Part 1 out of 12
Etext prepared by Dagny, email@example.com
and John Bickers, firstname.lastname@example.org
SCENES FROM A COURTESAN'S LIFE
by Honore de Balzac
Translated by James Waring
Note: The story of Lucien de Rubempre begins in the Lost Illusions
trilogy which consists of Two Poets, A Distinguished Provincial at
Paris, and Eve and David.
To His Highness
Prince Alfonso Serafino di Porcia.
Allow me to place your name at the beginning of an essentially
Parisian work, thought out in your house during these latter days.
Is it not natural that I should offer you the flowers of rhetoric
that blossomed in your garden, watered with the regrets I suffered
from home-sickness, which you soothed, as I wandered under the
boschetti whose elms reminded me of the Champs-Elysees? Thus,
perchance, may I expiate the crime of having dreamed of Paris
under the shadow of the Duomo, of having longed for our muddy
streets on the clean and elegant flagstones of Porta-Renza. When I
have some book to publish which may be dedicated to a Milanese
lady, I shall have the happiness of finding names already dear to
your old Italian romancers among those of women whom we love, and
to whose memory I would beg you to recall your sincerely
SCENES FROM A COURTESAN'S LIFE
OR, HOW A COURTESAN CAN LOVE
In 1824, at the last opera ball of the season, several masks were
struck by the beauty of a youth who was wandering about the passages
and greenroom with the air of a man in search of a woman kept at home
by unexpected circumstances. The secret of this behavior, now dilatory
and again hurried, is known only to old women and to certain
experienced loungers. In this immense assembly the crowd does not
trouble itself much to watch the crowd; each one's interest is
impassioned, and even idlers are preoccupied.
The young dandy was so much absorbed in his anxious quest that he did
not observe his own success; he did not hear, he did not see the
ironical exclamations of admiration, the genuine appreciation, the
biting gibes, the soft invitations of some of the masks. Though he was
so handsome as to rank among those exceptional persons who come to an
opera ball in search of an adventure, and who expect it as confidently
as men looked for a lucky coup at roulette in Frascati's day, he
seemed quite philosophically sure of his evening; he must be the hero
of one of those mysteries with three actors which constitute an opera
ball, and are known only to those who play a part in them; for, to
young wives who come merely to say, "I have seen it," to country
people, to inexperienced youths, and to foreigners, the opera house
must on those nights be the palace of fatigue and dulness. To these,
that black swarm, slow and serried--coming, going, winding, turning,
returning, mounting, descending, comparable only to ants on a pile of
wood--is no more intelligible than the Bourse to a Breton peasant who
has never heard of the Grand livre.
With a few rare exceptions, men wear no masks in Paris; a man in a
domino is thought ridiculous. In this the spirit of the nation betrays
itself. Men who want to hide their good fortune can enjoy the opera
ball without going there; and masks who are absolutely compelled to go
in come out again at once. One of the most amusing scenes is the crush
at the doors produced as soon as the dancing begins, by the rush of
persons getting away and struggling with those who are pushing in. So
the men who wear masks are either jealous husbands who come to watch
their wives, or husbands on the loose who do not wish to be watched by
them--two situations equally ridiculous.
Now, our young man was followed, though he knew it not, by a man in a
mask, dogging his steps, short and stout, with a rolling gait, like a
barrel. To every one familiar with the opera this disguise betrayed a
stock-broker, a banker, a lawyer, some citizen soul suspicious of
infidelity. For in fact, in really high society, no one courts such
humiliating proofs. Several masks had laughed as they pointed this
preposterous figure out to each other; some had spoken to him, a few
young men had made game of him, but his stolid manner showed entire
contempt for these aimless shafts; he went on whither the young man
led him, as a hunted wild boar goes on and pays no heed to the bullets
whistling about his ears, or the dogs barking at his heels.
Though at first sight pleasure and anxiety wear the same livery--the
noble black robe of Venice--and though all is confusion at an opera
ball, the various circles composing Parisian society meet there,
recognize, and watch each other. There are certain ideas so clear to
the initiated that this scrawled medley of interests is as legible to
them as any amusing novel. So, to these old hands, this man could not
be here by appointment; he would infallibly have worn some token, red,
white, or green, such as notifies a happy meeting previously agreed
on. Was it a case of revenge?
Seeing the domino following so closely in the wake of a man apparently
happy in an assignation, some of the gazers looked again at the
handsome face, on which anticipation had set its divine halo. The
youth was interesting; the longer he wandered, the more curiosity he
excited. Everything about him proclaimed the habits of refined life.
In obedience to a fatal law of the time we live in, there is not much
difference, physical or moral, between the most elegant and best bred
son of a duke and peer and this attractive youth, whom poverty had not
long since held in its iron grip in the heart of Paris. Beauty and
youth might cover him in deep gulfs, as in many a young man who longs
to play a part in Paris without having the capital to support his
pretensions, and who, day after day, risks all to win all, by
sacrificing to the god who has most votaries in this royal city,
namely, Chance. At the same time, his dress and manners were above
reproach; he trod the classic floor of the opera house as one
accustomed there. Who can have failed to observe that there, as in
every zone in Paris, there is a manner of being which shows who you
are, what you are doing, whence you come, and what you want?
"What a handsome young fellow; and here we may turn round to look at
him," said a mask, in whom accustomed eyes recognized a lady of
"Do you not remember him?" replied the man on whose arm she was
leaning. "Madame du Chatelet introduced him to you----"
"What, is that the apothecary's son she fancied herself in love with,
who became a journalist, Mademoiselle Coralie's lover?"
"I fancied he had fallen too low ever to pull himself up again, and I
cannot understand how he can show himself again in the world of
Paris," said the Comte Sixte du Chatelet.
"He has the air of a prince," the mask went on, "and it is not the
actress he lived with who could give it to him. My cousin, who
understood him, could not lick him into shape. I should like to know
the mistress of this Sargine; tell me something about him that will
enable me to mystify him."
This couple, whispering as they watched the young man, became the
object of study to the square-shouldered domino.
"Dear Monsieur Chardon," said the Prefet of the Charente, taking the
dandy's hand, "allow me to introduce you to some one who wishes to
renew acquaintance with you----"
"Dear Comte Chatelet," replied the young man, "that lady taught me how
ridiculous was the name by which you address me. A patent from the
king has restored to me that of my mother's family--the Rubempres.
Although the fact has been announced in the papers, it relates to so
unimportant a person that I need not blush to recall it to my friends,
my enemies, and those who are neither---- You may class yourself where
you will, but I am sure you will not disapprove of a step to which I
was advised by your wife when she was still only Madame de Bargeton."
This neat retort, which made the Marquise smile, gave the Prefet of la
Charente a nervous chill. "You may tell her," Lucien went on, "that I
now bear gules, a bull raging argent on a meadow vert."
"Raging argent," echoed Chatelet.
"Madame la Marquise will explain to you, if you do not know, why that
old coat is a little better than the chamberlain's key and Imperial
gold bees which you bear on yours, to the great despair of Madame
Chatelet, nee Negrepelisse d'Espard," said Lucien quickly.
"Since you recognize me, I cannot puzzle you; and I could never tell
you how much you puzzle me," said the Marquise d'Espard, amazed at the
coolness and impertinence to which the man had risen whom she had
"Then allow me, madame, to preserve my only chance of occupying your
thoughts by remaining in that mysterious twilight," said he, with the
smile of a man who does not wish to risk assured happiness.
"I congratulate you on your changed fortunes," said the Comte du
Chatelet to Lucien.
"I take it as you offer it," replied Lucien, bowing with much grace to
"What a coxcomb!" said the Count in an undertone to Madame d'Espard.
"He has succeeded in winning an ancestry."
"With these young men such coxcombry, when it is addressed to us,
almost always implies some success in high places," said the lady;
"for with you older men it means ill-fortune. And I should very much
like to know which of my grand lady friends has taken this fine bird
under her patronage; then I might find the means of amusing myself
this evening. My ticket, anonymously sent, is no doubt a bit of
mischief planned by a rival and having something to do with this young
man. His impertinence is to order; keep an eye on him. I will take the
Duc de Navarrein's arm. You will be able to find me again."
Just as Madame d'Espard was about to address her cousin, the
mysterious mask came between her and the Duke to whisper in her ear:
"Lucien loves you; he wrote the note. Your Prefet is his greatest foe;
how can he speak in his presence?"
The stranger moved off, leaving Madame d'Espard a prey to a double
surprise. The Marquise knew no one in the world who was capable of
playing the part assumed by this mask; she suspected a snare, and went
to sit down out of sight. The Comte Sixte du Chatelet--whom Lucien had
abridged of his ambitious du with an emphasis that betrayed long
meditated revenge--followed the handsome dandy, and presently met a
young man to whom he thought he could speak without reserve.
"Well, Rastignac, have you seen Lucien? He has come out in a new
"If I were half as good looking as he is, I should be twice as rich,"
replied the fine gentleman, in a light but meaning tone, expressive of
"No!" said the fat mask in his ear, repaying a thousand ironies in one
by the accent he lent the monosyllable.
Rastignac, who was not the man to swallow an affront, stood as if
struck by lightning, and allowed himself to be led into a recess by a
grasp of iron which he could not shake off.
"You young cockerel, hatched in Mother Vauquer's coop--you, whose
heart failed you to clutch old Taillefer's millions when the hardest
part of the business was done--let me tell you, for your personal
safety, that if you do not treat Lucien like the brother you love, you
are in our power, while we are not in yours. Silence and submission!
or I shall join your game and upset the skittles. Lucien de Rubempre
is under the protection of the strongest power of the day--the Church.
Choose between life and death--Answer."
Rastignac felt giddy, like a man who has slept in a forest and wakes
to see by his side a famishing lioness. He was frightened, and there
was no one to see him; the boldest men yield to fear under such
"No one but HE can know--or would dare----" he murmured to himself.
The mask clutched his hand tighter to prevent his finishing his
"Act as if I were HE," he said.
Rastignac then acted like a millionaire on the highroad with a
brigand's pistol at his head; he surrendered.
"My dear Count," said he to du Chatelet, to whom he presently
returned, "if you care for your position in life, treat Lucien de
Rubempre as a man whom you will one day see holding a place far above
where you stand."
The mask made a imperceptible gesture of approbation, and went off in
search of Lucien.
"My dear fellow, you have changed your opinion of him very suddenly,"
replied the Prefet with justifiable surprise.
"As suddenly as men change who belong to the centre and vote with the
right," replied Rastignac to the Prefet-Depute, whose vote had for a
few days failed to support the Ministry.
"Are there such things as opinions nowadays? There are only
interests," observed des Lupeaulx, who had heard them. "What is the
case in point?"
"The case of the Sieur de Rubempre, whom Rastignac is setting up as a
person of consequence," said du Chatelet to the Secretary-General.
