Part 4 out of 6
general and theoretical form, with the result that political
combatants also rise to a higher level; M. Laffitte, for example, or
M. Casimir-Perier can respect M. de Villele or M. de Payronnet as a
man. M. Laffitte, who drew the fire on the Ministry, would have given
them an asylum in his house if they had fled thither on the 29th of
July 1830. Benjamin Constant sent a copy of his work on Religion to
the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, with a flattering letter acknowledging
benefits received from the former Minister. At Paris men are systems,
whereas in the provinces systems are identified with men; men,
moreover, with restless passions, who must always confront one
another, always spy upon each other in private life, and pull their
opponents' speeches to pieces, and live generally like two duelists
on the watch for a chance to thrust six inches of steel between an
antagonist's ribs. Each must do his best to get under his enemy's
guard, and a political hatred becomes as all-absorbing as a duel to
the death. Epigram and slander are used against individuals to bring
the party into discredit.
In such warfare as this, waged ceremoniously and without rancor on the
side of the Antiquities, while du Croisier's faction went so far as to
use the poisoned weapons of savages--in this warfare the advantages of
wit and delicate irony lay on the side of the nobles. But it should
never be forgotten that the wounds made by the tongue and the eyes, by
gibe or slight, are the last of all to heal. When the Chevalier turned
his back on mixed society and entrenched himself on the Mons Sacer of
the aristocracy, his witticisms thenceforward were directed at du
Croisier's salon; he stirred up the fires of war, not knowing how far
the spirit of revenge was to urge the rival faction. None but purists
and loyal gentlemen and women sure one of another entered the Hotel
d'Esgrignon; they committed no indiscretions of any kind; they had
their ideas, true or false, good or bad, noble or trivial, but there
was nothing to laugh at in all this. If the Liberals meant to make the
nobles ridiculous, they were obliged to fasten on the political
actions of their opponents; while the intermediate party, composed of
officials and others who paid court to the higher powers, kept the
nobles informed of all that was done and said in the Liberal camp, and
much of it was abundantly laughable. Du Croisier's adherents smarted
under a sense of inferiority, which increased their thirst for
In 1822, du Croisier put himself at the head of the manufacturing
interest of the province, as the Marquis d'Esgrignon headed the
noblesse. Each represented his party. But du Croisier, instead of
giving himself out frankly for a man of the extreme Left, ostensibly
adopted the opinions formulated at a later date by the 221 deputies.
By taking up this position, he could keep in touch with the
magistrates and local officials and the capitalists of the department.
Du Croisier's salon, a power at least equal to the salon d'Esgrignon,
larger numerically, as well as younger and more energetic, made itself
felt all over the countryside; the Collection of Antiquities, on the
other hand, remained inert, a passive appendage, as it were, of a
central authority which was often embarrassed by its own partisans;
for not merely did they encourage the Government in a mistaken policy,
but some of its most fatal blunders were made in consequence of the
pressure brought to bear upon it by the Conservative party.
The Liberals, so far, had never contrived to carry their candidate.
The department declined to obey their command knowing that du
Croisier, if elected, would take his place on the Left Centre benches,
and as far as possible to the Left. Du Croisier was in correspondence
with the Brothers Keller, the bankers, the oldest of whom shone
conspicuous among "the nineteen deputies of the Left," that phalanx
made famous by the efforts of the entire Liberal press. This same M.
Keller, moreover, was related by marriage to the Comte de Gondreville,
a Constitutional peer who remained in favor with Louis XVIII. For
these reasons, the Constitutional Opposition (as distinct from the
Liberal party) was always prepared to vote at the last moment, not for
the candidate whom they professed to support, but for du Croisier, if
that worthy could succeed in gaining a sufficient number of Royalist
votes; but at every election du Croisier was regularly thrown out by
the Royalists. The leaders of that party, taking their tone from the
Marquis d'Esgrignon, had pretty thoroughly fathomed and gauged their
man; and with each defeat, du Croisier and his party waxed more
bitter. Nothing so effectually stirs up strife as the failure of some
snare set with elaborate pains.
In 1822 there seemed to be a lull in hostilities which had been kept
up with great spirit during the first four years of the Restoration.
The salon du Croisier and the salon d'Esgrignon, having measured their
strength and weakness, were in all probability waiting for
opportunity, that Providence of party strife. Ordinary persons were
content with the surface quiet which deceived the Government; but
those who knew du Croisier better, were well aware that the passion of
revenge in him, as in all men whose whole life consists in mental
activity, is implacable, especially when political ambitions are
involved. About this time du Croisier, who used to turn white and red
at the bare mention of d'Esgrignon or the Chevalier, and shuddered at
the name of the Collection of Antiquities, chose to wear the impassive
countenance of a savage. He smiled upon his enemies, hating them but
the more deeply, watching them the more narrowly from hour to hour.
