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The Jealousies of a Country Town by Honore de Balzac

Part 2 out of 6

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The violence of this hope without an object was so great that Rose was
afraid to look a man in the face lest he should perceive in her eyes
the feelings that filled her soul. By a wilfulness, which was perhaps
only the continuation of her earlier methods, though she felt herself
attracted toward the men who might still suit her, she was so afraid
of being accused of folly that she treated them ungraciously. Most
persons in her society, being incapable of appreciating her motives,
which were always noble, explained her manner towards her co-celibates
as the revenge of a refusal received or expected. When the year 1815
began, Rose had reached that fatal age which she dared not avow. She
was forty-two years old. Her desire for marriage then acquired an
intensity which bordered on monomania, for she saw plainly that all
chance of progeny was about to escape her; and the thing which in her
celestial ignorance she desired above all things was the possession of
children. Not a person in all Alencon ever attributed to this virtuous
woman a single desire for amorous license. She loved, as it were, in
bulk without the slightest imagination of love. Rose was a Catholic
Agnes, incapable of inventing even one of the wiles of Moliere's
Agnes.

For some months past she had counted on chance. The disbandment of the
Imperial troops and the reorganization of the Royal army caused a
change in the destination of many officers, who returned, some on
half-pay, others with or without a pension, to their native towns,
--all having a desire to counteract their luckless fate, and to end
their life in a way which might to Rose Cormon be a happy beginning of
hers. It would surely be strange if, among those who returned to
Alencon or its neighborhood, no brave, honorable, and, above all,
sound and healthy officer of suitable age could be found, whose
character would be a passport among Bonaparte opinions; or some
ci-devant noble who, to regain his lost position, would join the ranks
of the royalists. This hope kept Mademoiselle Cormon in heart during
the early months of that year. But, alas! all the soldiers who thus
returned were either too old or too young; too aggressively
Bonapartist, or too dissipated; in short, their several situations
were out of keeping with the rank, fortune, and morals of Mademoiselle
Cormon, who now grew daily more and more desperate. The poor woman in
vain prayed to God to send her a husband with whom she could be
piously happy: it was doubtless written above that she should die both
virgin and martyr; no man suitable for a husband presented himself.
The conversations in her salon every evening kept her informed of the
arrival of all strangers in Alencon, and of the facts of their
fortunes, rank, and habits. But Alencon is not a town which attracts
visitors; it is not on the road to any capital; even sailors,
travelling from Brest to Paris, never stop there. The poor woman ended
by admitting to herself that she was reduced to the aborigines. Her
eye now began to assume a certain savage expression, to which the
malicious chevalier responded by a shrewd look as he drew out his
snuff-box and gazed at the Princess Goritza. Monsieur de Valois was
well aware that in the feminine ethics of love fidelity to a first
attachment is considered a pledge for the future.

But Mademoiselle Cormon--we must admit it--was wanting in intellect,
and did not understand the snuff-box performance. She redoubled her
vigilance against "the evil spirit"; her rigid devotion and fixed
principles kept her cruel sufferings hidden among the mysteries of
private life. Every evening, after the company had left her, she
thought of her lost youth, her faded bloom, the hopes of thwarted
nature; and, all the while immolating her passions at the feet of the
Cross (like poems condemned to stay in a desk), she resolved firmly
that if, by chance, any suitor presented himself, to subject him to no
tests, but to accept him at once for whatever he might be. She even
went so far as to think of marrying a sub-lieutenant, a man who smoked
tobacco, whom she proposed to render, by dint of care and kindness,
one of the best men in the world, although he was hampered with debts.

But it was only in the silence of night watches that these fantastic
marriages, in which she played the sublime role of guardian angel,
took place. The next day, though Josette found her mistress' bed in a
tossed and tumbled condition, Mademoiselle Cormon had recovered her
dignity, and could only think of a man of forty, a land-owner, well
preserved, and a quasi-young man.

The Abbe de Sponde was incapable of giving his niece the slightest aid
in her matrimonial manoeuvres. The worthy soul, now seventy years of
age, attributed the disasters of the French Revolution to the design
of Providence, eager to punish a dissolute Church. He had therefore
flung himself into the path, long since abandoned, which anchorites
once followed in order to reach heaven: he led an ascetic life without
proclaiming it, and without external credit. He hid from the world his
works of charity, his continual prayers, his penances; he thought that
all priests should have acted thus during the days of wrath and
terror, and he preached by example. While presenting to the world a
calm and smiling face, he had ended by detaching himself utterly from
earthly interests; his mind turned exclusively to sufferers, to the
needs of the Church, and to his own salvation. He left the management
of his property to his niece, who gave him the income of it, and to
whom he paid a slender board in order to spend the surplus in secret
alms and gifts to the Church.

All the abbe's affections were concentrated on his niece, who regarded
him as a father, but an abstracted father, unable to conceive the
agitations of the flesh, and thanking God for maintaining his dear
daughter in a state of celibacy; for he had, from his youth up,
adopted the principles of Saint John Chrysostom, who wrote that "the
virgin state is as far above the marriage state as the angel is above
humanity." Accustomed to reverence her uncle, Mademoiselle Cormon
dared not initiate him into the desires which filled her soul for a
change of state. The worthy man, accustomed, on his side, to the ways
of the house, would scarcely have liked the introduction of a husband.
Preoccupied by the sufferings he soothed, lost in the depths of
prayer, the Abbe de Sponde had periods of abstraction which the
habitues of the house regarded as absent-mindedness. In any case, he
talked little; but his silence was affable and benevolent. He was a
man of great height and spare, with grave and solemn manners, though
his face expressed all gentle sentiments and an inward calm; while his
mere presence carried with it a sacred authority. He was very fond of
the Voltairean chevalier. Those two majestic relics of the nobility
and clergy, though of very different habits and morals, recognized
each other by their generous traits. Besides, the chevalier was as
unctuous with the abbe as he was paternal with the grisettes.

Some persons may fancy that Mademoiselle Cormon used every means to
attain her end; and that among the legitimate lures of womanhood she
devoted herself to dress, wore low-necked gowns, and employed the
negative coquetries of a magnificent display of arms. Not at all! She
was as heroic and immovable in her high-necked chemisette as a sentry
in his box. Her gowns, bonnets, and chiffons were all cut and made by
the dressmaker and the milliner of Alencon, two hump-backed sisters,
who were not without some taste. In spite of the entreaties of these
artists, Mademoiselle Cormon refused to employ the airy deceits of
elegance; she chose to be substantial in all things, flesh and
feathers. But perhaps the heavy fashion of her gowns was best suited
to her cast of countenance. Let those laugh who will at this poor
girl; you would have thought her sublime, O generous souls! who care
but little what form true feeling takes, but admire it where it /is/.

Here some light-minded person may exclaim against the truth of this
statement; they will say that there is not in all France a girl so
silly as to be ignorant of the art of angling for men; that
Mademoiselle Cormon is one of those monstrous exceptions which
commonsense should prevent a writer from using as a type; that the
most virtuous and also the silliest girl who desires to catch her fish
knows well how to bait the hook. But these criticisms fall before the
fact that the noble catholic, apostolic, and Roman religion is still
erect in Brittany and in the ancient duchy of Alencon. Faith and piety
admit of no subtleties. Mademoiselle Cormon trod the path of
salvation, preferring the sorrows of her virginity so cruelly
prolonged to the evils of trickery and the sin of a snare. In a woman
armed with a scourge virtue could never compromise; consequently both
love and self-interest were forced to seek her, and seek her
resolutely. And here let us have the courage to make a cruel
observation, in days when religion is nothing more than a useful means
to some, and a poesy to others. Devotion causes a moral ophthalmia. By
some providential grace, it takes from souls on the road to eternity
the sight of many little earthly things. In a word, pious persons,
devotes, are stupid on various points. This stupidity proves with what
force they turn their minds to celestial matters; although the
Voltairean Chevalier de Valois declared that it was difficult to
decide whether stupid people became naturally pious, or whether piety
had the effect of making intelligent young women stupid. But reflect
upon this carefully: the purest catholic virtue, with its loving
acceptance of all cups, with its pious submission to the will of God,
with its belief in the print of the divine finger on the clay of all
earthly life, is the mysterious light which glides into the innermost
folds of human history, setting them in relief and magnifying them in
the eyes of those who still have Faith. Besides, if there be
stupidity, why not concern ourselves with the sorrows of stupidity as
well as with the sorrows of genius? The former is a social element
infinitely more abundant than the latter.

So, then, Mademoiselle Cormon was guilty in the eyes of the world of
the divine ignorance of virgins. She was no observer, and her behavior
with her suitors proved it. At this very moment, a young girl of
sixteen, who had never opened a novel, would have read a hundred
chapters of a love story in the eyes of Athanase Granson, where
Mademoiselle Cormon saw absolutely nothing. Shy herself, she never
suspected shyness in others; she did not recognize in the quavering
tones of his speech the force of a sentiment he could not utter.
Capable of inventing those refinements of sentimental grandeur which
hindered her marriage in her early years, she yet could not recognize
them in Athanase. This moral phenomenon will not seem surprising to
persons who know that the qualities of the heart are as distinct from
those of the mind as the faculties of genius are from the nobility of
soul. A perfect, all-rounded man is so rare that Socrates, one of the
noblest pearls of humanity, declared (as a phrenologist of that day)
that he was born to be a scamp, and a very bad one. A great general
may save his country at Zurich, and take commissions from purveyors. A
great musician may conceive the sublimest music and commit a forgery.
A woman of true feeling may be a fool. In short, a devote may have a
sublime soul and yet be unable to recognize the tones of a noble soul
beside her. The caprices produced by physical infirmities are equally
to be met with in the mental and moral regions.

This good creature, who grieved at making her yearly preserves for no
one but her uncle and herself, was becoming almost ridiculous. Those
who felt a sympathy for her on account of her good qualities, and
others on account of her defects, now made fun of her abortive
marriages. More than one conversation was based on what would become
of so fine a property, together with the old maid's savings and her
uncle's inheritance. For some time past she had been suspected of
being au fond, in spite of appearances, an "original." In the
provinces it was not permissible to be original: being original means
having ideas that are not understood by others; the provinces demand
equality of mind as well as equality of manners and customs.

The marriage of Mademoiselle Cormon seemed, after 1804, a thing so
problematical that the saying "married like Mademoiselle Cormon"
became proverbial in Alencon as applied to ridiculous failures. Surely
the sarcastic mood must be an imperative need in France, that so
excellent a woman should excite the laughter of Alencon. Not only did
she receive the whole society of the place at her house, not only was
she charitable, pious, incapable of saying an unkind thing, but she
was fully in accord with the spirit of the place and the habits and
customs of the inhabitants, who liked her as the symbol of their
lives; she was absolutely inlaid into the ways of the provinces; she
had never quitted them; she imbibed all their prejudices; she espoused
all their interests; she adored them.

