier de Valois," it said; "but I
have married du Bousquier." The love of poor Athanase Granson also
rose like a phantom of remorse, and pursued her even in her dreams.
The death of her uncle, whose griefs at the last burst forth, made her
life still more sorrowful; for she now felt the suffering her uncle
must have endured in witnessing the change of political and religious
opinion in the old house. Sorrow often falls like a thunderbolt, as it
did on Madame Granson; but in this old maid it slowly spread like a
drop of oil, which never leaves the stuff that slowly imbibes it.
The Chevalier de Valois was the malicious manipulator who brought
about the crowning misfortune of Madame du Bousquier's life. His heart
was set on undeceiving her pious simplicity; for the chevalier, expert
in love, divined du Bousquier, the married man, as he had divined du
Bousquier, the bachelor. But the wary republican was difficult of
attack. His salon was, of course, closed to the Chevalier de Valois,
as to all those who, in the early days of his marriage, had slighted
the Cormon mansion. He was, moreover, impervious to ridicule; he
possessed a vast fortune; he reigned in Alencon; he cared as little
for his wife as Richard III. cared for the dead horse which had helped
him win a battle. To please her husband, Madame du Bousquier had
broken off relations with the d'Esgrignon household, where she went no
longer, except that sometimes when her husband left her during his
trips to Paris, she would pay a brief visit to Mademoiselle Armande.
About three years after her marriage, at the time of the Abbe de
Sponde's death, Mademoiselle Armande joined Madame du Bousquier as
they were leaving Saint-Leonard's, where they had gone to hear a
requiem said for him. The generous demoiselle thought that on this
occasion she owed her sympathy to the niece in trouble. They walked
together, talking of the dear deceased, until they reached the
forbidden house, into which Mademoiselle Armande enticed Madame du
Bousquier by the charm of her manner and conversation. The poor
desolate woman was glad to talk of her uncle with one whom he truly
loved. Moreover, she wanted to receive the condolences of the old
marquis, whom she had not seen for nearly three years. It was
half-past one o'clock, and she found at the hotel d'Esgrignon the
Chevalier de Valois, who had come to dinner. As he bowed to her, he
took her by the hands.
"Well, dear, virtuous, and beloved lady," he said, in a tone of
emotion, "we have lost our sainted friend; we share your grief. Yes,
your loss is as keenly felt here as in your own home,—more so," he
added, alluding to du Bousquier.
After a few more words of funeral oration, in which all present spoke
from the heart, the chevalier took Madame du Bousquier's arm, and,
gallantly placing it within his own, pressed it adoringly as he led
her to the recess of a window.
"Are you happy?" he said in a fatherly voice.
"Yes," she said, dropping her eyes.
Hearing that "Yes," Madame de Troisville, the daughter of the Princess
Scherbellof, and the old Marquise de Casteran came up and joined the
chevalier, together with Mademoiselle Armande. They all went to walk
in the garden until dinner was served, without any perception on the
part of Madame du Bousquier that a little conspiracy was afoot. "We
have her! now let us find out the secret of the case," were the words
written in the eyes of all present.
"To make your happiness complete," said Mademoiselle Armande, "you
ought to have children,—a fine lad like my nephew—"
Tears seemed to start in Madame du Bousquier's eyes.
"I have heard it said that you were the one to blame in the matter,
and that you feared the dangers of a pregnancy," said the chevalier.
"I!" she said artlessly. "I would buy a child with a hundred years of
purgatory if I could."
On the question thus started a discussion arose, conducted by Madame
de Troisville and the old Marquise de Casteran with such delicacy and
adroitness that the poor victim revealed, without being aware of it,
the secrets of her house. Mademoiselle Armande had taken the
chevalier's arm, and walked away so as to leave the three women free
to discuss wedlock. Madame du Bousquier was then enlightened on the
various deceptions of her marriage; and as she was still the same
simpleton she had always been, she amused her advisers by delightful
Although at first the deceptive marriage of Mademoiselle Cormon made a
laugh throughout the town, which was soon initiated into the story of
the case, before long Madame du Bousquier won the esteem and sympathy
of all the women. The fact that Mademoiselle Cormon had flung herself
headlong into marriage without succeeding in being married, made
everybody laugh at her; but when they learned the exceptional position
in which the sternness of her religious principles placed her, all the
world admired her. "That poor Madame du Bousquier" took the place of
"That good Mademoiselle Cormon."