One of his own party, who seconded him in these calculations of cold
wrath, was the President of the Tribunal, M. du Ronceret, a little
country squire, who had vainly endeavored to gain admittance among the
The d'Esgrignons' little fortune, carefully administered by Maitre
Chesnel, was barely sufficient for the worthy Marquis' needs; for
though he lived without the slightest ostentation, he also lived like
a noble. The governor found by his Lordship the Bishop for the hope of
the house, the young Comte Victurnien d'Esgrignon, was an elderly
Oratorian who must be paid a certain salary, although he lived with
the family. The wages of a cook, a waiting-woman for Mlle. Armande, an
old valet for M. le Marquis, and a couple of other servants, together
with the daily expenses of the household, and the cost of an education
for which nothing was spared, absorbed the whole family income, in
spite of Mlle. Armande's economies, in spite of Chesnel's careful
management, and the servants' affection. As yet, Chesnel had not been
able to set about repairs at the ruined castle; he was waiting till
the leases fell in to raise the rent of the farms, for rents had been
rising lately, partly on account of improved methods of agriculture,
partly by the fall in the value of money, of which the landlord would
get the benefit at the expiration of leases granted in 1809.
The Marquis himself knew nothing of the details of the management of
the house or of his property. He would have been thunderstruck if he
had been told of the excessive precautions needed "to make both ends
of the year meet in December," to use the housewife's saying, and he
was so near the end of his life, that every one shrank from opening
his eyes. The Marquis and his adherents believed that a House, to
which no one at Court or in the Government gave a thought, a House
that was never heard of beyond the gates of the town, save here and
there in the same department, was about to revive its ancient
greatness, to shine forth in all its glory. The d'Esgrignons' line
should appear with renewed lustre in the person of Victurnien, just as
the despoiled nobles came into their own again, and the handsome heir
to a great estate would be in a position to go to Court, enter the
King's service, and marry (as other d'Esgrignons had done before him)
a Navarreins, a Cadignan, a d'Uxelles, a Beausant, a Blamont-Chauvry;
a wife, in short, who should unite all the distinctions of birth and
beauty, wit and wealth, and character.
The intimates who came to play their game of cards of an evening--the
Troisvilles (pronounced Treville), the La Roche-Guyons, the Casterans
(pronounced Cateran), and the Duc de Verneuil--had all so long been
accustomed to look up to the Marquis as a person of immense
consequence, that they encouraged him in such notions as these. They
were perfectly sincere in their belief; and indeed, it would have been
well founded if they could have wiped out the history of the last
forty years. But the most honorable and undoubted sanctions of right,
such as Louis XVIII. had tried to set on record when he dated the
Charter from the one-and-twentieth year of his reign, only exist when
ratified by the general consent. The d'Esgrignons not only lacked the
very rudiments of the language of latter-day politics, to wit, money,
the great modern /relief/, or sufficient rehabilitation of nobility;
but, in their case, too, "historical continuity" was lacking, and that
is a kind of renown which tells quite as much at Court as on the
battlefield, in diplomatic circles as in Parliament, with a book, or
in connection with an adventure; it is, as it were, a sacred ampulla
poured upon the heads of each successive generation. Whereas a noble
family, inactive and forgotten, is very much in the position of a
hard-featured, poverty-stricken, simple-minded, and virtuous maid,
these qualifications being the four cardinal points of misfortune. The
marriage of a daughter of the Troisvilles with General Montcornet, so
far from opening the eyes of the Antiquities, very nearly brought
about a rupture between the Troisvilles and the salon d'Esgrignon, the
latter declaring that the Troisvilles were mixing themselves up with
all sorts of people.
There was one, and one only, among all these folk who did not share
their illusions. And that one, needless to say, was Chesnel the
notary. Although his devotion, sufficiently proved already, was simply
unbounded for the great house now reduced to three persons; although
he accepted all their ideas, and thought them nothing less than right,
he had too much common sense, he was too good a man of business to
more than half the families in the department, to miss the
significance of the great changes that were taking place in people's
minds, or to be blind to the different conditions brought about by
industrial development and modern manners. He had watched the
Revolution pass through the violent phase of 1793, when men, women,
and children wore arms, and heads fell on the scaffold, and victories
were won in pitched battles with Europe; and now he saw the same
forces quietly at work in men's minds, in the shape of ideas which
sanctioned the issues. The soil had been cleared, the seed sown, and
now came the harvest. To his thinking, the Revolution had formed the
mind of the younger generation; he touched the hard facts, and knew
that although there were countless unhealed wounds, what had been done
was past recall. The death of a king on the scaffold, the protracted
agony of a queen, the division of the nobles' lands, in his eyes were
so many binding contracts; and where so many vested interests were
involved, it was not likely that those concerned would allow them to
be attacked. Chesnel saw clearly. His fanatical attachment to the
d'Esgrignons was whole-hearted, but it was not blind, and it was all
the fairer for this. The young monk's faith that sees heaven laid open
and beholds the angels, is something far below the power of the old
monk who points them out to him. The ex-steward was like the old monk;
he would have given his life to defend a worm-eaten shrine.
He tried to explain the "innovations" to his old master, using a
thousand tactful precautions; sometimes speaking jestingly, sometimes
affecting surprise or sorrow over this or that; but he always met the
same prophetic smile on the Marquis' lips, the same fixed conviction
in the Marquis' mind, that these follies would go by like others.
