AT THE SIGN OF THE CAT
By Honore De Balzac
Translated by Clara Bell
To Mademoiselle Marie de Montheau
AT THE SIGN OF THE CAT AND RACKET
Half-way down the Rue Saint-Denis, almost at the corner of the Rue du
Petit-Lion, there stood formerly one of those delightful houses which
enable historians to reconstruct old Paris by analogy. The threatening
walls of this tumbledown abode seemed to have been decorated with
hieroglyphics. For what other name could the passer-by give to the Xs and
Vs which the horizontal or diagonal timbers traced on the front, outlined
by little parallel cracks in the plaster? It was evident that every beam
quivered in its mortices at the passing of the lightest vehicle. This
venerable structure was crowned by a triangular roof of which no example
will, ere long, be seen in Paris. This covering, warped by the extremes of
the Paris climate, projected three feet over the roadway, as much to
protect the threshold from the rainfall as to shelter the wall of a loft
and its sill-less dormer-window. This upper story was built of planks,
overlapping each other like slates, in order, no doubt, not to overweight
the frail house.
One rainy morning in the month of March, a young man, carefully wrapped in
his cloak, stood under the awning of a shop opposite this old house, which
he was studying with the enthusiasm of an antiquary. In point of fact,
this relic of the civic life of the sixteenth century offered more than
one problem to the consideration of an observer. Each story presented some
singularity; on the first floor four tall, narrow windows, close together,
were filled as to the lower panes with boards, so as to produce the
doubtful light by which a clever salesman can ascribe to his goods the
color his customers inquire for. The young man seemed very scornful of
this part of the house; his eyes had not yet rested on it. The windows of
the second floor, where the Venetian blinds were drawn up, revealing
little dingy muslin curtains behind the large Bohemian glass panes, did
not interest him either. His attention was attracted to the third floor,
to the modest sash-frames of wood, so clumsily wrought that they might
have found a place in the Museum of Arts and Crafts to illustrate the
early efforts of French carpentry. These windows were glazed with small
squares of glass so green that, but for his good eyes, the young man could
not have seen the blue-checked cotton curtains which screened the
mysteries of the room from profane eyes. Now and then the watcher, weary
of his fruitless contemplation, or of the silence in which the house was
buried, like the whole neighborhood, dropped his eyes towards the lower
regions. An involuntary smile parted his lips each time he looked at the
shop, where, in fact, there were some laughable details.
A formidable wooden beam, resting on four pillars, which appeared to have
bent under the weight of the decrepit house, had been encrusted with as
many coats of different paint as there are of rouge on an old duchess'
cheek. In the middle of this broad and fantastically carved joist there
was an old painting representing a cat playing rackets. This picture was
what moved the young man to mirth. But it must be said that the wittiest
of modern painters could not invent so comical a caricature. The animal
held in one of its forepaws a racket as big as itself, and stood on its
hind legs to aim at hitting an enormous ball, returned by a man in a fine
embroidered coat. Drawing, color, and accessories, all were treated in
such a way as to suggest that the artist had meant to make game of the
shop-owner and of the passing observer. Time, while impairing this artless
painting, had made it yet more grotesque by introducing some uncertain
features which must have puzzled the conscientious idler. For instance,
the cat's tail had been eaten into in such a way that it might now have
been taken for the figure of a spectator—so long, and thick, and
furry were the tails of our forefathers' cats. To the right of the
picture, on an azure field which ill-disguised the decay of the wood,
might be read the name "Guillaume," and to the left, "Successor to Master
Chevrel." Sun and rain had worn away most of the gilding parsimoniously
applied to the letters of this superscription, in which the Us and Vs had
changed places in obedience to the laws of old-world orthography.
To quench the pride of those who believe that the world is growing
cleverer day by day, and that modern humbug surpasses everything, it may
be observed that these signs, of which the origin seems so whimsical to
many Paris merchants, are the dead pictures of once living pictures by
which our roguish ancestors contrived to tempt customers into their
houses. Thus the Spinning Sow, the Green Monkey, and others, were animals
in cages whose skills astonished the passer-by, and whose accomplishments
prove the patience of the fifteenth-century artisan. Such curiosities did
more to enrich their fortunate owners than the signs of "Providence,"
"Good-faith," "Grace of God," and "Decapitation of John the Baptist,"
which may still be seen in the Rue Saint-Denis.
However, our stranger was certainly not standing there to admire the cat,
which a minute's attention sufficed to stamp on his memory. The young man
himself had his peculiarities. His cloak, folded after the manner of an
antique drapery, showed a smart pair of shoes, all the more remarkable in
the midst of the Paris mud, because he wore white silk stockings, on which
the splashes betrayed his impatience. He had just come, no doubt, from a
wedding or a ball; for at this early hour he had in his hand a pair of
white gloves, and his black hair, now out of curl, and flowing over his
shoulders, showed that it had been dressed a la Caracalla, a
fashion introduced as much by David's school of painting as by the mania
for Greek and Roman styles which characterized the early years of this
In spite of the noise made by a few market gardeners, who, being late,
rattled past towards the great market-place at a gallop, the busy street
lay in a stillness of which the magic charm is known only to those who
have wandered through deserted Paris at the hours when its roar, hushed
for a moment, rises and spreads in the distance like the great voice of
the sea. This strange young man must have seemed as curious to the
shopkeeping folk of the "Cat and Racket" as the "Cat and Racket" was to
him. A dazzlingly white cravat made his anxious face look even paler than
it really was. The fire that flashed in his black eyes, gloomy and
sparkling by turns, was in harmony with the singular outline of his
features, with his wide, flexible mouth, hardened into a smile. His
forehead, knit with violent annoyance, had a stamp of doom. Is not the
forehead the most prophetic feature of a man? When the stranger's brow
expressed passion the furrows formed in it were terrible in their strength
and energy; but when he recovered his calmness, so easily upset, it beamed
with a luminous grace which gave great attractiveness to a countenance in
which joy, grief, love, anger, or scorn blazed out so contagiously that
the coldest man could not fail to be impressed.
He was so thoroughly vexed by the time when the dormer-window of the loft
was suddenly flung open, that he did not observe the apparition of three
laughing faces, pink and white and chubby, but as vulgar as the face of
Commerce as it is seen in sculpture on certain monuments. These three
faces, framed by the window, recalled the puffy cherubs floating among the
clouds that surround God the Father. The apprentices snuffed up the
exhalations of the street with an eagerness that showed how hot and
poisonous the atmosphere of their garret must be. After pointing to the
singular sentinel, the most jovial, as he seemed, of the apprentices
retired and came back holding an instrument whose hard metal pipe is now
superseded by a leather tube; and they all grinned with mischief as they
looked down on the loiterer, and sprinkled him with a fine white shower of
which the scent proved that three chins had just been shaved. Standing on
tiptoe, in the farthest corner of their loft, to enjoy their victim's
rage, the lads ceased laughing on seeing the haughty indifference with
which the young man shook his cloak, and the intense contempt expressed by
his face as he glanced up at the empty window-frame.
At this moment a slender white hand threw up the lower half of one of the
clumsy windows on the third floor by the aid of the sash runners, of which
the pulley so often suddenly gives way and releases the heavy panes it
ought to hold up. The watcher was then rewarded for his long waiting. The
face of a young girl appeared, as fresh as one of the white cups that
bloom on the bosom of the waters, crowned by a frill of tumbled muslin,
which gave her head a look of exquisite innocence. Though wrapped in brown
stuff, her neck and shoulders gleamed here and there through little
openings left by her movements in sleep. No expression of embarrassment
detracted from the candor of her face, or the calm look of eyes
immortalized long since in the sublime works of Raphael; here were the
same grace, the same repose as in those Virgins, and now proverbial. There
was a delightful contrast between the cheeks of that face on which sleep
had, as it were, given high relief to a superabundance of life, and the
antiquity of the heavy window with its clumsy shape and black sill. Like
those day-blowing flowers, which in the early morning have not yet
unfurled their cups, twisted by the chills of night, the girl, as yet
hardly awake, let her blue eyes wander beyond the neighboring roofs to
look at the sky; then, from habit, she cast them down on the gloomy depths
of the street, where they immediately met those of her adorer. Vanity, no
doubt, distressed her at being seen in undress; she started back, the worn
pulley gave way, and the sash fell with the rapid run, which in our day
has earned for this artless invention of our forefathers an odious name,
Fenetre a la Guillotine. The vision had disappeared. To the young
man the most radiant star of morning seemed to be hidden by a cloud.
During these little incidents the heavy inside shutters that protected the
slight windows of the shop of the "Cat and Racket" had been removed as if
by magic. The old door with its knocker was opened back against the wall
of the entry by a man-servant, apparently coeval with the sign, who, with
a shaking hand, hung upon it a square of cloth, on which were embroidered
in yellow silk the words: "Guillaume, successor to Chevrel." Many a
passer-by would have found it difficult to guess the class of trade
carried on by Monsieur Guillaume. Between the strong iron bars which
protected his shop windows on the outside, certain packages, wrapped in
brown linen, were hardly visible, though as numerous as herrings swimming
in a shoal. Notwithstanding the primitive aspect of the Gothic front,
Monsieur Guillaume, of all the merchant clothiers in Paris, was the one
whose stores were always the best provided, whose connections were the
most extensive, and whose commercial honesty never lay under the slightest
suspicion. If some of his brethren in business made a contract with the
Government, and had not the required quantity of cloth, he was always
ready to deliver it, however large the number of pieces tendered for. The
wily dealer knew a thousand ways of extracting the largest profits without
being obliged, like them, to court patrons, cringing to them, or making
them costly presents. When his fellow-tradesmen could only pay in good
bills of long date, he would mention his notary as an accommodating man,
and managed to get a second profit out of the bargain, thanks to this
arrangement, which had made it a proverb among the traders of the Rue
Saint-Denis: "Heaven preserve you from Monsieur Guillaume's notary!" to
signify a heavy discount.
The old merchant was to be seen standing on the threshold of his shop, as
if by a miracle, the instant the servant withdrew. Monsieur Guillaume
looked at the Rue Saint-Denis, at the neighboring shops, and at the
weather, like a man disembarking at Havre, and seeing France once more
after a long voyage. Having convinced himself that nothing had changed
while he was asleep, he presently perceived the stranger on guard, and he,
on his part, gazed at the patriarchal draper as Humboldt may have
scrutinized the first electric eel he saw in America. Monsieur Guillaume
wore loose black velvet breeches, pepper-and-salt stockings, and square
toed shoes with silver buckles. His coat, with square-cut fronts,
square-cut tails, and square-cut collar clothed his slightly bent figure
in greenish cloth, finished with white metal buttons, tawny from wear. His
gray hair was so accurately combed and flattened over his yellow pate that
it made it look like a furrowed field. His little green eyes, that might
have been pierced with a gimlet, flashed beneath arches faintly tinged
with red in the place of eyebrows. Anxieties had wrinkled his forehead
with as many horizontal lines as there were creases in his coat. This
colorless face expressed patience, commercial shrewdness, and the sort of
wily cupidity which is needful in business. At that time these old
families were less rare than they are now, in which the characteristic
habits and costume of their calling, surviving in the midst of more recent
civilization, were preserved as cherished traditions, like the
antediluvian remains found by Cuvier in the quarries.
The head of the Guillaume family was a notable upholder of ancient
practices; he might be heard to regret the Provost of Merchants, and never
did he mention a decision of the Tribunal of Commerce without calling it
the Sentence of the Consuls. Up and dressed the first of the
household, in obedience, no doubt, to these old customs, he stood sternly
awaiting the appearance of his three assistants, ready to scold them in
case they were late. These young disciples of Mercury knew nothing more
terrible than the wordless assiduity with which the master scrutinized
their faces and their movements on Monday in search of evidence or traces
of their pranks. But at this moment the old clothier paid no heed to his
apprentices; he was absorbed in trying to divine the motive of the anxious
looks which the young man in silk stockings and a cloak cast alternately
at his signboard and into the depths of his shop. The daylight was now
brighter, and enabled the stranger to discern the cashier's corner
enclosed by a railing and screened by old green silk curtains, where were
kept the immense ledgers, the silent oracles of the house. The too
inquisitive gazer seemed to covet this little nook, and to be taking the
plan of a dining-room at one side, lighted by a skylight, whence the
family at meals could easily see the smallest incident that might occur at
the shop-door. So much affection for his dwelling seemed suspicious to a
trader who had lived long enough to remember the law of maximum prices;
Monsieur Guillaume naturally thought that this sinister personage had an
eye to the till of the Cat and Racket. After quietly observing the mute
duel which was going on between his master and the stranger, the eldest of
the apprentices, having seen that the young man was stealthily watching
the windows of the third floor, ventured to place himself on the stone
flag where Monsieur Guillaume was standing. He took two steps out into the
street, raised his head, and fancied that he caught sight of Mademoiselle
Augustine Guillaume in hasty retreat. The draper, annoyed by his
assistant's perspicacity, shot a side glance at him; but the draper and
his amorous apprentice were suddenly relieved from the fears which the
young man's presence had excited in their minds. He hailed a hackney cab
on its way to a neighboring stand, and jumped into it with an air of
affected indifference. This departure was a balm to the hearts of the
other two lads, who had been somewhat uneasy as to meeting the victim of
their practical joke.