Thus the chevalier contrived to render du Bousquier both ridiculous
and odious for a time; but ridicule ends by weakening; when all had
said their say about him, the gossip died out. Besides, at fifty-seven
years of age the dumb republican seemed to many people to have a right
to retire. This affair, however, envenomed the hatred which du
Bousquier already bore to the house of Esgrignon to such a degree that
it made him pitiless when the day of vengeance came. [See "The Gallery
of Antiquities."] Madame du Bousquier received orders never again to
set foot into that house. By way of reprisals upon the chevalier for
the trick thus played him, du Bousquier, who had just created the
journal called the "Courrier de l'Orne," caused the following notice
to be inserted in it:—
"Bonds to the amount of one thousand francs a year will be paid to
any person who can prove the existence of one Monsieur de
Pombreton before, during, or after the Emigration."
Although her marriage was essentially negative, Madame du Bousquier
saw some advantages in it: was it not better to interest herself in
the most remarkable man in the town than to live alone? Du Bousquier
was preferable to a dog, or cat, or those canaries that spinsters
love. He showed for his wife a sentiment more real and less selfish
than that which is felt by servants, confessors, and hopeful heirs.
Later in life she came to consider her husband as the instrument of
divine wrath; for she then saw innumerable sins in her former desires
for marriage; she regarded herself as justly punished for the sorrow
she had brought on Madame Granson, and for the hastened death of her
uncle. Obedient to that religion which commands us to kiss the rod
with which the punishment is inflicted, she praised her husband, and
publicly approved him. But in the confessional, or at night, when
praying, she wept often, imploring God's forgiveness for the apostasy
of the man who thought the contrary of what he professed, and who
desired the destruction of the aristocracy and the Church,—the two
religions of the house of Cormon.
With all her feelings bruised and immolated within her, compelled by
duty to make her husband happy, attached to him by a certain
indefinable affection, born, perhaps, of habit, her life became one
perpetual contradiction. She had married a man whose conduct and
opinions she hated, but whom she was bound to care for with dutiful
tenderness. Often she walked with the angels when du Bousquier ate her
preserves or thought the dinner good. She watched to see that his
slightest wish was satisfied. If he tore off the cover of his
newspaper and left it on a table, instead of throwing it away, she
"Rene, leave that where it is; monsieur did not place it there without
If du Bousquier had a journey to take, she was anxious about his
trunk, his linen; she took the most minute precautions for his
material benefit. If he went to Prebaudet, she consulted the barometer
the evening before to know if the weather would be fine. She watched
for his will in his eyes, like a dog which hears and sees its master
while sleeping. When the stout du Bousquier, touched by this
scrupulous love, would take her round the waist and kiss her forehead,
saying, "What a good woman you are!" tears of pleasure would come into
the eyes of the poor creature. It is probably that du Bousquier felt
himself obliged to make certain concessions which obtained for him the
respect of Rose-Marie-Victoire; for Catholic virtue does not require a
dissimulation as complete as that of Madame du Bousquier. Often the
good saint sat mutely by and listened to the hatred of men who
concealed themselves under the cloak of constitutional royalists. She
shuddered as she foresaw the ruin of the Church. Occasionally she
risked a stupid word, an observation which du Bousquier cut short with
The worries of such an existence ended by stupefying Madame du
Bousquier, who found it easier and also more dignified to concentrate
her intelligence on her own thoughts and resign herself to lead a life
that was purely animal. She then adopted the submission of a slave,
and regarded it as a meritorious deed to accept the degradation in
which her husband placed her. The fulfilment of his will never once
caused her to murmur. The timid sheep went henceforth in the way the
shepherd led her; she gave herself up to the severest religious
practices, and thought no more of Satan and his works and vanities.