Events contributed in a way which has escaped attention to assist such
noble champions of forlorn hope to cling to their superstitions. What
could Chesnel do when the old Marquis said, with a lordly gesture,
"God swept away Bonaparte with his armies, his new great vassals, his
crowned kings, and his vast conceptions! God will deliver us from the
rest." And Chesnel hung his head sadly, and did not dare to answer,
"It cannot be God's will to sweep away France." Yet both of them were
grand figures; the one, standing out against the torrent of facts like
an ancient block of lichen-covered granite, still upright in the
depths of an Alpine gorge; the other, watching the course of the flood
to turn it to account. Then the good gray-headed notary would groan
over the irreparable havoc which the superstitions were sure to work
in the mind, the habits, and ideas of the Comte Victurnien
Idolized by his father, idolized by his aunt, the young heir was a
spoilt child in every sense of the word; but still a spoilt child who
justified paternal and maternal illusions. Maternal, be it said, for
Victurnien's aunt was truly a mother to him; and yet, however careful
and tender she may be that never bore a child, there is something
lacking in her motherhood. A mother's second sight cannot be acquired.
An aunt, bound to her nursling by ties of such pure affection as
united Mlle. Armande to Victurnien, may love as much as a mother
might; may be as careful, as kind, as tender, as indulgent, but she
lacks the mother's instinctive knowledge when and how to be severe;
she has no sudden warnings, none of the uneasy presentiments of the
mother's heart; for a mother, bound to her child from the beginnings
of life by all the fibres of her being, still is conscious of the
communication, still vibrates with the shock of every trouble, and
thrills with every joy in the child's life as if it were her own. If
Nature has made of woman, physically speaking, a neutral ground, it
has not been forbidden to her, under certain conditions, to identify
herself completely with her offspring. When she has not merely given
life, but given of her whole life, you behold that wonderful,
unexplained, and inexplicable thing--the love of a woman for one of
her children above the others. The outcome of this story is one more
proof of a proven truth--a mother's place cannot be filled. A mother
foresees danger long before a Mlle. Armande can admit the possibility
of it, even if the mischief is done. The one prevents the evil, the
other remedies it. And besides, in the maiden's motherhood there is an
element of blind adoration, she cannot bring herself to scold a
A practical knowledge of life, and the experience of business, had
taught the old notary a habit of distrustful clear-sighted observation
something akin to the mother's instinct. But Chesnel counted for so
little in the house (especially since he had fallen into something
like disgrace over that unlucky project of a marriage between a
d'Esgrignon and a du Croisier), that he had made up his mind to adhere
blindly in future to the family doctrines. He was a common soldier,
faithful to his post, and ready to give his life; it was never likely
that they would take his advice, even in the height of the storm;
unless chance should bring him, like the King's bedesman in The
Antiquary, to the edge of the sea, when the old baronet and his
daughter were caught by the high tide.
Du Croisier caught a glimpse of his revenge in the anomalous education
given to the lad. He hoped, to quote the expressive words of the
author quoted above, "to drown the lamb in its mother's milk." /This/
was the hope which had produced his taciturn resignation and brought
that savage smile on his lips.
The young Comte Victurnien was taught to believe in his own supremacy
as soon as an idea could enter his head. All the great nobles of the
realm were his peers, his one superior was the King, and the rest of
mankind were his inferiors, people with whom he had nothing in common,
towards whom he had no duties. They were defeated and conquered
enemies, whom he need not take into account for a moment; their
opinions could not affect a noble, and they all owed him respect.
Unluckily, with the rigorous logic of youth, which leads children and
young people to proceed to extremes whether good or bad, Victurnien
pushed these conclusions to their utmost consequences. His own
external advantages, moreover, confirmed him in his beliefs. He had
been extraordinarily beautiful as a child; he became as accomplished a
young man as any father could wish.
He was of average height, but well proportioned, slender, and almost
delicate-looking, but muscular. He had the brilliant blue eyes of the
d'Esgrignons, the finely-moulded aquiline nose, the perfect oval of
the face, the auburn hair, the white skin, and the graceful gait of
his family; he had their delicate extremities, their long taper
fingers with the inward curve, and that peculiar distinction of
shapeliness of the wrist and instep, that supple felicity of line,
which is as sure a sign of race in men as in horses. Adroit and alert
in all bodily exercises, and an excellent shot, he handled arms like a
St. George, he was a paladin on horseback. In short, he gratified the
pride which parents take in their children's appearance; a pride
founded, for that matter, on a just idea of the enormous influence
exercised by physical beauty. Personal beauty has this in common with
noble birth; it cannot be acquired afterwards; it is everywhere
recognized, and often is more valued than either brains or money;
beauty has only to appear and triumph; nobody asks more of beauty than
that it should simply exist.