In spite of her income of eighteen thousand francs from landed
property, a very considerable fortune in the provinces, she lived on a
footing with families who were less rich. When she went to her
country-place at Prebaudet, she drove there in an old wicker carriole,
hung on two straps of white leather, drawn by a wheezy mare, and
scarcely protected by two leather curtains rusty with age. This
carriole, known to all the town, was cared for by Jacquelin as though
it were the finest coupe in all Paris. Mademoiselle valued it; she had
used it for twelve years,--a fact to which she called attention with
the triumphant joy of happy avarice. Most of the inhabitants of the
town were grateful to Mademoiselle Cormon for not humiliating them by
the luxury she could have displayed; we may even believe that had she
imported a caleche from Paris they would have gossiped more about that
than about her various matrimonial failures. The most brilliant
equipage would, after all, have only taken her, like the old carriole,
to Prebaudet. Now the provinces, which look solely to results, care
little about the beauty or elegance of the means, provided they are
efficient.

CHAPTER V

AN OLD MAID'S HOUSEHOLD

To complete the picture of the internal habits and ways of this house,
it is necessary to group around Mademoiselle Cormon and the Abbe de
Sponde Jacquelin, Josette, and Mariette, the cook, who employed
themselves in providing for the comfort of uncle and niece.

Jacquelin, a man of forty, short, fat, ruddy, and brown, with a face
like a Breton sailor, had been in the service of the house for
twenty-two years. He waited at table, groomed the mare, gardened,
blacked the abbe's boots, went on errands, chopped the wood, drove the
carriole, and fetched the oats, straw, and hay from Prebaudet. He sat
in the antechamber during the evening, where he slept like a dormouse.
He was in love with Josette, a girl of thirty, whom Mademoiselle would
have dismissed had she married him. So the poor fond pair laid by
their wages, and loved each other silently, waiting, hoping for
mademoiselle's own marriage, as the Jews are waiting for the Messiah.
Josette, born between Alencon and Mortagne, was short and plump; her
face, which looked like a dirty apricot, was not wanting in sense and
character; it was said that she ruled her mistress. Josette and
Jacquelin, sure of results, endeavored to hide an inward satisfaction
which allows it to be supposed that, as lovers, they had discounted
the future. Mariette, the cook, who had been fifteen years in the
household, knew how to make all the dishes held in most honor in
Alencon.

Perhaps we ought to count for much the fat old Norman brown-bay mare,
which drew Mademoiselle Cormon to her country-seat at Prebaudet; for
the five inhabitants of the house bore to this animal a maniacal
affection. She was called Penelope, and had served the family for
eighteen years; but she was kept so carefully and fed with such
regularity that mademoiselle and Jacquelin both hoped to use her for
ten years longer. This beast was the subject of perpetual talk and
occupation; it seemed as if poor Mademoiselle Cormon, having no
children on whom her repressed motherly feelings could expend
themselves, had turned those sentiments wholly on this most fortunate
animal.

The four faithful servants--for Penelope's intelligence raised her to
the level of the other good servants; while they, on the other hand,
had lowered themselves to the mute, submissive regularity of the beast
--went and came daily in the same occupations with the infallible
accuracy of mechanism. But, as they said in their idiom, they had
eaten their white bread first. Mademoiselle Cormon, like all persons
nervously agitated by a fixed idea, became hard to please, and
nagging, less by nature than from the need of employing her activity.
Having no husband or children to occupy her, she fell back on petty
details. She talked for hours about mere nothings, on a dozen napkins
marked "Z," placed in the closet before the "O's."

"What can Josette be thinking of?" she exclaimed. "Josette is
beginning to neglect things."

Mademoiselle inquired for eight days running whether Penelope had had
her oats at two o'clock, because on one occasion Jacquelin was a
trifle late. Her narrow imagination spent itself on trifles. A layer
of dust forgotten by the feather-duster, a slice of toast ill-made by
Mariette, Josette's delay in closing the blinds when the sun came
round to fade the colors of the furniture,--all these great little
things gave rise to serious quarrels in which mademoiselle grew angry.
"Everything was changing," she would cry; "she did not know her own
servants; the fact was she spoiled them!" On one occasion Josette gave
her the "Journee du Chretien" instead of the "Quinzaine de Paques."
The whole town heard of this disaster the same evening. Mademoiselle
had been forced to leave the church and return home; and her sudden
departure, upsetting the chairs, made people suppose a catastrophe had
happened. She was therefore obliged to explain the facts to her
friends.

"Josette," she said gently, "such a thing must never happen again."

Mademoiselle Cormon was, without being aware of it, made happier by
such little quarrels, which served as cathartics to relieve her
bitterness. The soul has its needs, and, like the body, its
gymnastics. These uncertainties of temper were accepted by Josette and
Jacquelin as changes in the weather are accepted by husbandmen. Those
worthy souls remark, "It is fine to-day," or "It rains," without
arraigning the heavens. And so when they met in the morning the
servants would wonder in what humor mademoiselle would get up, just as
a farmer wonders about the mists at dawn.

Mademoiselle Cormon had ended, as it was natural she should end, in
contemplating herself only in the infinite pettinesses of her life.
Herself and God, her confessor and the weekly wash, her preserves and
the church services, and her uncle to care for, absorbed her feeble
intellect. To her the atoms of life were magnified by an optic
peculiar to persons who are selfish by nature or self-absorbed by some
accident. Her perfect health gave alarming meaning to the least little
derangement of her digestive organs. She lived under the iron rod of
the medical science of our forefathers, and took yearly four
precautionary doses, strong enough to have killed Penelope, though
they seemed to rejuvenate her mistress. If Josette, when dressing her,
chanced to discover a little pimple on the still satiny shoulders of
mademoiselle, it became the subject of endless inquiries as to the
various alimentary articles of the preceding week. And what a triumph
when Josette reminded her mistress of a certain hare that was rather
"high," and had doubtless raised that accursed pimple! With what joy
they said to each other: "No doubt, no doubt, it /was/ the hare!"

"Mariette over-seasoned it," said mademoiselle. "I am always telling
her to do so lightly for my uncle and for me; but Mariette has no more
memory than--"

"The hare," said Josette.

"Just so," replied Mademoiselle; "she has no more memory than a hare,
--a very just remark."

Four times a year, at the beginning of each season, Mademoiselle
Cormon went to pass a certain number of days on her estate of
Prebaudet. It was now the middle of May, the period at which she
wished to see how her apple-trees had "snowed," a saying of that
region which expressed the effect produced beneath the trees by the
falling of their blossoms. When the circular deposit of these fallen
petals resembled a layer of snow the owner of the trees might hope for
an abundant supply of cider. While she thus gauged her vats,
Mademoiselle Cormon also attended to the repairs which the winter
necessitated; she ordered the digging of her flower-beds and her
vegetable garden, from which she supplied her table. Every season had
its own business. Mademoiselle always gave a dinner of farewell to her
intimate friends the day before her departure, although she was
certain to see them again within three weeks. It was always a piece of
news which echoed through Alencon when Mademoiselle Cormon departed.
All her visitors, especially those who had missed a visit, came to bid
her good-bye; the salon was thronged, and every one said farewell as
though she were starting for Calcutta. The next day the shopkeepers
would stand at their doors to see the old carriole pass, and they
seemed to be telling one another some news by repeating from shop to
shop:--

"So Mademoiselle Cormon is going to Prebaudet!"

Some said: "/Her/ bread is baked."

"Hey! my lad," replied the next man. "She's a worthy woman; if money
always came into such hands we shouldn't see a beggar in the country."

Another said: "Dear me, I shouldn't be surprised if the vineyards were
in bloom; here's Mademoiselle Cormon going to Prebaudet. How happens
it she doesn't marry?"

"I'd marry her myself," said a wag; "in fact, the marriage is
half-made, for here's one consenting party; but the other side won't.
Pooh! the oven is heating for Monsieur du Bousquier."

"Monsieur du Bousquier! Why, she has refused him."

That evening at all the gatherings it was told gravely:--

"Mademoiselle Cormon has gone."

Or:--

"So you have really let Mademoiselle Cormon go."

The Wednesday chosen by Suzanne to make known her scandal happened to
be this farewell Wednesday,--a day on which Mademoiselle Cormon drove
Josette distracted on the subject of packing. During the morning,
therefore, things had been said and done in the town which lent the
utmost interest to this farewell meeting. Madame Granson had gone the
round of a dozen houses while the old maid was deliberating on the
things she needed for the journey; and the malicious Chevalier de
Valois was playing piquet with Mademoiselle Armande, sister of a
distinguished old marquis, and the queen of the salon of the
aristocrats. If it was not uninteresting to any one to see what figure
the seducer would cut that evening, it was all important for the
chevalier and Madame Granson to know how Mademoiselle Cormon would
take the news in her double capacity of marriageable woman and
president of the Maternity Society. As for the innocent du Bousquier,
he was taking a walk on the promenade, and beginning to suspect that
Suzanne had tricked him; this suspicion confirmed him in his
principles as to women.

On gala days the table was laid at Mademoiselle Cormon's about
half-past three o'clock. At that period the fashionable people of
Alencon dined at four. Under the Empire they still dined as in former
times at half-past two; but then they supped! One of the pleasures
which Mademoiselle Cormon valued most was (without meaning any malice,
although the fact certainly rests on egotism) the unspeakable
satisfaction she derived from seeing herself dressed as mistress of
the house to receive her guests. When she was thus under arms a ray of
hope would glide into the darkness of her heart; a voice told her that
nature had not so abundantly provided for her in vain, and that some
man, brave and enterprising, would surely present himself. Her desire
was refreshed like her person; she contemplated herself in her heavy
stuffs with a sort of intoxication, and this satisfaction continued
when she descended the stairs to cast her redoubtable eye on the
salon, the dinner-table, and the boudoir. She would then walk about
with the naive contentment of the rich,--who remember at all moments
that they are rich and will never want for anything. She looked at her
eternal furniture, her curiosities, her lacquers, and said to herself
that all these fine things wanted was a master. After admiring the
dining-room, and the oblong dinner-table, on which was spread a
snow-white cloth adorned with twenty covers placed at equal distances;
after verifying the squadron of bottles she had ordered to be brought
up, and which all bore honorable labels; after carefully verifying the
names written on little bits of paper in the trembling handwriting of
the abbe (the only duty he assumed in the household, and one which
gave rise to grave discussions on the place of each guest),--after
going through all these preliminary acts mademoiselle went, in her
fine clothes, to her uncle, who was accustomed at this, the best hour
in the day, to take his walk on the terrace which overlooked the
Brillante, where he could listen to the warble of birds which were
resting in the coppice, unafraid of either sportsmen or children. At
such times of waiting she never joined the Abbe de Sponde without
asking him some ridiculous question, in order to draw the old man into
a discussion which might serve to amuse him. And her reason was this,
--which will serve to complete our picture of this excellent woman's
nature:--

Mademoiselle Cormon regarded it as one of her duties to talk; not that
she was talkative, for she had unfortunately too few ideas, and did
not know enough phrases to converse readily. But she believed she was
accomplishing one of the social duties enjoined by religion, which
orders us to make ourselves agreeable to our neighbor. This obligation
cost her so much that she consulted her director, the Abbe Couturier,
upon the subject of this honest but puerile civility. In spite of the
humble remark of his penitent, confessing the inward labor of her mind
in finding anything to say, the old priest, rigid on the point of
discipline, read her a passage from Saint-Francois de Sales on the
duties of women in society, which dwelt on the decent gayety of pious
Christian women, who were bound to reserve their sternness for
themselves, and to be amiable and pleasing in their homes, and see
that their neighbors enjoyed themselves. Thus, filled with a sense of
duty, and wishing, at all costs, to obey her director, who bade her
converse with amenity, the poor soul perspired in her corset when the
talk around her languished, so much did she suffer from the effort of
emitting ideas in order to revive it. Under such circumstances she
would put forth the silliest statements, such as: "No one can be in
two places at once--unless it is a little bird," by which she one day
roused, and not without success, a discussion on the ubiquity of the
apostles, which she was unable to comprehend. Such efforts at
conversation won her the appellation of "that good Mademoiselle
Cormon," which, from the lips of the beaux esprits of society, means
that she was as ignorant as a carp, and rather a poor fool; but many
persons of her own calibre took the remark in its literal sense, and
answered:--

"Yes; oh yes! Mademoiselle Cormon is an excellent woman."