Thus she presented to the eyes of the world a union of all Christian
virtues; and du Bousquier was certainly one of the luckiest men in the
kingdom of France and of Navarre.
"She will be a simpleton to her last breath," said the former
collector, who, however, dined with her twice a week.
This history would be strangely incomplete if no mention were made of
the coincidence of the Chevalier de Valois's death occurring at the
same time as that of Suzanne's mother. The chevalier died with the
monarchy, in August, 1830. He had joined the cortege of Charles X. at
Nonancourt, and piously escorted it to Cherbourg with the Troisvilles,
Casterans, d'Esgrignons, Verneuils, etc. The old gentleman had taken
with him fifty thousand francs,—the sum to which his savings then
amounted. He offered them to one of the faithful friends of the king
for transmission to his master, speaking of his approaching death, and
declaring that the money came originally from the goodness of the
king, and, moreover, that the property of the last of the Valois
belonged of right to the crown. It is not known whether the fervor of
his zeal conquered the reluctance of the Bourbon, who abandoned his
fine kingdom of France without carrying away with him a farthing, and
who ought to have been touched by the devotion of the chevalier. It is
certain, however, that Cesarine, the residuary legate of the old man,
received from his estate only six hundred francs a year. The chevalier
returned to Alencon, cruelly weakened by grief and by fatigue; he died
on the very day when Charles X. arrived on a foreign shore.
Madame du Val-Noble and her protector, who was just then afraid of the
vengeance of the liberal party, were glad of a pretext to remain
incognito in the village where Suzanne's mother died. At the sale of
the chevalier's effects, which took place at that time, Suzanne,
anxious to obtain a souvenir of her first and last friend, pushed up
the price of the famous snuff-box, which was finally knocked down to
her for a thousand francs. The portrait of the Princess Goritza was
alone worth that sum. Two years later, a young dandy, who was making a
collection of the fine snuff-boxes of the last century, obtained from
Madame du Val-Noble the chevalier's treasure. The charming confidant
of many a love and the pleasure of an old age is now on exhibition in
a species of private museum. If the dead could know what happens after
them, the chevalier's head would surely blush upon its left cheek.
If this history has no other effect than to inspire the possessors of
precious relics with holy fear, and induce them to make codicils to
secure these touching souvenirs of joys that are no more by
bequeathing them to loving hands, it will have done an immense service
to the chivalrous and romantic portion of the community; but it does,
in truth, contain a far higher moral. Does it not show the necessity
for a new species of education? Does it not invoke, from the
enlightened solicitude of the ministers of Public Instruction, the
creation of chairs of anthropology,—a science in which Germany
outstrips us? Modern myths are even less understood than ancient ones,
harried as we are with myths. Myths are pressing us from every point;
they serve all theories, they explain all questions. They are,
according to human ideas, the torches of history; they would save
empires from revolution if only the professors of history would force
the explanations they give into the mind of the provincial masses. If
Mademoiselle Cormon had been a reader or a student, and if there had
existed in the department of the Orne a professor of anthropology, or
even had she read Ariosto, the frightful disasters of her conjugal
life would never have occurred. She would probably have known why the
Italian poet makes Angelica prefer Medoro, who was a blond Chevalier
de Valois, to Orlando, whose mare was dead, and who knew no better
than to fly into a passion. Is not Medoro the mythic form for all
courtiers of feminine royalty, and Orlando the myth of disorderly,
furious, and impotent revolutions, which destroy but cannot produce?
We publish, but without assuming any responsibility for it, this
opinion of a pupil of Monsieur Ballanche.
No information has reached us as to the fate of the negroes' heads in
diamonds. You may see Madame du Val-Noble every evening at the Opera.
Thanks to the education given her by the Chevalier de Valois, she has
almost the air of a well-bred woman.
Madame du Bousquier still lives; is not that as much as to say she
still suffers? After reaching the age of sixty—the period at which
women allow themselves to make confessions—she said confidentially to
Madame du Coudrai, that she had never been able to endure the idea of
dying an old maid.