Fate had endowed Victurnien, over and above the privileges of good
looks and noble birth, with a high spirit, a wonderful aptitude of
comprehension, and a good memory. His education, therefore, had been
complete. He knew a good deal more than is usually known by young
provincial nobles, who develop into highly-distinguished sportsmen,
owners of land, and consumers of tobacco; and are apt to treat art,
sciences, letters, poetry, or anything offensively above their
intellects, cavalierly enough. Such gifts of nature and education
surely would one day realize the Marquis d'Esgrignon's ambitions; he
already saw his son a Marshal of France if Victurnien's tastes were
for the army; an ambassador if diplomacy held any attractions for him;
a cabinet minister if that career seemed good in his eyes; every place
in the state belonged to Victurnien. And, most gratifying thought of
all for a father, the young Count would have made his way in the world
by his own merits even if he had not been a d'Esgrignon.
All through his happy childhood and golden youth, Victurnien had never
met with opposition to his wishes. He had been the king of the house;
no one curbed the little prince's will; and naturally he grew up
insolent and audacious, selfish as a prince, self-willed as the most
high-spirited cardinal of the Middle Ages,--defects of character which
any one might guess from his qualities, essentially those of the
The Chevalier was a man of the good old times when the Gray Musketeers
were the terror of the Paris theatres, when they horsewhipped the
watch and drubbed servers of writs, and played a host of page's
pranks, at which Majesty was wont to smile so long as they were
amusing. This charming deceiver and hero of the ruelles had no small
share in bringing about the disasters which afterwards befell. The
amiable old gentleman, with nobody to understand him, was not a little
pleased to find a budding Faublas, who looked the part to admiration,
and put him in mind of his own young days. So, making no allowance for
the difference of the times, he sowed the maxims of a roue of the
Encyclopaedic period broadcast in the boy's mind. He told wicked
anecdotes of the reign of His Majesty Louis XV.; he glorified the
manners and customs of the year 1750; he told of the orgies in petites
maisons, the follies of courtesans, the capital tricks played on
creditors, the manners, in short, which furnished forth Dancourt's
comedies and Beaumarchais' epigrams. And unfortunately, the corruption
lurking beneath the utmost polish tricked itself out in Voltairean
wit. If the Chevalier went rather too far at times, he always added as
a corrective that a man must always behave himself like a gentleman.
Of all this discourse, Victurnien comprehended just so much as
flattered his passions. From the first he saw his old father laughing
with the Chevalier. The two elderly men considered that the pride of a
d'Esgrignon was a sufficient safeguard against anything unbefitting;
as for a dishonorable action, no one in the house imagined that a
d'Esgrignon could be guilty of it. /Honor/, the great principle of
Monarchy, was planted firm like a beacon in the hearts of the family;
it lighted up the least action, it kindled the least thought of a
d'Esgrignon. "A d'Esgrignon ought not to permit himself to do such and
such a thing; he bears a name which pledges him to make a future
worthy of the past"--a noble teaching which should have been
sufficient in itself to keep alive the tradition of noblesse--had
been, as it were, the burden of Victurnien's cradle song. He heard
them from the old Marquis, from Mlle. Armande, from Chesnel, from the
intimates of the house. And so it came to pass that good and evil met,
and in equal forces, in the boy's soul.
At the age of eighteen, Victurnien went into society. He noticed some
slight discrepancies between the outer world of the town and the inner
world of the Hotel d'Esgrignon, but he in no wise tried to seek the
causes of them. And, indeed, the causes were to be found in Paris. He
had yet to learn that the men who spoke their minds out so boldly in
evening talk with his father, were extremely careful of what they said
in the presence of the hostile persons with whom their interests
compelled them to mingle. His own father had won the right of freedom
of speech. Nobody dreamed of contradicting an old man of seventy, and
besides, every one was willing to overlook fidelity to the old order
of things in a man who had been violently despoiled.
Victurnien was deceived by appearances, and his behavior set up the
backs of the townspeople. In his impetuous way he tried to carry
matters with too high a hand over some difficulties in the way of
sport, which ended in formidable lawsuits, hushed up by Chesnel for
money paid down. Nobody dared to tell the Marquis of these things. You
may judge of his astonishment if he had heard that his son had been
prosecuted for shooting over his lands, his domains, his covers, under
the reign of a son of St. Louis! People were too much afraid of the
possible consequences to tell him about such trifles, Chesnel said.
The young Count indulged in other escapades in the town. These the
Chevalier regarded as "amourettes," but they cost Chesnel something
considerable in portions for forsaken damsels seduced under imprudent
promises of marriage: yet other cases there were which came under an
article of the Code as to the abduction of minors; and but for
Chesnel's timely intervention, the new law would have been allowed to
take its brutal course, and it is hard to say where the Count might
have ended. Victurnien grew the bolder for these victories over
bourgeois justice. He was so accustomed to be pulled out of scrapes,
that he never thought twice before any prank. Courts of law, in his
opinion, were bugbears to frighten people who had no hold on him.
Things which he would have blamed in common people were for him only
pardonable amusements. His disposition to treat the new laws
cavalierly while obeying the maxims of a Code for aristocrats, his
behavior and character, were all pondered, analyzed, and tested by a
few adroit persons in du Croisier's interests. These folk supported
each other in the effort to make the people believe that Liberal
slanders were revelations, and that the Ministerial policy at bottom
meant a return to the old order of things.