"Well, gentlemen, what ails you that you are standing there with your arms
folded?" said Monsieur Guillaume to his three neophytes. "In former days,
bless you, when I was in Master Chevrel's service, I should have
overhauled more than two pieces of cloth by this time."
"Then it was daylight earlier," said the second assistant, whose duty this
The old shopkeeper could not help smiling. Though two of these young
fellows, who were confided to his care by their fathers, rich
manufacturers at Louviers and at Sedan, had only to ask and to have a
hundred thousand francs the day when they were old enough to settle in
life, Guillaume regarded it as his duty to keep them under the rod of an
old-world despotism, unknown nowadays in the showy modern shops, where the
apprentices expect to be rich men at thirty. He made them work like
Negroes. These three assistants were equal to a business which would harry
ten such clerks as those whose sybaritical tastes now swell the columns of
the budget. Not a sound disturbed the peace of this solemn house, where
the hinges were always oiled, and where the meanest article of furniture
showed the respectable cleanliness which reveals strict order and economy.
The most waggish of the three youths often amused himself by writing the
date of its first appearance on the Gruyere cheese which was left to their
tender mercies at breakfast, and which it was their pleasure to leave
untouched. This bit of mischief, and a few others of the same stamp, would
sometimes bring a smile on the face of the younger of Guillaume's
daughters, the pretty maiden who has just now appeared to the bewitched
man in the street.
Though each of these apprentices, even the eldest, paid a round sum for
his board, not one of them would have been bold enough to remain at the
master's table when dessert was served. When Madame Guillaume talked of
dressing the salad, the hapless youths trembled as they thought of the
thrift with which her prudent hand dispensed the oil. They could never
think of spending a night away from the house without having given, long
before, a plausible reason for such an irregularity. Every Sunday, each in
his turn, two of them accompanied the Guillaume family to Mass at
Saint-Leu, and to vespers. Mesdemoiselles Virginie and Augustine, simply
attired in cotton print, each took the arm of an apprentice and walked in
front, under the piercing eye of their mother, who closed the little
family procession with her husband, accustomed by her to carry two large
prayer-books, bound in black morocco. The second apprentice received no
salary. As for the eldest, whose twelve years of perseverance and
discretion had initiated him into the secrets of the house, he was paid
eight hundred francs a year as the reward of his labors. On certain family
festivals he received as a gratuity some little gift, to which Madame
Guillaume's dry and wrinkled hand alone gave value—netted purses,
which she took care to stuff with cotton wool, to show off the fancy
stitches, braces of the strongest make, or heavy silk stockings.
Sometimes, but rarely, this prime minister was admitted to share the
pleasures of the family when they went into the country, or when, after
waiting for months, they made up their mind to exert the right acquired by
taking a box at the theatre to command a piece which Paris had already
As to the other assistants, the barrier of respect which formerly divided
a master draper from his apprentices was that they would have been more
likely to steal a piece of cloth than to infringe this time-honored
etiquette. Such reserve may now appear ridiculous; but these old houses
were a school of honesty and sound morals. The masters adopted their
apprentices. The young man's linen was cared for, mended, and often
replaced by the mistress of the house. If an apprentice fell ill, he was
the object of truly maternal attention. In a case of danger the master
lavished his money in calling in the most celebrated physicians, for he
was not answerable to their parents merely for the good conduct and
training of the lads. If one of them, whose character was unimpeachable,
suffered misfortune, these old tradesmen knew how to value the
intelligence he had displayed, and they did not hesitate to entrust the
happiness of their daughters to men whom they had long trusted with their
fortunes. Guillaume was one of these men of the old school, and if he had
their ridiculous side, he had all their good qualities; and Joseph Lebas,
the chief assistant, an orphan without any fortune, was in his mind
destined to be the husband of Virginie, his elder daughter. But Joseph did
not share the symmetrical ideas of his master, who would not for an empire
have given his second daughter in marriage before the elder. The unhappy
assistant felt that his heart was wholly given to Mademoiselle Augustine,
the younger. In order to justify this passion, which had grown up in
secret, it is necessary to inquire a little further into the springs of
the absolute government which ruled the old cloth-merchant's household.
Guillaume had two daughters. The elder, Mademoiselle Virginie, was the
very image of her mother. Madame Guillaume, daughter of the Sieur Chevrel,
sat so upright in the stool behind her desk, that more than once she had
heard some wag bet that she was a stuffed figure. Her long, thin face
betrayed exaggerated piety. Devoid of attractions or of amiable manners,
Madame Guillaume commonly decorated her head—that of a woman near on
sixty—with a cap of a particular and unvarying shape, with long
lappets, like that of a widow. In all the neighborhood she was known as
the "portress nun." Her speech was curt, and her movements had the stiff
precision of a semaphore. Her eye, with a gleam in it like a cat's, seemed
to spite the world because she was so ugly. Mademoiselle Virginie, brought
up, like her younger sister, under the domestic rule of her mother, had
reached the age of eight-and-twenty. Youth mitigated the graceless effect
which her likeness to her mother sometimes gave to her features, but
maternal austerity had endowed her with two great qualities which made up
for everything. She was patient and gentle. Mademoiselle Augustine, who
was but just eighteen, was not like either her father or her mother. She
was one of those daughters whose total absence of any physical affinity
with their parents makes one believe in the adage: "God gives children."
Augustine was little, or, to describe her more truly, delicately made.
Full of gracious candor, a man of the world could have found no fault in
the charming girl beyond a certain meanness of gesture or vulgarity of
attitude, and sometimes a want of ease. Her silent and placid face was
full of the transient melancholy which comes over all young girls who are
too weak to dare to resist their mother's will.
The two sisters, always plainly dressed, could not gratify the innate
vanity of womanhood but by a luxury of cleanliness which became them
wonderfully, and made them harmonize with the polished counters and the
shining shelves, on which the old man-servant never left a speck of dust,
and with the old-world simplicity of all they saw about them. As their
style of living compelled them to find the elements of happiness in
persistent work, Augustine and Virginie had hitherto always satisfied
their mother, who secretly prided herself on the perfect characters of her
two daughters. It is easy to imagine the results of the training they had
received. Brought up to a commercial life, accustomed to hear nothing but
dreary arguments and calculations about trade, having studied nothing but
grammar, book-keeping, a little Bible-history, and the history of France
in Le Ragois, and never reading any book but what their mother would
sanction, their ideas had not acquired much scope. They knew perfectly how
to keep house; they were familiar with the prices of things; they
understood the difficulty of amassing money; they were economical, and had
a great respect for the qualities that make a man of business. Although
their father was rich, they were as skilled in darning as in embroidery;
their mother often talked of having them taught to cook, so that they
might know how to order a dinner and scold a cook with due knowledge. They
knew nothing of the pleasures of the world; and, seeing how their parents
spent their exemplary lives, they very rarely suffered their eyes to
wander beyond the walls of their hereditary home, which to their mother
was the whole universe. The meetings to which family anniversaries gave
rise filled in the future of earthly joy to them.
When the great drawing-room on the second floor was to be prepared to
receive company—Madame Roguin, a Demoiselle Chevrel, fifteen months
younger than her cousin, and bedecked with diamonds; young Rabourdin,
employed in the Finance Office; Monsieur Cesar Birotteau, the rich
perfumer, and his wife, known as Madame Cesar; Monsieur Camusot, the
richest silk mercer in the Rue des Bourdonnais, with his father-in-law,
Monsieur Cardot, two or three old bankers, and some immaculate ladies—the
arrangements, made necessary by the way in which everything was packed
away—the plate, the Dresden china, the candlesticks, and the glass—made
a variety in the monotonous lives of the three women, who came and went
and exerted themselves as nuns would to receive their bishop. Then, in the
evening, when all three were tired out with having wiped, rubbed,
unpacked, and arranged all the gauds of the festival, as the girls helped
their mother to undress, Madame Guillaume would say to them, "Children, we
have done nothing today."
When, on very great occasions, "the portress nun" allowed dancing,
restricting the games of boston, whist, and backgammon within the limits
of her bedroom, such a concession was accounted as the most unhoped
felicity, and made them happier than going to the great balls, to two or
three of which Guillaume would take the girls at the time of the Carnival.
And once a year the worthy draper gave an entertainment, when he spared no
expense. However rich and fashionable the persons invited might be, they
were careful not to be absent; for the most important houses on the
exchange had recourse to the immense credit, the fortune, or the
time-honored experience of Monsieur Guillaume. Still, the excellent
merchant's daughters did not benefit as much as might be supposed by the
lessons the world has to offer to young spirits. At these parties, which
were indeed set down in the ledger to the credit of the house, they wore
dresses the shabbiness of which made them blush. Their style of dancing
was not in any way remarkable, and their mother's surveillance did not
allow of their holding any conversation with their partners beyond Yes and
No. Also, the law of the old sign of the Cat and Racket commanded that
they should be home by eleven o'clock, the hour when balls and fetes begin
to be lively. Thus their pleasures, which seemed to conform very fairly to
their father's position, were often made insipid by circumstances which
were part of the family habits and principles.
As to their usual life, one remark will sufficiently paint it. Madame
Guillaume required her daughters to be dressed very early in the morning,
to come down every day at the same hour, and she ordered their employments
with monastic regularity. Augustine, however, had been gifted by chance
with a spirit lofty enough to feel the emptiness of such a life. Her blue
eyes would sometimes be raised as if to pierce the depths of that gloomy
staircase and those damp store-rooms. After sounding the profound
cloistral silence, she seemed to be listening to remote, inarticulate
revelations of the life of passion, which accounts feelings as of higher
value than things. And at such moments her cheek would flush, her idle
hands would lay the muslin sewing on the polished oak counter, and
presently her mother would say in a voice, of which even the softest tones
were sour, "Augustine, my treasure, what are you thinking about?" It is
possible that two romances discovered by Augustine in the cupboard of a
cook Madame Guillaume had lately discharged—Hippolyte Comte de
Douglas and Le Comte de Comminges—may have contributed to
develop the ideas of the young girl, who had devoured them in secret,
during the long nights of the past winter.
And so Augustine's expression of vague longing, her gentle voice, her
jasmine skin, and her blue eyes had lighted in poor Lebas' soul a flame as
ardent as it was reverent. From an easily understood caprice, Augustine
felt no affection for the orphan; perhaps she did not know that he loved
her. On the other hand, the senior apprentice, with his long legs, his
chestnut hair, his big hands and powerful frame, had found a secret
admirer in Mademoiselle Virginie, who, in spite of her dower of fifty
thousand crowns, had as yet no suitor. Nothing could be more natural than
these two passions at cross-purposes, born in the silence of the dingy
shop, as violets bloom in the depths of a wood. The mute and constant
looks which made the young people's eyes meet by sheer need of change in
the midst of persistent work and cloistered peace, was sure, sooner or
later, to give rise to feelings of love. The habit of seeing always the
same face leads insensibly to our reading there the qualities of the soul,
and at last effaces all its defects.
"At the pace at which that man goes, our girls will soon have to go on
their knees to a suitor!" said Monsieur Guillaume to himself, as he read
the first decree by which Napoleon drew in advance on the conscript
From that day the old merchant, grieved at seeing his eldest daughter
fade, remembered how he had married Mademoiselle Chevrel under much the
same circumstances as those of Joseph Lebas and Virginie. A good bit of
business, to marry off his daughter, and discharge a sacred debt by
repaying to an orphan the benefit he had formerly received from his
predecessor under similar conditions! Joseph Lebas, who was now
three-and-thirty, was aware of the obstacle which a difference of fifteen
years placed between Augustine and himself. Being also too clear-sighted
not to understand Monsieur Guillaume's purpose, he knew his inexorable
principles well enough to feel sure that the second would never marry
before the elder. So the hapless assistant, whose heart was as warm as his
legs were long and his chest deep, suffered in silence.