Sometimes she would put such absurd questions (always for the purpose
of fulfilling her duties to society, and making herself agreeable to
her guests) that everybody burst out laughing. She asked, for
instance, what the government did with the taxes they were always
receiving; and why the Bible had not been printed in the days of Jesus
Christ, inasmuch as it was written by Moses. Her mental powers were
those of the English "country gentleman" who, hearing constant mention
of "posterity" in the House of Commons, rose to make the speech that
has since become celebrated: "Gentlemen," he said, "I hear much talk
in this place about Posterity. I should be glad to know what that
power has ever done for England."

Under these circumstances the heroic Chevalier de Valois would bring
to the succor of the old maid all the powers of his clever diplomacy,
whenever he saw the pitiless smile of wiser heads. The old gentleman,
who loved to assist women, turned Mademoiselle Cormon's sayings into
wit by sustaining them paradoxically, and he often covered the retreat
so well that it seemed as if the good woman had said nothing silly.
She asserted very seriously one evening that she did not see any
difference between an ox and a bull. The dear chevalier instantly
arrested the peals of laughter by asserting that there was only the
difference between a sheep and a lamb.

But the Chevalier de Valois served an ungrateful dame, for never did
Mademoiselle Cormon comprehend his chivalrous services. Observing that
the conversation grew lively, she simply thought that she was not so
stupid as she was,--the result being that she settled down into her
ignorance with some complacency; she lost her timidity, and acquired a
self-possession which gave to her "speeches" something of the
solemnity with which the British enunciate their patriotic
absurdities,--the self-conceit of stupidity, as it may be called.

As she approached her uncle, on this occasion, with a majestic step,
she was ruminating over a question that might draw him from a silence,
which always troubled her, for she feared he was dull.

"Uncle," she said, leaning on his arm and clinging to his side (this
was one of her fictions; for she said to herself "If I had a husband I
should do just so"),--"uncle, if everything here below happens
according to the will of God, there must be a reason for everything."

"Certainly," replied the abbe, gravely. The worthy man, who cherished
his niece, always allowed her to tear him from his meditations with
angelic patience.

"Then if I remain unmarried,--supposing that I do,--God wills it?"

"Yes, my child," replied the abbe.

"And yet, as nothing prevents me from marrying to-morrow if I choose,
His will can be destroyed by mine?"

"That would be true if we knew what was really the will of God,"
replied the former prior of the Sorbonne. "Observe, my daughter, that
you put in an /if/."

The poor woman, who expected to draw her uncle into a matrimonial
discussion by an argument ad omnipotentem, was stupefied; but persons
of obtuse mind have the terrible logic of children, which consists in
turning from answer to question,--a logic that is frequently
embarrassing.

"But, uncle, God did not make women intending them not to marry;
otherwise they ought all to stay unmarried; if not, they ought all to
marry. There's great injustice in the distribution of parts."

"Daughter," said the worthy abbe, "you are blaming the Church, which
declares celibacy to be the better way to God."

"But if the Church is right, and all the world were good Catholics,
wouldn't the human race come to an end, uncle?"

"You have too much mind, Rose; you don't need so much to be happy."

That remark brought a smile of satisfaction to the lips of the poor
woman, and confirmed her in the good opinion she was beginning to
acquire about herself. That is how the world, our friends, and our
enemies are the accomplices of our defects!

At this moment the conversation was interrupted by the successive
arrival of the guests. On these ceremonial days, friendly
familiarities were exchanged between the servants of the house and the
company. Mariette remarked to the chief-justice as he passed the
kitchen:--

"Ah, Monsieur du Ronceret, I've cooked the cauliflowers au gratin
expressly for you, for mademoiselle knows how you like them; and she
said to me: 'Now don't forget, Mariette, for Monsieur du Ronceret is
coming.'"

"That good Mademoiselle Cormon!" ejaculated the chief legal authority
of the town. "Mariette, did you steep them in gravy instead of
soup-stock? it is much richer."

The chief-justice was not above entering the chamber of council where
Mariette held court; he cast the eye of a gastronome around it, and
offered the advice of a past master in cookery.

"Good-day, madame," said Josette to Madame Granson, who courted the
maid. "Mademoiselle has thought of you, and there's fish for dinner."

As for the Chevalier de Valois, he remarked to Mariette, in the easy
tone of a great seigneur who condescends to be familiar:--

"Well, my dear cordon-bleu, to whom I should give the cross of the
Legion of honor, is there some little dainty for which I had better
reserve myself?"

"Yes, yes, Monsieur de Valois,--a hare sent from Prebaudet; weighs
fourteen pounds."

Du Bousquier was not invited. Mademoiselle Cormon, faithful to the
system which we know of, treated that fifty-year-old suitor extremely
ill, although she felt inexplicable sentiments towards him in the
depths of her heart. She had refused him; yet at times she repented;
and a presentiment that she should yet marry him, together with a
terror at the idea which prevented her from wishing for the marriage,
assailed her. Her mind, stimulated by these feelings, was much
occupied by du Bousquier. Without being aware of it, she was
influenced by the herculean form of the republican. Madame Granson and
the Chevalier de Valois, although they could not explain to themselves
Mademoiselle Cormon's inconsistencies, had detected her naive glances
in that direction, the meaning of which seemed clear enough to make
them both resolve to ruin the hopes of the already rejected purveyor,
--hopes which it was evident he still indulged.

Two guests, whose functions excused them, kept the dinner waiting. One
was Monsieur du Coudrai, the recorder of mortgages; the other Monsieur
Choisnel, former bailiff to the house of Esgrignon, and now the notary
of the upper aristocracy, by whom he was received with a distinction
due to his virtues; he was also a man of considerable wealth. When the
two belated guests arrived, Jacquelin said to them as he saw them
about to enter the salon:--

"/They/ are all in the garden."

No doubt the assembled stomachs were impatient; for on the appearance
of the register of mortgages--who had no defect except that of having
married for her money an intolerable old woman, and of perpetrating
endless puns, at which he was the first to laugh--the gentle murmur by
which such late-comers are welcomed arose. While awaiting the official
announcement of dinner, the company were sauntering on the terrace
above the river, and gazing at the water-plants, the mosaic of the
currents, and the various pretty details of the houses clustering
across the river, their old wooden galleries, their mouldering
window-frames, their little gardens where clothes were drying, the
cabinet-maker's shop,--in short, the many details of a small community
to which the vicinity of a river, a weeping willow, flowers,
rose-bushes, added a certain grace, making the scene quite worthy of a
landscape painter.

The chevalier studied all faces, for he knew that his firebrand had
been very successfully introduced into the chief houses of the place.
But no one as yet referred openly to the great news of Suzanne and du
Bousquier. Provincials possess in the highest degree the art of
distilling gossip; the right moment for openly discussing this strange
affair had not arrived; it was first necessary that all present should
put themselves on record. So the whispers went round from ear to
ear:--

"You have heard?"

"Yes."

"Du Bousquier?"

"And that handsome Suzanne."

"Does Mademoiselle Cormon know of it?"

"No."

"Ha!"

This was the /piano/ of the scandal; the /rinforzando/ would break
forth as soon as the first course had been removed. Suddenly Monsieur
de Valois's eyes lighted on Madame Granson, arrayed in her green hat
with bunches of auriculas, and beaming with evident joy. Was it merely
the joy of opening the concert? Though such a piece of news was like a
gold mine to work in the monotonous lives of these personages, the
observant and distrustful chevalier thought he recognized in the
worthy woman a far more extended sentiment; namely, the joy caused by
the triumph of self-interest. Instantly he turned to examine Athanase,
and detected him in the significant silence of deep meditation.
Presently, a look cast by the young man on Mademoiselle Cormon carried
to the soul of the chevalier a sudden gleam. That momentary flash of
lightning enabled him to read the past.

"Ha! the devil!" he said to himself; "what a checkmate I'm exposed
to!"

Monsieur de Valois now approached Mademoiselle Cormon, and offered his
arm. The old maid's feeling to the chevalier was that of respectful
consideration; and certainly his name, together with the position he
occupied among the aristocratic constellations of the department made
him the most brilliant ornament of her salon. In her inmost mind
Mademoiselle Cormon had wished for the last dozen years to become
Madame de Valois. That name was like the branch of a tree, to which
the ideas which /swarmed/ in her mind about rank, nobility, and the
external qualities of a husband had fastened. But, though the
Chevalier de Valois was the man chosen by her heart, and mind, and
ambition, that elderly ruin, combed and curled like a little
Saint-John in a procession, alarmed Mademoiselle Cormon. She saw the
gentleman in him, but she could not see a husband. The indifference
which the chevalier affected as to marriage, above all, the apparent
purity of his morals in a house which abounded in grisettes, did
singular harm in her mind to Monsieur de Valois against his
expectations. The worthy man, who showed such judgment in the matter
of his annuity, was at fault here. Without being herself aware of it,
the thoughts of Mademoiselle Cormon on the too virtuous chevalier
might be translated thus:--

"What a pity that he isn't a trifle dissipated!"

Observers of the human heart have remarked the leaning of pious women
toward scamps; some have expressed surprise at this taste, considering
it opposed to Christian virtue. But, in the first place, what nobler
destiny can you offer to a virtuous woman than to purify, like
charcoal, the muddy waters of vice? How is it some observers fail to
see that these noble creatures, obliged by the sternness of their own
principles never to infringe on conjugal fidelity, must naturally
desire a husband of wider practical experience than their own? The
scamps of social life are great men in love. Thus the poor woman
groaned in spirit at finding her chosen vessel parted into two pieces.
God alone could solder together a Chevalier de Valois and a du
Bousquier.

In order to explain the importance of the few words which the
chevalier and Mademoiselle Cormon are about to say to each other, it
is necessary to reveal two serious matters which agitated the town,
and about which opinions were divided; besides, du Bousquier was
mysteriously connected with them.