What a bit of luck to find something by way of proof of their
assertions! President du Ronceret, and the public prosecutor likewise,
lent themselves admirably, so far as was compatible with their duty as
magistrates, to the design of letting off the offender as easily as
possible; indeed, they went deliberately out of their way to do this,
well pleased to raise a Liberal clamor against their overlarge
concessions. And so, while seeming to serve the interests of the
d'Esgrignons, they stirred up feeling against them. The treacherous de
Ronceret had it in his mind to pose as incorruptible at the right
moment over some serious charge, with public opinion to back him up.
The young Count's worst tendencies, moreover, were insidiously
encouraged by two or three young men who followed in his train, paid
court to him, won his favor, and flattered and obeyed him, with a view
to confirming his belief in a noble's supremacy; and all this at a
time when a noble's one chance of preserving his power lay in using it
with the utmost discretion for half a century to come.
Du Croisier hoped to reduce the d'Esgrignons to the last extremity of
poverty; he hoped to see their castle demolished, and their lands sold
piecemeal by auction, through the follies which this harebrained boy
was pretty certain to commit. This was as far as he went; he did not
think, with President du Ronceret, that Victurnien was likely to give
justice another kind of hold upon him. Both men found an ally for
their schemes of revenge in Victurnien's overweening vanity and love
of pleasure. President du Ronceret's son, a lad of seventeen, was
admirably fitted for the part of instigator. He was one of the Count's
companions, a new kind of spy in du Croisier's pay; du Croisier taught
him his lesson, set him to track down the noble and beautiful boy
through his better qualities, and sardonically prompted him to
encourage his victim in his worst faults. Fabien du Ronceret was a
sophisticated youth, to whom such a mystification was attractive; he
had precisely the keen brain and envious nature which finds in such a
pursuit as this the absorbing amusement which a man of an ingenious
turn lacks in the provinces.
In three years, between the ages of eighteen and one-and-twenty,
Victurnien cost poor Chesnel nearly eighty thousand francs! And this
without the knowledge of Mlle. Armande or the Marquis. More than half
of the money had been spent in buying off lawsuits; the lad's
extravagance had squandered the rest. Of the Marquis' income of ten
thousand livres, five thousand were necessary for the housekeeping;
two thousand more represented Mlle. Armande's allowance (parsimonious
though she was) and the Marquis' expenses. The handsome young
heir-presumptive, therefore, had not a hundred louis to spend. And what
sort of figure can a man make on two thousand livres? Victurnien's
tailor's bills alone absorbed his whole allowance. He had his linen,
his clothes, gloves, and perfumery from Paris. He wanted a good
English saddle-horse, a tilbury, and a second horse. M. du Croisier
had a tilbury and a thoroughbred. Was the bourgeoisie to cut out the
noblesse? Then, the young Count must have a man in the d'Esgrignon
livery. He prided himself on setting the fashion among young men in
the town and the department; he entered that world of luxuries and
fancies which suit youth and good looks and wit so well. Chesnel paid
for it all, not without using, like ancient parliaments, the right of
protest, albeit he spoke with angelic kindness.
"What a pity it is that so good a man should be so tiresome!"
Victurnien would say to himself every time that the notary staunched
some wound in his purse.
Chesnel had been left a widower, and childless; he had taken his old
master's son to fill the void in his heart. It was a pleasure to him
to watch the lad driving up the High Street, perched aloft on the
box-seat of the tilbury, whip in hand, and a rose in his button-hole,
handsome, well turned out, envied by every one.
Pressing need would bring Victurnien with uneasy eyes and coaxing
manner, but steady voice, to the modest house in the Rue du Bercail;
there had been losses at cards at the Troisvilles, or the Duc de
Verneuil's, or the prefecture, or the receiver-general's, and the
Count had come to his providence, the notary. He had only to show
himself to carry the day.
"Well, what is it, M. le Comte? What has happened?" the old man would
ask, with a tremor in his voice.
On great occasions Victurnien would sit down, assume a melancholy,
pensive expression, and submit with little coquetries of voice and
gesture to be questioned. Then when he had thoroughly roused the old
man's fears (for Chesnel was beginning to fear how such a course of
extravagance would end), he would own up to a peccadillo which a bill
for a thousand francs would absolve. Chesnel possessed a private
income of some twelve thousand livres, but the fund was not
inexhaustible. The eighty thousand francs thus squandered represented
his savings, accumulated for the day when the Marquis should send his
son to Paris, or open negotiations for a wealthy marriage.
Chesnel was clear-sighted so long as Victurnien was not there before
him. One by one he lost the illusions which the Marquis and his sister
still fondly cherished. He saw that the young fellow could not be
depended upon in the least, and wished to see him married to some
modest, sensible girl of good birth, wondering within himself how a
young man could mean so well and do so ill, for he made promises one
day only to break them all on the next.