This was the state of the affairs in the tiny republic which, in the heart
of the Rue Saint-Denis, was not unlike a dependency of La Trappe. But to
give a full account of events as well as of feelings, it is needful to go
back to some months before the scene with which this story opens. At dusk
one evening, a young man passing the darkened shop of the Cat and Racket,
had paused for a moment to gaze at a picture which might have arrested
every painter in the world. The shop was not yet lighted, and was as a
dark cave beyond which the dining-room was visible. A hanging lamp shed
the yellow light which lends such charm to pictures of the Dutch school.
The white linen, the silver, the cut glass, were brilliant accessories,
and made more picturesque by strong contrasts of light and shade. The
figures of the head of the family and his wife, the faces of the
apprentices, and the pure form of Augustine, near whom a fat
chubby-cheeked maid was standing, composed so strange a group; the heads
were so singular, and every face had so candid an expression; it was so
easy to read the peace, the silence, the modest way of life in this
family, that to an artist accustomed to render nature, there was something
hopeless in any attempt to depict this scene, come upon by chance. The
stranger was a young painter, who, seven years before, had gained the
first prize for painting. He had now just come back from Rome. His soul,
full-fed with poetry; his eyes, satiated with Raphael and Michael Angelo,
thirsted for real nature after long dwelling in the pompous land where art
has everywhere left something grandiose. Right or wrong, this was his
personal feeling. His heart, which had long been a prey to the fire of
Italian passion, craved one of those modest and meditative maidens whom in
Rome he had unfortunately seen only in painting. From the enthusiasm
produced in his excited fancy by the living picture before him, he
naturally passed to a profound admiration for the principal figure;
Augustine seemed to be pensive, and did not eat; by the arrangement of the
lamp the light fell full on her face, and her bust seemed to move in a
circle of fire, which threw up the shape of her head and illuminated it
with almost supernatural effect. The artist involuntarily compared her to
an exiled angel dreaming of heaven. An almost unknown emotion, a limpid,
seething love flooded his heart. After remaining a minute, overwhelmed by
the weight of his ideas, he tore himself from his bliss, went home, ate
nothing, and could not sleep.
The next day he went to his studio, and did not come out of it till he had
placed on canvas the magic of the scene of which the memory had, in a
sense, made him a devotee; his happiness was incomplete till he should
possess a faithful portrait of his idol. He went many times past the house
of the Cat and Racket; he even ventured in once or twice, under a
disguise, to get a closer view of the bewitching creature that Madame
Guillaume covered with her wing. For eight whole months, devoted to his
love and to his brush, he was lost to the sight of his most intimate
friends forgetting the world, the theatre, poetry, music, and all his
dearest habits. One morning Girodet broke through all the barriers with
which artists are familiar, and which they know how to evade, went into
his room, and woke him by asking, "What are you going to send to the
Salon?" The artist grasped his friend's hand, dragged him off to the
studio, uncovered a small easel picture and a portrait. After a long and
eager study of the two masterpieces, Girodet threw himself on his
comrade's neck and hugged him, without speaking a word. His feelings could
only be expressed as he felt them—soul to soul.
"You are in love?" said Girodet.
They both knew that the finest portraits by Titian, Raphael, and Leonardo
da Vinci, were the outcome of the enthusiastic sentiments by which,
indeed, under various conditions, every masterpiece is engendered. The
artist only bent his head in reply.
"How happy are you to be able to be in love, here, after coming back from
Italy! But I do not advise you to send such works as these to the Salon,"
the great painter went on. "You see, these two works will not be
appreciated. Such true coloring, such prodigious work, cannot yet be
understood; the public is not accustomed to such depths. The pictures we
paint, my dear fellow, are mere screens. We should do better to turn
rhymes, and translate the antique poets! There is more glory to be looked
for there than from our luckless canvases!"
Notwithstanding this charitable advice, the two pictures were exhibited.
The Interior made a revolution in painting. It gave birth to the
pictures of genre which pour into all our exhibitions in such prodigious
quantity that they might be supposed to be produced by machinery. As to
the portrait, few artists have forgotten that lifelike work; and the
public, which as a body is sometimes discerning, awarded it the crown
which Girodet himself had hung over it. The two pictures were surrounded
by a vast throng. They fought for places, as women say. Speculators and
moneyed men would have covered the canvas with double napoleons, but the
artist obstinately refused to sell or to make replicas. An enormous sum
was offered him for the right of engraving them, and the print-sellers
were not more favored than the amateurs.
Though these incidents occupied the world, they were not of a nature to
penetrate the recesses of the monastic solitude in the Rue Saint-Denis.
However, when paying a visit to Madame Guillaume, the notary's wife spoke
of the exhibition before Augustine, of whom she was very fond, and
explained its purpose. Madame Roguin's gossip naturally inspired Augustine
with a wish to see the pictures, and with courage enough to ask her cousin
secretly to take her to the Louvre. Her cousin succeeded in the
negotiations she opened with Madame Guillaume for permission to release
the young girl for two hours from her dull labors. Augustine was thus able
to make her way through the crowd to see the crowned work. A fit of
trembling shook her like an aspen leaf as she recognized herself. She was
terrified, and looked about her to find Madame Roguin, from whom she had
been separated by a tide of people. At that moment her frightened eyes
fell on the impassioned face of the young painter. She at once recalled
the figure of a loiterer whom, being curious, she had frequently observed,
believing him to be a new neighbor.
"You see how love has inspired me," said the artist in the timid
creature's ear, and she stood in dismay at the words.
She found supernatural courage to enable her to push through the crowd and
join her cousin, who was still struggling with the mass of people that
hindered her from getting to the picture.
"You will be stifled!" cried Augustine. "Let us go."
But there are moments, at the Salon, when two women are not always free to
direct their steps through the galleries. By the irregular course to which
they were compelled by the press, Mademoiselle Guillaume and her cousin
were pushed to within a few steps of the second picture. Chance thus
brought them, both together, to where they could easily see the canvas
made famous by fashion, for once in agreement with talent. Madame Roguin's
exclamation of surprise was lost in the hubbub and buzz of the crowd;
Augustine involuntarily shed tears at the sight of this wonderful study.
Then, by an almost unaccountable impulse, she laid her finger on her lips,
as she perceived quite near her the ecstatic face of the young painter.
The stranger replied by a nod, and pointed to Madame Roguin, as a
spoil-sport, to show Augustine that he had understood. This pantomime
struck the young girl like hot coals on her flesh; she felt quite guilty
as she perceived that there was a compact between herself and the artist.
The suffocating heat, the dazzling sight of beautiful dresses, the
bewilderment produced in Augustine's brain by the truth of coloring, the
multitude of living or painted figures, the profusion of gilt frames, gave
her a sense of intoxication which doubled her alarms. She would perhaps
have fainted if an unknown rapture had not surged up in her heart to
vivify her whole being, in spite of this chaos of sensations. She
nevertheless believed herself to be under the power of the Devil, of whose
awful snares she had been warned of by the thundering words of preachers.
This moment was to her like a moment of madness. She found herself
accompanied to her cousin's carriage by the young man, radiant with joy
and love. Augustine, a prey to an agitation new to her experience, an
intoxication which seemed to abandon her to nature, listened to the
eloquent voice of her heart, and looked again and again at the young
painter, betraying the emotion that came over her. Never had the bright
rose of her cheeks shown in stronger contrast with the whiteness of her
skin. The artist saw her beauty in all its bloom, her maiden modesty in
all its glory. She herself felt a sort of rapture mingled with terror at
thinking that her presence had brought happiness to him whose name was on
every lip, and whose talent lent immortality to transient scenes. She was
loved! It was impossible to doubt it. When she no longer saw the artist,
these simple words still echoed in her ear, "You see how love has inspired
me!" And the throbs of her heart, as they grew deeper, seemed a pain, her
heated blood revealed so many unknown forces in her being. She affected a
severe headache to avoid replying to her cousin's questions concerning the
pictures; but on their return Madame Roguin could not forbear from
speaking to Madame Guillaume of the fame that had fallen on the house of
the Cat and Racket, and Augustine quaked in every limb as she heard her
mother say that she should go to the Salon to see her house there. The
young girl again declared herself suffering, and obtained leave to go to
"That is what comes of sight-seeing," exclaimed Monsieur Guillaume—"a
headache. And is it so very amusing to see in a picture what you can see
any day in your own street? Don't talk to me of your artists! Like
writers, they are a starveling crew. Why the devil need they choose my
house to flout it in their pictures?"
"It may help to sell a few ells more of cloth," said Joseph Lebas.
This remark did not protect art and thought from being condemned once
again before the judgment-seat of trade. As may be supposed, these
speeches did not infuse much hope into Augustine, who, during the night,
gave herself up to the first meditations of love. The events of the day
were like a dream, which it was a joy to recall to her mind. She was
initiated into the fears, the hopes, the remorse, all the ebb and flow of
feeling which could not fail to toss a heart so simple and timid as hers.
What a void she perceived in this gloomy house! What a treasure she found
in her soul! To be the wife of a genius, to share his glory! What ravages
must such a vision make in the heart of a girl brought up among such a
family! What hopes must it raise in a young creature who, in the midst of
sordid elements, had pined for a life of elegance! A sunbeam had fallen
into the prison. Augustine was suddenly in love. So many of her feelings
were soothed that she succumbed without reflection. At eighteen does not
love hold a prism between the world and the eyes of a young girl? She was
incapable of suspecting the hard facts which result from the union of a
loving woman with a man of imagination, and she believed herself called to
make him happy, not seeing any disparity between herself and him. To her
the future would be as the present. When, next day, her father and mother
returned from the Salon, their dejected faces proclaimed some
disappointment. In the first place, the painter had removed the two
pictures; and then Madame Guillaume had lost her cashmere shawl. But the
news that the pictures had disappeared from the walls since her visit
revealed to Augustine a delicacy of sentiment which a woman can always
appreciate, even by instinct.
On the morning when, on his way home from a ball, Theodore de Sommervieux—for
this was the name which fame had stamped on Augustine's heart—had
been squirted on by the apprentices while awaiting the appearance of his
artless little friend, who certainly did not know that he was there, the
lovers had seen each other for the fourth time only since their meeting at
the Salon. The difficulties which the rule of the house placed in the way
of the painter's ardent nature gave added violence to his passion for
How could he get near to a young girl seated in a counting-house between
two such women as Mademoiselle Virginie and Madame Guillaume? How could he
correspond with her when her mother never left her side? Ingenious, as
lovers are, to imagine woes, Theodore saw a rival in one of the
assistants, to whose interests he supposed the others to be devoted. If he
should evade these sons of Argus, he would yet be wrecked under the stern
eye of the old draper or of Madame Guillaume. The very vehemence of his
passion hindered the young painter from hitting on the ingenious
expedients which, in prisoners and in lovers, seem to be the last effort
of intelligence spurred by a wild craving for liberty, or by the fire of
love. Theodore wandered about the neighborhood with the restlessness of a
madman, as though movement might inspire him with some device. After
racking his imagination, it occurred to him to bribe the blowsy
waiting-maid with gold. Thus a few notes were exchanged at long intervals
during the fortnight following the ill-starred morning when Monsieur
Guillaume and Theodore had so scrutinized one another. At the present
moment the young couple had agreed to see each other at a certain hour of
the day, and on Sunday, at Saint-Leu, during Mass and vespers. Augustine
had sent her dear Theodore a list of the relations and friends of the
family, to whom the young painter tried to get access, in the hope of
interesting, if it were possible, in his love affairs, one of these souls
absorbed in money and trade, to whom a genuine passion must appear a quite
monstrous speculation, a thing unheard-of. Nothing meanwhile, was altered
at the sign of the Cat and Racket. If Augustine was absent-minded, if,
against all obedience to the domestic code, she stole up to her room to
make signals by means of a jar of flowers, if she sighed, if she were lost
in thought, no one observed it, not even her mother. This will cause some
surprise to those who have entered into the spirit of the household, where
an idea tainted with poetry would be in startling contrast to persons and
things, where no one could venture on a gesture or a look which would not
be seen and analyzed. Nothing, however, could be more natural: the quiet
barque that navigated the stormy waters of the Paris Exchange, under the
flag of the Cat and Racket, was just now in the toils of one of these
tempests which, returning periodically, might be termed equinoctial. For
the last fortnight the five men forming the crew, with Madame Guillaume
and Mademoiselle Virginie, had been devoting themselves to the hard labor,
known as stock-taking.