One concerns the rector of Alencon, who had formerly taken the
constitutional oath, and who was now conquering the repugnance of the
Catholics by a display of the highest virtues. He was Cheverus on a
small scale, and became in time so fully appreciated that when he died
the whole town mourned him. Mademoiselle Cormon and the Abbe de Sponde
belonged to that "little Church," sublime in its orthodoxy, which was
to the court of Rome what the Ultras were to be to Louis XVIII. The
abbe, more especially, refused to recognize a Church which had
compromised with the constitutionals. The rector was therefore not
received in the Cormon household, whose sympathies were all given to
the curate of Saint-Leonard, the aristocratic parish of Alencon. Du
Bousquier, that fanatic liberal now concealed under the skin of a
royalist, knowing how necessary rallying points are to all discontents
(which are really at the bottom of all oppositions), had drawn the
sympathies of the middle classes around the rector. So much for the
first case; the second was this:--

Under the secret inspiration of du Bousquier the idea of building a
theatre had dawned on Alencon. The henchmen of the purveyor did not
know their Mohammed; and they thought they were ardent in carrying out
their own conception. Athanase Granson was one of the warmest
partisans for the theatre; and of late he had urged at the mayor's
office a cause which all the other young clerks had eagerly adopted.

The chevalier, as we have said, offered his arm to the old maid for a
turn on the terrace. She accepted it, not without thanking him by a
happy look for this attention, to which the chevalier replied by
motioning toward Athanase with a meaning eye.

"Mademoiselle," he began, "you have so much sense and judgment in
social proprieties, and also, you are connected with that young man by
certain ties--"

"Distant ones," she said, interrupting him.

"Ought you not," he continued, "to use the influence you have over his
mother and over himself by saving him from perdition? He is not very
religious, as you know; indeed he approves of the rector; but that is
not all; there is something far more serious; isn't he throwing
himself headlong into an opposition without considering what influence
his present conduct may exert upon his future? He is working for the
construction of a theatre. In this affair he is simply the dupe of
that disguised republican du Bousquier--"

"Good gracious! Monsieur de Valois," she replied; "his mother is
always telling me he has so much mind, and yet he can't say two words;
he stands planted before me as mum as a post--"

"Which doesn't think at all!" cried the recorder of mortgages. "I
caught your words on the fly. I present my compliments to Monsieur de
Valois," he added, bowing to that gentleman with much emphasis.

The chevalier returned the salutation stiffly, and drew Mademoiselle
Cormon toward some flower-pots at a little distance, in order to show
the interrupter that he did not choose to be spied upon.

"How is it possible," he continued, lowering his voice, and leaning
towards Mademoiselle Cormon's ear, "that a young man brought up in
those detestable lyceums should have ideas? Only sound morals and
noble habits will ever produce great ideas and a true love. It is easy
to see by a mere look at him that the poor lad is likely to be
imbecile, and come, perhaps, to some sad end. See how pale and haggard
he is!"

"His mother declares he works too hard," replied the old maid,
innocently. "He sits up late, and for what? reading books and writing!
What business ought to require a young man to write at night?"

"It exhausts him," replied the chevalier, trying to bring the old
maid's thoughts back to the ground where he hoped to inspire her with
horror for her youthful lover. "The morals of those Imperial lyceums
are really shocking."

"Oh, yes!" said the ingenuous creature. "They march the pupils about
with drums at their head. The masters have no more religion than
pagans. And they put the poor lads in uniform, as if they were troops.
What ideas!"

"And behold the product!" said the chevalier, motioning to Athanase.
"In my day, young men were not so shy of looking at a pretty woman. As
for him, he drops his eyes whenever he sees you. That young man
frightens me because I am really interested in him. Tell him not to
intrigue with the Bonapartists, as he is now doing about that theatre.
When all these petty folks cease to ask for it insurrectionally,
--which to my mind is the synonym of constitutionally,--the government
will build it. Besides which, tell his mother to keep an eye on him."

"Oh, I'm sure she will prevent him from seeing those half-pay,
questionable people. I'll talk to her," said Mademoiselle Cormon, "for
he might lose his place in the mayor's office; and then what would he
and his mother have to live on? It makes me shudder."

As Monsieur de Talleyrand said of his wife, so the chevalier said to
himself, looking at Mademoiselle Cormon:--

"Find me another as stupid! Good powers! isn't virtue which drives out
intellect vice? But what an adorable wife for a man of my age! What
principles! what ignorance!"

Remember that this monologue, addressed to the Princess Goritza, was
mentally uttered while he took a pinch of snuff.

Madame Granson had divined that the chevalier was talking about
Athanase. Eager to know the result of the conversation, she followed
Mademoiselle Cormon, who was now approaching the young man with much
dignity. But at this moment Jacquelin appeared to announce that
mademoiselle was served. The old maid gave a glance of appeal to the
chevalier; but the gallant recorder of mortgages, who was beginning to
see in the manners of that gentleman the barrier which the provincial
nobles were setting up about this time between themselves and the
bourgeoisie, made the most of his chance to cut out Monsieur de
Valois. He was close to Mademoiselle Cormon, and promptly offered his
arm, which she found herself compelled to accept. The chevalier then
darted, out of policy, upon Madame Granson.

"Mademoiselle Cormon, my dear lady," he said to her, walking slowly
after all the other guests, "feels the liveliest interest in your dear
Athanase; but I fear it will vanish through his own fault. He is
irreligious and liberal; he is agitating this matter of the theatre;
he frequents the Bonapartists; he takes the side of that rector. Such
conduct may make him lose his place in the mayor's office. You know
with what care the government is beginning to weed out such opinions.
If your dear Athanase loses his place, where can he find other
employment? I advise him not to get himself in bad odor with the
administration."

"Monsieur le Chevalier," said the poor frightened mother, "how
grateful I am to you! You are right: my son is the tool of a bad set
of people; I shall enlighten him."

The chevalier had long since fathomed the nature of Athanase, and
recognized in it that unyielding element of republican convictions to
which in his youth a young man is willing to sacrifice everything,
carried away by the word "liberty," so ill-defined and so little
understood, but which to persons disdained by fate is a banner of
revolt; and to such, revolt is vengeance. Athanase would certainly
persist in that faith, for his opinions were woven in with his
artistic sorrows, with his bitter contemplation of the social state.
He was ignorant of the fact that at thirty-six years of age,--the
period of life when a man has judged men and social interests and
relations,--the opinions for which he was ready to sacrifice his
future would be modified in him, as they are in all men of real
superiority. To remain faithful to the Left side of Alencon was to
gain the aversion of Mademoiselle Cormon. There, indeed, the chevalier
saw true.

Thus we see that this society, so peaceful in appearance, was
internally as agitated as any diplomatic circle, where craft, ability,
and passions group themselves around the grave questions of an empire.
The guests were now seated at the table laden with the first course,
which they ate as provincials eat, without shame at possessing a good
appetite, and not as in Paris, where it seems as if jaws gnashed under
sumptuary laws, which made it their business to contradict the laws of
anatomy. In Paris people eat with their teeth, and trifle with their
pleasure; in the provinces things are done naturally, and interest is
perhaps rather too much concentrated on the grand and universal means
of existence to which God has condemned his creatures.

It was at the end of the first course that Mademoiselle Cormon made
the most celebrated of her "speeches"; it was talked about for fully
two years, and is still told at the gatherings of the lesser
bourgeoisie whenever the topic of her marriage comes up.

The conversation, becoming lively as the penultimate entree was
reached, had turned naturally on the affair of the theatre and the
constitutionally sworn rector. In the first fervor of royalty, during
the year 1816, those who later were called Jesuits were all for the
expulsion of the Abbe Francois from his parish. Du Bousquier,
suspected by Monsieur de Valois of sustaining the priest and being at
the bottom of the theatre intrigues, and on whose back the adroit
chevalier would in any case have put those sins with his customary
cleverness, was in the dock with no lawyer to defend him. Athanase,
the only guest loyal enough to stand by du Bousquier, had not the
nerve to emit his ideas in the presence of those potentates of
Alencon, whom in his heart he thought stupid. None but provincial
youths now retain a respectful demeanor before men of a certain age,
and dare neither to censure nor contradict them. The talk, diminished
under the effect of certain delicious ducks dressed with olives, was
falling flat. Mademoiselle Cormon, feeling the necessity of
maintaining it against her own ducks, attempted to defend du
Bousquier, who was being represented as a pernicious fomenter of
intrigues, capable of any trickery.

"As for me," she said, "I thought that Monsieur du Bousquier cared
chiefly for childish things."

Under existing circumstances the remark had enormous success.
Mademoiselle Cormon obtained a great triumph; she brought the nose of
the Princess Goritza flat on the table. The chevalier, who little
expected such an apt remark from his Dulcinea, was so amazed that he
could at first find no words to express his admiration; he applauded
noiselessly, as they do at the Opera, tapping his fingers together to
imitate applause.

"She is adorably witty," he said to Madame Granson. "I always said
that some day she would unmask her batteries."

"In private she is always charming," replied the widow.

"In private, madame, all women have wit," returned the chevalier.

The Homeric laugh thus raised having subsided, Mademoiselle Cormon
asked the reason of her success. Then began the /forte/ of the gossip.
Du Bousquier was depicted as a species of celibate Pere Gigogne, a
monster, who for the last fifteen years had kept the Foundling
Hospital supplied. His immoral habits were at last revealed! these
Parisian saturnalias were the result of them, etc., etc. Conducted by
the Chevalier de Valois, a most able leader of an orchestra of this
kind, the opening of the /cancan/ was magnificent.

"I really don't know," he said, "what should hinder a du Bousquier
from marrying a Mademoiselle Suzanne What's-her-name. What /is/ her
name, do you know? Suzette! Though I have lodgings at Madame Lardot's,
I know her girls only by sight. If this Suzette is a tall, fine, saucy
girl, with gray eyes, a slim waist, and a pretty foot, whom I have
occasionally seen, and whose behavior always seemed to me extremely
insolent, she is far superior in manners to du Bousquier. Besides, the
girl has the nobility of beauty; from that point of view the marriage
would be a poor one for her; she might do better. You know how the
Emperor Joseph had the curiosity to see the du Barry at Luciennes. He
offered her his arm to walk about, and the poor thing was so surprised
at the honor that she hesitated to accept it: 'Beauty is ever a
queen,' said the Emperor. And he, you know, was an Austrian-German,"
added the chevalier. "But I can tell you that Germany, which is
thought here very rustic, is a land of noble chivalry and fine
manners, especially in Poland and Hungary, where--"

Here the chevalier stopped, fearing to slip into some allusion to his
personal happiness; he took out his snuff-box, and confided the rest
of his remarks to the princess, who had smiled upon him for thirty-six
years and more.

"That speech was rather a delicate one for Louis XV.," said du
Ronceret.

"But it was, I think, the Emperor Joseph who made it, and not Louis
XV.," remarked Mademoiselle Cormon, in a correcting tone.

"Mademoiselle," said the chevalier, observing the malicious glance
exchanged between the judge, the notary, and the recorder, "Madame du
Barry was the Suzanne of Louis XV.,--a circumstance well known to
scamps like ourselves, but unsuitable for the knowledge of young
ladies. Your ignorance proves you to be a flawless diamond; historical
corruptions do not enter your mind."

The Abbe de Sponde looked graciously at the Chevalier de Valois, and
nodded his head in sign of his laudatory approbation.