But there is never any good to be expected of young men who confess
their sins and repent, and straightway fall into them again. A man of
strong character only confesses his faults to himself, and punishes
himself for them; as for the weak, they drop back into the old ruts
when they find that the bank is too steep to climb. The springs of
pride which lie in a great man's secret soul had been slackened in
Victurnien. With such guardians as he had, such company as he kept,
such a life as he led, he had suddenly became an enervated voluptuary
at that turning-point in his life when a man most stands in need of
the harsh discipline of misfortune and adversity which formed a Prince
Eugene, a Frederick II., a Napoleon. Chesnel saw that Victurnien
possessed that uncontrollable appetite for enjoyments which should be
the prerogative of men endowed with giant powers; the men who feel the
need of counterbalancing their gigantic labors by pleasures which
bring one-sided mortals to the pit.
At times the good man stood aghast; then, again, some profound sally,
some sign of the lad's remarkable range of intellect, would reassure
him. He would say, as the Marquis said at the rumor of some escapade,
"Boys will be boys." Chesnel had spoken to the Chevalier, lamenting
the young lord's propensity for getting into debt; but the Chevalier
manipulated his pinch of snuff, and listened with a smile of
"My dear Chesnel, just explain to me what a national debt is," he
answered. "If France has debts, egad! why should not Victurnien have
debts? At this time and at all times princes have debts, every
gentleman has debts. Perhaps you would rather that Victurnien should
bring you his savings?--Do you know that our great Richelieu (not the
Cardinal, a pitiful fellow that put nobles to death, but the
Marechal), do you know what he did once when his grandson the Prince
de Chinon, the last of the line, let him see that he had not spent his
pocket-money at the University?"
"No, M. le Chevalier."
"Oh, well; he flung the purse out of the window to a sweeper in the
courtyard, and said to his grandson, 'Then they do not teach you to be
a prince here?'"
Chesnel bent his head and made no answer. But that night, as he lay
awake, he thought that such doctrines as these were fatal in times
when there was one law for everybody, and foresaw the first beginnings
of the ruin of the d'Esgrignons.
But for these explanations which depict one side of provincial life in
the time of the Empire and the Restoration, it would not be easy to
understand the opening scene of this history, an incident which took
place in the great salon one evening towards the end of October 1822.
The card-tables were forsaken, the Collection of Antiquities--elderly
nobles, elderly countesses, young marquises, and simple baronesses
--had settled their losses and winnings. The master of the house was
pacing up and down the room, while Mlle. Armande was putting out the
candles on the card-tables. He was not taking exercise alone, the
Chevalier was with him, and the two wrecks of the eighteenth century
were talking of Victurnien. The Chevalier had undertaken to broach the
subject with the Marquis.
"Yes, Marquis," he was saying, "your son is wasting his time and his
youth; you ought to send him to court."
"I have always thought," said the Marquis, "that if my great age
prevents me from going to court--where, between ourselves, I do not
know what I should do among all these new people whom his Majesty
receives, and all that is going on there--that if I could not go
myself, I could at least send my son to present our homage to His
Majesty. The King surely would do something for the Count--give him a
company, for instance, or a place in the Household, a chance, in
short, for the boy to win his spurs. My uncle the Archbishop suffered
a cruel martyrdom; I have fought for the cause without deserting the
camp with those who thought it their duty to follow the Princes. I
held that while the King was in France, his nobles should rally round
him.--Ah! well, no one gives us a thought; a Henry IV. would have
written before now to the d'Esgrignons, 'Come to me, my friends; we
have won the day!'--After all, we are something better than the
Troisvilles, yet here are two Troisvilles made peers of France; and
another, I hear, represents the nobles in the Chamber." (He took the
upper electoral colleges for assemblies of his own order.) "Really,
they think no more of us than if we did not exist. I was waiting for
the Princes to make their journey through this part of the world; but
as the Princes do not come to us, we must go to the Princes."
"I am enchanted to learn that you think of introducing our dear
Victurnien into society," the Chevalier put in adroitly. "He ought not
to bury his talents in a hole like this town. The best fortune that he
can look for here is to come across some Norman girl" (mimicking the
accent), "country-bred, stupid, and rich. What could he make of
her?--his wife? Oh! good Lord!"
"I sincerely hope that he will defer his marriage until he has
obtained some great office or appointment under the Crown," returned
the gray-haired Marquis. "Still, there are serious difficulties in the
And these were the only difficulties which the Marquis saw at the
outset of his son's career.
"My son, the Comte d'Esgrignon, cannot make his appearance at court
like a tatterdemalion," he continued after a pause, marked by a sigh;
"he must be equipped. Alas! for these two hundred years we have had no
retainers. Ah! Chevalier, this demolition from top to bottom always
brings me back to the first hammer stroke delivered by M. de Mirabeau.
The one thing needful nowadays is money; that is all that the
Revolution has done that I can see. The King does not ask you whether
you are a descendant of the Valois or a conquerer of Gaul; he asks
whether you pay a thousand francs in tailles which nobles never used
to pay. So I cannot well send the Count to court without a matter of
twenty thousand crowns----"
"Yes," assented the Chevalier, "with that trifling sum he could cut a
"Well," said Mlle. Armande, "I have asked Chesnel to come to-night.