Every bale was turned over, and the length verified to ascertain the exact
value of the remnant. The ticket attached to each parcel was carefully
examined to see at what time the piece had been bought. The retail price
was fixed. Monsieur Guillaume, always on his feet, his pen behind his ear,
was like a captain commanding the working of the ship. His sharp tones,
spoken through a trap-door, to inquire into the depths of the hold in the
cellar-store, gave utterance to the barbarous formulas of trade-jargon,
which find expression only in cipher. "How much H. N. Z.?"—"All
sold."—"What is left of Q. X.?"—"Two ells."—"At what
price?"—"Fifty-five three."—"Set down A. at three, with all of
J. J., all of M. P., and what is left of V. D. O."—A hundred other
injunctions equally intelligible were spouted over the counters like
verses of modern poetry, quoted by romantic spirits, to excite each
other's enthusiasm for one of their poets. In the evening Guillaume, shut
up with his assistant and his wife, balanced his accounts, carried on the
balance, wrote to debtors in arrears, and made out bills. All three were
busy over this enormous labor, of which the result could be stated on a
sheet of foolscap, proving to the head of the house that there was so much
to the good in hard cash, so much in goods, so much in bills and notes;
that he did not owe a sou; that a hundred or two hundred thousand francs
were owing to him; that the capital had been increased; that the
farmlands, the houses, or the investments were extended, or repaired, or
doubled. Whence it became necessary to begin again with increased ardor,
to accumulate more crown-pieces, without its ever entering the brain of
these laborious ants to ask—"To what end?"
Favored by this annual turmoil, the happy Augustine escaped the
investigations of her Argus-eyed relations. At last, one Saturday evening,
the stock-taking was finished. The figures of the sum-total showed a row
of 0's long enough to allow Guillaume for once to relax the stern rule as
to dessert which reigned throughout the year. The shrewd old draper rubbed
his hands, and allowed his assistants to remain at table. The members of
the crew had hardly swallowed their thimbleful of some home-made liqueur,
when the rumble of a carriage was heard. The family party were going to
see Cendrillon at the Varietes, while the two younger apprentices
each received a crown of six francs, with permission to go wherever they
chose, provided they were in by midnight.
Notwithstanding this debauch, the old cloth-merchant was shaving himself
at six next morning, put on his maroon-colored coat, of which the glowing
lights afforded him perennial enjoyment, fastened a pair of gold buckles
on the knee-straps of his ample satin breeches; and then, at about seven
o'clock, while all were still sleeping in the house, he made his way to
the little office adjoining the shop on the first floor. Daylight came in
through a window, fortified by iron bars, and looking out on a small yard
surrounded by such black walls that it was very like a well. The old
merchant opened the iron-lined shutters, which were so familiar to him,
and threw up the lower half of the sash window. The icy air of the
courtyard came in to cool the hot atmosphere of the little room, full of
the odor peculiar to offices.
The merchant remained standing, his hand resting on the greasy arm of a
large cane chair lined with morocco, of which the original hue had
disappeared; he seemed to hesitate as to seating himself. He looked with
affection at the double desk, where his wife's seat, opposite his own, was
fitted into a little niche in the wall. He contemplated the numbered
boxes, the files, the implements, the cash box—objects all of
immemorial origin, and fancied himself in the room with the shade of
Master Chevrel. He even pulled out the high stool on which he had once sat
in the presence of his departed master. This stool, covered with black
leather, the horse-hair showing at every corner—as it had long done,
without, however, coming out—he placed with a shaking hand on the
very spot where his predecessor had put it, and then, with an emotion
difficult to describe, he pulled a bell, which rang at the head of Joseph
Lebas' bed. When this decisive blow had been struck, the old man, for
whom, no doubt, these reminiscences were too much, took up three or four
bills of exchange, and looked at them without seeing them.
Suddenly Joseph Lebas stood before him.
"Sit down there," said Guillaume, pointing to the stool.
As the old master draper had never yet bid his assistant be seated in his
presence, Joseph Lebas was startled.
"What do you think of these notes?" asked Guillaume.
"They will never be paid."
"Well, I heard the day before yesterday Etienne and Co. had made their
payments in gold."
"Oh, oh!" said the draper. "Well, one must be very ill to show one's bile.
Let us speak of something else.—Joseph, the stock-taking is done."
"Yes, monsieur, and the dividend is one of the best you have ever made."
"Do not use new-fangled words. Say the profits, Joseph. Do you know, my
boy, that this result is partly owing to you? And I do not intend to pay
you a salary any longer. Madame Guillaume has suggested to me to take you
into partnership.—'Guillaume and Lebas;' will not that make a good
business name? We might add, 'and Co.' to round off the firm's signature."
Tears rose to the eyes of Joseph Lebas, who tried to hide them.
"Oh, Monsieur Guillaume, how have I deserved such kindness? I only do my
duty. It was so much already that you should take an interest in a poor
He was brushing the cuff of his left sleeve with his right hand, and dared
not look at the old man, who smiled as he thought that this modest young
fellow no doubt needed, as he had needed once on a time, some
encouragement to complete his explanation.
"To be sure," said Virginie's father, "you do not altogether deserve this
favor, Joseph. You have not so much confidence in me as I have in you."
(The young man looked up quickly.) "You know all the secrets of the
cash-box. For the last two years I have told you almost all my concerns. I
have sent you to travel in our goods. In short, I have nothing on my
conscience as regards you. But you—you have a soft place, and you
have never breathed a word of it." Joseph Lebas blushed. "Ah, ha!" cried
Guillaume, "so you thought you could deceive an old fox like me? When you
knew that I had scented the Lecocq bankruptcy?"
"What, monsieur?" replied Joseph Lebas, looking at his master as keenly as
his master looked at him, "you knew that I was in love?"
"I know everything, you rascal," said the worthy and cunning old merchant,
pulling the assistant's ear. "And I forgive you—I did the same
"And you will give her to me?"
"Yes—with fifty thousand crowns; and I will leave you as much by
will, and we will start on our new career under the name of a new firm. We
will do good business yet, my boy!" added the old man, getting up and
flourishing his arms. "I tell you, son-in-law, there is nothing like
trade. Those who ask what pleasure is to be found in it are simpletons. To
be on the scent of a good bargain, to hold your own on 'Change, to watch
as anxiously as at the gaming-table whether Etienne and Co. will fail or
no, to see a regiment of Guards march past all dressed in your cloth, to
trip your neighbor up—honestly of course!—to make the goods
cheaper than others can; then to carry out an undertaking which you have
planned, which begins, grows, totters, and succeeds! to know the workings
of every house of business as well as a minister of police, so as never to
make a mistake; to hold up your head in the midst of wrecks, to have
friends by correspondence in every manufacturing town; is not that a
perpetual game, Joseph? That is life, that is! I shall die in that
harness, like old Chevrel, but taking it easy now, all the same."
In the heat of his eager rhetoric, old Guillaume had scarcely looked at
his assistant, who was weeping copiously. "Why, Joseph, my poor boy, what
is the matter?"
"Oh, I love her so! Monsieur Guillaume, that my heart fails me; I believe——"
"Well, well, boy," said the old man, touched, "you are happier than you
know, by God! For she loves you. I know it."
And he blinked his little green eyes as he looked at the young man.
"Mademoiselle Augustine! Mademoiselle Augustine!" exclaimed Joseph Lebas
in his rapture.
He was about to rush out of the room when he felt himself clutched by a
hand of iron, and his astonished master spun him round in front of him
"What has Augustine to do with this matter?" he asked, in a voice which
instantly froze the luckless Joseph.
"Is it not she that—that—I love?" stammered the assistant.
Much put out by his own want of perspicacity, Guillaume sat down again,
and rested his long head in his hands to consider the perplexing situation
in which he found himself. Joseph Lebas, shamefaced and in despair,
"Joseph," the draper said with frigid dignity, "I was speaking of
Virginie. Love cannot be made to order, I know. I know, too, that you can
be trusted. We will forget all this. I will not let Augustine marry before
Virginie.—Your interest will be ten per cent."
The young man, to whom love gave I know not what power of courage and
eloquence, clasped his hand, and spoke in his turn—spoke for a
quarter of an hour, with so much warmth and feeling, that he altered the
situation. If the question had been a matter of business the old tradesman
would have had fixed principles to guide his decision; but, tossed a
thousand miles from commerce, on the ocean of sentiment, without a
compass, he floated, as he told himself, undecided in the face of such an
unexpected event. Carried away by his fatherly kindness, he began to beat
about the bush.
"Deuce take it, Joseph, you must know that there are ten years between my
two children. Mademoiselle Chevrel was no beauty, still she has had
nothing to complain of in me. Do as I did. Come, come, don't cry. Can you
be so silly? What is to be done? It can be managed perhaps. There is
always some way out of a scrape. And we men are not always devoted
Celadons to our wives—you understand? Madame Guillaume is very
pious. ... Come. By Gad, boy, give your arm to Augustine this morning as
we go to Mass."
These were the phrases spoken at random by the old draper, and their
conclusion made the lover happy. He was already thinking of a friend of
his as a match for Mademoiselle Virginie, as he went out of the smoky
office, pressing his future father-in-law's hand, after saying with a
knowing look that all would turn out for the best.
"What will Madame Guillaume say to it?" was the idea that greatly troubled
the worthy merchant when he found himself alone.
At breakfast Madame Guillaume and Virginie, to whom the draper had not yet
confided his disappointment, cast meaning glances at Joseph Lebas, who was
extremely embarrassed. The young assistant's bashfulness commended him to
his mother-in-law's good graces. The matron became so cheerful that she
smiled as she looked at her husband, and allowed herself some little
pleasantries of time-honored acceptance in such simple families. She
wondered whether Joseph or Virginie were the taller, to ask them to
compare their height. This preliminary fooling brought a cloud to the
master's brow, and he even made such a point of decorum that he desired
Augustine to take the assistant's arm on their way to Saint-Leu. Madame
Guillaume, surprised at this manly delicacy, honored her husband with a
nod of approval. So the procession left the house in such order as to
suggest no suspicious meaning to the neighbors.
"Does it not seem to you, Mademoiselle Augustine," said the assistant, and
he trembled, "that the wife of a merchant whose credit is as good as
Monsieur Guillaume's, for instance, might enjoy herself a little more than
Madame your mother does? Might wear diamonds—or keep a carriage? For
my part, if I were to marry, I should be glad to take all the work, and
see my wife happy. I would not put her into the counting-house. In the
drapery business, you see, a woman is not so necessary now as formerly.
Monsieur Guillaume was quite right to act as he did—and besides, his
wife liked it. But so long as a woman knows how to turn her hand to the
book-keeping, the correspondence, the retail business, the orders, and her
housekeeping, so as not to sit idle, that is enough. At seven o'clock,
when the shop is shut, I shall take my pleasures, go to the play, and into
company.—But you are not listening to me."
"Yes, indeed, Monsieur Joseph. What do you think of painting? That is a
"Yes. I know a master house-painter, Monsieur Lourdois. He is well-to-do."
Thus conversing, the family reached the Church of Saint-Leu. There Madame
Guillaume reasserted her rights, and, for the first time, placed Augustine
next herself, Virginie taking her place on the fourth chair, next to
Lebas. During the sermon all went well between Augustine and Theodore,
who, standing behind a pillar, worshiped his Madonna with fervent
devotion; but at the elevation of the Host, Madame Guillaume discovered,
rather late, that her daughter Augustine was holding her prayer-book
upside down. She was about to speak to her strongly, when, lowering her
veil, she interrupted her own devotions to look in the direction where her
daughter's eyes found attraction. By the help of her spectacles she saw
the young artist, whose fashionable elegance seemed to proclaim him a
cavalry officer on leave rather than a tradesman of the neighborhood. It
is difficult to conceive of the state of violent agitation in which Madame
Guillaume found herself—she, who flattered herself on having brought
up her daughters to perfection—on discovering in Augustine a
clandestine passion of which her prudery and ignorance exaggerated the
perils. She believed her daughter to be cankered to the core.
"Hold your book right way up, miss," she muttered in a low voice,
tremulous with wrath. She snatched away the tell-tale prayer-book and
returned it with the letter-press right way up. "Do not allow your eyes to
look anywhere but at your prayers," she added, "or I shall have something
to say to you. Your father and I will talk to you after church."
These words came like a thunderbolt on poor Augustine. She felt faint;
but, torn between the distress she felt and the dread of causing a
commotion in church she bravely concealed her anguish. It was, however,
easy to discern the stormy state of her soul from the trembling of her
prayer-book, and the tears which dropped on every page she turned. From
the furious glare shot at him by Madame Guillaume the artist saw the peril
into which his love affair had fallen; he went out, with a raging soul,
determined to venture all.