"My dear Count," replied des Lupeaulx very seriously, "Monsieur de
Rubempre is a young man of the highest merit, and has such good
interest at his back that I should be delighted to renew my
acquaintance with him."
"There he is, rushing into the wasps' nest of the rakes of the day,"
The three speakers looked towards a corner where a group of recognized
wits had gathered, men of more or less celebrity, and several men of
fashion. These gentlemen made common stock of their jests, their
remarks, and their scandal, trying to amuse themselves till something
should amuse them. Among this strangely mingled party were some men
with whom Lucien had had transactions, combining ostensibly kind
offices with covert false dealing.
"Hallo! Lucien, my boy, why here we are patched up again--new stuffing
and a new cover. Where have we come from? Have we mounted the high
horse once more with little offerings from Florine's boudoir? Bravo,
old chap!" and Blondet released Finot to put his arm affectionately
around Lucien and press him to his heart.
Andoche Finot was the proprietor of a review on which Lucien had
worked for almost nothing, and to which Blondet gave the benefit of
his collaboration, of the wisdom of his suggestions and the depth of
his views. Finot and Blondet embodied Bertrand and Raton, with this
difference--that la Fontaine's cat at last showed that he knew himself
to be duped, while Blondet, though he knew that he was being fleeced,
still did all he could for Finot. This brilliant condottiere of the
pen was, in fact, long to remain a slave. Finot hid a brutal strength
of will under a heavy exterior, under polish of wit, as a laborer rubs
his bread with garlic. He knew how to garner what he gleaned, ideas
and crown-pieces alike, in the fields of the dissolute life led by men
engaged in letters or in politics.
Blondet, for his sins, had placed his powers at the service of Finot's
vices and idleness. Always at war with necessity, he was one of the
race of poverty-stricken and superior men who can do everything for
the fortune of others and nothing for their own, Aladdins who let
other men borrow their lamp. These excellent advisers have a clear and
penetrating judgment so long as it is not distracted by personal
interest. In them it is the head and not the arm that acts. Hence the
looseness of their morality, and hence the reproach heaped upon them
by inferior minds. Blondet would share his purse with a comrade he had
affronted the day before; he would dine, drink, and sleep with one
whom he would demolish on the morrow. His amusing paradoxes excused
everything. Accepting the whole world as a jest, he did not want to be
taken seriously; young, beloved, almost famous and contented, he did
not devote himself, like Finot, to acquiring the fortune an old man
The most difficult form of courage, perhaps, is that which Lucien
needed at this moment to get rid of Blondet as he had just got rid of
Madame d'Espard and Chatelet. In him, unfortunately, the joys of
vanity hindered the exercise of pride--the basis, beyond doubt, of
many great things. His vanity had triumphed in the previous encounter;
he had shown himself as a rich man, happy and scornful, to two persons
who had scorned him when he was poor and wretched. But how could a
poet, like an old diplomate, run the gauntlet with two self-styled
friends, who had welcomed him in misery, under whose roof he had slept
in the worst of his troubles? Finot, Blondet, and he had groveled
together; they had wallowed in such orgies as consume something more
than money. Like soldiers who find no market for their courage, Lucien
had just done what many men do in Paris: he had still further
compromised his character by shaking Finot's hand, and not rejecting
Every man who has dabbled, or still dabbles, in journalism is under
the painful necessity of bowing to men he despises, of smiling at his
dearest foe, of compounding the foulest meanness, of soiling his
fingers to pay his aggressors in their own coin. He becomes used to
seeing evil done, and passing it over; he begins by condoning it, and
ends by committing it. In the long run the soul, constantly strained
by shameful and perpetual compromise, sinks lower, the spring of noble
thoughts grows rusty, the hinges of familiarity wear easy, and turn of
their own accord. Alceste becomes Philinte, natures lose their
firmness, talents are perverted, faith in great deeds evaporates. The
man who yearned to be proud of his work wastes himself in rubbishy
articles which his conscience regards, sooner or later, as so many
evil actions. He started, like Lousteau or Vernou, to be a great
writer; he finds himself a feeble scrivener. Hence it is impossible to
honor too highly men whose character stands as high as their talent--
men like d'Arthez, who know how to walk surefooted across the reefs of
Lucien could make no reply to Blondet's flattery; his wit had an
irresistible charm for him, and he maintained the hold of the
corrupter over his pupil; besides, he held a position in the world
through his connection with the Comtesse de Montcornet.
"Has an uncle left you a fortune?" said Finot, laughing at him.
"Like you, I have marked some fools for cutting down," replied Lucien
in the same tone.
"Then Monsieur has a review--a newspaper of his own?" Andoche Finot
retorted, with the impertinent presumption of a chief to a
"I have something better," replied Lucien, whose vanity, nettled by
the assumed superiority of his editor, restored him to the sense of
his new position.
"What is that, my dear boy?"
"I have a party."
"There is a Lucien party?" said Vernou, smiling
"Finot, the boy has left you in the lurch; I told you he would. Lucien
is a clever fellow, and you never were respectful to him. You used him
as a hack. Repent, blockhead!" said Blondet.
Blondet, as sharp as a needle, could detect more than one secret in
Lucien's air and manner; while stroking him down, he contrived to
tighten the curb. He meant to know the reasons of Lucien's return to
Paris, his projects, and his means of living.
"On your knees to a superiority you can never attain to, albeit you
are Finot!" he went on. "Admit this gentleman forthwith to be one of
the great men to whom the future belongs; he is one of us! So witty
and so handsome, can he fail to succeed by your quibuscumque viis?
Here he stands, in his good Milan armor, his strong sword half
unsheathed, and his pennon flying!--Bless me, Lucien, where did you
steal that smart waistcoat? Love alone can find such stuff as that.
Have you an address? At this moment I am anxious to know where my
friends are domiciled; I don't know where to sleep. Finot has turned
me out of doors for the night, under the vulgar pretext of 'a lady in
the case.' "
"My boy," said Lucien, "I put into practice a motto by which you may
secure a quiet life: Fuge, late, tace. I am off."
"But I am not off till you pay me a sacred debt--that little supper,
you know, heh?" said Blondet, who was rather too much given to good
cheer, and got himself treated when he was out of funds.
"What supper?" asked Lucien with a little stamp of impatience.
"You don't remember? In that I recognize my prosperous friend; he has
lost his memory."
"He knows what he owes us; I will go bail for his good heart," said
Finot, taking up Blondet's joke.
"Rastignac," said Blondet, taking the young dandy by the arm as he
came up the room to the column where the so-called friends were
standing. "There is a supper in the wind; you will join us--unless,"
he added gravely, turning to Lucien, "Monsieur persists in ignoring a
debt of honor. He can."
"Monsieur de Rubempre is incapable of such a thing; I will answer for
him," said Rastignac, who never dreamed of a practical joke.
"And there is Bixiou, he will come too," cried Blondet; "there is no
fun without him. Without him champagne cloys my tongue, and I find
everything insipid, even the pepper of satire."
"My friends," said Bixiou, "I see you have gathered round the wonder
of the day. Our dear Lucien has revived the Metamorphoses of Ovid.
Just as the gods used to turn into strange vegetables and other things
to seduce the ladies, he has turned the Chardon (the Thistle) into a
gentleman to bewitch--whom? Charles X.!--My dear boy," he went on,
holding Lucien by his coat button, "a journalist who apes the fine
gentleman deserves rough music. In their place," said the merciless
jester, as he pointed to Finot and Vernou, "I should take you up in my
society paper; you would bring in a hundred francs for ten columns of
"Bixiou," said Blondet, "an Amphitryon is sacred for twenty-four hours
before a feast and twelve hours after. Our illustrious friend is
giving us a supper."
"What then!" cried Bixiou; "what is more imperative than the duty of
saving a great name from oblivion, of endowing the indigent
aristocracy with a man of talent? Lucien, you enjoy the esteem of the
press of which you were a distinguished ornament, and we will give you
our support.--Finot, a paragraph in the 'latest items'!--Blondet, a
little butter on the fourth page of your paper!--We must advertise the
appearance of one of the finest books of the age, l'Archer de Charles
IX.! We will appeal to Dauriat to bring out as soon as possible les
Marguerites, those divine sonnets by the French Petrarch! We must
carry our friend through on the shield of stamped paper by which
reputations are made and unmade."
"If you want a supper," said Lucien to Blondet, hoping to rid himself
of this mob, which threatened to increase, "it seems to me that you
need not work up hyperbole and parable to attack an old friend as if
he were a booby. To-morrow night at Lointier's----" he cried, seeing a
woman come by, whom he rushed to meet.
"Oh! oh! oh!" said Bixiou on three notes, with a mocking glance, and
seeming to recognize the mask to whom Lucien addressed himself. "This
He followed the handsome pair, got past them, examined them keenly,
and came back, to the great satisfaction of all the envious crowd, who
were eager to learn the source of Lucien's change of fortune.
"Friends," said Bixiou, "you have long known the goddess of the Sire
de Rubempre's fortune: She is des Lupeaulx's former 'rat.' "
A form of dissipation, now forgotten, but still customary at the
beginning of this century, was the keeping of "rats." The "rat"--a
slang word that has become old-fashioned--was a girl of ten or twelve
in the chorus of some theatre, more particularly at the opera, who was
trained by young roues to vice and infamy. A "rat" was a sort of demon
page, a tomboy who was forgiven a trick if it were but funny. The
"rat" might take what she pleased; she was to be watched like a
dangerous animal, and she brought an element of liveliness into life,
like Scapin, Sganarelle, and Frontin in old-fashioned comedy. But a
"rat" was too expensive; it made no return in honor, profit, or
pleasure; the fashion of rats so completely went out, that in these
days few people knew anything of this detail of fashionable life
before the Restoration till certain writers took up the "rat" as a new
"What! after having seen Coralie killed under him, Lucien means to rob
us of La Torpille?" (the torpedo fish) said Blondet.
As he heard the name the brawny mask gave a significant start, which,
though repressed, was understood by Rastignac.
"It is out of the question," replied Finot; "La Torpille has not a sou
to give away; Nathan tells me she borrowed a thousand francs of
"Come, gentlemen, gentlemen!" said Rastignac, anxious to defend Lucien
against so odious an imputation.
"Well," cried Vernou, "is Coralie's kept man likely to be so very
"Oh!" replied Bixiou, "those thousand francs prove to me that our
friend Lucien lives with La Torpille----"
"What an irreparable loss to literature, science, art, and politics!"
exclaimed Blondet. "La Torpille is the only common prostitute in whom
I ever found the stuff for a superior courtesan; she has not been
spoiled by education--she can neither read nor write, she would have
understood us. We might have given to our era one of those magnificent
Aspasias without which there can be no golden age. See how admirably
Madame du Barry was suited to the eighteenth century, Ninon de
l'Enclos to the seventeenth, Marion Delorme to the sixteenth, Imperia
to the fifteenth, Flora to Republican Rome, which she made her heir,
and which paid off the public debt with her fortune! What would Horace
be without Lydia, Tibullus without Delia, Catullus without Lesbia,
Propertius without Cynthia, Demetrius without Lamia, who is his glory
at this day?"
