By Honore De Balzac
Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley
To my dear Alexandre de Berny.
His old friend,
Many tales, either rich in situations or made dramatic by some of the
innumerable tricks of chance, carry with them their own particular
setting, which can be rendered artistically or simply by those who narrate
them, without their subjects losing any, even the least of their charms.
But there are some incidents in human experience to which the heart alone
is able to give life; there are certain details—shall we call them
anatomical?—the delicate touches of which cannot be made to reappear
unless by an equally delicate rendering of thought; there are portraits
which require the infusion of a soul, and mean nothing unless the subtlest
expression of the speaking countenance is given; furthermore, there are
things which we know not how to say or do without the aid of secret
harmonies which a day, an hour, a fortunate conjunction of celestial
signs, or an inward moral tendency may produce.
Such mysterious revelations are imperatively needed in order to tell this
simple history, in which we seek to interest those souls that are
naturally grave and reflective and find their sustenance in tender
emotions. If the writer, like the surgeon beside his dying friend, is
filled with a species of reverence for the subject he is handling, should
not the reader share in that inexplicable feeling? Is it so difficult to
put ourselves in unison with the vague and nervous sadness which casts its
gray tints all about us, and is, in fact, a semi-illness, the gentle
sufferings of which are often pleasing? If the reader is of those who
sometimes think upon the dear ones they have lost, if he is alone, if the
day is waning or the night has come, let him read on; otherwise, he should
lay aside this book at once. If he has never buried a good old relative,
infirm and poor, he will not understand these pages, which to some will
seem redolent of musk, to others as colorless and virtuous as those of
Florian. In short, the reader must have known the luxury of tears, must
have felt the silent pangs of a passing memory, the vision of a dear yet
far-off Shade,—memories which bring regret for all that earth has
swallowed up, with smiles for vanished joys.
And now, believe that the writer would not, for the wealth of England,
steal from poesy a single lie with which to embellish this narrative. The
following is a true history, on which you may safely spend the treasures
of your sensibility—if you have any.
In these days the French language has as many idioms and represents as
many idiosyncracies as there are varieties of men in the great family of
France. It is extremely curious and amusing to listen to the different
interpretations or versions of the same thing or the same event by the
various species which compose the genus Parisian,—"Parisian" is here
used merely to generalize our remark.
Therefore, if you should say to an individual of the species Practical,
"Do you know Madame Firmiani?" he would present that lady to your mind by
the following inventory: "Fine house in the rue du Bac, salons handsomely
furnished, good pictures, one hundred thousand francs a year, husband
formerly receiver-general of the department of Montenotte." So saying, the
Practical man, rotund and fat and usually dressed in black, will project
his lower lip and wrap it over the upper, nodding his head as if to add:
"Solid people, those; nothing to be said against them." Ask no further;
Practical men settle everybody's status by figures, incomes, or solid
acres,—a phrase of their lexicon.
Turn to the right, and put the same question to that other man, who
belongs to the species Lounger. "Madame Firmiani?" he says; "yes, yes, I
know her well; I go to her parties; receives Wednesdays; highly creditable
house."—Madame Firmiani is metamorphosed into a house! but the house
is not a pile of stones architecturally superposed, of course not, the
word presents in Lounger's language an indescribable idiom.—Here the
Lounger, a spare man with an agreeable smile, a sayer of pretty nothings
with more acquired cleverness than native wit, stoops to your ear and
adds, with a shrewd glance: "I have never seen Monsieur Firmiani. His
social position is that of looking after property in Italy. Madame
Firmiani is a Frenchwoman, and spends her money like a Parisian. She has
excellent tea. It is one of the few houses where you can amuse yourself;
the refreshments are exquisite. It is very difficult to get admitted;
therefore, of course, one meets only the best society in her salons." Here
the Lounger takes a pinch of snuff; he inhales it slowly and seems to say:
"I go there, but don't expect me to present you."
Evidently the Lounger considers that Madame Firmiani keeps a sort of inn,
without a sign.
"Why do you want to know Madame Firmiani? Her parties are as dull as the
Court itself. What is the good of possessing a mind unless to avoid such
salons, where stupid talk and foolish little ballads are the order of the
day." You have questioned a being classed Egotist, a species who would
like to keep the universe under lock and key, and let nothing be done
without their permission. They are unhappy if others are happy; they
forgive nothing but vices, downfalls, frailties, and like none but
proteges. Aristocrats by inclination, they make themselves democrats out
of spite, preferring to consort with inferiors as equals.