"Go to your room, miss!" said Madame Guillaume, on their return home; "we
will send for you, but take care not to quit it."
The conference between the husband and wife was conducted so secretly that
at first nothing was heard of it. Virginie, however, who had tried to give
her sister courage by a variety of gentle remonstrances, carried her good
nature so far as to listen at the door of her mother's bedroom where the
discussion was held, to catch a word or two. The first time she went down
to the lower floor she heard her father exclaim, "Then, madame, do you
wish to kill your daughter?"
"My poor dear!" said Virginie, in tears, "papa takes your part."
"And what do they want to do to Theodore?" asked the innocent girl.
Virginie, inquisitive, went down again; but this time she stayed longer;
she learned that Joseph Lebas loved Augustine. It was written that on this
memorable day, this house, generally so peaceful, should be a hell.
Monsieur Guillaume brought Joseph Lebas to despair by telling him of
Augustine's love for a stranger. Lebas, who had advised his friend to
become a suitor for Mademoiselle Virginie, saw all his hopes wrecked.
Mademoiselle Virginie, overcome by hearing that Joseph had, in a way,
refused her, had a sick headache. The dispute that had arisen from the
discussion between Monsieur and Madame Guillaume, when, for the third time
in their lives, they had been of antagonistic opinions, had shown itself
in a terrible form. Finally, at half-past four in the afternoon,
Augustine, pale, trembling, and with red eyes, was haled before her father
and mother. The poor child artlessly related the too brief tale of her
love. Reassured by a speech from her father, who promised to listen to her
in silence, she gathered courage as she pronounced to her parents the name
of Theodore de Sommervieux, with a mischievous little emphasis on the
aristocratic de. And yielding to the unknown charm of talking of
her feelings, she was brave enough to declare with innocent decision that
she loved Monsieur de Sommervieux, that she had written to him, and she
added, with tears in her eyes: "To sacrifice me to another man would make
"But, Augustine, you cannot surely know what a painter is?" cried her
mother with horror.
"Madame Guillaume!" said the old man, compelling her to silence.—"Augustine,"
he went on, "artists are generally little better than beggars. They are
too extravagant not to be always a bad sort. I served the late Monsieur
Joseph Vernet, the late Monsieur Lekain, and the late Monsieur Noverre.
Oh, if you could only know the tricks played on poor Father Chevrel by
that Monsieur Noverre, by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and especially
by Monsieur Philidor! They are a set of rascals; I know them well! They
all have a gab and nice manners. Ah, your Monsieur Sumer—, Somm——"
"De Sommervieux, papa."
"Well, well, de Sommervieux, well and good. He can never have been half so
sweet to you as Monsieur le Chevalier de Saint-Georges was to me the day I
got a verdict of the consuls against him. And in those days they were
gentlemen of quality."
"But, father, Monsieur Theodore is of good family, and he wrote me that he
is rich; his father was called Chevalier de Sommervieux before the
At these words Monsieur Guillaume looked at his terrible better half, who,
like an angry woman, sat tapping the floor with her foot while keeping
sullen silence; she avoided even casting wrathful looks at Augustine,
appearing to leave to Monsieur Guillaume the whole responsibility in so
grave a matter, since her opinion was not listened to. Nevertheless, in
spite of her apparent self-control, when she saw her husband giving way so
mildly under a catastrophe which had no concern with business, she
"Really, monsieur, you are so weak with your daughters! However——"
The sound of a carriage, which stopped at the door, interrupted the rating
which the old draper already quaked at. In a minute Madame Roguin was
standing in the middle of the room, and looking at the actors in this
domestic scene: "I know all, my dear cousin," said she, with a patronizing
Madame Roguin made the great mistake of supposing that a Paris notary's
wife could play the part of a favorite of fashion.
"I know all," she repeated, "and I have come into Noah's Ark, like the
dove, with the olive-branch. I read that allegory in the Genie du
Christianisme," she added, turning to Madame Guillaume; "the allusion
ought to please you, cousin. Do you know," she went on, smiling at
Augustine, "that Monsieur de Sommervieux is a charming man? He gave me my
portrait this morning, painted by a master's hand. It is worth at least
six thousand francs." And at these words she patted Monsieur Guillaume on
the arm. The old draper could not help making a grimace with his lips,
which was peculiar to him.
"I know Monsieur de Sommervieux very well," the Dove ran on. "He has come
to my evenings this fortnight past, and made them delightful. He has told
me all his woes, and commissioned me to plead for him. I know since this
morning that he adores Augustine, and he shall have her. Ah, cousin, do
not shake your head in refusal. He will be created Baron, I can tell you,
and has just been made Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, by the Emperor
himself, at the Salon. Roguin is now his lawyer, and knows all his
affairs. Well! Monsieur de Sommervieux has twelve thousand francs a year
in good landed estate. Do you know that the father-in-law of such a man
may get a rise in life—be mayor of his arrondissement, for
instance. Have we not seen Monsieur Dupont become a Count of the Empire,
and a senator, all because he went as mayor to congratulate the Emperor on
his entry into Vienna? Oh, this marriage must take place! For my part, I
adore the dear young man. His behavior to Augustine is only met with in
romances. Be easy, little one, you shall be happy, and every girl will
wish she were in your place. Madame la Duchesse de Carigliano, who comes
to my 'At Homes,' raves about Monsieur de Sommervieux. Some spiteful
people say she only comes to me to meet him; as if a duchesse of yesterday
was doing too much honor to a Chevrel, whose family have been respected
citizens these hundred years!
"Augustine," Madame Roguin went on, after a short pause, "I have seen the
portrait. Heavens! How lovely it is! Do you know that the Emperor wanted
to have it? He laughed, and said to the Deputy High Constable that if
there were many women like that in his court while all the kings visited
it, he should have no difficulty about preserving the peace of Europe. Is
not that a compliment?"
The tempests with which the day had begun were to resemble those of
nature, by ending in clear and serene weather. Madame Roguin displayed so
much address in her harangue, she was able to touch so many strings in the
dry hearts of Monsieur and Madame Guillaume, that at last she hit on one
which she could work upon. At this strange period commerce and finance
were more than ever possessed by the crazy mania for seeking alliance with
rank; and the generals of the Empire took full advantage of this desire.
Monsieur Guillaume, as a singular exception, opposed this deplorable
craving. His favorite axioms were that, to secure happiness, a woman must
marry a man of her own class; that every one was punished sooner or later
for having climbed too high; that love could so little endure under the
worries of a household, that both husband and wife needed sound good
qualities to be happy, that it would not do for one to be far in advance
of the other, because, above everything, they must understand each other;
if a man spoke Greek and his wife Latin, they might come to die of hunger.
He had himself invented this sort of adage. And he compared such marriages
to old-fashioned materials of mixed silk and wool. Still, there is so much
vanity at the bottom of man's heart that the prudence of the pilot who
steered the Cat and Racket so wisely gave way before Madame Roguin's
aggressive volubility. Austere Madame Guillaume was the first to see in
her daughter's affection a reason for abdicating her principles and for
consenting to receive Monsieur de Sommervieux, whom she promised herself
she would put under severe inquisition.
The old draper went to look for Joseph Lebas, and inform him of the state
of affairs. At half-past six, the dining-room immortalized by the artist
saw, united under its skylight, Monsieur and Madame Roguin, the young
painter and his charming Augustine, Joseph Lebas, who found his happiness
in patience, and Mademoiselle Virginie, convalescent from her headache.
Monsieur and Madame Guillaume saw in perspective both their children
married, and the fortunes of the Cat and Racket once more in skilful
hands. Their satisfaction was at its height when, at dessert, Theodore
made them a present of the wonderful picture which they had failed to see,
representing the interior of the old shop, and to which they all owed so
"Isn't it pretty!" cried Guillaume. "And to think that any one would pay
thirty thousand francs for that!"
"Because you can see my lappets in it," said Madame Guillaume.
"And the cloth unrolled!" added Lebas; "you might take it up in your
"Drapery always comes out well," replied the painter. "We should be only
too happy, we modern artists, if we could touch the perfection of antique
"So you like drapery!" cried old Guillaume. "Well, then, by Gad! shake
hands on that, my young friend. Since you can respect trade, we shall
understand each other. And why should it be despised? The world began with
trade, since Adam sold Paradise for an apple. He did not strike a good
bargain though!" And the old man roared with honest laughter, encouraged
by the champagne, which he sent round with a liberal hand. The band that
covered the young artist's eyes was so thick that he thought his future
parents amiable. He was not above enlivening them by a few jests in the
best taste. So he too pleased every one. In the evening, when the
drawing-room, furnished with what Madame Guillaume called "everything
handsome," was deserted, and while she flitted from the table to the
chimney-piece, from the candelabra to the tall candlesticks, hastily
blowing out the wax-lights, the worthy draper, who was always
clear-sighted when money was in question, called Augustine to him, and
seating her on his knee, spoke as follows:—
"My dear child, you shall marry your Sommervieux since you insist; you
may, if you like, risk your capital in happiness. But I am not going to be
hoodwinked by the thirty thousand francs to be made by spoiling good
canvas. Money that is lightly earned is lightly spent. Did I not hear that
hare-brained youngster declare this evening that money was made round that
it might roll. If it is round for spendthrifts, it is flat for saving
folks who pile it up. Now, my child, that fine gentleman talks of giving
you carriages and diamonds! He has money, let him spend it on you; so be
it. It is no concern of mine. But as to what I can give you, I will not
have the crown-pieces I have picked up with so much toil wasted in
carriages and frippery. Those who spend too fast never grow rich. A
hundred thousand crowns, which is your fortune, will not buy up Paris. It
is all very well to look forward to a few hundred thousand francs to be
yours some day; I shall keep you waiting for them as long as possible, by
Gad! So I took your lover aside, and a man who managed the Lecocq
bankruptcy had not much difficulty in persuading the artist to marry under
a settlement of his wife's money on herself. I will keep an eye on the
marriage contract to see that what he is to settle on you is safely tied
up. So now, my child, I hope to be a grandfather, by Gad! I will begin at
once to lay up for my grandchildren; but swear to me, here and now, never
to sign any papers relating to money without my advice; and if I go soon
to join old Father Chevrel, promise to consult young Lebas, your
"Yes, father, I swear it."
At these words, spoken in a gentle voice, the old man kissed his daughter
on both cheeks. That night the lovers slept as soundly as Monsieur and
Some few months after this memorable Sunday the high altar of Saint-Leu
was the scene of two very different weddings. Augustine and Theodore
appeared in all the radiance of happiness, their eyes beaming with love,
dressed with elegance, while a fine carriage waited for them. Virginie,
who had come in a good hired fly with the rest of the family, humbly
followed her younger sister, dressed in the simplest fashion like a shadow
necessary to the harmony of the picture. Monsieur Guillaume had exerted
himself to the utmost in the church to get Virginie married before
Augustine, but the priests, high and low, persisted in addressing the more
elegant of the two brides. He heard some of his neighbors highly approving
the good sense of Mademoiselle Virginie, who was making, as they said, the
more substantial match, and remaining faithful to the neighborhood; while
they fired a few taunts, prompted by envy of Augustine, who was marrying
an artist and a man of rank; adding, with a sort of dismay, that if the
Guillaumes were ambitious, there was an end to the business. An old
fan-maker having remarked that such a prodigal would soon bring his wife
to beggary, father Guillaume prided himself in petto for his
prudence in the matter of marriage settlements. In the evening, after a
splendid ball, followed by one of those substantial suppers of which the
memory is dying out in the present generation, Monsieur and Madame
Guillaume remained in a fine house belonging to them in the Rue du
Colombier, where the wedding had been held; Monsieur and Madame Lebas
returned in their fly to the old home in the Rue Saint-Denis, to steer the
good ship Cat and Racket. The artist, intoxicated with happiness, carried
off his beloved Augustine, and eagerly lifting her out of their carriage
when it reached the Rue des Trois-Freres, led her to an apartment
embellished by all the arts.