"Doesn't mademoiselle know history?" asked the recorder of mortgages.

"If you mix up Louis XV. and this girl Suzanne, how am I to know
history?" replied Mademoiselle Cormon, angelically, glad to see that
the dish of ducks was empty at last, and the conversation so ready to
revive that all present laughed with their mouths full at her last
remark.

"Poor girl!" said the Abbe de Sponde. "When a great misfortune
happens, charity, which is divine love, and as blind as pagan love,
ought not to look into the causes of it. Niece, you are president of
the Maternity Society; you must succor that poor girl, who will now
find it difficult to marry."

"Poor child!" ejaculated Mademoiselle Cormon.

"Do you suppose du Bousquier would marry her?" asked the judge.

"If he is an honorable man he ought to do so," said Madame Granson;
"but really, to tell the truth, my dog has better morals than he--"

"Azor is, however, a good purveyor," said the recorder of mortgages,
with the air of saying a witty thing.

At dessert du Bousquier was still the topic of conversation, having
given rise to various little jokes which the wine rendered sparkling.
Following the example of the recorder, each guest capped his
neighbor's joke with another: Du Bousquier was a father, but not a
confessor; he was father less; he was father LY; he was not a reverend
father; nor yet a conscript-father--

"Nor can he be a foster-father," said the Abbe de Sponde, with a
gravity which stopped the laughter.

"Nor a noble father," added the chevalier.

The Church and the nobility descended thus into the arena of puns,
without, however, losing their dignity.

"Hush!" exclaimed the recorder of mortgages. "I hear the creaking of
du Bousquier's boots."

It usually happens that a man is ignorant of rumors that are afloat
about him. A whole town may be talking of his affairs; may calumniate
and decry him, but if he has no good friends, he will know nothing
about it. Now the innocent du Bousquier was superb in his ignorance.
No one had told him as yet of Suzanne's revelations; he therefore
appeared very jaunty and slightly conceited when the company, leaving
the dining-room, returned to the salon for their coffee; several other
guests had meantime assembled for the evening. Mademoiselle Cormon,
from a sense of shamefacedness, dared not look at the terrible
seducer. She seized upon Athanase, and began to lecture him with the
queerest platitudes about royalist politics and religious morality.
Not possessing, like the Chevalier de Valois, a snuff-box adorned with
a princess, by the help of which he could stand this torrent of
silliness, the poor poet listened to the words of her whom he loved
with a stupid air, gazing, meanwhile, at her enormous bust, which held
itself before him in that still repose which is the attribute of all
great masses. His love produced in him a sort of intoxication which
changed the shrill voice of the old maid into a soft murmur, and her
flat remarks into witty speeches. Love is a maker of false coin,
continually changing copper pennies into gold-pieces, and sometimes
turning its real gold into copper.

"Well, Athanase, will you promise me?"

This final sentence struck the ear of the absorbed young man like one
of those noises which wake us with a bound.

"What, mademoiselle?"

Mademoiselle Cormon rose hastily, and looked at du Bousquier, who at
that moment resembled the stout god of Fable which the Republic
stamped upon her coins. She walked up to Madame Granson, and said in
her ear:--

"My dear friend, you son is an idiot. That lyceum has ruined him," she
added, remembering the insistence with which the chevalier had spoken
of the evils of education in such schools.

What a catastrophe! Unknown to himself, the luckless Athanase had had
an occasion to fling an ember of his own fire upon the pile of brush
gathered in the heart of the old maid. Had he listened to her, he
might have made her, then and there, perceive his passion; for, in the
agitated state of Mademoiselle Cormon's mind, a single word would have
sufficed. But that stupid absorption in his own sentiments, which
characterizes young and true love, had ruined him, as a child full of
life sometimes kills itself out of ignorance.

"What have you been saying to Mademoiselle Cormon?" demanded his
mother.

"Nothing."

"Nothing; well, I can explain that," she thought to herself, putting
off till the next day all further reflection on the matter, and
attaching but little importance to Mademoiselle Cormon's words; for
she fully believed that du Bousquier was forever lost in the old
maid's esteem after the revelation of that evening.

Soon the four tables were filled with their sixteen players. Four
persons were playing piquet,--an expensive game, at which the most
money was lost. Monsieur Choisnel, the procureur-du-roi, and two
ladies went into the boudoir for a game at backgammon. The glass
lustres were lighted; and then the flower of Mademoiselle Cormon's
company gathered before the fireplace, on sofas, and around the
tables, and each couple said to her as they arrived,--

"So you are going to-morrow to Prebaudet?"

"Yes, I really must," she replied.

On this occasion the mistress of the house appeared preoccupied.
Madame Granson was the first to perceive the quite unnatural state of
the old maid's mind,--Mademoiselle Cormon was thinking!

"What are you thinking of, cousin?" she said at last, finding her
seated in the boudoir.

"I am thinking," she replied, "of that poor girl. As the president of
the Maternity Society, I will give you fifty francs for her."

"Fifty francs!" cried Madame Granson. "But you have never given as
much as that."

"But, my dear cousin, it is so natural to have children."

That immoral speech coming from the heart of the old maid staggered
the treasurer of the Maternity Society. Du Bousquier had evidently
advanced in the estimation of Mademoiselle Cormon.

"Upon my word," said Madame Granson, "du Bousquier is not only a
monster, he is a villain. When a man has done a wrong like that, he
ought to pay the indemnity. Isn't it his place rather than ours to
look after the girl?--who, to tell you the truth, seems to me rather
questionable; there are plenty of better men in Alencon than that
cynic du Bousquier. A girl must be depraved, indeed, to go after him."

"Cynic! Your son teaches you to talk Latin, my dear, which is wholly
incomprehensible. Certainly I don't wish to excuse Monsieur du
Bousquier; but pray explain to me why a woman is depraved because she
prefers one man to another."

"My dear cousin, suppose you married my son Athanase; nothing could be
more natural. He is young and handsome, full of promise, and he will
be the glory of Alencon; and yet everybody will exclaim against you:
evil tongues will say all sorts of things; jealous women will accuse
you of depravity,--but what will that matter? you will be loved, and
loved truly. If Athanase seemed to you an idiot, my dear, it is that
he has too many ideas; extremes meet. He lives the life of a girl of
fifteen; he has never wallowed in the impurities of Paris, not he!
Well, change the terms, as my poor husband used to say; it is the same
thing with du Bousquier in connection with Suzanne. /You/ would be
calumniated; but in the case of du Bousquier, the charge would be
true. Don't you understand me?"

"No more than if you were talking Greek," replied Mademoiselle Cormon,
who opened her eyes wide, and strained all the forces of her
intellect.

"Well, cousin, if I must dot all the i's, it is impossible for Suzanne
to love du Bousquier. And if the heart counts for nothing in this
affair--"

"But, cousin, what do people love with if not their hearts?"

Here Madame Granson said to herself, as the chevalier had previously
thought: "My poor cousin is altogether too innocent; such stupidity
passes all bounds!--Dear child," she continued aloud, "it seems to me
that children are not conceived by the spirit only."

"Why, yes, my dear; the Holy Virgin herself--"

"But, my love, du Bousquier isn't the Holy Ghost!"

"True," said the old maid; "he is a man!--a man whose personal
appearance makes him dangerous enough for his friends to advise him to
marry."

"You could yourself bring about that result, cousin."

"How so?" said the old maid, with the meekness of Christian charity.

"By not receiving him in your house until he marries. You owe it to
good morals and to religion to manifest under such circumstances an
exemplary displeasure."

"On my return from Prebaudet we will talk further of this, my dear
Madame Granson. I will consult my uncle and the Abbe Couturier," said
Mademoiselle Cormon, returning to the salon, where the animation was
now at its height.

The lights, the group of women in their best clothes, the solemn tone,
the dignified air of the assembly, made Mademoiselle Cormon not a
little proud of her company. To many persons nothing better could be
seen in Paris in the highest society.

At this moment du Bousquier, who was playing whist with the chevalier
and two old ladies,--Madame du Coudrai and Madame du Ronceret,--was
the object of deep but silent curiosity. A few young women arrived,
who, under pretext of watching the game, gazed fixedly at him in so
singular a manner, though slyly, that the old bachelor began to think
that there must be some deficiency in his toilet.

"Can my false front be crooked?" he asked himself, seized by one of
those anxieties which beset old bachelors.

He took advantage of a lost trick, which ended a seventh rubber, to
rise and leave the table.

"I can't touch a card without losing," he said. "I am decidedly too
unlucky."

"But you are lucky in other ways," said the chevalier, giving him a
sly look.

That speech naturally made the rounds of the salon, where every one
exclaimed on the exquisite taste of the chevalier, the Prince de
Talleyrand of the province.

"There's no one like Monsieur de Valois for such wit."

Du Bousquier went to look at himself in a little oblong mirror, placed
above the "Deserter," but he saw nothing strange in his appearance.

After innumerable repetitions of the same text, varied in all keys,
the departure of the company took place about ten o'clock, through the
long antechamber, Mademoiselle Cormon conducting certain of her
favorite guests to the portico. There the groups parted; some followed
the Bretagne road towards the chateau; the others went in the
direction of the river Sarthe. Then began the usual conversation,
which for twenty years had echoed at that hour through this particular
street of Alencon. It was invariably:--

"Mademoiselle Cormon looked very well to-night."

"Mademoiselle Cormon? why, I thought her rather strange."

"How that poor abbe fails! Did you notice that he slept? He does not
know what cards he holds; he is getting very absent-minded."

"We shall soon have the grief of losing him."

"What a fine night! It will be a fine day to-morrow."

"Good weather for the apple-blossoms."

"You beat us; but when you play with Monsieur de Valois you never do
otherwise."

"How much did he win?"

"Well, to-night, three or four francs; he never loses."

"True; and don't you know there are three hundred and sixty-five days
a year? At that price his gains are the value of a farm."

"Ah! what hands we had to-night!"

"Here you are at home, monsieur and madame, how lucky you are, while
we have half the town to cross!"

"I don't pity you; you could afford a carriage, and dispense with the
fatigue of going on foot."

"Ah, monsieur! we have a daughter to marry, which takes off one wheel,
and the support of our son in Paris carries off another."

"You persist in making a magistrate of him?"

"What else can be done with a young man? Besides, there's no shame in
serving the king."

Sometimes a discussion on ciders and flax, always couched in the same
terms, and returning at the same time of year, was continued on the
homeward way. If any observer of human customs had lived in this
street, he would have known the months and seasons by simply
overhearing the conversations.

On this occasion it was exclusively jocose; for du Bousquier, who
chanced to march alone in front of the groups, was humming the
well-known air,--little thinking of its appropriateness,--"Tender
woman! hear the warble of the birds," etc. To some, du Bousquier was
a strong man and a misjudged man. Ever since he had been confirmed in
his present office by a royal decree, Monsieur du Ronceret had been in
favor of du Bousquier. To others the purveyor seemed dangerous,--a man
of bad habits, capable of anything. In the provinces, as in Paris, men
before the public eye are like that statue in the fine allegorical
tale of Addison, for which two knights on arriving near it fought; for
one saw it white, the other saw it black. Then, when they were both
off their horses, they saw it was white one side and black the other.
A third knight coming along declared it red.