"Blondet talking of Demetrius in the opera house seems to me rather
too strong of the Debats," said Bixiou in his neighbor's ears.
"And where would the empire of the Caesars have been but for these
queens?" Blondet went on; "Lais and Rhodope are Greece and Egypt. They
all indeed are the poetry of the ages in which they lived. This
poetry, which Napoleon lacked--for the Widow of his Great Army is a
barrack jest, was not wanting to the Revolution; it had Madame
Tallien! In these days there is certainly a throne to let in France
which is for her who can fill it. We among us could make a queen. I
should have given La Torpille an aunt, for her mother is too decidedly
dead on the field of dishonor; du Tillet would have given her a
mansion, Lousteau a carriage, Rastignac her footmen, des Lupeaulx a
cook, Finot her hats"--Finot could not suppress a shrug at standing
the point-blank fire of this epigram--"Vernou would have composed her
advertisements, and Bixiou her repartees! The aristocracy would have
come to enjoy themselves with our Ninon, where we would have got
artists together, under pain of death by newspaper articles. Ninon the
second would have been magnificently impertinent, overwhelming in
luxury. She would have set up opinions. Some prohibited dramatic
masterpiece should have been read in her drawing-room; it should have
been written on purpose if necessary. She would not have been liberal;
a courtesan is essentially monarchical. Oh, what a loss! She ought to
have embraced her whole century, and she makes love with a little
young man! Lucien will make a sort of hunting-dog of her."
"None of the female powers of whom you speak ever trudged the
streets," said Finot, "and that pretty little 'rat' has rolled in the
"Like a lily-seed in the soil," replied Vernou, "and she has improved
in it and flowered. Hence her superiority. Must we not have known
everything to be able to create the laughter and joy which are part of
"He is right," said Lousteau, who had hitherto listened without
speaking; "La Torpille can laugh and make others laugh. That gift of
all great writers and great actors is proper to those who have
investigated every social deep. At eighteen that girl had already
known the greatest wealth, the most squalid misery--men of every
degree. She bears about her a sort of magic wand by which she lets
loose the brutal appetites so vehemently suppressed in men who still
have a heart while occupied with politics or science, literature or
art. There is not in Paris another woman who can say to the beast as
she does: 'Come out!' And the beast leaves his lair and wallows in
excesses. She feeds you up to the chin, she helps you to drink and
smoke. In short, this woman is the salt of which Rabelais writes,
which, thrown on matter, animates it and elevates it to the marvelous
realms of art; her robe displays unimagined splendor, her fingers drop
gems as her lips shed smiles; she gives the spirit of the occasion to
every little thing; her chatter twinkles with bright sayings, she has
the secret of the quaintest onomatopoeia, full of color, and giving
"You are wasting five francs' worth of copy," said Bixiou,
interrupting Lousteau. "La Torpille is something far better than all
that; you have all been in love with her more or less, not one of you
can say that she ever was his mistress. She can always command you;
you will never command her. You may force your way in and ask her to
do you a service----"
"Oh, she is more generous than a brigand chief who knows his business,
and more devoted than the best of school-fellows," said Blondet. "You
may trust her with your purse or your secrets. But what made me choose
her as queen is her Bourbon-like indifference for a fallen favorite."
"She, like her mother, is much too dear," said des Lupeaulx. "The
handsome Dutch woman would have swallowed up the income of the
Archbishop of Toledo; she ate two notaries out of house and home----"
"And kept Maxime de Trailles when he was a court page," said Bixiou.
"La Torpille is too dear, as Raphael was, or Careme, or Taglioni, or
Lawrence, or Boule, or any artist of genius is too dear," said
"Esther never looked so thoroughly a lady," said Rastignac, pointing
to the masked figure to whom Lucien had given his arm. "I will bet on
its being Madame de Serizy."
"Not a doubt of it," cried du Chatelet, "and Monsieur du Rubempre's
fortune is accounted for."
"Ah, the Church knows how to choose its Levites; what a sweet
ambassador's secretary he will make!" remarked des Lupeaulx.
"All the more so," Rastignac went on, "because Lucien is a really
clever fellow. These gentlemen have had proof of it more than once,"
and he turned to Blondet, Finot, and Lousteau.
"Yes, the boy is cut out of the right stuff to get on," said Lousteau,
who was dying of jealousy. "And particularly because he has what we
call independent ideas . . ."
"It is you who trained him," said Vernou.
"Well," replied Bixiou, looking at des Lupeaulx, "I trust to the
memory of Monsieur the Secretary-General and Master of Appeals--that
mask is La Torpille, and I will stand a supper on it."
"I will hold the stakes," said du Chatelet, curious to know the truth.
"Come, des Lupeaulx," said Finot, "try to identify your rat's ears."
"There is no need for committing the crime of treason against a mask,"
replied Bixiou. "La Torpille and Lucien must pass us as they go up the
room again, and I pledge myself to prove that it is she."
"So our friend Lucien has come above water once more," said Nathan,
joining the group. "I thought he had gone back to Angoumois for the
rest of his days. Has he discovered some secret to ruin the English?"
"He has done what you will not do in a hurry," retorted Rastignac; "he
has paid up."
The burly mask nodded in confirmation.
"A man who has sown his wild oats at his age puts himself out of
court. He has no pluck; he puts money in the funds," replied Nathan.
"Oh, that youngster will always be a fine gentleman, and will always
have such lofty notions as will place him far above many men who think
themselves his betters," replied Rastignac.
At this moment journalists, dandies, and idlers were all examining the
charming subject of their bet as horse-dealers examine a horse for
sale. These connoisseurs, grown old in familiarity with every form of
Parisian depravity, all men of superior talent each his own way,
equally corrupt, equally corrupting, all given over to unbridled
ambition, accustomed to assume and to guess everything, had their eyes
centered on a masked woman, a woman whom no one else could identify.
They, and certain habitual frequenters of the opera balls, could alone
recognize under the long shroud of the black domino, the hood and
falling ruff which make the wearer unrecognizable, the rounded form,
the individuality of figure and gait, the sway of the waist, the
carriage of the head--the most intangible trifles to ordinary eyes,
but to them the easiest to discern.
In spite of this shapeless wrapper they could watch the most appealing
of dramas, that of a woman inspired by a genuine passion. Were she La
Torpille, the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, or Madame de Serizy, on the
lowest or highest rung of the social ladder, this woman was an
exquisite creature, a flash from happy dreams. These old young men,
like these young old men, felt so keen an emotion, that they envied
Lucien the splendid privilege of working such a metamorphosis of a
woman into a goddess. The mask was there as though she had been alone
with Lucien; for that woman the thousand other persons did not exist,
nor the evil and dust-laden atmosphere; no, she moved under the
celestial vault of love, as Raphael's Madonnas under their slender
oval glory. She did not feel herself elbowed; the fire of her glance
shot from the holes in her mask and sank into Lucien's eyes; the
thrill of her frame seemed to answer to every movement of her
companion. Whence comes this flame that radiates from a woman in love
and distinguishes her above all others? Whence that sylph-like
lightness which seems to negative the laws of gravitation? Is the soul
become ambient? Has happiness a physical effluence?
The ingenuousness of a girl, the graces of a child were discernible
under the domino. Though they walked apart, these two beings suggested
the figures of Flora and Zephyr as we see them grouped by the
cleverest sculptors; but they were beyond sculpture, the greatest of
the arts; Lucien and his pretty domino were more like the angels
busied with flowers or birds, which Gian Bellini has placed beneath
the effigies of the Virgin Mother. Lucien and this girl belonged to
the realm of fancy, which is as far above art as cause is above
When the domino, forgetful of everything, was within a yard of the
group, Bixiou exclaimed:
The unhappy girl turned her head quickly at hearing herself called,
recognized the mischievous speaker, and bowed her head like a dying
creature that has drawn its last breath.
A sharp laugh followed, and the group of men melted among the
crowd like a knot of frightened field-rats whisking into their
holes by the roadside. Rastignac alone went no further than was
necessary, just to avoid making any show of shunning Lucien's
flashing eye. He could thus note two phases of distress equally
deep though unconfessed; first, the hapless Torpille, stricken as
by a lightning stroke, and then the inscrutable mask, the only
one of the group who had remained. Esther murmured a word in
Lucien's ear just as her knees gave way, and Lucien, supporting
her, led her away.
Rastignac watched the pretty pair, lost in meditation.
"How did she get her name of La Torpille?" asked a gloomy voice that
struck to his vitals, for it was no longer disguised.
"HE again--he has made his escape!" muttered Rastignac to himself.
"Be silent or I murder you," replied the mask, changing his voice. "I
am satisfied with you, you have kept your word, and there is more than
one arm ready to serve you. Henceforth be as silent as the grave; but,
before that, answer my question."
"Well, the girl is such a witch that she could have magnetized the
Emperor Napoleon; she could magnetize a man more difficult to
influence--you yourself," replied Rastignac, and he turned to go.
"One moment," said the mask; "I will prove to you that you have never
seen me anywhere."
The speaker took his mask off; for a moment Rastignac hesitated,
recognizing nothing of the hideous being he had known formerly at
"The devil has enabled you to change in every particular, excepting
your eyes, which it is impossible to forget," said he.
The iron hand gripped his arm to enjoin eternal secrecy.
At three in the morning des Lupeaulx and Finot found the elegant
Rastignac on the same spot, leaning against the column where the
terrible mask had left him. Rastignac had confessed to himself; he had
been at once priest and pentient, culprit and judge. He allowed
himself to be led away to breakfast, and reached home perfectly tipsy,
The Rue de Langlade and the adjacent streets are a blot on the Palais
Royal and the Rue de Rivoli. This portion of one of the handsomest
quarters of Paris will long retain the stain of foulness left by the
hillocks formed of the middens of old Paris, on which mills formerly
stood. These narrow streets, dark and muddy, where such industries are
carried on as care little for appearances wear at night an aspect of
mystery full of contrasts. On coming from the well-lighted regions of
the Rue Saint-Honore, the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, and the Rue de
Richelieu, where the crowd is constantly pushing, where glitter the
masterpieces of industry, fashion, and art, every man to whom Paris by
night is unknown would feel a sense of dread and melancholy, on
finding himself in the labyrinth of little streets which lie round
that blaze of light reflected even from the sky. Dense blackness is
here, instead of floods of gaslight; a dim oil-lamp here and there
sheds its doubtful and smoky gleam, and many blind alleys are not
lighted at all. Foot passengers are few, and walk fast. The shops are
shut, the few that are open are of a squalid kind; a dirty, unlighted
wineshop, or a seller of underclothing and eau-de-Cologne. An
unwholesome chill lays a clammy cloak over your shoulders. Few
carriages drive past. There are sinister places here, especially the
Rue de Langlade, the entrance to the Passage Saint-Guillaume, and the
turnings of some streets.