The fever of passion which possessed Theodore made a year fly over the
young couple without a single cloud to dim the blue sky under which they
lived. Life did not hang heavy on the lovers' hands. Theodore lavished on
every day inexhaustible fioriture of enjoyment, and he delighted to
vary the transports of passion by the soft languor of those hours of
repose when souls soar so high that they seem to have forgotten all bodily
union. Augustine was too happy for reflection; she floated on an
undulating tide of rapture; she thought she could not do enough by
abandoning herself to sanctioned and sacred married love; simple and
artless, she had no coquetry, no reserves, none of the dominion which a
worldly-minded girl acquires over her husband by ingenious caprice; she
loved too well to calculate for the future, and never imagined that so
exquisite a life could come to an end. Happy in being her husband's sole
delight, she believed that her inextinguishable love would always be her
greatest grace in his eyes, as her devotion and obedience would be a
perennial charm. And, indeed, the ecstasy of love had made her so
brilliantly lovely that her beauty filled her with pride, and gave her
confidence that she could always reign over a man so easy to kindle as
Monsieur de Sommervieux. Thus her position as a wife brought her no
knowledge but the lessons of love.
In the midst of her happiness, she was still the simple child who had
lived in obscurity in the Rue Saint-Denis, and who never thought of
acquiring the manners, the information, the tone of the world she had to
live in. Her words being the words of love, she revealed in them, no
doubt, a certain pliancy of mind and a certain refinement of speech; but
she used the language common to all women when they find themselves
plunged in passion, which seems to be their element. When, by chance,
Augustine expressed an idea that did not harmonize with Theodore's, the
young artist laughed, as we laugh at the first mistakes of a foreigner,
though they end by annoying us if they are not corrected.
In spite of all this love-making, by the end of this year, as delightful
as it was swift, Sommervieux felt one morning the need for resuming his
work and his old habits. His wife was expecting their first child. He saw
some friends again. During the tedious discomforts of the year when a
young wife is nursing an infant for the first time, he worked, no doubt,
with zeal, but he occasionally sought diversion in the fashionable world.
The house which he was best pleased to frequent was that of the Duchesse
de Carigliano, who had at last attracted the celebrated artist to her
parties. When Augustine was quite well again, and her boy no longer
required the assiduous care which debars a mother from social pleasures,
Theodore had come to the stage of wishing to know the joys of satisfied
vanity to be found in society by a man who shows himself with a handsome
woman, the object of envy and admiration.
To figure in drawing-rooms with the reflected lustre of her husband's
fame, and to find other women envious of her, was to Augustine a new
harvest of pleasures; but it was the last gleam of conjugal happiness. She
first wounded her husband's vanity when, in spite of vain efforts, she
betrayed her ignorance, the inelegance of her language, and the narrowness
of her ideas. Sommervieux's nature, subjugated for nearly two years and a
half by the first transports of love, now, in the calm of less new
possession, recovered its bent and habits, for a while diverted from their
channel. Poetry, painting, and the subtle joys of imagination have
inalienable rights over a lofty spirit. These cravings of a powerful soul
had not been starved in Theodore during these two years; they had only
found fresh pasture. As soon as the meadows of love had been ransacked,
and the artist had gathered roses and cornflowers as the children do, so
greedily that he did not see that his hands could hold no more, the scene
changed. When the painter showed his wife the sketches for his finest
compositions he heard her exclaim, as her father had done, "How pretty!"
This tepid admiration was not the outcome of conscientious feeling, but of
her faith on the strength of love.
Augustine cared more for a look than for the finest picture. The only
sublime she knew was that of the heart. At last Theodore could not resist
the evidence of the cruel fact—his wife was insensible to poetry,
she did not dwell in his sphere, she could not follow him in all his
vagaries, his inventions, his joys and his sorrows; she walked groveling
in the world of reality, while his head was in the skies. Common minds
cannot appreciate the perennial sufferings of a being who, while bound to
another by the most intimate affections, is obliged constantly to suppress
the dearest flights of his soul, and to thrust down into the void those
images which a magic power compels him to create. To him the torture is
all the more intolerable because his feeling towards his companion
enjoins, as its first law, that they should have no concealments, but
mingle the aspirations of their thought as perfectly as the effusions of
their soul. The demands of nature are not to be cheated. She is as
inexorable as necessity, which is, indeed, a sort of social nature.
Sommervieux took refuge in the peace and silence of his studio, hoping
that the habit of living with artists might mould his wife and develop in
her the dormant germs of lofty intelligence which some superior minds
suppose must exist in every being. But Augustine was too sincerely
religious not to take fright at the tone of artists. At the first dinner
Theodore gave, she heard a young painter say, with the childlike
lightness, which to her was unintelligible, and which redeems a jest from
the taint of profanity, "But, madame, your Paradise cannot be more
beautiful than Raphael's Transfiguration!—Well, and I got tired of
looking at that."
Thus Augustine came among this sparkling set in a spirit of distrust which
no one could fail to see. She was a restraint on their freedom. Now an
artist who feels restraint is pitiless; he stays away, or laughs it to
scorn. Madame Guillaume, among other absurdities, had an excessive notion
of the dignity she considered the prerogative of a married woman; and
Augustine, though she had often made fun of it, could not help a slight
imitation of her mother's primness. This extreme propriety, which virtuous
wives do not always avoid, suggested a few epigrams in the form of
sketches, in which the harmless jest was in such good taste that
Sommervieux could not take offence; and even if they had been more severe,
these pleasantries were after all only reprisals from his friends. Still,
nothing could seem a trifle to a spirit so open as Theodore's to
impressions from without. A coldness insensibly crept over him, and
inevitably spread. To attain conjugal happiness we must climb a hill whose
summit is a narrow ridge, close to a steep and slippery descent: the
painter's love was falling down it. He regarded his wife as incapable of
appreciating the moral considerations which justified him in his own eyes
for his singular behavior to her, and believed himself quite innocent in
hiding from her thoughts she could not enter into, and peccadilloes
outside the jurisdiction of a bourgeois conscience. Augustine
wrapped herself in sullen and silent grief. These unconfessed feelings
placed a shroud between the husband and wife which could not fail to grow
thicker day by day. Though her husband never failed in consideration for
her, Augustine could not help trembling as she saw that he kept for the
outer world those treasures of wit and grace that he formerly would lay at
her feet. She soon began to find sinister meaning in the jocular speeches
that are current in the world as to the inconstancy of men. She made no
complaints, but her demeanor conveyed reproach.
Three years after her marriage this pretty young woman, who dashed past in
her handsome carriage, and lived in a sphere of glory and riches to the
envy of heedless folk incapable of taking a just view of the situations of
life, was a prey to intense grief. She lost her color; she reflected; she
made comparisons; then sorrow unfolded to her the first lessons of
experience. She determined to restrict herself bravely within the round of
duty, hoping that by this generous conduct she might sooner or later win
back her husband's love. But it was not so. When Sommervieux, fired with
work, came in from his studio, Augustine did not put away her work so
quickly but that the painter might find his wife mending the household
linen, and his own, with all the care of a good housewife. She supplied
generously and without a murmur the money needed for his lavishness; but
in her anxiety to husband her dear Theodore's fortune, she was strictly
economical for herself and in certain details of domestic management. Such
conduct is incompatible with the easy-going habits of artists, who, at the
end of their life, have enjoyed it so keenly that they never inquire into
the causes of their ruin.
It is useless to note every tint of shadow by which the brilliant hues of
their honeymoon were overcast till they were lost in utter blackness. One
evening poor Augustine, who had for some time heard her husband speak with
enthusiasm of the Duchesse de Carigliano, received from a friend certain
malignantly charitable warnings as to the nature of the attachment which
Sommervieux had formed for this celebrated flirt of the Imperial Court. At
one-and-twenty, in all the splendor of youth and beauty, Augustine saw
herself deserted for a woman of six-and-thirty. Feeling herself so
wretched in the midst of a world of festivity which to her was a blank,
the poor little thing could no longer understand the admiration she
excited, or the envy of which she was the object. Her face assumed a
different expression. Melancholy, tinged her features with the sweetness
of resignation and the pallor of scorned love. Ere long she too was
courted by the most fascinating men; but she remained lonely and virtuous.
Some contemptuous words which escaped her husband filled her with
incredible despair. A sinister flash showed her the breaches which, as a
result of her sordid education, hindered the perfect union of her soul
with Theodore's; she loved him well enough to absolve him and condemn
herself. She shed tears of blood, and perceived, too late, that there are
mesalliances of the spirit as well as of rank and habits. As she
recalled the early raptures of their union, she understood the full extent
of that lost happiness, and accepted the conclusion that so rich a harvest
of love was in itself a whole life, which only sorrow could pay for. At
the same time, she loved too truly to lose all hope. At one-and-twenty she
dared undertake to educate herself, and make her imagination, at least,
worthy of that she admired. "If I am not a poet," thought she, "at any
rate, I will understand poetry."
Then, with all the strength of will, all the energy which every woman can
display when she loves, Madame de Sommervieux tried to alter her
character, her manners, and her habits; but by dint of devouring books and
learning undauntedly, she only succeeded in becoming less ignorant.
Lightness of wit and the graces of conversation are a gift of nature, or
the fruit of education begun in the cradle. She could appreciate music and
enjoy it, but she could not sing with taste. She understood literature and
the beauties of poetry, but it was too late to cultivate her refractory
memory. She listened with pleasure to social conversation, but she could
contribute nothing brilliant. Her religious notions and home-grown
prejudices were antagonistic to the complete emancipation of her
intelligence. Finally, a foregone conclusion against her had stolen into
Theodore's mind, and this she could not conquer. The artist would laugh,
at those who flattered him about his wife, and his irony had some
foundation; he so overawed the pathetic young creature that, in his
presence, or alone with him, she trembled. Hampered by her too eager
desire to please, her wits and her knowledge vanished in one absorbing
feeling. Even her fidelity vexed the unfaithful husband, who seemed to bid
her do wrong by stigmatizing her virtue as insensibility. Augustine tried
in vain to abdicate her reason, to yield to her husband's caprices and
whims, to devote herself to the selfishness of his vanity. Her sacrifices
bore no fruit. Perhaps they had both let the moment slip when souls may
meet in comprehension. One day the young wife's too sensitive heart
received one of those blows which so strain the bonds of feeling that they
seem to be broken. She withdrew into solitude. But before long a fatal
idea suggested to her to seek counsel and comfort in the bosom of her
So one morning she made her way towards the grotesque facade of the
humble, silent home where she had spent her childhood. She sighed as she
looked up at the sash-window, whence one day she had sent her first kiss
to him who now shed as much sorrow as glory on her life. Nothing was
changed in the cavern, where the drapery business had, however, started on
a new life. Augustine's sister filled her mother's old place at the desk.
The unhappy young woman met her brother-in-law with his pen behind his
ear; he hardly listened to her, he was so full of business. The formidable
symptoms of stock-taking were visible all round him; he begged her to
excuse him. She was received coldly enough by her sister, who owed her a
grudge. In fact, Augustine, in her finery, and stepping out of a handsome
carriage, had never been to see her but when passing by. The wife of the
prudent Lebas, imagining that want of money was the prime cause of this
early call, tried to keep up a tone of reserve which more than once made
Augustine smile. The painter's wife perceived that, apart from the cap and
lappets, her mother had found in Virginie a successor who could uphold the
ancient honor of the Cat and Racket. At breakfast she observed certain
changes in the management of the house which did honor to Lebas' good
sense; the assistants did not rise before dessert; they were allowed to
talk, and the abundant meal spoke of ease without luxury. The fashionable
woman found some tickets for a box at the Francais, where she remembered
having seen her sister from time to time. Madame Lebas had a cashmere
shawl over her shoulders, of which the value bore witness to her husband's
generosity to her. In short, the couple were keeping pace with the times.
During the two-thirds of the day she spent there, Augustine was touched to
the heart by the equable happiness, devoid, to be sure, of all emotion,
but equally free from storms, enjoyed by this well-matched couple. They
had accepted life as a commercial enterprise, in which, above all, they
must do credit to the business. Not finding any great love in her husband,
Virginie had set to work to create it. Having by degrees learned to esteem
and care for his wife, the time that his happiness had taken to germinate
was to Joseph Lebas a guarantee of its durability. Hence, when Augustine
plaintively set forth her painful position, she had to face the deluge of
commonplace morality which the traditions of the Rue Saint-Denis furnished
to her sister.
"The mischief is done, wife," said Joseph Lebas; "we must try to give our
sister good advice." Then the clever tradesman ponderously analyzed the
resources which law and custom might offer Augustine as a means of escape
at this crisis; he ticketed every argument, so to speak, and arranged them
in their degrees of weight under various categories, as though they were
articles of merchandise of different qualities; then he put them in the
scale, weighed them, and ended by showing the necessity for his
sister-in-law's taking violent steps which could not satisfy the love she
still had for her husband; and, indeed, the feeling had revived in all its
strength when she heard Joseph Lebas speak of legal proceedings. Augustine
thanked them, and returned home even more undecided than she had been
before consulting them. She now ventured to go to the house in the Rue du
Colombier, intending to confide her troubles to her father and mother; for
she was like a sick man who, in his desperate plight, tries every
prescription, and even puts faith in old wives' remedies.