When the chevalier went home that night, he made many reflections, as
follows:--

"It is high time now to spread a rumor of my marriage with
Mademoiselle Cormon. It will leak out from the d'Esgrignon salon, and
go straight to the bishop at Seez, and so get round through the grand
vicars to the curate of Saint-Leonard's, who will be certain to tell
it to the Abbe Couturier; and Mademoiselle Cormon will get the shot in
her upper works. The old Marquis d'Esgrignon shall invite the Abbe de
Sponde to dinner, so as to stop all gossip about Mademoiselle Cormon
if I decide against her, or about me if she refuses me. The abbe shall
be well cajoled; and Mademoiselle Cormon will certainly not hold out
against a visit from Mademoiselle Armande, who will show her the
grandeur and future chances of such an alliance. The abbe's property
is undoubtedly as much as three hundred thousand; her own savings must
amount to more than two hundred thousand; she has her house and
Prebaudet and fifteen thousand francs a year. A word to my friend the
Comte de Fontaine, and I should be mayor of Alencon to-morrow, and
deputy. Then, once seated on the Right benches, we shall reach the
peerage, shouting, 'Cloture!' 'Ordre!'"

As soon as she reached home Madame Granson had a lively argument with
her son, who could not be made to see the connection which existed
between his love and his political opinions. It was the first quarrel
that had ever troubled that poor household.

CHAPTER VI

FINAL DISAPPOINTMENT AND ITS FIRST RESULT

The next day, Mademoiselle Cormon, packed into the old carriole with
Josette, and looking like a pyramid on a vast sea of parcels, drove up
the rue Saint-Blaise on her way to Prebaudet, where she was overtaken
by an event which hurried on her marriage,--an event entirely unlooked
for by either Madame Granson, du Bousquier, Monsieur de Valois, or
Mademoiselle Cormon himself. Chance is the greatest of all artificers.

The day after her arrival at Prebaudet, she was innocently employed,
about eight o'clock in the morning, in listening, as she breakfasted,
to the various reports of her keeper and her gardener, when Jacquelin
made a violent irruption into the dining-room.

"Mademoiselle," he cried, out of breath, "Monsieur l'abbe sends you an
express, the son of Mere Grosmort, with a letter. The lad left Alencon
before daylight, and he has just arrived; he ran like Penelope! Can't
I give him a glass of wine?"

"What can have happened, Josette? Do you think my uncle can be--"

"He couldn't write if he were," said Josette, guessing her mistress's
fears.

"Quick! quick!" cried Mademoiselle Cormon, as soon as she had read the
first lines. "Tell Jacquelin to harness Penelope-- Get ready, Josette;
pack up everything in half an hour. We must go back to town--"

"Jacquelin!" called Josette, excited by the sentiment she saw on her
mistress's face.

Jacquelin, informed by Josette, came in to say,--

"But, mademoiselle, Penelope is eating her oats."

"What does that signify? I must start at once."

"But, mademoiselle, it is going to rain."

"Then we shall get wet."

"The house is on fire!" muttered Josette, piqued at the silence her
mistress kept as to the contents of the letter, which she read and
reread.

"Finish your coffee, at any rate, mademoiselle; don't excite your
blood; just see how red you are."

"Am I red, Josette?" she said, going to a mirror, from which the
quicksilver was peeling, and which presented her features to her
upside down.

"Good heavens!" thought Mademoiselle Cormon, "suppose I should look
ugly! Come, Josette; come, my dear, dress me at once; I want to be
ready before Jacquelin has harnessed Penelope. If you can't pack my
things in time, I will leave them here rather than lose a single
minute."

If you have thoroughly comprehended the positive monomania to which
the desire of marriage had brought Mademoiselle Cormon, you will share
her emotion. The worthy uncle announced in this sudden missive that
Monsieur de Troisville, of the Russian army during the Emigration,
grandson of one of his best friends, was desirous of retiring to
Alencon, and asked his, the abbe's hospitality, on the ground of his
friendship for his grandfather, the Vicomte de Troisville. The old
abbe, alarmed at the responsibility, entreated his niece to return
instantly and help him to receive this guest, and do the honors of the
house; for the viscount's letter had been delayed, and he might
descend upon his shoulders that very night.

After reading this missive could there be a question of the demands of
Prebaudet? The keeper and the gardener, witnesses to Mademoiselle
Cormon's excitement, stood aside and awaited her orders. But when, as
she was about to leave the room, they stopped her to ask for
instructions, for the first time in her life the despotic old maid,
who saw to everything at Prebaudet with her own eyes, said, to their
stupefaction, "Do what you like." This from a mistress who carried her
administration to the point of counting her fruits, and marking them
so as to order their consumption according to the number and condition
of each!

"I believe I'm dreaming," thought Josette, as she saw her mistress
flying down the staircase like an elephant to which God has given
wings.

Presently, in spite of a driving rain, Mademoiselle Cormon drove away
from Prebaudet, leaving her factotums with the reins on their necks.
Jacquelin dared not take upon himself to hasten the usual little trot
of the peaceable Penelope, who, like the beautiful queen whose name
she bore, had an appearance of making as many steps backward as she
made forward. Impatient with the pace, mademoiselle ordered Jacquelin
in a sharp voice to drive at a gallop, with the whip, if necessary, to
the great astonishment of the poor beast, so afraid was she of not
having time to arrange the house suitably to receive Monsieur de
Troisville. She calculated that the grandson of her uncle's friend was
probably about forty years of age; a soldier just from service was
undoubtedly a bachelor; and she resolved, her uncle aiding, not to let
Monsieur de Troisville quit their house in the condition he entered
it. Though Penelope galloped, Mademoiselle Cormon, absorbed in
thoughts of her trousseau and the wedding-day, declared again and
again that Jacquelin made no way at all. She twisted about in the
carriole without replying to Josette's questions, and talked to
herself like a person who is mentally revolving important designs.

The carriole at last arrived in the main street of Alencon, called the
rue Saint-Blaise at the end toward Montagne, but near the hotel du
More it takes the name of the rue de la Porte-de-Seez, and becomes the
rue du Bercail as it enters the road to Brittany. If the departure of
Mademoiselle Cormon made a great noise in Alencon, it is easy to
imagine the uproar caused by her sudden return on the following day,
in a pouring rain which beat her face without her apparently minding
it. Penelope at a full gallop was observed by every one, and
Jacquelin's grin, the early hour, the parcels stuffed into the
carriole topsy-turvy, and the evident impatience of Mademoiselle
Cormon were all noted.

The property of the house of Troisville lay between Alencon and
Mortagne. Josette knew the various branches of the family. A word
dropped by mademoiselle as they entered Alencon had put Josette on the
scent of the affair; and a discussion having started between them, it
was settled that the expected de Troisville must be between forty and
forty-two years of age, a bachelor, and neither rich nor poor.
Mademoiselle Cormon beheld herself speedily Vicomtesse de Troisville.

"And to think that my uncle told me nothing! thinks of nothing!
inquires nothing! That's my uncle all over. He'd forget his own nose
if it wasn't fastened to his face."

Have you never remarked that, under circumstances such as these, old
maids become, like Richard III., keen-witted, fierce, bold,
promissory,--if one may so use the word,--and, like inebriate clerks,
no longer in awe of anything?

Immediately the town of Alencon, speedily informed from the farther
end of the rue de Saint-Blaise to the gate of Seez of this precipitate
return, accompanied by singular circumstances, was perturbed
throughout its viscera, both public and domestic. Cooks, shopkeepers,
street passengers, told the news from door to door; thence it rose to
the upper regions. Soon the words: "Mademoiselle Cormon has returned!"
burst like a bombshell into all households. At that moment Jacquelin
was descending from his wooden seat (polished by a process unknown to
cabinet-makers), on which he perched in front of the carriole. He
opened the great green gate, round at the top, and closed in sign of
mourning; for during Mademoiselle Cormon's absence the evening
assemblies did not take place. The faithful invited the Abbe de Sponde
to their several houses; and Monsieur de Valois paid his debt by
inviting him to dine at the Marquis d'Esgrignon's. Jacquelin, having
opened the gate, called familiarly to Penelope, whom he had left in
the middle of the street. That animal, accustomed to this proceeding,
turned in of herself, and circled round the courtyard in a manner to
avoid injuring the flower-bed. Jacquelin then took her bridle, and led
the carriage to the portico.

"Mariette!" cried Mademoiselle Cormon.

"Mademoiselle!" exclaimed Mariette, who was occupied in closing the
gate.

"Has the gentleman arrived?"

"No, mademoiselle."

"Where's my uncle?"

"He is at church, mademoiselle."

Jacquelin and Josette were by this time on the first step of the
portico, holding out their hands to manoeuvre the exit of their
mistress from the carriole as she pulled herself up by the sides of
the vehicle and clung to the curtains. Mademoiselle then threw herself
into their arms; because for the last two years she dared not risk her
weight on the iron step, affixed to the frame of the carriage by a
horrible mechanism of clumsy bolts.

When Mademoiselle Cormon reached the level of the portico she looked
about her courtyard with an air of satisfaction.

"Come, come, Mariette, leave that gate alone; I want you."

"There's something in the wind," whispered Jacquelin, as Mariette
passed the carriole.

"Mariette, what provisions have you in the house?" asked Mademoiselle
Cormon, sitting down on the bench in the long antechamber like a
person overcome with fatigue.

"I haven't anything," replied Mariette, with her hands on her hips.
"Mademoiselle knows very well that during her absence Monsieur l'abbe
dines out every day. Yesterday I went to fetch him from Mademoiselle
Armande's."

"Where is he now?"

"Monsieur l'abbe? Why, at church; he won't be in before three
o'clock."

"He thinks of nothing! he ought to have told you to go to market.
Mariette, go at once; and without wasting money, don't spare it; get
all there is that is good and delicate. Go to the diligence office and
see if you can send for pates; and I want shrimps from the Brillante.
What o'clock is it?"

"A quarter to nine."

"Good heavens! Mariette, don't stop to chatter. The person my uncle
expects may arrive at any moment. If we had to give him breakfast,
where should we be with nothing in the house?"

Mariette turned back to Penelope in a lather, and looked at Jacquelin
as if she would say, "Mademoiselle has put her hand on a husband
/this/ time."

"Now, Josette," continued the old maid, "let us see where we had
better put Monsieur de Troisville to sleep."

With what joy she said the words, "Put Monsieur de Troisville"
(pronounced Treville) "to sleep." How many ideas in those few words!
The old maid was bathed in hope.

"Will you put him in the green chamber?"

"The bishop's room? No; that's too near mine," said Mademoiselle
Cormon. "All very well for monseigneur; he's a saintly man."

"Give him your uncle's room."

"Oh, that's so bare; it is actually indecent."

"Well, then, mademoiselle, why not arrange a bed in your boudoir? It
is easily done; and there's a fire-place. Moreau can certainly find in
his warerooms a bed to match the hangings."