The municipal council has not yet been to purge this vast lazar-place,
for prostitution long since made it its headquarters. It is, perhaps,
a good thing for Paris that these alleys should be allowed to preserve
their filthy aspect. Passing through them by day, it is impossible to
imagine what they become by night; they are pervaded by strange
creatures of no known world; white, half-naked forms cling to the
walls--the darkness is alive. Between the passenger and the wall a
dress steals by--a dress that moves and speaks. Half-open doors
suddenly shout with laughter. Words fall on the ear such as Rabelais
speaks of as frozen and melting. Snatches of songs come up from the
pavement. The noise is not vague; it means something. When it is
hoarse it is a voice; but if it suggests a song, there is nothing
human about it, it is more like a croak. Often you hear a sharp
whistle, and then the tap of boot-heels has a peculiarly aggressive
and mocking ring. This medley of things makes you giddy. Atmospheric
conditions are reversed there--it is warm in winter and cool in
Still, whatever the weather, this strange world always wears the same
aspect; it is the fantastic world of Hoffmann of Berlin. The most
mathematical of clerks never thinks of it as real, after returning
through the straits that lead into decent streets, where there are
passengers, shops, and taverns. Modern administration, or modern
policy, more scornful or more shamefaced than the queens and kings of
past ages, no longer dare look boldly in the face of this plague of
our capitals. Measures, of course, must change with the times, and
such as bear on individuals and on their liberty are a ticklish
matter; still, we ought, perhaps, to show some breadth and boldness as
to merely material measures--air, light, and construction. The
moralist, the artist, and the sage administrator alike must regret the
old wooden galleries of the Palais Royal, where the lambs were to be
seen who will always be found where there are loungers; and is it not
best that the loungers should go where they are to be found? What is
the consequence? The gayest parts of the Boulevards, that
delightfulest of promenades, are impossible in the evening for a
family party. The police has failed to take advantage of the outlet
afforded by some small streets to purge the main street.
The girl whom we have seen crushed by a word at the opera ball had
been for the last month or two living in the Rue de Langlade, in a
very poor-looking house. This structure, stuck on to the wall of an
enormously large one, badly stuccoed, of no depth, and immensely high,
has all its windows on the street, and bears some resemblance to a
parrot's perch. On each floor are two rooms, let as separate flats.
There is a narrow staircase clinging to the wall, queerly lighted by
windows which mark its ascent on the outer wall, each landing being
indicated by a stink, one of the most odious peculiarities of Paris.
The shop and entresol at that time were tenanted by a tinman; the
landlord occupied the first floor; the four upper stories were rented
by very decent working girls, who were treated by the portress and the
proprietor with some consideration and an obligingness called forth by
the difficulty of letting a house so oddly constructed and situated.
The occupants of the quarter are accounted for by the existence there
of many houses of the same character, for which trade has no use, and
which can only be rented by the poorer kinds of industry, of a
precarious or ignominious nature.
At three in the afternoon the portress, who had seen Mademoiselle
Esther brought home half dead by a young man at two in the morning,
had just held council with the young woman of the floor above, who,
before setting out in a cab to join some party of pleasure, had
expressed her uneasiness about Esther; she had not heard her move.
Esther was, no doubt, still asleep, but this slumber seemed
suspicious. The portress, alone in her cell, was regretting that she
could not go to see what was happening on the fourth floor, where
Mademoiselle Esther lodged.
Just as she had made up her mind to leave the tinman's son in charge
of her room, a sort of den in a recess on the entresol floor, a cab
stopped at the door. A man stepped out, wrapped from head to foot in a
cloak evidently intended to conceal his dress or his rank in life, and
asked for Mademoiselle Esther. The portress at one felt relieved; this
accounted for Esther's silence and quietude. As the stranger mounted
the stairs above the portress' room, she noticed silver buckles in his
shoes, and fancied she caught sight of the black fringe of a priest's
sash; she went downstairs and catechised the driver, who answered
without speech, and again the woman understood.
The priest knocked, received no answer, heard a slight gasp, and
forced the door open with a thrust of his shoulder; charity, no doubt
lent him strength, but in any one else it would have been ascribed to
practice. He rushed to the inner room, and there found poor Esther in
front of an image of the Virgin in painted plaster, kneeling, or
rather doubled up, on the floor, her hands folded. The girl was dying.
A brazier of burnt charcoal told the tale of that dreadful morning.
The domino cloak and hood were lying on the ground. The bed was
undisturbed. The unhappy creature, stricken to the heart by a mortal
thrust, had, no doubt, made all her arrangements on her return from
the opera. A candle-wick, collapsed in the pool of grease that filled
the candle-sconce, showed how completely her last meditations had
absorbed her. A handkerchief soaked with tears proved the sincerity of
the Magdalen's despair, while her classic attitude was that of the
irreligious courtesan. This abject repentance made the priest smile.
Esther, unskilled in dying, had left the door open, not thinking that
the air of two rooms would need a larger amount of charcoal to make it
suffocating; she was only stunned by the fumes; the fresh air from the
staircase gradually restored her to a consciousness of her woes.
The priest remained standing, lost in gloomy meditation, without being
touched by the girl's divine beauty, watching her first movements as
if she had been some animal. His eyes went from the crouching figure
to the surrounding objects with evident indifference. He looked at the
furniture in the room; the paved floor, red, polished, and cold, was
poorly covered with a shabby carpet worn to the string. A little
bedstead, of painted wood and old-fashioned shape, was hung with
yellow cotton printed with red stars, one armchair and two small
chairs, also of painted wood, and covered with the same cotton print
of which the window-curtains were also made; a gray wall-paper
sprigged with flowers blackened and greasy with age; a fireplace full
of kitchen utensils of the vilest kind, two bundles of fire-logs; a
stone shelf, on which lay some jewelry false and real, a pair of
scissors, a dirty pincushion, and some white scented gloves; an
exquisite hat perched on the water-jug, a Ternaux shawl stopping a
hole in the window, a handsome gown hanging from a nail; a little hard
sofa, with no cushions; broken clogs and dainty slippers, boots that a
queen might have coveted; cheap china plates, cracked or chipped, with
fragments of a past meal, and nickel forks--the plate of the Paris
poor; a basket full of potatoes and dirty linen, with a smart gauze
cap on the top; a rickety wardrobe, with a glass door, open and empty,
and on the shelves sundry pawn-tickets,--this was the medley of
things, dismal or pleasing, abject and handsome, that fell on his eye.
These relics of splendor among the potsherds, these household
belongings--so appropriate to the bohemian existence of the girl who
knelt stricken in her unbuttoned garments, like a horse dying in
harness under the broken shafts entangled in the reins--did the whole
strange scene suggest any thoughts to the priest? Did he say to
himself that this erring creature must at least be disinterested to
live in such poverty when her lover was young and rich? Did he ascribe
the disorder of the room to the disorder of her life? Did he feel pity
or terror? Was his charity moved?
To see him, his arms folded, his brow dark, his lips set, his eye
harsh, any one must have supposed him absorbed in morose feelings of
hatred, considerations that jostled each other, sinister schemes. He
was certainly insensible to the soft roundness of a bosom almost
crushed under the weight of the bowed shoulders, and to the beautiful
modeling of the crouching Venus that was visible under the black
petticoat, so closely was the dying girl curled up. The drooping head
which, seen from behind, showed the white, slender, flexible neck and
the fine shoulders of a well-developed figure, did not appeal to him.
He did not raise Esther, he did not seem to hear the agonizing gasps
which showed that she was returning to life; a fearful sob and a
terrifying glance from the girl were needed before he condescended to
lift her, and he carried her to the bed with an ease that revealed
"Lucien!" she murmured.
"Love is there, the woman is not far behind," said the priest with
The victim of Parisian depravity then observed the dress worn by her
deliverer, and said, with a smile like a child's when it takes
possession of something longed for:
"Then I shall not die without being reconciled to Heaven?"
"You may yet expiate your sins," said the priest, moistening her
forehead with water, and making her smell at a cruet of vinegar he
found in a corner.
"I feel that life, instead of departing, is rushing in on me," said
she, after accepting the Father's care and expressing her gratitude by
simple gestures. This engaging pantomime, such as the Graces might
have used to charm, perfectly justified the nickname given to this
"Do you feel better?" said the priest, giving her a glass of sugar and
water to drink.
This man seemed accustomed to such queer establishments; he knew all
about it. He was quite at home there. This privilege of being
everywhere at home is the prerogative of kings, courtesans, and
"When you feel quite well," this strange priest went on after a pause,
"you must tell me the reasons which prompted you to commit this last
crime, this attempted suicide."
"My story is very simple, Father," replied she. "Three months ago I
was living the evil life to which I was born. I was the lowest and
vilest of creatures; now I am only the most unhappy. Excuse me from
telling you the history of my poor mother, who was murdered----"
"By a Captain, in a house of ill-fame," said the priest, interrupting
the penitent. "I know your origin, and I know that if a being of your
sex can ever be excused for leading a life of shame, it is you, who
have always lacked good examples."
"Alas! I was never baptized, and have no religious teaching."
"All may yet be remedied then," replied the priest, "provided that
your faith, your repentance, are sincere and without ulterior motive."
"Lucien and God fill my heart," said she with ingenuous pathos.
"You might have said God and Lucien," answered the priest, smiling.
"You remind me of the purpose of my visit. Omit nothing that concerns
that young man."
"You have come from him?" she asked, with a tender look that would
have touched any other priest! "Oh, he thought I should do it!"
"No," replied the priest; "it is not your death, but your life that we
are interested in. Come, explain your position toward each other."
"In one word," said she.
The poor child quaked at the priest's stern tone, but as a woman
quakes who has long ceased to be surprised at brutality.
"Lucien is Lucien," said she, "the handsomest young man, the kindest
soul alive; if you know him, my love must seem to you quite natural. I
met him by chance, three months ago, at the Porte-Saint-Martin
theatre, where I went one day when I had leave, for we had a day a
week at Madame Meynardie's, where I then was. Next day, you
understand, I went out without leave. Love had come into my heart, and
had so completely changed me, that on my return from the theatre I did
not know myself: I had a horror of myself. Lucien would never have
known. Instead of telling him what I was, I gave him my address at
these rooms, where a friend of mine was then living, who was so kind
as to give them up to me. I swear on my sacred word----"
"You must not swear."