The old people received their daughter with an effusiveness that touched
her deeply. Her visit brought them some little change, and that to them
was worth a fortune. For the last four years they had gone their way like
navigators without a goal or a compass. Sitting by the chimney corner,
they would talk over their disasters under the old law of maximum,
of their great investments in cloth, of the way they had weathered
bankruptcies, and, above all, the famous failure of Lecocq, Monsieur
Guillaume's battle of Marengo. Then, when they had exhausted the tale of
lawsuits, they recapitulated the sum total of their most profitable
stock-takings, and told each other old stories of the Saint-Denis quarter.
At two o'clock old Guillaume went to cast an eye on the business at the
Cat and Racket; on his way back he called at all the shops, formerly the
rivals of his own, where the young proprietors hoped to inveigle the old
draper into some risky discount, which, as was his wont, he never refused
point-blank. Two good Normandy horses were dying of their own fat in the
stables of the big house; Madame Guillaume never used them but to drag her
on Sundays to high Mass at the parish church. Three times a week the
worthy couple kept open house. By the influence of his son-in-law
Sommervieux, Monsieur Guillaume had been named a member of the consulting
board for the clothing of the Army. Since her husband had stood so high in
office, Madame Guillaume had decided that she must receive; her rooms were
so crammed with gold and silver ornaments, and furniture, tasteless but of
undoubted value, that the simplest room in the house looked like a chapel.
Economy and expense seemed to be struggling for the upper hand in every
accessory. It was as though Monsieur Guillaume had looked to a good
investment, even in the purchase of a candlestick. In the midst of this
bazaar, where splendor revealed the owner's want of occupation,
Sommervieux's famous picture filled the place of honor, and in it Monsieur
and Madame Guillaume found their chief consolation, turning their eyes,
harnessed with eye-glasses, twenty times a day on this presentment of
their past life, to them so active and amusing. The appearance of this
mansion and these rooms, where everything had an aroma of staleness and
mediocrity, the spectacle offered by these two beings, cast away, as it
were, on a rock far from the world and the ideas which are life, startled
Augustine; she could here contemplate the sequel of the scene of which the
first part had struck her at the house of Lebas—a life of stir
without movement, a mechanical and instinctive existence like that of the
beaver; and then she felt an indefinable pride in her troubles, as she
reflected that they had their source in eighteen months of such happiness
as, in her eyes, was worth a thousand lives like this; its vacuity seemed
to her horrible. However, she concealed this not very charitable feeling,
and displayed for her parents her newly-acquired accomplishments of mind,
and the ingratiating tenderness that love had revealed to her, disposing
them to listen to her matrimonial grievances. Old people have a weakness
for this kind of confidence. Madame Guillaume wanted to know the most
trivial details of that alien life, which to her seemed almost fabulous.
The travels of Baron da la Houtan, which she began again and again and
never finished, told her nothing more unheard-of concerning the Canadian
"What, child, your husband shuts himself into a room with naked women! And
you are so simple as to believe that he draws them?"
As she uttered this exclamation, the grandmother laid her spectacles on a
little work-table, shook her skirts, and clasped her hands on her knees,
raised by a foot-warmer, her favorite pedestal.
"But, mother, all artists are obliged to have models."
"He took good care not to tell us that when he asked leave to marry you.
If I had known it, I would never had given my daughter to a man who
followed such a trade. Religion forbids such horrors; they are immoral.
And at what time of night do you say he comes home?"
"At one o'clock—two——"
The old folks looked at each other in utter amazement.
"Then he gambles?" said Monsieur Guillaume. "In my day only gamblers
stayed out so late."
Augustine made a face that scorned the accusation.
"He must keep you up through dreadful nights waiting for him," said Madame
Guillaume. "But you go to bed, don't you? And when he has lost, the wretch
"No, mamma, on the contrary, he is sometimes in very good spirits. Not
unfrequently, indeed, when it is fine, he suggests that I should get up
and go into the woods."
"The woods! At that hour? Then have you such a small set of rooms that his
bedroom and his sitting-room are not enough, and that he must run about?
But it is just to give you cold that the wretch proposes such expeditions.
He wants to get rid of you. Did one ever hear of a man settled in life, a
well-behaved, quiet man galloping about like a warlock?"
"But, my dear mother, you do not understand that he must have excitement
to fire his genius. He is fond of scenes which——"
"I would make scenes for him, fine scenes!" cried Madame Guillaume,
interrupting her daughter. "How can you show any consideration to such a
man? In the first place, I don't like his drinking water only; it is not
wholesome. Why does he object to see a woman eating? What queer notion is
that! But he is mad. All you tell us about him is impossible. A man cannot
leave his home without a word, and never come back for ten days. And then
he tells you he has been to Dieppe to paint the sea. As if any one painted
the sea! He crams you with a pack of tales that are too absurd."
Augustine opened her lips to defend her husband; but Madame Guillaume
enjoined silence with a wave of her hand, which she obeyed by a survival
of habit, and her mother went on in harsh tones: "Don't talk to me about
the man! He never set foot in church excepting to see you and to be
married. People without religion are capable of anything. Did Guillaume
ever dream of hiding anything from me, of spending three days without
saying a word to me, and of chattering afterwards like a blind magpie?"
"My dear mother, you judge superior people too severely. If their ideas
were the same as other folks', they would not be men of genius."
"Very well, then let men of genius stop at home and not get married. What!
A man of genius is to make his wife miserable? And because he is a genius
it is all right! Genius, genius! It is not so very clever to say black one
minute and white the next, as he does, to interrupt other people, to dance
such rigs at home, never to let you know which foot you are to stand on,
to compel his wife never to be amused unless my lord is in gay spirits,
and to be dull when he is dull."
"But, mother, the very nature of such imaginations——"
"What are such 'imaginations'?" Madame Guillaume went on, interrupting her
daughter again. "Fine ones his are, my word! What possesses a man that all
on a sudden, without consulting a doctor, he takes it into his head to eat
nothing but vegetables? If indeed it were from religious motives, it might
do him some good—but he has no more religion than a Huguenot. Was
there ever a man known who, like him, loved horses better than his
fellow-creatures, had his hair curled like a heathen, laid statues under
muslin coverlets, shut his shutters in broad day to work by lamp-light?
There, get along; if he were not so grossly immoral, he would be fit to
shut up in a lunatic asylum. Consult Monsieur Loraux, the priest at Saint
Sulpice, ask his opinion about it all, and he will tell you that your
husband, does not behave like a Christian."
"Oh, mother, can you believe——?"
"Yes, I do believe. You loved him, and you can see none of these things.
But I can remember in the early days after your marriage. I met him in the
Champs-Elysees. He was on horseback. Well, at one minute he was galloping
as hard as he could tear, and then pulled up to a walk. I said to myself
at that moment, 'There is a man devoid of judgement.'"
"Ah, ha!" cried Monsieur Guillaume, "how wise I was to have your money
settled on yourself with such a queer fellow for a husband!"
When Augustine was so imprudent as to set forth her serious grievances
against her husband, the two old people were speechless with indignation.
But the word "divorce" was ere long spoken by Madame Guillaume. At the
sound of the word divorce the apathetic old draper seemed to wake up.
Prompted by his love for his daughter, and also by the excitement which
the proceedings would bring into his uneventful life, father Guillaume
took up the matter. He made himself the leader of the application for a
divorce, laid down the lines of it, almost argued the case; he offered to
be at all the charges, to see the lawyers, the pleaders, the judges, to
move heaven and earth. Madame de Sommervieux was frightened, she refused
her father's services, said she would not be separated from her husband
even if she were ten times as unhappy, and talked no more about her
sorrows. After being overwhelmed by her parents with all the little
wordless and consoling kindnesses by which the old couple tried in vain to
make up to her for her distress of heart, Augustine went away, feeling the
impossibility of making a superior mind intelligible to weak intellects.
She had learned that a wife must hide from every one, even from her
parents, woes for which it is so difficult to find sympathy. The storms
and sufferings of the upper spheres are appreciated only by the lofty
spirits who inhabit there. In any circumstance we can only be judged by
Thus poor Augustine found herself thrown back on the horror of her
meditations, in the cold atmosphere of her home. Study was indifferent to
her, since study had not brought her back her husband's heart. Initiated
into the secret of these souls of fire, but bereft of their resources, she
was compelled to share their sorrows without sharing their pleasures. She
was disgusted with the world, which to her seemed mean and small as
compared with the incidents of passion. In short, her life was a failure.
One evening an idea flashed upon her that lighted up her dark grief like a
beam from heaven. Such an idea could never have smiled on a heart less
pure, less virtuous than hers. She determined to go to the Duchesse de
Carigliano, not to ask her to give her back her husband's heart, but to
learn the arts by which it had been captured; to engage the interest of
this haughty fine lady for the mother of her lover's children; to appeal
to her and make her the instrument of her future happiness, since she was
the cause of her present wretchedness.
So one day Augustine, timid as she was, but armed with supernatural
courage, got into her carriage at two in the afternoon to try for
admittance to the boudoir of the famous coquette, who was never visible
till that hour. Madame de Sommervieux had not yet seen any of the ancient
and magnificent mansions of the Faubourg Saint-Germain. As she made her
way through the stately corridors, the handsome staircases, the vast
drawing-rooms—full of flowers, though it was in the depth of winter,
and decorated with the taste peculiar to women born to opulence or to the
elegant habits of the aristocracy, Augustine felt a terrible clutch at her
heart; she coveted the secrets of an elegance of which she had never had
an idea; she breathed in an air of grandeur which explained the attraction
of the house for her husband. When she reached the private rooms of the
Duchess she was filled with jealousy and a sort of despair, as she admired
the luxurious arrangement of the furniture, the draperies and the
hangings. Here disorder was a grace, here luxury affected a certain
contempt of splendor. The fragrance that floated in the warm air flattered
the sense of smell without offending it. The accessories of the rooms were
in harmony with a view, through plate-glass windows, of the lawns in a
garden planted with evergreen trees. It was all bewitching, and the art of
it was not perceptible. The whole spirit of the mistress of these rooms
pervaded the drawing-room where Augustine awaited her. She tried to divine
her rival's character from the aspect of the scattered objects; but there
was here something as impenetrable in the disorder as in the symmetry, and
to the simple-minded young wife all was a sealed letter. All that she
could discern was that, as a woman, the Duchess was a superior person.
Then a painful thought came over her.
"Alas! And is it true," she wondered, "that a simple and loving heart is
not all-sufficient to an artist; that to balance the weight of these
powerful souls they need a union with feminine souls of a strength equal
to their own? If I had been brought up like this siren, our weapons at
least might have been equal in the hour of struggle."
"But I am not at home!" The sharp, harsh words, though spoken in an
undertone in the adjoining boudoir, were heard by Augustine, and her heart
"The lady is in there," replied the maid.
"You are an idiot! Show her in," replied the Duchess, whose voice was
sweeter, and had assumed the dulcet tones of politeness. She evidently now
meant to be heard.
Augustine shyly entered the room. At the end of the dainty boudoir she saw
the Duchess lounging luxuriously on an ottoman covered with brown velvet
and placed in the centre of a sort of apse outlined by soft folds of white
muslin over a yellow lining. Ornaments of gilt bronze, arranged with
exquisite taste, enhanced this sort of dais, under which the Duchess
reclined like a Greek statue. The dark hue of the velvet gave relief to
every fascinating charm. A subdued light, friendly to her beauty, fell
like a reflection rather than a direct illumination. A few rare flowers
raised their perfumed heads from costly Sevres vases. At the moment when
this picture was presented to Augustine's astonished eyes, she was
approaching so noiselessly that she caught a glance from those of the
enchantress. This look seemed to say to some one whom Augustine did not at
first perceive, "Stay; you will see a pretty woman, and make her visit
seem less of a bore."
On seeing Augustine, the Duchess rose and made her sit down by her.
"And to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit, madame?" she said with a
most gracious smile.
"Why all the falseness?" thought Augustine, replying only with a bow.
Her silence was compulsory. The young woman saw before her a superfluous
witness of the scene. This personage was, of all the Colonels in the army,
the youngest, the most fashionable, and the finest man. His face, full of
life and youth, but already expressive, was further enhanced by a small
moustache twirled up into points, and as black as jet, by a full imperial,
by whiskers carefully combed, and a forest of black hair in some disorder.