"Oh, Madame Firmiani, my dear fellow! she is one of those adorable women
who serve as Nature's excuse for all the ugly ones she creates. Madame
Firmiani is enchanting, and so kind! I wish I were in power and possessed
millions that I might—" (here a whisper). "Shall I present you?" The
speaker is a youth of the Student species, known for his boldness among
men and his timidity in a boudoir.
"Madame Firmiani?" cries another, twirling his cane. "I'll tell you what I
think of her; she is a woman between thirty and thirty-five; faded
complexion, handsome eyes, flat figure, contralto voice worn out, much
dressed, rather rouged, charming manners; in short, my dear fellow, the
remains of a pretty woman who is still worth the trouble of a passion."
This remark is from the species Fop, who has just breakfasted, doesn't
weigh his words, and is about to mount his horse. At that particular
moment Fops are pitiless.
"Magnificent collection of pictures in her house; go and see them by all
means," answers another. "Nothing finer." You have questioned one of the
species Connoisseur. He leaves you to go to Perignon's or Tripet's. To
him, Madame Firmiani is a collection of painted canvases.
A Woman: "Madame Firmiani? I don't wish you to visit her." This remark is
rich in meanings. Madame Firmiani! dangerous woman! a siren! dresses well,
has taste; gives other women sleepless nights. Your informant belongs to
the genus Spiteful.
An Attache to an embassy: "Madame Firmiani? Isn't she from Antwerp? I saw
her ten years ago in Rome; she was very handsome then." Individuals of the
species Attache have a mania for talking in the style of Talleyrand. Their
wit is often so refined that the point is imperceptible; they are like
billiard-players who avoid hitting the ball with consummate dexterity.
These individuals are usually taciturn, and when they talk it is only
about Spain, Vienna, Italy, or Petersburg. Names of countries act like
springs in their mind; press them, and the ringing of their changes
"That Madame Firmiani sees a great deal of the faubourg Saint-Germain,
doesn't she?" This from a person who desires to belong to the class
Distinguished. She gives the "de" to everybody,—to Monsieur Dupin
senior, to Monsieur Lafayette; she flings it right and left and humiliates
many. This woman spends her life in striving to know and do "the right
thing"; but, for her sins, she lives in the Marais, and her husband is a
lawyer,—a lawyer before the Royal courts, however.
"Madame Firmiani, monsieur? I do not know her." This man belongs to the
species Duke. He recognizes none but the women who have been presented at
court. Pray excuse him, he was one of Napoleon's creations.
"Madame Firmiani? surely she used to sing at the Opera-house." Species
Ninny. The individuals of this species have an answer for everything. They
will tell lies sooner than say nothing.
Two old ladies, wives of former magistrates: The First (wears a cap with
bows, her face is wrinkled, her nose sharp, voice hard, carries a
prayer-book in her hand): "What was that Madame Firmiani's maiden name?"—The
Second (small face red as a crab-apple, gentle voice): "She was a
Cadignan, my dear, niece of the old Prince de Cadignan, consequently
cousin to the present Duc de Maufrigneuse."
Madame Firmiani is a Cadignan. She might have neither virtue, nor wealth,
nor youth, but she would still be a Cadignan; it is like a prejudice,
always alive and working.
An Original: "My dear fellow, I've seen no galoshes in her antechamber;
consequently you can visit her without compromising yourself, and play
cards there without fear; if there are any scoundrels in her
salons, they are people of quality and come in their carriages; such
persons never quarrel."
Old man belonging to the genus Observer: "If you call on Madame Firmiani,
my good friend, you will find a beautiful woman sitting at her ease by the
corner of her fireplace. She will scarcely rise to receive you,—she
only does that for women, ambassadors, dukes, and persons of great
distinction. She is very gracious, she possesses charm; she converses
well, and likes to talk on many topics. There are many indications of a
passionate nature about her; but she has, evidently, so many adorers that
she cannot have a favorite. If suspicion rested on two or three of her
intimates, we might say that one or other of them was the "cavaliere
servente"; but it does not. The lady is a mystery. She is married, though
none of us have seen her husband. Monsieur Firmiani is altogether
mythical; he is like that third post-horse for which we pay though we
never behold it. Madame has the finest contralto voice in Europe, so say
judges; but she has never been heard to sing more than two or three times
since she came to Paris. She receives much company, but goes nowhere."
The Observer speaks, you will notice, as an Oracle. His words, anecdotes,
and quotations must be accepted as truths, under pain of being thought
without social education or intelligence, and of causing him to slander
you with much zest in twenty salons where he is considered indispensable.