"Is it swearing to give your sacred word?--Well, from that day I have
worked in this room like a lost creature at shirt-making at twenty-
eight sous apiece, so as to live by honest labor. For a month I have
had nothing to eat but potatoes, that I might keep myself a good girl
and worthy of Lucien, who loves me and respects me as a pattern of
virtue. I have made my declaration before the police to recover my
rights, and submitted to two years' surveillance. They are ready
enough to enter your name on the lists of disgrace, but make every
difficulty about scratching it out again. All I asked of Heaven was to
enable me to keep my resolution.
"I shall be nineteen in the month of April; at my age there is still a
chance. It seems to me that I was never born till three months ago.--I
prayed to God every morning that Lucien might never know what my
former life had been. I bought that Virgin you see there, and I prayed
to her in my own way, for I do not know any prayers; I cannot read nor
write, and I have never been into a church; I have never seen anything
of God excepting in processions, out of curiosity."
"And what do you say to the Virgin?"
"I talk to her as I talk to Lucien, with all my soul, till I make him
"Oh, so he cries?"
"With joy," said she eagerly, "poor dear boy! We understand each other
so well that we have but one soul! He is so nice, so fond, so sweet in
heart and mind and manners! He says he is a poet; I say he is god.--
Forgive me! You priests, you see, don't know what love is. But, in
fact, only girls like me know enough of men to appreciate such as
Lucien. A Lucien, you see, is as rare as a woman without sin. When you
come across him you can love no one else; so there! But such a being
must have his fellow; so I want to be worthy to be loved by my Lucien.
That is where my trouble began. Last evening, at the opera, I was
recognized by some young men who have no more feeling than a tiger has
pity--for that matter, I could come round the tiger! The veil of
innocence I had tried to wear was worn off; their laughter pierced my
brain and my heart. Do not think you have saved me; I shall die of
"Your veil of innocence?" said the priest. "Then you have treated
Lucien with the sternest severity?"
"Oh, Father, how can you, who know him, ask me such a question!" she
replied with a smile. "Who can resist a god?"
"Do not be blasphemous," said the priest mildly. "No one can be like
God. Exaggeration is out of place with true love; you had not a pure
and genuine love for your idol. If you had undergone the conversion
you boast of having felt, you would have acquired the virtues which
are a part of womanhood; you would have known the charm of chastity,
the refinements of modesty, the two virtues that are the glory of a
maiden.--You do not love."
Esther's gesture of horror was seen by the priest, but it had no
effect on the impassibility of her confessor.
"Yes; for you love him for yourself and not for himself, for the
temporal enjoyments that delight you, and not for love itself. If he
has thus taken possession of you, you cannot have felt that sacred
thrill that is inspired by a being on whom God has set the seal of the
most adorable perfections. Has it never occurred to you that you would
degrade him by your past impurity, that you would corrupt a child by
the overpowering seductions which earned you your nickname glorious in
infamy? You have been illogical with yourself, and your passion of a
"Of a day?" she repeated, raising her eyes.
"By what other name can you call a love that is not eternal, that does
not unite us in the future life of the Christian, to the being we
"Ah, I will be a Catholic!" she cried in a hollow, vehement tone, that
would have earned her the mercy of the Lord.
"Can a girl who has received neither the baptism of the Church nor
that of knowledge; who can neither read, nor write, nor pray; who
cannot take a step without the stones in the street rising up to
accuse her; noteworthy only for the fugitive gift of beauty which
sickness may destroy to-morrow; can such a vile, degraded creature,
fully aware too of her degradation--for if you had been ignorant of it
and less devoted, you would have been more excusable--can the intended
victim to suicide and hell hope to be the wife of Lucien de Rubempre?"
Every word was a poniard thrust piercing the depths of her heart. At
every word the louder sobs and abundant tears of the desperate girl
showed the power with which light had flashed upon an intelligence as
pure as that of a savage, upon a soul at length aroused, upon a nature
over which depravity had laid a sheet of foul ice now thawed in the
sunshine of faith.
"Why did I not die!" was the only thought that found utterance in the
midst of a torrent of ideas that racked and ravaged her brain.
"My daughter," said the terrible judge, "there is a love which is
unconfessed before men, but of which the secret is received by the
angels with smiles of gladness."
"What is that?"
"Love without hope, when it inspires our life, when it fills us with
the spirit of sacrifice, when it ennobles every act by the thought of
reaching some ideal perfection. Yes, the angels approve of such love;
it leads to the knowledge of God. To aim at perfection in order to be
worthy of the one you love, to make for him a thousand secret
sacrifices, adoring him from afar, giving your blood drop by drop,
abnegating your self-love, never feeling any pride or anger as regards
him, even concealing from him all knowledge of the dreadful jealousy
he fires in your heart, giving him all he wishes were it to your own
loss, loving what he loves, always turning your face to him to follow
him without his knowing it--such love as that religion would have
forgiven; it is no offence to laws human or divine, and would have led
you into another road than that of your foul voluptuousness."
As she heard this horrible verdict, uttered in a word--and such a
word! and spoken in such a tone!--Esther's spirit rose up in fairly
legitimate distrust. This word was like a thunder-clap giving warning
of a storm about to break. She looked at the priest, and felt the grip
on her vitals which wrings the bravest when face to face with sudden
and imminent danger. No eye could have read what was passing in this
man's mind; but the boldest would have found more to quail at than to
hope for in the expression of his eyes, once bright and yellow like
those of a tiger, but now shrouded, from austerities and privations,
with a haze like that which overhangs the horizon in the dog-days,
when, though the earth is hot and luminous, the mist makes it
indistinct and dim--almost invisible.
The gravity of a Spaniard, the deep furrows which the myriad scars of
virulent smallpox made hideously like broken ruts, were ploughed into
his face, which was sallow and tanned by the sun. The hardness of this
countenance was all the more conspicuous, being framed in the meagre
dry wig of a priest who takes no care of his person, a black wig
looking rusty in the light. His athletic frame, his hands like an old
soldier's, his broad, strong shoulders were those of the Caryatides
which the architects of the Middle Ages introduced into some Italian
palaces, remotely imitated in those of the front of the Porte-Saint-
Martin theatre. The least clear-sighted observer might have seen that
fiery passions or some unwonted accident must have thrown this man
into the bosom of the Church; certainly none but the most tremendous
shocks of lightning could have changed him, if indeed such a nature
were susceptible of change.
Women who have lived the life that Esther had so violently repudiated
come to feel absolute indifference as to the critics of our day, who
may be compared with them in some respects, and who feel at last
perfect disregard of the formulas of art; they have read so many
books, they see so many pass away, they are so much accustomed to
written pages, they have gone through so many plots, they have seen so
many dramas, they have written so many articles without saying what
they meant, and have so often been treasonable to the cause of Art in
favor of their personal likings and aversions, that they acquire a
feeling of disgust of everything, and yet continue to pass judgment.
It needs a miracle to make such a writer produce sound work, just as
it needs another miracle to give birth to pure and noble love in the
heart of a courtesan.
The tone and manner of this priest, who seemed to have escaped from a
picture by Zurbaran, struck this poor girl as so hostile, little as
externals affected her, that she perceived herself to be less the
object of his solitude than the instrument he needed for some scheme.
Being unable to distinguish between the insinuating tongue of personal
interest and the unction of true charity, for we must be acutely awake
to recognize false coin when it is offered by a friend, she felt
herself, as it were, in the talons of some fierce and monstrous bird
of prey who, after hovering over her for long, had pounced down on
her; and in her terror she cried in a voice of alarm:
"I thought it was a priest's duty to console us, and you are killing
At this innocent outcry the priest started and paused; he meditated a
moment before replying. During that instant the two persons so
strangely brought together studied each other cautiously. The priest
understood the girl, though the girl could not understand the priest.
He, no doubt, put aside some plan which had threatened the unhappy
Esther, and came back to his first ideas.
"We are physicians of the soul," said he, in a mild voice, "and we
know what remedies suit their maladies."
"Much must be forgiven to the wretched," said Esther.
She fancied she had been wrong; she slipped off the bed, threw herself
at the man's feet, kissed his gown with deep humility, and looked up
at him with eyes full of tears.
"I thought I had done so much!" she said.
"Listen, my child. Your terrible reputation has cast Lucien's family
into grief. They are afraid, and not without reason, that you may lead
him into dissipation, into endless folly----"
"That is true; it was I who got him to the ball to mystify him."
"You are handsome enough to make him wish to triumph in you in the
eyes of the world, to show you with pride, and make you an object for
display. And if he wasted money only!--but he will waste his time, his
powers; he will lose his inclination for the fine future his friends
can secure to him. Instead of being some day an ambassador, rich,
admired and triumphant, he, like so many debauchees who choke their
talents in the mud of Paris, will have been the lover of a degraded
"As for you, after rising for a time to the level of a sphere of
elegance, you will presently sink back to your former life, for you
have not in you the strength bestowed by a good education to enable
you to resist vice and think of the future. You would no more be able
to break with the women of your own class than you have broken with
the men who shamed you at the opera this morning. Lucien's true
friends, alarmed by his passion for you, have dogged his steps and
know all. Filled with horror, they have sent me to you to sound your
views and decide your fate; but though they are powerful enough to
clear a stumbling-stone out of the young man's way, they are merciful.
Understand this, child: a girl whom Lucien loves has claims on their
regard, as a true Christian worships the slough on which, by chance,
the divine light falls. I came to be the instrument of a beneficent
purpose;--still, if I had found you utterly reprobate, armed with
effrontery and astuteness, corrupt to the marrow, deaf to the voice of
repentance, I should have abandoned you to their wrath.
"The release, civil and political, which it is so hard to win, which
the police is so right to withhold for a time in the interests of
society, and which I heard you long for with all the ardor of true
repentance--is here," said the priest, taking an official-looking
paper out of his belt. "You were seen yesterday, this letter of
release is dated to-day. You see how powerful the people are who take
an interest in Lucien."