Would you believe it, Chevalier, ever since the day when Chesnel
proposed that I should marry that miserable du Croisier----"
"Ah! that was truly unworthy, mademoiselle!" cried the Chevalier.
"Unpardonable!" said the Marquis.
"Well, since then my brother has never brought himself to ask anything
whatsoever of Chesnel," continued Mlle. Armande.
"Of your old household servant? Why, Marquis, you would do Chesnel
honor--an honor which he would gratefully remember till his latest
"No," said the Marquis, "the thing is beneath one's dignity, it seems
"There is not much question of dignity; it is a matter of necessity,"
said the Chevalier, with the trace of a shrug.
"Never," said the Marquis, riposting with a gesture which decided the
Chevalier to risk a great stroke to open his old friend's eyes.
"Very well," he said, "since you do not know it, I will tell you
myself that Chesnel has let your son have something already, something
"My son is incapable of accepting anything whatever from Chesnel," the
Marquis broke in, drawing himself up as he spoke. "He might have come
to /you/ to ask you for twenty-five louis----"
"Something like a hundred thousand livres," said the Chevalier,
finishing his sentence.
"The Comte d'Esgrignon owes a hundred thousand livres to a Chesnel!"
cried the Marquis, with every sign of deep pain. "Oh! if he were not
an only son, he should set out to-night for Mexico with a captain's
commission. A man may be in debt to money-lenders, they charge a heavy
interest, and you are quits; that is right enough; but /Chesnel/! a man
to whom one is attached!----"
"Yes, our adorable Victurnien has run through a hundred thousand
livres, dear Marquis," resumed the Chevalier, flicking a trace of
snuff from his waistcoat; "it is not much, I know. I myself at his
age---- But, after all, let us let old memories be, Marquis. The Count
is living in the provinces; all things taken into consideration, it is
not so much amiss. He will not go far; these irregularities are common
in men who do great things afterwards----"
"And he is sleeping upstairs, without a word of this to his father,"
exclaimed the Marquis.
"Sleeping innocently as a child who has merely got five or six little
bourgeoises into trouble, and now must have duchesses," returned the
"Why, he deserves a lettre de cachet!"
"'They' have done away with lettres de cachet," said the Chevalier.
"You know what a hubbub there was when they tried to institute a law
for special cases. We could not keep the provost's courts, which
M. /de/ Bonaparte used to call commissions militaires."
"Well, well; what are we to do if our boys are wild, or turn out
scapegraces? Is there no locking them up in these days?" asked the
The Chevalier looked at the heartbroken father and lacked courage to
answer, "We shall be obliged to bring them up properly."
"And you have never said a word of this to me, Mlle. d'Esgrignon,"
added the Marquis, turning suddenly round upon Mlle. Armande. He never
addressed her as Mlle. d'Esgrignon except when he was vexed; usually
she was called "my sister."
"Why, monsieur, when a young man is full of life and spirits, and
leads an idle life in a town like this, what else can you expect?"
asked Mlle. d'Esgrignon. She could not understand her brother's anger.
"Debts! eh! why, hang it all!" added the Chevalier. "He plays cards,
he has little adventures, he shoots,--all these things are horribly
"Come," said the Marquis, "it is time to send him to the King. I will
spend to-morrow morning in writing to our kinsmen."
"I have some acquaintance with the Ducs de Navarreins, de Lenoncourt,
de Maufrigneuse, and de Chaulieu," said the Chevalier, though he knew,
as he spoke, that he was pretty thoroughly forgotten.
"My dear Chevalier, there is no need of such formalities to present a
d'Esgrignon at court," the Marquis broke in.--"A hundred thousand
livres," he muttered; "this Chesnel makes very free. This is what
comes of these accursed troubles. M. Chesnel protects my son. And now
I must ask him. . . . No, sister, you must undertake this business.
Chesnel shall secure himself for the whole amount by a mortgage on our
lands. And just give this harebrained boy a good scolding; he will end
by ruining himself if he goes on like this."
The Chevalier and Mlle. d'Esgrignon thought these words perfectly
simple and natural, absurd as they would have sounded to any other
listener. So far from seeing anything ridiculous in the speech, they
were both very much touched by a look of something like anguish in the
old noble's face. Some dark premonition seemed to weigh upon M.
d'Esgrignon at that moment, some glimmering of an insight into the
changed times. He went to the settee by the fireside and sat down,
forgetting that Chesnel would be there before long; that Chesnel, of
whom he could not bring himself to ask anything.