The Observer is forty years of age, never dines at home, declares himself
no longer dangerous to women, wears a maroon coat, and has a place
reserved for him in several boxes at the "Bouffons." He is sometimes
confounded with the Parasite; but he has filled too many real functions to
be thought a sponger; moreover he possesses a small estate in a certain
department, the name of which he has never been known to utter.
"Madame Firmiani? why, my dear fellow, she was Murat's former mistress."
This man belongs to the Contradictors,—persons who note errata in
memoirs, rectify dates, correct facts, bet a hundred to one, and are
certain about everything. You can easily detect them in some gross blunder
in the course of a single evening. They will tell you they were in Paris
at the time of Mallet's conspiracy, forgetting that half an hour earlier
they had described how they had crossed the Beresina. Nearly all
Contradictors are "chevaliers" of the Legion of honor; they talk loudly,
have retreating foreheads, and play high.
"Madame Firmiani a hundred thousand francs a year? nonsense, you are
crazy! Some people will persist in giving millions with the liberality of
authors, to whom it doesn't cost a penny to dower their heroines. Madame
Firmiani is simply a coquette, who has lately ruined a young man, and now
prevents him from making a fine marriage. If she were not so handsome she
wouldn't have a penny."
Ah, that one—of course you recognize him—belongs to the
species Envious. There is no need to sketch him; the species is as well
known as that of the felis domestica. But how explain the perennial vigor
of envy?—a vice that brings nothing in!
Persons in society, literary men, honest folk,—in short, individuals
of all species,—were promulgating in the month of January, 1824, so
many different opinions about Madame Firmiani that it would be tedious to
write them down. We have merely sought to show that a man seeking to
understand her, yet unwilling or unable to go to her house, would (from
the answers to his inquiries) have had equal reason to suppose her a widow
or wife, silly or wise, virtuous or the reverse, rich or poor, soulless or
full of feeling, handsome or plain,—in short, there were as many
Madame Firmianis as there are species in society, or sects in Catholicism.
Frightful reflection! we are all like lithographic blocks, from which an
indefinite number of copies can be drawn by criticism,—the proofs
being more or less like us according to a distribution of shading which is
so nearly imperceptible that our reputation depends (barring the calumnies
of friends and the witticisms of newspapers) on the balance struck by our
criticisers between Truth that limps and Falsehood to which Parisian wit
Madame Firmiani, like other noble and dignified women who make their
hearts a sanctuary and disdain the world, was liable, therefore, to be
totally misjudged by Monsieur de Bourbonne, an old country magnate, who
had reason to think a great deal about her during the winter of this year.
He belonged to the class of provincial Planters, men living on their
estates, accustomed to keep close accounts of everything and to bargain
with the peasantry. Thus employed, a man becomes sagacious in spite of
himself, just as soldiers in the long run acquire courage from routine.
The old gentleman, who had come to Paris from Touraine to satisfy his
curiosity about Madame Firmiani, and found it not at all assuaged by the
Parisian gossip which he heard, was a man of honor and breeding. His sole
heir was a nephew, whom he greatly loved, in whose interests he planted
his poplars. When a man thinks without annoyance about his heir, and
watches the trees grow daily finer for his future benefit, affection grows
too with every blow of the spade around her roots. Though this phenomenal
feeling is not common, it is still to be met with in Touraine.
This cherished nephew, named Octave de Camps, was a descendant of the
famous Abbe de Camps, so well known to bibliophiles and learned men,—who,
by the bye, are not at all the same thing. People in the provinces have
the bad habit of branding with a sort of decent reprobation any young man
who sells his inherited estates. This antiquated prejudice has interfered
very much with the stock-jobbing which the present government encourages
for its own interests. Without consulting his uncle, Octave had lately
sold an estate belonging to him to the Black Band.[*] The chateau de
Villaines would have been pulled down were it not for the remonstrances
which the old uncle made to the representatives of the "Pickaxe company."
To increase the old man's wrath, a distant relative (one of those cousins
of small means and much astuteness about whom shrewd provincials are wont
to remark, "No lawsuits for me with him!") had, as it were by accident,
come to visit Monsieur de Bourbonne, and incidentally informed him
of his nephew's ruin. Monsieur Octave de Camps, he said, having wasted his
means on a certain Madame Firmiani, was now reduced to teaching
mathematics for a living, while awaiting his uncle's death, not daring to
let him know of his dissipations. This distant cousin, a sort of Charles
Moor, was not ashamed to give this fatal news to the old gentleman as he
sat by his fire, digesting a profuse provincial dinner.
[*] The "Bande Noire" was a mysterious association of
speculators, whose object was to buy in landed estates, cut
them up, and sell them off in small parcels to the
peasantry, or others.