At the sight of this document Esther was so ingenuously overcome by
the convulsive agitation produced by unlooked-for joy, that a fixed
smile parted her lips, like that of a crazy creature. The priest
paused, looking at the girl to see whether, when once she had lost the
horrible strength which corrupt natures find in corruption itself, and
was thrown back on her frail and delicate primitive nature, she could
endure so much excitement. If she had been a deceitful courtesan,
Esther would have acted a part; but now that she was innocent and
herself once more, she might perhaps die, as a blind man cured may
lose his sight again if he is exposed to too bright a light. At this
moment this man looked into the very depths of human nature, but his
calmness was terrible in its rigidity; a cold alp, snow-bound and near
to heaven, impenetrable and frowning, with flanks of granite, and yet
Such women are essentially impressionable beings, passing without
reason from the most idiotic distrust to absolute confidence. In this
respect they are lower than animals. Extreme in everything--in their
joy and despair, in their religion and irreligion--they would almost
all go mad if they were not decimated by the mortality peculiar to
their class, and if happy chances did not lift one now and then from
the slough in which they dwell. To understand the very depths of the
wretchedness of this horrible existence, one must know how far in
madness a creature can go without remaining there, by studying La
Torpille's violent ecstasy at the priest's feet. The poor girl gazed
at the paper of release with an expression which Dante has overlooked,
and which surpassed the inventiveness of his Inferno. But a reaction
came with tears. Esther rose, threw her arms round the priest's neck,
laid her head on his breast, which she wetted with her weeping,
kissing the coarse stuff that covered that heart of steel as if she
fain would touch it. She seized hold of him; she covered his hands
with kisses; she poured out in a sacred effusion of gratitude her most
coaxing caresses, lavished fond names on him, saying again and again
in the midst of her honeyed words, "Let me have it!" in a thousand
different tones of voice; she wrapped him in tenderness, covered him
with her looks with a swiftness that found him defenceless; at last
she charmed away his wrath.
The priest perceived how well the girl had deserved her nickname; he
understood how difficult it was to resist this bewitching creature; he
suddenly comprehended Lucien's love, and just what must have
fascinated the poet. Such a passion hides among a thousand temptations
a dart-like hook which is most apt to catch the lofty soul of an
artist. These passions, inexplicable to the vulgar, are perfectly
accounted for by the thirst for ideal beauty, which is characteristic
of a creative mind. For are we not, in some degree, akin to the
angels, whose task it is to bring the guilty to a better mind? are we
not creative when we purify such a creature? How delightful it is to
harmonize moral with physical beauty! What joy and pride if we
succeed! How noble a task is that which has no instrument but love!
Such alliances, made famous by the example of Aristotle, Socrates,
Plato, Alcibiades, Cethegus, and Pompey, and yet so monstrous in the
eyes of the vulgar, are based on the same feeling that prompted Louis
XIV. to build Versailles, or that makes men rush into any ruinous
enterprise--into converting the miasma of a marsh into a mass of
fragrance surrounded by living waters; placing a lake at the top of a
hill, as the Prince de Conti did at Nointel; or producing Swiss
scenery at Cassan, like Bergeret, the farmer-general. In short, it is
the application of art in the realm of morals.
The priest, ashamed of having yielded to this weakness, hastily pushed
Esther away, and she sat down quite abashed, for he said:
"You are still the courtesan." And he calmly replaced the paper in his
Esther, like a child who has a single wish in its head, kept her eyes
fixed on the spot where the document lay hidden.
"My child," the priest went on after a pause, "your mother was a
Jewess, and you have not been baptized; but, on the other hand, you
have never been taken to the synagogue. You are in the limbo where
little children are----"
"Little children!" she echoed, in a tenderly pathetic tone.
"As you are on the books of the police, a cipher outside the pale of
social beings," the priest went on, unmoved. "If love, seen as it
swept past, led you to believe three months since that you were then
born, you must feel that since that day you have been really an
infant. You must, therefore, be led as if you were a child; you must
be completely changed, and I will undertake to make you
unrecognizable. To begin with, you must forget Lucien."
The words crushed the poor girl's heart; she raised her eyes to the
priest and shook her head; she could not speak, finding the
executioner in the deliverer again.
"At any rate, you must give up seeing him," he went on. "I will take
you to a religious house where young girls of the best families are
educated; there you will become a Catholic, you will be trained in the
practice of Christian exercises, you will be taught religion. You may
come out an accomplished young lady, chaste, pure, well brought up,
if----" The man lifted up a finger and paused.
"If," he went on, "you feel brave enough to leave the 'Torpille'
behind you here."
"Ah!" cried the poor thing, to whom each word had been like a note of
some melody to which the gates of Paradise were slowly opening. "Ah!
if it were possible to shed all my blood here and have it renewed!"
"Listen to me."
She was silent.
"Your future fate depends on your power of forgetting. Think of the
extent to which you pledge yourself. A word, a gesture, which betrays
La Torpille will kill Lucien's wife. A word murmured in a dream, an
involuntary thought, an immodest glance, a gesture of impatience, a
reminiscence of dissipation, an omission, a shake of the head that
might reveal what you know, or what is known about you for your
"Yes, yes, Father," said the girl, with the exaltation of a saint. "To
walk in shoes of red-hot iron and smile, to live in a pair of stays
set with nails and maintain the grace of a dancer, to eat bread salted
with ashes, to drink wormwood,--all will be sweet and easy!"
She fell again on her knees, she kissed the priest's shoes, she melted
into tears that wetted them, she clasped his knees, and clung to them,
murmuring foolish words as she wept for joy. Her long and beautiful
light hair waved to the ground, a sort of carpet under the feet of the
celestial messenger, whom she saw as gloomy and hard as ever when she
lifted herself up and looked at him.
"What have I done to offend you?" cried she, quite frightened. "I have
heard of a woman, such as I am, who washed the feet of Jesus with
perfumes. Alas! virtue has made me so poor that I have nothing but
tears to offer you."
"Have you not understood?" he answered, in a cruel voice. "I tell you,
you must be able to come out of the house to which I shall take you so
completely changed, physically and morally, that no man or woman you
have ever known will be able to call you 'Esther' and make you look
round. Yesterday your love could not give you strength enough so
completely to bury the prostitute that she could never reappear; and
again to-day she revives in adoration which is due to none but God."
"Was it not He who sent you to me?" said she.
"If during the course of your education you should even see Lucien,
all would be lost," he went on; "remember that."
"Who will comfort him?" said she.
"What was it that you comforted him for?" asked the priest, in a tone
in which, for the first time during this scene, there was a nervous
"I do not know; he was often sad when he came."
"Sad!" said the priest. "Did he tell you why?"
"Never," answered she.
"He was sad at loving such a girl as you!" exclaimed he.
"Alas! and well he might be," said she, with deep humility. "I am the
most despicable creature of my sex, and I could find favor in his eyes
only by the greatness of my love."
"That love must give you the courage to obey me blindly. If I were to
take you straight from hence to the house where you are to be
educated, everybody here would tell Lucien that you had gone away
to-day, Sunday, with a priest; he might follow in your tracks. In the
course of a week, the portress, not seeing me again, might suppose me
to be what I am not. So, one evening--this day week--at seven o'clock,
go out quietly and get into a cab that will be waiting for you at the
bottom of the Rue des Frondeurs. During this week avoid Lucien, find
excuses, have him sent from the door, and if he should come in, go up
to some friend's room. I shall know if you have seen him, and in that
event all will be at an end. I shall not even come back. These eight
days you will need to make up some suitable clothing and to hide your
look of a prostitute," said he, laying a purse on the chimney-shelf.
"There is something in your manner, in your clothes--something
indefinable which is well known to Parisians, and proclaims you what
you are. Have you never met in the streets or on the Boulevards a
modest and virtuous girl walking with her mother?"
"Oh yes, to my sorrow! The sight of a mother and daughter is one of
our most cruel punishments; it arouses the remorse that lurks in the
innermost folds of our hearts, and that is consuming us.--I know too
well all I lack."
"Well, then, you know how you should look next Sunday," said the
"Oh!" said she, "teach me one real prayer before you go, that I may
pray to God."
It was a touching thing to see the priest making this girl repeat Ave
Maria and Paternoster in French.
"That is very fine!" said Esther, when she had repeated these two
grand and universal utterances of the Catholic faith without making a
"What is your name?" she asked the priest when he took leave of her.
"Carlos Herrera; I am a Spaniard banished from my country."
Esther took his hand and kissed it. She was no longer the courtesan;
she was an angel rising after a fall.
In a religious institution, famous for the aristocratic and pious
teaching imparted there, one Monday morning in the beginning of March
1824 the pupils found their pretty flock increased by a newcomer,
whose beauty triumphed without dispute not only over that of her
companions, but over the special details of beauty which were found
severally in perfection in each one of them. In France it is extremely
rare, not to say impossible, to meet with the thirty points of
perfection, described in Persian verse, and engraved, it is said, in
the Seraglio, which are needed to make a woman absolutely beautiful.
Though in France the whole is seldom seen, we find exquisite parts. As
to that imposing union which sculpture tries to produce, and has
produced in a few rare examples like the Diana and the Callipyge, it
is the privileged possession of Greece and Asia Minor.
Esther came from that cradle of the human race; her mother was a
Jewess. The Jews, though so often deteriorated by their contact with
other nations, have, among their many races, families in which this
sublime type of Asiatic beauty has been preserved. When they are not
repulsively hideous, they present the splendid characteristics of
Armenian beauty. Esther would have carried off the prize at the
Seraglio; she had the thirty points harmoniously combined. Far from
having damaged the finish of her modeling and the freshness of her
flesh, her strange life had given her the mysterious charm of
womanhood; it is no longer the close, waxy texture of green fruit and
not yet the warm glow of maturity; there is still the scent of the
flower. A few days longer spent in dissolute living, and she would
have been too fat. This abundant health, this perfection of the animal
in a being in whom voluptuousness took the place of thought, must be a
remarkable fact in the eyes of physiologists. A circumstance so rare,
that it may be called impossible in very young girls, was that her
hands, incomparably fine in shape, were as soft, transparent, and
white as those of a woman after the birth of her second child. She had
exactly the hair and the foot for which the Duchesse de Berri was so
famous, hair so thick that no hairdresser could gather it into his
hand, and so long that it fell to the ground in rings; for Esther was
of that medium height which makes a woman a sort of toy, to be taken
up and set down, taken up again and carried without fatigue. Her skin,
as fine as rice-paper, of a warm amber hue showing the purple veins,
was satiny without dryness, soft without being clammy.
Esther, excessively strong though apparently fragile, arrested
attention by one feature that is conspicuous in the faces in which
Raphael has shown his most artistic feeling, for Raphael is the
painter who has most studied and best rendered Jewish beauty. This
remarkable effect was produced by the depth of the eye-socket, under
which the eye moved free from its setting; the arch of the brow was so
accurate as to resemble the groining of a vault. When youth lends this
beautiful hollow its pure and diaphanous coloring, and edges it with
closely-set eyebrows, when the light stealing into the circular cavity
beneath lingers there with a rosy hue, there are tender treasures in
it to delight a lover, beauties to drive a painter to despair. Those
luminous curves, where the shadows have a golden tone, that tissue as
firm as a sinew and as mobile as the most delicate membrane, is a
crowning achievement of nature. The eye at rest within is like a
miraculous egg in a nest of silken wings. But as time goes on this
marvel acquires a dreadful melancholy, when passions have laid dark
smears on those fine forms, when grief had furrowed that network of
delicate veins. Esther's nationality proclaimed itself in this
Oriental modeling of her eyes with their Turkish lids; their color was
a slate-gray which by night took on the blue sheen of a raven's wing.