"You are right, Josette. Go yourself to Moreau; consult with him what
to do; I authorize you to get what is wanted. If the bed could be put
up to-night without Monsieur de Troisville observing it (in case
Monsieur de Troisville arrives while Moreau is here), I should like
it. If Moreau won't engage to do this, then I must put Monsieur de
Troisville in the green room, although Monsieur de Troisville would be
so very near to me."

Josette was departing when her mistress recalled her.

"Stop! explain the matter to Jacquelin," she cried, in a loud nervous
tone. "Tell /him/ to go to Moreau; I must be dressed! Fancy if Monsieur
de Troisville surprised me as I am now! and my uncle not here to
receive him! Oh, uncle, uncle! Come, Josette; come and dress me at
once."

"But Penelope?" said Josette, imprudently.

"Always Penelope! Penelope this, Penelope that! Is Penelope the
mistress of this house?"

"But she is all of a lather, and she hasn't had time to eat her oats."

"Then let her starve!" cried Mademoiselle Cormon; "provided I marry,"
she thought to herself.

Hearing these words, which seemed to her like homicide, Josette stood
still for a moment, speechless. Then, at a gesture from her mistress,
she ran headlong down the steps of the portico.

"The devil is in her, Jacquelin," were the first words she uttered.

Thus all things conspired on this fateful day to produce the great
scenic effect which decided the future life of Mademoiselle Cormon.
The town was already topsy-turvy in mind, as a consequence of the five
extraordinary circumstances which accompanied Mademoiselle Cormon's
return; to wit, the pouring rain; Penelope at a gallop, in a lather,
and blown; the early hour; the parcels half-packed; and the singular
air of the excited old maid. But when Mariette made an invasion of the
market, and bought all the best things; when Jacquelin went to the
principal upholsterer in Alencon, two doors from the church, in search
of a bed,--there was matter for the gravest conjectures. These
extraordinary events were discussed on all sides; they occupied the
minds of every one, even Mademoiselle Armande herself, with whom was
Monsieur de Valois. Within two days the town of Alencon had been
agitated by such startling events that certain good women were heard
to remark that the world was coming to an end. This last news,
however, resolved itself into a single question, "What is happening at
the Cormons?"

The Abbe de Sponde, adroitly questioned when he left Saint-Leonard's
to take his daily walk with the Abbe Couturier, replied with his usual
kindliness that he expected the Vicomte de Troisville, a nobleman in
the service of Russia during the Emigration, who was returning to
Alencon to settle there. From two to five o'clock a species of labial
telegraphy went on throughout the town; and all the inhabitants
learned that Mademoiselle Cormon had at last found a husband by
letter, and was about to marry the Vicomte de Troisville. Some said,
"Moreau has sold them a bed." The bed was six feet wide in that
quarter; it was four feet wide at Madame Granson's, in the rue du
Bercail; but it was reduced to a simple couch at Monsieur du
Ronceret's, where du Bousquier was dining. The lesser bourgeoisie
declared that the cost was eleven hundred francs. But generally it was
thought that, as to this, rumor was counting the chickens before they
were hatched. In other quarters it was said that Mariette had made
such a raid on the market that the price of carp had risen. At the end
of the rue Saint-Blaise, Penelope had dropped dead. This decease was
doubted in the house of the receiver-general; but at the Prefecture it
was authenticated that the poor beast had expired as she turned into
the courtyard of the hotel Cormon, with such velocity had the old maid
flown to meet her husband. The harness-maker, who lived at the corner
of the rue de Seez, was bold enough to call at the house and ask if
anything had happened to Mademoiselle Cormon's carriage, in order to
discover whether Penelope was really dead. From the end of the rue
Saint-Blaise to the end of the rue du Bercail, it was then made known
that, thanks to Jacquelin's devotion, Penelope, that silent victim of
her mistress's impetuosity, still lived, though she seemed to be
suffering.

Along the road to Brittany the Vicomte de Troisville was stated to be
a younger son without a penny, for the estates in Perche belonged to
the Marquis de Troisville, peer of France, who had children; the
marriage would be, therefore, an enormous piece of luck for a poor
emigre. The aristocracy along that road approved of the marriage;
Mademoiselle Cormon could not do better with her money. But among the
Bourgeoisie, the Vicomte de Troisville was a Russian general who had
fought against France, and was now returning with a great fortune made
at the court of Saint-Petersburg; he was a /foreigner/; one of those
/allies/ so hated by the liberals; the Abbe de Sponde had slyly
negotiated this marriage. All the persons who had a right to call upon
Mademoiselle Cormon determined to do so that very evening.

During this transurban excitement, which made that of Suzanne almost a
forgotten affair, Mademoiselle was not less agitated; she was filled
with a variety of novel emotions. Looking about her salon,
dining-room, and boudoir, cruel apprehensions took possession of her.
A species of demon showed her with a sneer her old-fashioned luxury.
The handsome things she had admired from her youth up she suddenly
suspected of age and absurdity. In short, she felt that fear which
takes possession of nearly all authors when they read over a work they
have hitherto thought proof against every exacting or blase critic:
new situations seem timeworn; the best-turned and most highly polished
phrases limp and squint; metaphors and images grin or contradict each
other; whatsoever is false strikes the eye. In like manner this poor
woman trembled lest she should see on the lips of Monsieur de
Troisville a smile of contempt for this episcopal salon; she dreaded
the cold look he might cast over that ancient dining-room; in short,
she feared the frame might injure and age the portrait. Suppose these
antiquities should cast a reflected light of old age upon herself?
This question made her flesh creep. She would gladly, at that moment,
spend half her savings on refitting her house if some fairy wand could
do it in a moment. Where is the general who has not trembled on the
eve of a battle? The poor woman was now between her Austerlitz and her
Waterloo.

"Madame la Vicomtesse de Troisville," she said to herself; "a noble
name! Our property will go to a good family, at any rate."

She fell a prey to an irritation which made every fibre of her nerves
quiver to all their papillae, long sunk in flesh. Her blood, lashed by
this new hope, was in motion. She felt the strength to converse, if
necessary, with Monsieur de Troisville.

It is useless to relate the activity with which Josette, Jacquelin,
Mariette, Moreau, and his agents went about their functions. It was
like the busyness of ants about their eggs. All that daily care had
already rendered neat and clean was again gone over and brushed and
rubbed and scrubbed. The china of ceremony saw the light; the damask
linen marked "A, B, C" was drawn from depths where it lay under a
triple guard of wrappings, still further defended by formidable lines
of pins. Above all, Mademoiselle Cormon sacrificed on the altar of her
hopes three bottles of the famous liqueurs of Madame Amphoux, the most
illustrious of all the distillers of the tropics,--a name very dear to
gourmets. Thanks to the devotion of her lieutenants, mademoiselle was
soon ready for the conflict. The different weapons--furniture,
cookery, provisions, in short, all the various munitions of war,
together with a body of reserve forces--were ready along the whole
line. Jacquelin, Mariette, and Josette received orders to appear in
full dress. The garden was raked. The old maid regretted that she
couldn't come to an understanding with the nightingales nesting in the
trees, in order to obtain their finest trilling.

At last, about four o'clock, at the very moment when the Abbe de
Sponde returned home, and just as mademoiselle began to think she had
set the table with the best plate and linen and prepared the choicest
dishes to no purpose, the click-clack of a postilion was heard in the
Val-Noble.

"'Tis he!" she said to herself, the snap of the whip echoing in her
heart.

True enough; heralded by all this gossip, a post-chaise, in which was
a single gentleman, made so great a sensation coming down the rue
Saint-Blaise and turning into the rue du Cours that several little
gamains and some grown persons followed it, and stood in groups about
the gate of the hotel Cormon to see it enter. Jacquelin, who foresaw
his own marriage in that of his mistress, had also heard the
click-clack in the rue Saint-Blaise, and had opened wide the gates
into the courtyard. The postilion, a friend of his, took pride in
making a fine turn-in, and drew up sharply before the portico. The
abbe came forward to greet his guest, whose carriage was emptied with
a speed that highwaymen might put into the operation; the chaise
itself was rolled into the coach-house, the gates closed, and in a few
moments all signs of Monsieur de Troisville's arrival had disappeared.
Never did two chemicals blend into each other with greater rapidity
than the hotel Cormon displayed in absorbing the Vicomte de Troisville.

Mademoiselle, whose heart was beating like a lizard caught by a
herdsman, sat heroically still on her sofa, beside the fire in the
salon. Josette opened the door; and the Vicomte de Troisville,
followed by the Abbe de Sponde, presented himself to the eyes of the
spinster.

"Niece, this is Monsieur le Vicomte de Troisville, the grandson of one
of my old schoolmates; Monsieur de Troisville, my niece, Mademoiselle
Cormon."

"Ah! that good uncle; how well he does it!" thought
Rose-Marie-Victoire.

The Vicomte de Troisville was, to paint him in two words, du Bousquier
ennobled. Between the two men there was precisely the difference which
separates the vulgar style from the noble style. If they had both been
present, the most fanatic liberal would not have denied the existence
of aristocracy. The viscount's strength had all the distinction of
elegance; his figure had preserved its magnificent dignity. He had
blue eyes, black hair, an olive skin, and looked to be about forty-six
years of age. You might have thought him a handsome Spaniard preserved
in the ice of Russia. His manner, carriage, and attitude, all denoted
a diplomat who had seen Europe. His dress was that of a well-bred
traveller. As he seemed fatigued, the abbe offered to show him to his
room, and was much amazed when his niece threw open the door of the
boudoir, transformed into a bedroom.

Mademoiselle Cormon and her uncle then left the noble stranger to
attend to his own affairs, aided by Jacquelin, who brought up his
luggage, and went themselves to walk beside the river until their
guest had made his toilet. Although the Abbe de Sponde chanced to be
even more absent-minded than usual, Mademoiselle Cormon was not less
preoccupied. They both walked on in silence. The old maid had never
before met any man as seductive as this Olympean viscount. She might
have said to herself, as the Germans do, "This is my ideal!" instead
of which she felt herself bound from head to foot, and could only say,
"Here's my affair!" Then she flew to Mariette to know if the dinner
could be put back a while without loss of excellence.

"Uncle, your Monsieur de Troisville is very amiable," she said, on
returning.

"Why, niece, he hasn't as yet said a word."

"But you can see it in his ways, his manners, his face. Is he a
bachelor?"

"I'm sure I don't know," replied the abbe, who was thinking of a
discussion on mercy, lately begun between the Abbe Couturier and
himself. "Monsieur de Troisville wrote me that he wanted to buy a
house here. If he was married, he wouldn't come alone on such an
errand," added the abbe, carelessly, not conceiving the idea that his
niece could be thinking of marriage.

"Is he rich?"

"He is a younger son of the younger branch," replied her uncle. "His
grandfather commanded a squadron, but the father of this young man
made a bad marriage."

"Young man!" exclaimed the old maid. "It seems to me, uncle, that he
must be at least forty-five." She felt the strongest desire to put
their years on a par.

"Yes," said the abbe; "but to a poor priest of seventy, Rose, a man of
forty seems a youth."

All Alencon knew by this time that Monsieur de Troisville had arrived
at the Cormons. The traveller soon rejoined his hosts, and began to
admire the Brillante, the garden, and the house.