But heirs cannot always rid themselves of uncles as easily as they would
like to. Thanks to his obstinacy, this particular uncle refused to believe
the story, and came out victorious from the attack of indigestion produced
by his nephew's biography. Some shocks affect the heart, others the head;
but in this case the cousin's blow fell on the digestive organs and did
little harm, for the old man's stomach was sound. Like a true disciple of
Saint Thomas, Monsieur de Bourbonne came to Paris, unknown to Octave,
resolved to make full inquiries as to his nephew's insolvency. Having many
acquaintances in the faubourg Saint-Germain, among the Listomeres, the
Lenoncourts, and the Vandenesses, he heard so much gossip, so many facts
and falsities, about Madame Firmiani that he resolved to be presented to
her under the name of de Rouxellay, that of his estate in Touraine. The
astute old gentleman was careful to choose an evening when he knew that
Octave would be engaged in finishing a piece of work which was to pay him
well,—for this so-called lover of Madame Firmiani still went to her
house; a circumstance that seemed difficult to explain. As to Octave's
ruin, that, unfortunately, was no fable, as Monsieur de Bourbonne had at
Monsieur de Rouxellay was not at all like the provincial uncle at the
Gymnase. Formerly in the King's guard, a man of the world and a favorite
among women, he knew how to present himself in society with the courteous
manners of the olden time; he could make graceful speeches and understand
the whole Charter, or most of it. Though he loved the Bourbons with noble
frankness, believed in God as a gentleman should, and read nothing but the
"Quotidienne," he was not as ridiculous as the liberals of his department
would fain have had him. He could hold his own in the court circle,
provided no one talked to him of "Moses in Egypt," nor of the drama, or
romanticism, or local color, nor of railways. He himself had never got
beyond Monsieur de Voltaire, Monsieur le Comte de Buffon, Payronnet, and
the Chevalier Gluck, the Queen's favorite musician.
"Madame," he said to the Marquise de Listomere, who was on his arm as they
entered Madame Firmiani's salons, "if this woman is my nephew's mistress,
I pity him. How can she live in the midst of this luxury, and know that he
is in a garret? Hasn't she any soul? Octave is a fool to have given up
such an estate as Villaines for a—"
Monsieur de Bourbonne belonged to the species Fossil, and used the
language of the days of yore.
"But suppose he had lost it at play?"
"Then, madame, he would at least have had the pleasure of gambling."
"And do you think he has had no pleasure here? See! look at Madame
The brightest memories of the old man faded at the sight of his nephew's
so-called mistress. His anger died away at the gracious exclamation which
came from his lips as he looked at her. By one of those fortunate
accidents which happen only to pretty women, it was a moment when all her
beauties shone with peculiar lustre, due perhaps to the wax-lights, to the
charming simplicity of her dress, to the ineffable atmosphere of elegance
that surrounded her. One must needs have studied the transitions of an
evening in a Parisian salon to appreciate the imperceptible lights and
shades which color a woman's face and vary it. There comes a moment when,
content with her toilet, pleased with her own wit, delighted to be
admired, and feeling herself the queen of a salon full of remarkable men
who smile to her, the Parisian woman reaches a full consciousness of her
grace and charm; her beauty is enhanced by the looks she gathers in,—a
mute homage which she transfers with subtle glances to the man she loves.
At moments like these a woman is invested with supernatural power and
becomes a magician, a charmer, without herself knowing that she is one;
involuntarily she inspires the love that fills her own bosom; her smiles
and glances fascinate. If this condition, which comes from the soul, can
give attraction even to a plain woman, with what radiance does it not
invest a woman of natural elegance, distinguished bearing, fair, fresh,
with sparkling eyes, and dressed in a taste that wrings approval from
artists and her bitterest rivals.
Have you ever, for your happiness, met a woman whose harmonious voice
gives to her speech the same charm that emanates from her manners? a woman
who knows how to speak and to be silent, whose words are happily chosen,
whose language is pure, and who concerns herself in your interests with
delicacy? Her raillery is caressing, her criticism never wounds; she
neither discourses nor argues, but she likes to lead a discussion and stop
it at the right moment. Her manner is affable and smiling, her politeness
never forced, her readiness to serve others never servile; she reduces the
respect she claims to a soft shadow; she never wearies you, and you leave
her satisfied with her and with yourself. Her charming grace is conveyed
to all the things with which she surrounds herself. Everything about her
pleases the eye; in her presence you breathe, as it were, your native air.