He was whisking a riding whip with an air of ease and freedom which suited
his self-satisfied expression and the elegance of his dress; the ribbons
attached to his button-hole were carelessly tied, and he seemed to pride
himself much more on his smart appearance than on his courage. Augustine
looked at the Duchesse de Carigliano, and indicated the Colonel by a
sidelong glance. All its mute appeal was understood.
"Good-bye, then, Monsieur d'Aiglemont, we shall meet in the Bois de
These words were spoken by the siren as though they were the result of an
agreement made before Augustine's arrival, and she winged them with a
threatening look that the officer deserved perhaps for the admiration he
showed in gazing at the modest flower, which contrasted so well with the
haughty Duchess. The young fop bowed in silence, turned on the heels of
his boots, and gracefully quitted the boudoir. At this instant, Augustine,
watching her rival, whose eyes seemed to follow the brilliant officer,
detected in that glance a sentiment of which the transient expression is
known to every woman. She perceived with the deepest anguish that her
visit would be useless; this lady, full of artifice, was too greedy of
homage not to have a ruthless heart.
"Madame," said Augustine in a broken voice, "the step I am about to take
will seem to you very strange; but there is a madness of despair which
ought to excuse anything. I understand only too well why Theodore prefers
your house to any other, and why your mind has so much power over his.
Alas! I have only to look into myself to find more than ample reasons. But
I am devoted to my husband, madame. Two years of tears have not effaced
his image from my heart, though I have lost his. In my folly I dared to
dream of a contest with you; and I have come to you to ask you by what
means I may triumph over yourself. Oh, madame," cried the young wife,
ardently seizing the hand which her rival allowed her to hold, "I will
never pray to God for my own happiness with so much fervor as I will
beseech Him for yours, if you will help me to win back Sommervieux's
regard—I will not say his love. I have no hope but in you. Ah! tell
me how you could please him, and make him forget the first days——"
At these words Augustine broke down, suffocated with sobs she could not
suppress. Ashamed of her weakness, she hid her face in her handkerchief,
which she bathed with tears.
"What a child you are, my dear little beauty!" said the Duchess, carried
away by the novelty of such a scene, and touched, in spite of herself, at
receiving such homage from the most perfect virtue perhaps in Paris. She
took the young wife's handkerchief, and herself wiped the tears from her
eyes, soothing her by a few monosyllables murmured with gracious
compassion. After a moment's silence the Duchess, grasping poor
Augustine's hands in both her own—hands that had a rare character of
dignity and powerful beauty—said in a gentle and friendly voice: "My
first warning is to advise you not to weep so bitterly; tears are
disfiguring. We must learn to deal firmly with the sorrows that make us
ill, for love does not linger long by a sick-bed. Melancholy, at first, no
doubt, lends a certain attractive grace, but it ends by dragging the
features and blighting the loveliest face. And besides, our tyrants are so
vain as to insist that their slaves should be always cheerful."
"But, madame, it is not in my power not to feel. How is it possible,
without suffering a thousand deaths, to see the face which once beamed
with love and gladness turn chill, colorless, and indifferent? I cannot
control my heart!"
"So much the worse, sweet child. But I fancy I know all your story. In the
first place, if your husband is unfaithful to you, understand clearly that
I am not his accomplice. If I was anxious to have him in my drawing-room,
it was, I own, out of vanity; he was famous, and he went nowhere. I like
you too much already to tell you all the mad things he has done for my
sake. I will only reveal one, because it may perhaps help us to bring him
back to you, and to punish him for the audacity of his behavior to me. He
will end by compromising me. I know the world too well, my dear, to
abandon myself to the discretion of a too superior man. You should know
that one may allow them to court one, but marry them—that is a
mistake! We women ought to admire men of genius, and delight in them as a
spectacle, but as to living with them? Never.—No, no. It is like
wanting to find pleasure in inspecting the machinery of the opera instead
of sitting in a box to enjoy its brilliant illusions. But this misfortune
has fallen on you, my poor child, has it not? Well, then, you must try to
arm yourself against tyranny."
"Ah, madame, before coming in here, only seeing you as I came in, I
already detected some arts of which I had no suspicion."
"Well, come and see me sometimes, and it will not be long before you have
mastered the knowledge of these trifles, important, too, in their way.
Outward things are, to fools, half of life; and in that matter more than
one clever man is a fool, in spite of all his talent. But I dare wager you
never could refuse your Theodore anything!"
"How refuse anything, madame, if one loves a man?"
"Poor innocent, I could adore you for your simplicity. You should know
that the more we love the less we should allow a man, above all, a
husband, to see the whole extent of our passion. The one who loves most is
tyrannized over, and, which is worse, is sooner or later neglected. The
one who wishes to rule should——"
"What, madame, must I then dissimulate, calculate, become false, form an
artificial character, and live in it? How is it possible to live in such a
way? Can you——" she hesitated; the Duchess smiled.
"My dear child," the great lady went on in a serious tone, "conjugal
happiness has in all times been a speculation, a business demanding
particular attention. If you persist in talking passion while I am talking
marriage, we shall soon cease to understand each other. Listen to me," she
went on, assuming a confidential tone. "I have been in the way of seeing
some of the superior men of our day. Those who have married have for the
most part chosen quite insignificant wives. Well, those wives governed
them, as the Emperor governs us; and if they were not loved, they were at
least respected. I like secrets—especially those which concern women—well
enough to have amused myself by seeking the clue to the riddle. Well, my
sweet child, those worthy women had the gift of analyzing their husbands'
nature; instead of taking fright, like you, at their superiority, they
very acutely noted the qualities they lacked, and either by possessing
those qualities, or by feigning to possess them, they found means of
making such a handsome display of them in their husbands' eyes that in the
end they impressed them. Also, I must tell you, all these souls which
appear so lofty have just a speck of madness in them, which we ought to
know how to take advantage of. By firmly resolving to have the upper hand
and never deviating from that aim, by bringing all our actions to bear on
it, all our ideas, our cajolery, we subjugate these eminently capricious
natures, which, by the very mutability of their thoughts, lend us the
means of influencing them."
"Good heavens!" cried the young wife in dismay. "And this is life. It is a
"In which we must always threaten," said the Duchess, laughing. "Our power
is wholly factitious. And we must never allow a man to despise us; it is
impossible to recover from such a descent but by odious manoeuvring.
Come," she added, "I will give you a means of bringing your husband to his
She rose with a smile to guide the young and guileless apprentice to
conjugal arts through the labyrinth of her palace. They came to a
back-staircase, which led up to the reception rooms. As Madame de
Carigliano pressed the secret springlock of the door she stopped, looking
at Augustine with an inimitable gleam of shrewdness and grace. "The Duc de
Carigliano adores me," said she. "Well, he dare not enter by this door
without my leave. And he is a man in the habit of commanding thousands of
soldiers. He knows how to face a battery, but before me,—he is
Augustine sighed. They entered a sumptuous gallery, where the painter's
wife was led by the Duchess up to the portrait painted by Theodore of
Mademoiselle Guillaume. On seeing it, Augustine uttered a cry.
"I knew it was no longer in my house," she said, "but—here!——"
"My dear child, I asked for it merely to see what pitch of idiocy a man of
genius may attain to. Sooner or later I should have returned it to you,
for I never expected the pleasure of seeing the original here face to face
with the copy. While we finish our conversation I will have it carried
down to your carriage. And if, armed with such a talisman, you are not
your husband's mistress for a hundred years, you are not a woman, and you
deserve your fate."
Augustine kissed the Duchess' hand, and the lady clasped her to her heart,
with all the more tenderness because she would forget her by the morrow.
This scene might perhaps have destroyed for ever the candor and purity of
a less virtuous woman than Augustine, for the astute politics of the
higher social spheres were no more consonant to Augustine than the narrow
reasoning of Joseph Lebas, or Madame Guillaume's vapid morality. Strange
are the results of the false positions into which we may be brought by the
slightest mistake in the conduct of life! Augustine was like an Alpine
cowherd surprised by an avalanche; if he hesitates, if he listens to the
shouts of his comrades, he is almost certainly lost. In such a crisis the
heart steels itself or breaks.
Madame de Sommervieux returned home a prey to such agitation as it is
difficult to describe. Her conversation with the Duchesse de Carigliano
had roused in her mind a crowd of contradictory thoughts. Like the sheep
in the fable, full of courage in the wolf's absence, she preached to
herself, and laid down admirable plans of conduct; she devised a thousand
coquettish stratagems; she even talked to her husband, finding, away from
him, all the springs of true eloquence which never desert a woman; then,
as she pictured to herself Theodore's clear and steadfast gaze, she began
to quake. When she asked whether monsieur were at home her voice shook. On
learning that he would not be in to dinner, she felt an unaccountable
thrill of joy. Like a criminal who has appealed against sentence of death,
a respite, however short, seemed to her a lifetime. She placed the
portrait in her room, and waited for her husband in all the agonies of
hope. That this venture must decide her future life, she felt too keenly
not to shiver at every sound, even the low ticking of the clock, which
seemed to aggravate her terrors by doling them out to her. She tried to
cheat time by various devices. The idea struck her of dressing in a way
which would make her exactly like the portrait. Then, knowing her
husband's restless temper, she had her room lighted up with unusual
brightness, feeling sure that when he came in curiosity would bring him
there at once. Midnight had struck when, at the call of the groom, the
street gate was opened, and the artist's carriage rumbled in over the
stones of the silent courtyard.
"What is the meaning of this illumination?" asked Theodore in glad tones,
as he came into her room.
Augustine skilfully seized the auspicious moment; she threw herself into
her husband's arms, and pointed to the portrait. The artist stood rigid as
a rock, and his eyes turned alternately on Augustine, on the accusing
dress. The frightened wife, half-dead, as she watched her husband's
changeful brow—that terrible brow—saw the expressive furrows
gathering like clouds; then she felt her blood curdling in her veins when,
with a glaring look, and in a deep hollow voice, he began to question her:
"Where did you find that picture?"
"The Duchess de Carigliano returned it to me."
"You asked her for it?"
"I did not know that she had it."
The gentleness, or rather the exquisite sweetness of this angel's voice,
might have touched a cannibal, but not an artist in the clutches of
"It is worthy of her!" exclaimed the painter in a voice of thunder. "I
will be avenged!" he cried, striding up and down the room. "She shall die
of shame; I will paint her! Yes, I will paint her as Messalina stealing
out at night from the palace of Claudius."
"Theodore!" said a faint voice.
"I will kill her!"
"She is in love with that little cavalry colonel, because he rides well——"
"Let me be!" said the painter in a tone almost like a roar.
It would be odious to describe the whole scene. In the end the frenzy of
passion prompted the artist to acts and words which any woman not so young
as Augustine would have ascribed to madness.
At eight o'clock next morning Madame Guillaume, surprising her daughter,
found her pale, with red eyes, her hair in disorder, holding a
handkerchief soaked with tears, while she gazed at the floor strewn with
the torn fragments of a dress and the broken fragments of a large gilt
picture-frame. Augustine, almost senseless with grief, pointed to the
wreck with a gesture of deep despair.
"I don't know that the loss is very great!" cried the old mistress of the
Cat and Racket. "It was like you, no doubt; but I am told that there is a
man on the boulevard who paints lovely portraits for fifty crowns."
"Poor child, you are quite right," replied Madame Guillaume, who
misinterpreted the expression of her daughter's glance at her. "True, my
child, no one ever can love you as fondly as a mother. My darling, I guess
it all; but confide your sorrows to me, and I will comfort you. Did I not
tell you long ago that the man was mad! Your maid has told me pretty
stories. Why, he must be a perfect monster!"
Augustine laid a finger on her white lips, as if to implore a moment's
silence. During this dreadful night misery had led her to that patient
resignation which in mothers and loving wives transcends in its effects
all human energy, and perhaps reveals in the heart of women the existence
of certain chords which God has withheld from men.
An inscription engraved on a broken column in the cemetery at Montmartre
states that Madame de Sommervieux died at the age of twenty-seven. In the
simple words of this epitaph one of the timid creature's friends can read
the last scene of a tragedy. Every year, on the second of November, the
solemn day of the dead, he never passes this youthful monument without
wondering whether it does not need a stronger woman than Augustine to
endure the violent embrace of genius?
"The humble and modest flowers that bloom in the valley," he reflects,
"perish perhaps when they are transplanted too near the skies, to the
region where storms gather and the sun is scorching."