"Monsieur l'abbe," he said, "my whole ambition is to have a house like
this." The old maid fancied a declaration lurked in that speech, and
she lowered her eyes. "You must enjoy it very much, mademoiselle,"
added the viscount.

"How could it be otherwise? It has been in our family since 1574, the
period at which one of our ancestors, steward to the Duc d'Alencon,
acquired the land and built the house," replied Mademoiselle Cormon.
"It is built on piles," she added.

Jacquelin announced dinner. Monsieur de Troisville offered his arm to
the happy woman, who endeavored not to lean too heavily upon it; she
feared, as usual, to seem to make advances.

"Everything is so harmonious here," said the viscount, as he seated
himself at table.

"Yes, our trees are full of birds, which give us concerts for nothing;
no one ever frightens them; and the nightingales sing at night," said
Mademoiselle Cormon.

"I was speaking of the interior of the house," remarked the viscount,
who did not trouble himself to observe Mademoiselle Cormon, and
therefore did not perceive the dulness of her mind. "Everything is so
in keeping,--the tones of color, the furniture, the general
character."

"But it costs a great deal; taxes are enormous," responded the
excellent woman.

"Ah! taxes are high, are they?" said the viscount, preoccupied with
his own ideas.

"I don't know," replied the abbe. "My niece manages the property of
each of us."

"Taxes are not of much importance to the rich," said Mademoiselle
Cormon, not wishing to be thought miserly. "As for the furniture, I
shall leave it as it is, and change nothing,--unless I marry; and
then, of course, everything here must suit the husband."

"You have noble principles, mademoiselle," said the viscount, smiling.
"You will make one happy man."

"No one ever made to me such a pretty speech," thought the old maid.

The viscount complimented Mademoiselle Cormon on the excellence of her
service and the admirable arrangements of the house, remarking that he
had supposed the provinces behind the age in that respect; but, on the
contrary, he found them, as the English say, "very comfortable."

"What can that word mean?" she thought. "Oh, where is the chevalier to
explain it to me? 'Comfortable,'--there seem to be several words in
it. Well, courage!" she said to herself. "I can't be expected to
answer a foreign language-- But," she continued aloud, feeling her
tongue untied by the eloquence which nearly all human creatures find
in momentous circumstances, "we have a very brilliant society here,
monsieur. It assembles at my house, and you shall judge of it this
evening, for some of my faithful friends have no doubt heard of my
return and your arrival. Among them is the Chevalier de Valois, a
seigneur of the old court, a man of infinite wit and taste; then there
is Monsieur le Marquis d'Esgrignon and Mademoiselle Armande, his
sister" (she bit her tongue with vexation),--"a woman remarkable in
her way," she added. "She resolved to remain unmarried in order to
leave all her fortune to her brother and nephew."

"Ah!" exclaimed the viscount. "Yes, the d'Esgrignons,--I remember
them."

"Alencon is very gay," continued the old maid, now fairly launched.
"There's much amusement: the receiver-general gives balls; the prefect
is an amiable man; and Monseigneur the bishop sometimes honors us with
a visit--"

"Well, then," said the viscount, smiling, "I have done wisely to come
back, like the hare, to die in my form."

"Yes," she said. "I, too, attach myself or I die."

The viscount smiled.

"Ah!" thought the old maid, "all is well; he understands me."

The conversation continued on generalities. By one of those mysterious
unknown and undefinable faculties, Mademoiselle Cormon found in her
brain, under the pressure of her desire to be agreeable, all the
phrases and opinions of the Chevalier de Valois. It was like a duel in
which the devil himself pointed the pistol. Never was any adversary
better aimed at. The viscount was far too well-bred to speak of the
excellence of the dinner; but his silence was praise. As he drank the
delicious wines which Jacquelin served to him profusely, he seemed to
feel he was with friends, and to meet them with pleasure; for the true
connoisseur does not applaud, he enjoys. He inquired the price of
land, of houses, of estates; he made Mademoiselle Cormon describe at
length the confluence of the Sarthe and the Brillante; he expressed
surprise that the town was placed so far from the river, and seemed to
be much interested in the topography of the place.

The silent abbe left his niece to throw the dice of conversation; and
she truly felt that she pleased Monsieur de Troisville, who smiled at
her gracefully, and committed himself during this dinner far more than
her most eager suitors had ever done in ten days. Imagine, therefore,
the little attentions with which he was petted; you might have thought
him a cherished lover, whose return brought joy to the household.
Mademoiselle foresaw the moment when the viscount wanted bread; she
watched his every look; when he turned his head she adroitly put upon
his plate a portion of some dish he seemed to like; had he been a
gourmand, she would almost have killed him; but what a delightful
specimen of the attentions she would show to a husband! She did not
commit the folly of depreciating herself; on the contrary, she set
every sail bravely, ran up all her flags, assumed the bearing of the
queen of Alencon, and boasted of her excellent preserves. In fact, she
fished for compliments in speaking of herself, for she saw that she
pleased the viscount; the truth being that her eager desire had so
transformed her that she became almost a woman.

At dessert she heard, not without emotions of delight, certain sounds
in the antechamber and salon which denoted the arrival of her usual
guests. She called the attention of her uncle and Monsieur de
Troisville to this prompt attendance as a proof of the affection that
was felt for her; whereas it was really the result of the poignant
curiosity which had seized upon the town. Impatient to show herself in
all her glory, Mademoiselle Cormon told Jacquelin to serve coffee and
liqueurs in the salon, where he presently set out, in view of the
whole company, a magnificent liqueur-stand of Dresden china which saw
the light only twice a year. This circumstance was taken note of by
the company, standing ready to gossip over the merest trifle:--

"The deuce!" muttered du Bousquier. "Actually Madame Amphoux's
liqueurs, which they only serve at the four church festivals!"

"Undoubtedly the marriage was arranged a year ago by letter," said the
chief-justice du Ronceret. "The postmaster tells me his office has
received letters postmarked Odessa for more than a year."

Madame Granson trembled. The Chevalier de Valois, though he had dined
with the appetite of four men, turned pale even to the left section of
his face. Feeling that he was about to betray himself, he said
hastily,--

"Don't you think it is very cold to-day? I am almost frozen."

"The neighborhood of Russia, perhaps," said du Bousquier.

The chevalier looked at him as if to say, "Well played!"

Mademoiselle Cormon appeared so radiant, so triumphant, that the
company thought her handsome. This extraordinary brilliancy was not
the effect of sentiment only. Since early morning her blood had been
whirling tempestuously within her, and her nerves were agitated by the
presentiment of some great crisis. It required all these circumstances
combined to make her so unlike herself. With what joy did she now make
her solemn presentation of the viscount to the chevalier, the
chevalier to the viscount, and all Alencon to Monsieur de Troisville,
and Monsieur de Troisville to all Alencon!

By an accident wholly explainable, the viscount and chevalier,
aristocrats by nature, came instantly into unison; they recognized
each other at once as men belonging to the same sphere. Accordingly,
they began to converse together, standing before the fireplace. A
circle formed around them; and their conversation, though uttered in a
low voice, was listened to in religious silence. To give the effect of
this scene it is necessary to dramatize it, and to picture
Mademoiselle Cormon occupied in pouring out the coffee of her
imaginary suitor, with her back to the fireplace.

Monsieur de Valois. "Monsieur le vicomte has come, I am told, to
settle in Alencon?"

Monsieur de Troisville. "Yes, monsieur, I am looking for a house."
[Mademoiselle Cormon, cup in hand, turns round.] "It must be a large
house" [Mademoiselle Cormon offers him the cup] "to lodge my whole
family." [The eyes of the old maid are troubled.]

Monsieur de Valois. "Are you married?"

Monsieur de Troisville. "Yes, for the last sixteen years, to a
daughter of the Princess Scherbellof."

Mademoiselle Cormon fainted; du Bousquier, who saw her stagger, sprang
forward and received her in his arms; some one opened the door and
allowed him to pass out with his enormous burden. The fiery
republican, instructed by Josette, found strength to carry the old
maid to her bedroom, where he laid her out on the bed. Josette, armed
with scissors, cut the corset, which was terribly tight. Du Bousquier
flung water on Mademoiselle Cormon's face and bosom, which, released
from the corset, overflowed like the Loire in flood. The poor woman
opened her eyes, saw du Bousquier, and gave a cry of modesty at the
sight of him. Du Bousquier retired at once, leaving six women, at the
head of whom was Madame Granson, radiant with joy, to take care of the
invalid.

What had the Chevalier de Valois been about all this time? Faithful to
his system, he had covered the retreat.

"That poor Mademoiselle Cormon," he said to Monsieur de Troisville,
gazing at the assembly, whose laughter was repressed by his cool
aristocratic glances, "her blood is horribly out of order; she
wouldn't be bled before going to Prebaudet (her estate),--and see the
result!"

"She came back this morning in the rain," said the Abbe de Sponde,
"and she may have taken cold. It won't be anything; it is only a
little upset she is subject to."

"She told me yesterday she had not had one for three months, adding
that she was afraid it would play her a trick at last," said the
chevalier.

"Ha! so you are married?" said Jacquelin to himself as he looked at
Monsieur de Troisville, who was quietly sipping his coffee.

The faithful servant espoused his mistress's disappointment; he
divined it, and he promptly carried away the liqueurs of Madame
Amphoux, which were offered to a bachelor, and not to the husband of a
Russian woman.

All these details were noticed and laughed at. The Abbe de Sponde knew
the object of Monsieur de Troisville's journey; but, absent-minded as
usual, he forgot it, not supposing that his niece could have the
slightest interest in Monsieur de Troisville's marriage. As for the
viscount, preoccupied with the object of his journey, and, like many
husbands, not eager to talk about his wife, he had had no occasion to
say he was married; besides, he would naturally suppose that
Mademoiselle Cormon knew it.

Du Bousquier reappeared, and was questioned furiously. One of the six
women came down soon after, and announced that Mademoiselle Cormon was
much better, and that the doctor had come. She intended to stay in
bed, as it was necessary to bleed her. The salon was now full.
Mademoiselle Cormon's absence allowed the ladies present to discuss
the tragi-comic scene--embellished, extended, historified,
embroidered, wreathed, colored, and adorned--which had just taken
place, and which, on the morrow, was destined to occupy all Alencon.

"That good Monsieur du Bousquier! how well he carried you!" said
Josette to her mistress. "He was really pale at the sight of you; he
loves you still."

That speech served as closure to this solemn and terrible evening.

Throughout the morning of the next day every circumstance of the late
comedy was known in the household of Alencon, and--let us say it to
the shame of that town,--they caused inextinguishable laughter. But on
that day Mademoiselle Cormon (much benefited by the bleeding) would
have seemed sublime even to the boldest scoffers, had they witnessed
the noble dignity, the splendid Christian resignation which influenced
her as she gave her arm to her involuntary deceiver to go into
breakfast. Cruel jesters! why could you not have seen her as she said
to the viscount,--

"Madame de Troisville will have difficulty in finding a suitable
house; do me the favor, monsieur, of accepting the use of mine during
the time you are in search of yours."

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