This woman is natural. There is no effort about her; she is aiming at no
effect; her feelings are shown simply, because they are true. Frank
herself, she does not wound the vanity of others; she accepts men as God
made them; pitying the vicious, forgiving defects and absurdities,
comprehending all ages, and vexed by nothing, because she has had the
sense and tact to foresee all. Tender and gay, she gratifies before she
consoles. You love her so well that if this angel did wrong you would be
ready to excuse her. If, for your happiness, you have met with such a
woman, you know Madame Firmiani.
After Monsieur de Bourbonne had talked with her for ten minutes, sitting
beside her, his nephew was forgiven. He perceived that whatever the actual
truth might be, the relation between Madame Firmiani and Octave covered
some mystery. Returning to the illusions that gild the days of youth, and
judging Madame Firmiani by her beauty, the old gentleman became convinced
that a woman so innately conscious of her dignity as she appeared to be
was incapable of a bad action. Her dark eyes told of inward peace; the
lines of her face were so noble, the profile so pure, and the passion he
had come to investigate seemed so little to oppress her heart, that the
old man said to himself, while noting all the promises of love and virtue
given by that adorable countenance, "My nephew is committing some folly."
Madame Firmiani acknowledged to twenty-five. But the Practicals proved
that having married the invisible Firmiani (then a highly respectable
individual in the forties) in 1813, at the age of sixteen, she must be at
least twenty-eight in 1825. However the same persons also asserted that at
no period of her life had she ever been so desirable or so completely a
woman. She was now at an age when women are most prone to conceive a
passion, and to desire it, perhaps, in their pensive hours. She possessed
all that earth sells, all that it lends, all that it gives. The Attaches
declared there was nothing of which she was ignorant; the Contradictors
asserted that there was much she ought to learn; the Observers remarked
that her hands were white, her feet small, her movements a trifle too
undulating. But, nevertheless, individuals of all species envied or
disputed Octave's happiness, agreeing, for once in a way, that Madame
Firmiani was the most aristocratically beautiful woman in Paris.
Still young, rich, a perfect musician, intelligent, witty, refined, and
received (as a Cadignan) by the Princesse de Blamont-Chauvry, that oracle
of the noble faubourg, loved by her rivals the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse
her cousin, the Marquise d'Espard, and Madame de Macumer,—Madame
Firmiani gratified all the vanities which feed or excite love. She was
therefore sought by too many men not to fall a victim to Parisian malice
and its charming calumnies, whispered behind a fan or in a safe aside. It
was necessary to quote the remarks given at the beginning of this history
to bring out the true Firmiani in contradistinction to the Firmiani of
society. If some women forgave her happiness, others did not forgive her
propriety. Now nothing is so dangerous in Paris as unfounded suspicions,—for
the reason that it is impossible to destroy them.
This sketch of a woman who was admirably natural gives only a faint idea
of her. It would need the pencil of an Ingres to render the pride of that
brow, with its wealth of hair, the dignity of that glance, and the
thoughts betrayed by the changing colors of her cheeks. In her were all
things; poets could have found an Agnes Sorel and a Joan of Arc, also the
woman unknown, the Soul within that form, the soul of Eve, the knowledge
of the treasures of good and the riches of evil, error and resignation,
crime and devotion, the Donna Julia and the Haidee of Lord Byron.
The former guardsman stayed, with apparent impertinence, after the other
guests had left the salons; and Madame Firmiani found him sitting quietly
before her in an armchair, evidently determined to remain, with the
pertinacity of a fly which we are forced to kill to get rid of it. The
hands of the clock marked two in the morning.
"Madame," said the old gentlemen, as Madame Firmiani rose, hoping to make
him understand that it was her good pleasure he should go, "Madame, I am
the uncle of Monsieur Octave de Camps."
Madame Firmiani immediately sat down again, and showed her emotion. In
spite of his sagacity the old Planter was unable to decide whether she
turned pale from shame or pleasure. There are pleasures, delicious
emotions the chaste heart seeks to veil, which cannot escape the shock of
startled modesty. The more delicacy a woman has, the more she seeks to
hide the joys that are in her soul. Many women, incomprehensible in their
tender caprices, long to hear a name pronounced which at other times they
desire to bury in their hearts. Monsieur de Bourbonne did not interpret
Madame Firmiani's agitation exactly in this way: pray forgive him, all
provincials are distrustful.
"Well, monsieur?" said Madame Firmiani, giving him one of those clear,
lucid glances in which we men can never see anything because they question
us too much.
"Well, madame," returned the old man, "do you know what some one came to
tell me in the depths of my province? That my nephew had ruined himself
for you, and that the poor fellow was living in a garret while you were in
silk and gold. Forgive my rustic sincerity; it may be useful for you to
know of these calumnies."