It was only the extreme tenderness of her expression that could
moderate their fire.
Only those races that are native to deserts have in the eye the power
of fascinating everybody, for any woman can fascinate some one person.
Their eyes preserve, no doubt, something of the infinitude they have
gazed on. Has nature, in her foresight, armed their retina with some
reflecting background to enable them to endure the mirage of the sand,
the torrents of sunshine, and the burning cobalt of the sky? or, do
human beings, like other creatures, derive something from the
surroundings among which they grow up, and preserve for ages the
qualities they have imbibed from them? The great solution of this
problem of race lies perhaps in the question itself. Instincts are
living facts, and their cause dwells in past necessity. Variety in
animals is the result of the exercise of these instincts.
To convince ourselves of this long-sought-for truth, it is enough to
extend to the herd of mankind the observation recently made on flocks
of Spanish and English sheep which, in low meadows where pasture is
abundant, feed side by side in close array, but on mountains, where
grass is scarce, scatter apart. Take these two kinds of sheep,
transfer them to Switzerland or France; the mountain breeds will feed
apart even in a lowland meadow of thick grass, the lowland sheep will
keep together even on an alp. Hardly will a succession of generations
eliminate acquired and transmitted instincts. After a century the
highland spirit reappears in a refractory lamb, just as, after
eighteen centuries of exile, the spirit of the East shone in Esther's
eyes and features.
Her look had no terrible fascination; it shed a mild warmth, it was
pathetic without being startling, and the sternest wills were melted
in its flame. Esther had conquered hatred, she had astonished the
depraved souls of Paris; in short, that look and the softness of her
skin had earned her the terrible nickname which had just led her to
the verge of the grave. Everything about her was in harmony with these
characteristics of the Peri of the burning sands. Her forehead was
firmly and proudly molded. Her nose, like that of the Arab race, was
delicate and narrow, with oval nostrils well set and open at the base.
Her mouth, fresh and red, was a rose unblemished by a flaw,
dissipation had left no trace there. Her chin, rounded as though some
amorous sculptor had polished its fulness, was as white as milk. One
thing only that she had not been able to remedy betrayed the courtesan
fallen very low: her broken nails, which needed time to recover their
shape, so much had they been spoiled by the vulgarest household tasks.
The young boarders began by being jealous of these marvels of beauty,
but they ended by admiring them. Before the first week was at an end
they were all attached to the artless Jewess, for they were interested
in the unknown misfortunes of a girl of eighteen who could neither
read nor write, to whom all knowledge and instruction were new, and
who was to earn for the Archbishop the triumph of having converted a
Jewess to Catholicism and giving the convent a festival in her
baptism. They forgave her beauty, finding themselves her superiors in
Esther very soon caught the manners, the accent, the carriage and
attitudes of these highly-bred girls; in short, her first nature
reasserted itself. The change was so complete that on his first visit
Herrera was astonished as it would seem--and the Mother Superior
congratulated him on his ward. Never in their existence as teachers
had these sisters met with a more charming nature, more Christian
meekness, true modesty, nor a greater eagerness to learn. When a girl
has suffered such misery as had overwhelmed this poor child, and looks
forward to such a reward as the Spaniard held out to Esther, it is
hard if she does not realize the miracles of the early Church which
the Jesuits revived in Paraguay.
"She is edifying," said the Superior, kissing her on the brow.
And this essentially Catholic word tells all.
In recreation hours Esther would question her companions, but
discreetly, as to the simplest matters in fashionable life, which to
her were like the first strange ideas of life to a child. When she
heard that she was to be dressed in white on the day of her baptism
and first Communion, that she should wear a white satin fillet, white
bows, white shoes, white gloves, and white rosettes in her hair, she
melted into tears, to the amazement of her companions. It was the
reverse of the scene of Jephtha on the mountain. The courtesan was
afraid of being understood; she ascribed this dreadful dejection to
the joy with which she looked forward to the function. As there is
certainly as wide a gulf between the habits she had given up and the
habits she was acquiring as there is between the savage state and
civilization, she had the grace and simplicity and depth which
distinguished the wonderful heroine of the American Puritans. She had
too, without knowing it, a love that was eating out her heart--a
strange love, a desire more violent in her who knew everything than it
can be in a maiden who knows nothing, though the two forms of desire
have the same cause, and the same end in view.
During the first few months the novelty of a secluded life, the
surprises of learning, the handiworks she was taught, the practices of
religion, the fervency of a holy resolve, the gentle affections she
called forth, and the exercise of the faculties of her awakened
intelligence, all helped to repress her memory, even the effort she
made to acquire a new one, for she had as much to unlearn as to learn.
There is more than one form of memory: the body and mind have each
their own; home-sickness, for instance, is a malady of the physical
memory. Thus, during the third month, the vehemence of this virgin
soul, soaring to Paradise on outspread wings, was not indeed quelled,
but fettered by a dull rebellion, of which Esther herself did not know
the cause. Like the Scottish sheep, she wanted to pasture in solitude,
she could not conquer the instincts begotten of debauchery.
Was it that the foul ways of the Paris she had abjured were calling
her back to them? Did the chains of the hideous habits she had
renounced cling to her by forgotten rivets, and was she feeling them,
as old soldiers suffer still, the surgeons tell us, in the limbs they
have lost? Had vice and excess so soaked into her marrow that holy
waters had not yet exorcised the devil lurking there? Was the sight of
him for whom her angelic efforts were made, necessary to the poor
soul, whom God would surely forgive for mingling human and sacred
love? One had led to the other. Was there some transposition of the
vital force in her involving her in inevitable suffering? Everything
is doubtful and obscure in a case which science scorns to study,
regarding the subject as too immoral and too compromising, as if the
physician and the writer, the priest and the political student, were
not above all suspicion. However, a doctor who was stopped by death
had the courage to begin an investigation which he left unfinished.
Perhaps the dark depression to which Esther fell a victim, and which
cast a gloom over her happy life, was due to all these causes; and
perhaps, unable as she was to suspect them herself, she suffered as
sick creatures suffer who know nothing of medicine or surgery.
The fact is strange. Wholesome and abundant food in the place of bad
and inflammatory nourishment did not sustain Esther. A pure and
regular life, divided between recreation and studies intentionally
abridged, taking the place of a disorderly existence of which the
pleasures and the pains were equally horrible, exhausted the convent-
boarder. The coolest rest, the calmest nights, taking the place of
crushing fatigue and the most torturing agitation, gave her low fever,
in which the common symptoms were imperceptible to the nursing
Sister's eye or finger. In fact, virtue and happiness following on
evil and misfortune, security in the stead of anxiety, were as fatal
to Esther as her past wretchedness would have been to her young
companions. Planted in corruption, she had grown up in it. That
infernal home still had a hold on her, in spite of the commands of a
despotic will. What she loathed was life to her, what she loved was
Her faith was so ardent that her piety was a delight to those about
her. She loved to pray. She had opened her spirit to the lights of
true religion, and received it without an effort or a doubt. The
priest who was her director was delighted with her. Still, at every
turn her body resisted the spirit.
To please a whim of Madame de Maintenon's, who fed them with scraps
from the royal table, some carp were taken out of a muddy pool and
placed in a marble basin of bright, clean water. The carp perished.
The animals might be sacrificed, but man could never infect them with
the leprosy of flattery. A courtier remarked at Versailles on this
mute resistance. "They are like me," said the uncrowned queen; "they
pine for their obscure mud."
This speech epitomizes Esther's story.
At times the poor girl was driven to run about the splendid convent
gardens; she hurried from tree to tree, she rushed into the darkest
nooks--seeking? What? She did not know, but she fell a prey to the
demon; she carried on a flirtation with the trees, she appealed to
them in unspoken words. Sometimes, in the evening, she stole along
under the walls, like a snake, without any shawl over her bare
shoulders. Often in chapel, during the service, she remained with her
eyes fixed on the Crucifix, melted to tears; the others admired her;
but she was crying with rage. Instead of the sacred images she hoped
to see, those glaring nights when she had led some orgy as Habeneck
leads a Beethoven symphony at the Conservatoire--nights of laughter
and lasciviousness, with vehement gestures, inextinguishable laughter,
rose before her, frenzied, furious, and brutal. She was as mild to
look upon as a virgin that clings to earth only by her woman's shape;
within raged an imperial Messalina.
She alone knew the secret of this struggle between the devil and the
angel. When the Superior reproved her for having done her hair more
fashionably than the rule of the House allowed, she altered it with
prompt and beautiful submission; she would have cut her hair off if
the Mother had required it of her. This moral home-sickness was truly
pathetic in a girl who would rather have perished than have returned
to the depths of impurity. She grew pale and altered and thin. The
Superior gave her shorter lessons, and called the interesting creature
to her room to question her. But Esther was happy; she enjoyed the
society of her companions; she felt no pain in any vital part; still,
it was vitality itself that was attacked. She regretted nothing; she
wanted nothing. The Superior, puzzled by her boarder's answers, did
not know what to think when she saw her pining under consuming
The doctor was called in when the girl's condition seemed serious; but
this doctor knew nothing of Esther's previous life, and could not
guess it; he found every organ sound, the pain could not be localized.
The invalid's replies were such as to upset every hypothesis. There
remained one way of clearing up the learned man's doubts, which now
lighted on a frightful suggestion; but Esther obstinately refused to
submit to a medical examination.
In this difficulty the Superior appealed to the Abbe Herrera. The
Spaniard came, saw that Esther's condition was desperate, and took the
physician aside for a moment. After this confidential interview, the
man of science told the man of faith that the only cure lay in a
journey to Italy. The Abbe would not hear of such a journey before
Esther's baptism and first Communion.
"How long will it be till then?" asked the doctor.
"A month," replied the Superior.
"She will be dead," said the doctor.
"Yes, but in a state of grace and salvation," said the Abbe.
In Spain the religious question is supreme, above all political,
civil, or vital considerations; so the physician did not answer the
Spaniard. He turned to the Mother Superior, but the terrible Abbe took
him by the arm and stopped him.
"Not a word, monsieur!" said he.
The doctor, though a religious man and a Monarchist, looked at Esther
with an expression of tender pity. The girl was as lovely as a lily
drooping on its stem.
"God help her, then!" he exclaimed as he went away.
On the very day of this consultation, Esther was taken by her
protector to the Rocher de Cancale, a famous restaurant, for his wish
to save her had suggested strange expedients to the priest. He tried
the effect of two excesses--an excellent dinner, which might remind
the poor child of past orgies; and the opera, which would give her
mind some images of worldliness. His despotic authority was needed to
tempt the young saint to such profanation. Herrera disguised himself
so effectually as a military man, that Esther hardly recognized him;
he took care to make his companion wear a veil, and put her in a box
where she was hidden from all eyes.