"Stop, monsieur," said Madame Firmiani, with an imperative gesture; "I
know all that. You are too polite to continue this subject if I request
you to leave it, and too gallant—in the old-fashioned sense of the
word," she added with a slight tone of irony—"not to agree that you
have no right to question me. It would be ridiculous in me to defend
myself. I trust that you will have a sufficiently good opinion of my
character to believe in the profound contempt which, I assure you, I feel
for money,—although I was married, without any fortune, to a man of
immense wealth. It is nothing to me whether your nephew is rich or poor;
if I have received him in my house, and do now receive him, it is because
I consider him worthy to be counted among my friends. All my friends,
monsieur, respect each other; they know that I have not philosophy enough
to admit into my house those I do not esteem; this may argue a want of
charity; but my guardian-angel has maintained in me to this day a profound
aversion for tattle, and also for dishonesty."
Through the ring of her voice was slightly raised during the first part of
this answer, the last words were said with the ease and self-possession of
Celimene bantering the Misanthrope.
"Madame," said Monsieur de Bourbonne, in a voice of some emotion, "I am an
old man; I am almost Octave's father, and I ask your pardon most humbly
for the question that I shall now venture to put to you, giving you my
word of honor as a loyal gentleman that your answer shall die here,"—laying
his hand upon his heart, with an old-fashioned gesture that was truly
religious. "Are these rumors true; do you love Octave?"
"Monsieur," she replied, "to any other man I should answer that question
only by a look; but to you, and because you are indeed almost the father
of Monsieur de Camps, I reply by asking what you would think of a woman if
to such a question she answered you? To avow our love for him we
love, when he loves us—ah! that may be; but even when we are certain
of being loved forever, believe me, monsieur, it is an effort for us, and
a reward to him. To say to another!—"
She did not end her sentence, but rose, bowed to the old man, and withdrew
into her private apartments, the doors of which, opening and closing
behind her, had a language of their own to his sagacious ears.
"Ah! the mischief!" thought he; "what a woman! she is either a sly one or
an angel"; and he got into his hired coach, the horses of which were
stamping on the pavement of the silent courtyard, while the coachman was
asleep on his box after cursing for the hundredth time his tardy customer.
The next morning about eight o'clock the old gentleman mounted the stairs
of a house in the rue de l'Observance where Octave de Camps was living. If
there was ever an astonished man it was the young professor when he beheld
his uncle. The door was unlocked, his lamp still burning; he had been
sitting up all night.
"You rascal!" said Monsieur de Bourbonne, sitting down in the nearest
chair; "since when is it the fashion to laugh at uncles who have
twenty-six thousand francs a year from solid acres to which we are the
sole heir? Let me tell you that in the olden time we stood in awe of such
uncles as that. Come, speak up, what fault have you to find with me?
Haven't I played my part as uncle properly? Did I ever require you to
respect me? Have I ever refused you money? When did I shut the door in
your face on pretence that you had come to look after my health? Haven't
you had the most accommodating and the least domineering uncle that there
is in France,—I won't say Europe, because that might be too
presumptuous. You write to me, or you don't write,—no matter, I live
on pledged affection, and I am making you the prettiest estate in all
Touraine, the envy of the department. To be sure, I don't intend to let
you have it till the last possible moment, but that's an excusable little
fancy, isn't it? And what does monsieur himself do?—sells his own
property and lives like a lackey!—"
"I'm not talking about uncles, I'm talking nephew. I have a right to your
confidence. Come, confess at once; it is much the easiest way; I know that
by experience. Have you been gambling? have you lost money at the Bourse?
Say, 'Uncle, I'm a wretch,' and I'll hug you. But if you tell me any lies
greater than those I used to tell at your age I'll sell my property, buy
an annuity, and go back to the evil ways of my youth—if I can."
"I saw your Madame Firmiani yesterday," went on the old fellow, kissing
the tips of his fingers, which he gathered into a bunch. "She is charming.
You have the consent and approbation of your uncle, if that will do you
any good. As to the sanction of the Church I suppose that's useless, and
the sacraments cost so much in these days. Come, speak out, have you
ruined yourself for her?"
"Ha! the jade! I'd have wagered it. In my time the women of the court were
cleverer at ruining a man than the courtesans of to-day; but this one—I
recognized her!—it is a bit of the last century."
"Uncle," said Octave, with a manner that was tender and grave, "you are
totally mistaken. Madame Firmiani deserves your esteem, and all the
adoration the world gives her."
"Youth, youth! always the same!" cried Monsieur de Bourbonne. "Well, go
on; tell me the same old story. But please remember that my experience in
gallantry is not of yesterday."
"My dear, kind uncle, here is a letter which will tell you nearly all,"
said Octave, taking it from an elegant portfolio, her gift, no
doubt. "When you have read it I will tell you the rest, and you will then
know a Madame Firmiani who is unknown to the world."
"I haven't my spectacles; read it aloud."
"Hey, then you are still intimate with her?" interrupted his uncle.
"Why yes, of course."
"You haven't parted from her?"
"Parted!" repeated Octave, "we are married."
"Heavens!" cried Monsieur de Bourbonne, "then why do you live in a
"Let me go on."
Octave resumed the letter, but there were passages which he could not read
without deep emotion.
"'My beloved Husband,—You ask me the reason of my sadness. Has
it, then, passed from my soul to my face; or have you only guessed
it?—but how could you fail to do so, one in heart as we are? I
cannot deceive you; this may be a misfortune, for it is one of the
conditions of happy love that a wife shall be gay and caressing.
Perhaps I ought to deceive you, but I would not do it even if the
happiness with which you have blessed and overpowered me depended
"'Ah! dearest, how much gratitude there is in my love. I long to
love you forever, without limit; yes, I desire to be forever proud
of you. A woman's glory is in the man she loves. Esteem,
consideration, honor, must they not be his who receives our all?
Well, my angel has fallen. Yes, dear, the tale you told me has
tarnished my past joys. Since then I have felt myself humiliated
in you,—you whom I thought the most honorable of men, as you are
the most loving, the most tender. I must indeed have deep
confidence in your heart, so young and pure, to make you this
avowal which costs me much. Ah! my dear love, how is it that you,
knowing your father had unjustly deprived others of their
property, that YOU can keep it?
"'And you told me of this criminal act in a room filled with the
mute witnesses of our love; and you are a gentleman, and you think
yourself noble, and I am yours! I try to find excuses for you; I
do find them in your youth and thoughtlessness. I know there is
still something of the child about you. Perhaps you have never
thought seriously of what fortune and integrity are. Oh! how your
laugh wounded me. Reflect on that ruined family, always in
distress; poor young girls who have reason to curse you daily; an
old father saying to himself each night: "We might not now be
starving if that man's father had been an honest man—"'"
"Good heavens!" cried Monsieur de Bourbonne, interrupting his nephew,
"surely you have not been such a fool as to tell that woman about your
father's affair with the Bourgneufs? Women know more about wasting a
fortune than making one."
"They know about integrity. But let me read on, uncle."
"'Octave, no power on earth has authority to change the principles
of honor. Look into your conscience and ask it by what name you
are to call the action by which you hold your property.'"
The nephew looked at the uncle, who lowered his head.
"'I will not tell you all the thoughts that assail me; they can be
reduced to one,—this is it: I cannot respect the man who,
knowingly, is smirched for a sum of money, whatever the amount may
be; five francs stolen at play or five times a hundred thousand
gained by a legal trick are equally dishonoring. I will tell you
all. I feel myself degraded by the very love which has hitherto
been all my joy. There rises in my soul a voice which my
tenderness cannot stifle. Ah! I have wept to feel that I have more
conscience than love. Were you to commit a crime I would hide you
in my bosom from human justice, but my devotion could go no
farther. Love, to a woman, means boundless confidence, united to a
need of reverencing, of esteeming, the being to whom she belongs.
I have never conceived of love otherwise than as a fire in which
all noble feelings are purified still more,—a fire which develops
"'I have but one thing else to say: come to me poor, and my love
shall be redoubled. If not, renounce it. Should I see you no more,
I shall know what it means.
"'But I do not wish, understand me, that you should make
restitution because I urge it. Consult your own conscience. An act
of justice such as that ought not to be a sacrifice made to love.
I am your wife and not your mistress, and it is less a question of
pleasing me than of inspiring in my soul a true respect.
"'If I am mistaken, if you have ill-explained your father's
action, if, in short, you still think your right to the property
equitable (oh! how I long to persuade myself that you are
blameless), consider and decide by listening to the voice of your
conscience; act wholly and solely from yourself. A man who loves a
woman sincerely, as you love me, respects the sanctity of her
trust in him too deeply to dishonor himself.
"'I blame myself now for what I have written; a word might have
sufficed, and I have preached to you! Scold me; I wish to be
scolded,—but not much, only a little. Dear, between us two the
power is yours—you alone should perceive your own faults.'"
"Well, uncle?" said Octave, whose eyes were full of tears.
"There's more in the letter; finish it."