This palliative, which had no risks for innocence so sincerely
regained, soon lost its effect. The convent-boarder viewed her
protector's dinners with disgust, had a religious aversion for the
theatre, and relapsed into melancholy.
"She is dying of love for Lucien," said Herrera to himself; he had
wanted to sound the depths of this soul, and know how much could be
exacted from it.
So the moment came when the poor child was no longer upheld by moral
force, and the body was about to break down. The priest calculated the
time with the hideous practical sagacity formerly shown by
executioners in the art of torture. He found his protegee in the
garden, sitting on a bench under a trellis on which the April sun fell
gently; she seemed to be cold and trying to warm herself; her
companions looked with interest at her pallor as of a folded plant,
her eyes like those of a dying gazelle, her drooping attitude. Esther
rose and went to meet the Spaniard with a lassitude that showed how
little life there was in her, and, it may be added, how little care to
live. This hapless outcast, this wild and wounded swallow, moved
Carlos Herrera to compassion for the second time. The gloomy minister,
whom God should have employed only to carry out His revenges, received
the sick girl with a smile, which expressed, indeed, as much
bitterness as sweetness, as much vengeance as charity. Esther,
practised in meditation, and used to revulsions of feeling since she
had led this almost monastic life, felt on her part, for the second
time, distrust of her protector; but, as on the former occasion, his
speech reassured her.
"Well, my dear child," said he, "and why have you never spoken to me
"I promised you," she said, shuddering convulsively from head to foot;
"I swore to you that I would never breathe his name."
"And yet you have not ceased to think of him."
"That, monsieur, is the only fault I have committed. I think of him
always; and just as you came, I was saying his name to myself."
"Absence is killing you?"
Esther's only answer was to hang her head as the sick do who already
scent the breath of the grave.
"If you could see him----?" said he.
"It would be life!" she cried.
"And do you think of him only spiritually?"
"Ah, monsieur, love cannot be dissected!"
"Child of an accursed race! I have done everything to save you; I send
you back to your fate.--You shall see him again."
"Why insult my happiness? Can I not love Lucien and be virtuous? Am I
not ready to die here for virtue, as I should be ready to die for him?
Am I not dying for these two fanaticisms--for virtue, which was to
make me worthy of him, and for him who flung me into the embrace of
virtue? Yes, and ready to die without seeing him or to live by seeing
him. God is my Judge."
The color had mounted to her face, her whiteness had recovered its
amber warmth. Esther looked beautiful again.
"The day after that on which you are washed in the waters of baptism
you shall see Lucien once more; and if you think you can live in
virtue by living for him, you shall part no more."
The priest was obliged to lift up Esther, whose knees failed her; the
poor child dropped as if the ground had slipped from under her feet.
The Abbe seated her on a bench; and when she could speak again she
"Why not to-day?"
"Do you want to rob Monseigneur of the triumph of your baptism and
conversion? You are too close to Lucien not to be far from God."
"Yes, I was not thinking----"
"You will never be of any religion," said the priest, with a touch of
the deepest irony.
"God is good," said she; "He can read my heart."
Conquered by the exquisite artlessness and gestures, Herrera kissed
her on the forehead for the first time.
"Your libertine friends named you well; you would bewitch God the
Father.--A few days more must pass, and then you will both be free."
"Both!" she echoed in an ecstasy of joy.
This scene, observed from a distance, struck pupils and superiors
alike; they fancied they had looked on at a miracle as they compared
Esther with herself. She was completely changed; she was alive. She
reappeared her natural self, all love, sweet, coquettish, playful, and
gay; in short, it was a resurrection.
Herrera lived in the Rue Cassette, near Saint-Sulpice, the church to
which he was attached. This building, hard and stern in style, suited
this Spaniard, whose discipline was that of the Dominicans. A lost son
of Ferdinand VII.'s astute policy, he devoted himself to the cause of
the constitution, knowing that this devotion could never be rewarded
till the restoration of the Rey netto. Carlos Herrera had thrown
himself body and soul into the Camarilla at the moment when the Cortes
seemed likely to stand and hold their own. To the world this conduct
seemed to proclaim a superior soul. The Duc d'Angouleme's expedition
had been carried out, King Ferdinand was on the throne, and Carlos
Herrera did not go to claim the reward of his services at Madrid.
Fortified against curiosity by his diplomatic taciturnity, he assigned
as his reason for remaining in Paris his strong affection for Lucien
de Rubempre, to which the young man already owed the King's patent
relating to his change of name.
Herrera lived very obscurely, as priests employed on secret missions
traditionally live. He fulfilled his religious duties at Saint-
Sulpice, never went out but on business, and then after dark, and in a
hackney cab. His day was filled up with a siesta in the Spanish
fashion, which arranges for sleep between the two chief meals, and so
occupies the hours when Paris is in a busy turmoil. The Spanish cigar
also played its part, and consumed time as well as tobacco. Laziness
is a mask as gravity is, and that again is laziness.
Herrera lived on the second floor in one wing of the house, and Lucien
occupied the other wing. The two apartments were separated and joined
by a large reception room of antique magnificence, suitable equally to
the grave priest and to the young poet. The courtyard was gloomy;
large, thick trees shaded the garden. Silence and reserve are always
found in the dwellings chosen by priests. Herrera's lodging may be
described in one word--a cell. Lucien's, splendid with luxury, and
furnished with every refinement of comfort, combined everything that
the elegant life of a dandy demands--a poet, a writer, ambitious and
dissipated, at once vain and vainglorious, utterly heedless, and yet
wishing for order, one of those incomplete geniuses who have some
power to wish, to conceive--which is perhaps the same thing--but no
power at all to execute.
These two, Lucien and Herrera, formed a body politic. This, no doubt,
was the secret of their union. Old men in whom the activities of life
have been uprooted and transplanted to the sphere of interest, often
feel the need of a pleasing instrument, a young and impassioned actor,
to carry out their schemes. Richelieu, too late, found a handsome pale
face with a young moustache to cast in the way of women whom he wanted
to amuse. Misunderstood by giddy-pated younger men, he was compelled
to banish his master's mother and terrify the Queen, after having
tried to make each fall in love with him, though he was not cut out to
be loved by queens.
Do what we will, always, in the course of an ambitious life, we find a
woman in the way just when we least expect such an obstacle. However
great a political man may be, he always needs a woman to set against a
woman, just as the Dutch use a diamond to cut a diamond. Rome at the
height of its power yielded to this necessity. And observe how
immeasurably more imposing was the life of Mazarin, the Italian
cardinal, than that of Richelieu, the French cardinal. Richelieu met
with opposition from the great nobles, and he applied the axe; he died
in the flower of his success, worn out by this duel, for which he had
only a Capuchin monk as his second. Mazarin was repulsed by the
citizen class and the nobility, armed allies who sometimes
victoriously put royalty to flight; but Anne of Austria's devoted
servant took off no heads, he succeeded in vanquishing the whole of
France, and trained Louis XIV., who completed Richelieu's work by
strangling the nobility with gilded cords in the grand Seraglio of
Versailles. Madame de Pompadour dead, Choiseul fell!
Had Herrera soaked his mind in these high doctrines? Had he judged
himself at an earlier age than Richelieu? Had he chosen Lucien to be
his Cinq-Mars, but a faithful Cinq-Mars? No one could answer these
questions or measure this Spaniard's ambition, as no one could foresee
what his end might be. These questions, asked by those who were able
to see anything of this coalition, which was long kept a secret, might
have unveiled a horrible mystery which Lucien himself had known but a
few days. Carlos was ambitious for two; that was what his conduct made
plain to those persons who knew him, and who all imagined that Lucien
was the priest's illegitimate son.
Fifteen months after Lucien's reappearance at the opera ball, which
led him too soon into a world where the priest had not wished to see
him till he should have fully armed him against it, he had three fine
horses in his stable, a coupe for evening use, a cab and a tilbury to
drive by day. He dined out every day. Herrera's foresight was
justified; his pupil was carried away by dissipation; he thought it
necessary to effect some diversion in the frenzied passion for Esther
that the young man still cherished in his heart. After spending
something like forty thousand francs, every folly had brought Lucien
back with increased eagerness to La Torpille; he searched for her
persistently; and as he could not find her, she became to him what
game is to the sportsman.
Could Herrera understand the nature of a poet's love?
When once this feeling has mounted to the brain of one of these great
little men, after firing his heart and absorbing his senses, the poet
becomes as far superior to humanity through love as he already is
through the power of his imagination. A freak of intellectual heredity
has given him the faculty of expressing nature by imagery, to which he
gives the stamp both of sentiment and of thought, and he lends his
love the wings of his spirit; he feels, and he paints, he acts and
meditates, he multiplies his sensations by thought, present felicity
becomes threefold through aspiration for the future and memory of the
past; and with it he mingles the exquisite delights of the soul, which
makes him the prince of artists. Then the poet's passion becomes a
fine poem in which human proportion is often set at nought. Does not
the poet then place his mistress far higher than women crave to sit?
Like the sublime Knight of la Mancha, he transfigures a peasant girl
to be a princess. He uses for his own behoof the wand with which he
touches everything, turning it into a wonder, and thus enhances the
pleasure of loving by the glorious glamour of the ideal.
Such a love is the very essence of passion. It is extreme in all
things, in its hopes, in its despair, in its rage, in its melancholy,
in its joy; it flies, it leaps, it crawls; it is not like any of the
emotions known to ordinary men; it is to everyday love what the
perennial Alpine torrent is to the lowland brook.
These splendid geniuses are so rarely understood that they spend
themselves in hopes deceived; they are exhausted by the search for
their ideal mistress, and almost always die like gorgeous insects
splendidly adorned for their love-festival by the most poetical of
nature's inventions, and crushed under the foot of a passer-by. But
there is another danger! When they meet with the form that answers to
their soul, and which not unfrequently is that of a baker's wife, they
do as Raphael did, as the beautiful insect does, they die in the
Lucien was at this pass. His poetical temperament, excessive in all
things, in good as in evil, had discerned the angel in this girl, who
was tainted by corruption rather than corrupt; he always saw her
white, winged, pure, and mysterious, as she had made herself for him,
understanding that he would have her so.
Towards the end of the month of May 1825 Lucien had lost all his good
spirits; he never went out, dined with Herrera, sat pensive, worked,
read volumes of diplomatic treatises, squatted Turkish-fashion on a
divan, and smoked three or four hookahs a day. His groom had more to
do in cleaning and perfuming the tubes of this noble pipe than in
currying and brushing down the horses' coats, and dressing them with
cockades for driving in the Bois. As soon as the Spaniard saw Lucien
pale, and detected a malady in the frenzy of suppressed passion, he