"Oh, the rest is only to be read by a lover," answered Octave, smiling.
"Yes, right, my boy," said the old man, gently. "I have had many affairs
in my day, but I beg you to believe that I too have loved, 'et ego in
Arcardia.' But I don't understand yet why you give lessons in
"My dear uncle, I am your nephew; isn't that as good as saying that I had
dipped into the capital left me by my father? After I had read this letter
a sort of revolution took place within me. I paid my whole arrearage of
remorse in one day. I cannot describe to you the state I was in. As I
drove in the Bois a voice called to me, 'That horse is not yours'; when I
ate my dinner it was saying, 'You have stolen this food.' I was ashamed.
The fresher my honesty, the more intense it was. I rushed to Madame
Firmiani. Uncle! that day I had pleasures of the heart, enjoyments of the
soul, that were far beyond millions. Together we made out the account of
what was due to the Bourgneufs, and I condemned myself, against Madame
Firmiani's advice, to pay three per cent interest. But all I had did not
suffice to cover the full amount. We were lovers enough for her to offer,
and me to accept, her savings—"
"What! besides her other virtues does that adorable woman lay by money?"
cried his uncle.
"Don't laugh at her, uncle; her position has obliged her to be very
careful. Her husband went to Greece in 1820 and died there three years
later. It has been impossible, up to the present time, to get legal proofs
of his death, or obtain the will which he made leaving his whole property
to his wife. These papers were either lost or stolen, or have gone astray
during the troubles in Greece,—a country where registers are not
kept as they are in France, and where we have no consul. Uncertain whether
she might not be forced to give up her fortune, she has lived with the
utmost prudence. As for me, I wish to acquire property which shall be mine,
so as to provide for my wife in case she is forced to lose hers."
"But why didn't you tell me all this? My dear nephew, you might have known
that I love you enough to pay all your good debts, the debts of a
gentleman. I'll play the traditional uncle now, and revenge myself!"
"Ah! uncle, I know your vengeance! but let me get rich by my own industry.
If you want to do me a real service, make me an allowance of two or three
thousand francs a year, till I see my way to an enterprise for which I
shall want capital. At this moment I am so happy that all I desire is just
the means of living. I give lessons so that I may not live at the cost of
any one. If you only knew the happiness I had in making that
restitution! I found the Bourgneufs, after a good deal of trouble, living
miserably and in need of everything. The old father was a lottery agent;
the two daughters kept his books and took care of the house; the mother
was always ill. The daughters are charming girls, but they have been
cruelly taught that the world thinks little of beauty without money. What
a scene it was! I entered their house the accomplice in a crime; I left it
an honest man, who had purged his father's memory. Uncle, I don't judge
him; there is such excitement, such passion in a lawsuit that even an
honorable man may be led astray by them. Lawyers can make the most unjust
claims legal; laws have convenient syllogisms to quiet consciences. My
visit was a drama. To be Providence itself; actually to fulfil that
futile wish, 'If heaven were to send us twenty thousand francs a year,'—that
silly wish we all make, laughing; to bring opulence to a family sitting by
the light of one miserable lamp over a poor turf fire!—no, words
cannot describe it. My extreme justice seemed to them unjust. Well! if
there is a Paradise my father is happy in it now. As for me, I am loved as
no man was ever loved yet. Madame Firmiani gives me more than happiness;
she has inspired me with a delicacy of feeling I think I lacked. So I call
her my dear conscience,—a love-word which expresses certain
secret harmonies within our hearts. I find honesty profitable; I shall get
rich in time by myself. I've an industrial scheme in my head, and if it
succeeds I shall earn millions."
"Ah! my boy, you have your mother's soul," said the old man, his eyes
filling at the thought of his sister.
Just then, in spite of the distance between Octave's garret and the
street, the young man heard the sound of a carriage.
"There she is!" he cried; "I know her horses by the way they are pulled
A few moments more, and Madame Firmiani entered the room.
"Ah!" she exclaimed, with a gesture of annoyance at seeing Monsieur de
Bourbonne. "But our uncle is not in the way," she added quickly, smiling;
"I came to humbly entreat my husband to accept my fortune. The Austrian
Embassy has just sent me a document which proves the death of Monsieur
Firmiani, also the will, which his valet was keeping safely to put into my
own hands. Octave, you can accept it all; you are richer than I, for you
have treasures here" (laying her hand upon his heart) "to which none but
God can add." Then, unable to support her happiness, she laid her head
upon her husband's breast.
"My dear niece," said the old man, "in my day we made love; in yours, you
love. You women are all that is best in humanity; you are not even guilty
of your faults, for they come through us."