Just then the Marquis d'Esgrignon looked exactly as any imagination
with a touch of romance could wish. He was almost bald, but a fringe
of silken, white locks, curled at the tips, covered the back of his
head. All the pride of race might be seen in a noble forehead, such as
you may admire in a Louis XV., a Beaumarchais, a Marechal de
Richelieu, it was not the square, broad brow of the portraits of the
Marechal de Saxe; nor yet the small hard circle of Voltaire, compact
to overfulness; it was graciously rounded and finely moulded, the
temples were ivory tinted and soft; and mettle and spirit, unquenched
by age, flashed from the brilliant eyes. The Marquis had the Conde
nose and the lovable Bourbon mouth, from which, as they used to say of
the Comte d'Artois, only witty and urbane words proceed. His cheeks,
sloping rather than foolishly rounded to the chin, were in keeping
with his spare frame, thin legs, and plump hands. The strangulation
cravat at his throat was of the kind which every marquis wears in all
the portraits which adorn eighteenth century literature; it is common
alike to Saint-Preux and to Lovelace, to the elegant Montesquieu's
heroes and to Diderot's homespun characters (see the first editions of
those writers' works).
The Marquis always wore a white, gold-embroidered, high waistcoat,
with the red ribbon of a commander of the Order of St. Louis blazing
upon his breast; and a blue coat with wide skirts, and fleur-de-lys on
the flaps, which were turned back--an odd costume which the King had
adopted. But the Marquis could not bring himself to give up the
Frenchman's knee-breeches nor yet the white silk stockings or the
buckles at the knees. After six o'clock in the evening he appeared in
He read no newspapers but the Quotidienne and the Gazette de France,
two journals accused by the Constitutional press of obscurantist views
and uncounted "monarchical and religious" enormities; while the
Marquis d'Esgrignon, on the other hand, found heresies and
revolutionary doctrines in every issue. No matter to what extremes the
organs of this or that opinion may go, they will never go quite far
enough to please the purists on their own side; even as the portrayer
of this magnificent personage is pretty certain to be accused of
exaggeration, whereas he has done his best to soften down some of the
cruder tones and dim the more startling tints of the original.
The Marquis d'Esgrignon rested his elbows on his knees and leant his
head on his hands. During his meditations Mlle. Armande and the
Chevalier looked at one another without uttering the thoughts in their
minds. Was he pained by the discovery that his son's future must
depend upon his sometime land steward? Was he doubtful of the
reception awaiting the young Count? Did he regret that he had made no
preparation for launching his heir into that brilliant world of court?
Poverty had kept him in the depths of his province; how should he have
appeared at court? He sighed heavily as he raised his head.
That sigh, in those days, came from the real aristocracy all over
France; from the loyal provincial noblesse, consigned to neglect with
most of those who had drawn sword and braved the storm for the cause.
"What have the Princes done for the du Guenics, or the Fontaines, or
the Bauvans, who never submitted?" he muttered to himself. "They fling
miserable pensions to the men who fought most bravely, and give them a
royal lieutenancy in a fortress somewhere on the outskirts of the
Evidently the Marquis doubted the reigning dynasty. Mlle. d'Esgrignon
was trying to reassure her brother as to the prospects of the journey,
when a step outside on the dry narrow footway gave them notice of
Chesnel's coming. In another moment Chesnel appeared; Josephin, the
Count's gray-aired valet, admitted the notary without announcing him.
"Chesnel, my boy----" (Chesnel was a white-haired man of sixty-nine,
with a square-jawed, venerable countenance; he wore knee-breeches,
ample enough to fill several chapters of dissertation in the manner
of Sterne, ribbed stockings, shoes with silver clasps, an
ecclesiastical-looking coat and a high waistcoat of scholastic cut.)
"Chesnel, my boy, it was very presumptuous of you to lend money to the
Comte d'Esgrignon! If I repaid you at once and we never saw each other
again, it would be no more than you deserve for giving wings to his
There was a pause, a silence such as there falls at court when the
King publicly reprimands a courtier. The old notary looked humble and
"I am anxious about that boy, Chesnel," continued the Marquis in a
kindly tone; "I should like to send him to Paris to serve His Majesty.
Make arrangements with my sister for his suitable appearance at
court.--And we will settle accounts----"
The Marquis looked grave as he left the room with a friendly gesture
of farewell to Chesnel.
"I thank M. le Marquis for all his goodness," returned the old man,
who still remained standing.
Mlle. Armande rose to go to the door with her brother; she had rung
the bell, old Josephin was in readiness to light his master to his
"Take a seat, Chesnel," said the lady, as she returned, and with
womanly tact she explained away and softened the Marquis' harshness.
And yet beneath that harshness Chesnel saw a great affection. The
Marquis' attachment for his old servant was something of the same
order as a man's affection for his dog; he will fight any one who
kicks the animal, the dog is like a part of his existence, a something
which, if not exactly himself, represents him in that which is nearest
and dearest--his sensibilities.
"It is quite time that M. le Comte should be sent away from the town,
mademoiselle," he said sententiously.
"Yes," returned she. "Has he been indulging in some new escapade?"
"Well, why do you blame him?"
"I am not blaming him, mademoiselle. No, I am not blaming him. I am
very far from blaming him. I will even say that I shall never blame
him, whatever he may do."
There was a pause. The Chevalier, nothing if not quick to take in a
situation, began to yawn like a sleep-ridden mortal. Gracefully he
made his excuses and went, with as little mind to sleep as to go and
drown himself. The imp Curiosity kept the Chevalier wide awake, and
with airy fingers plucked away the cotton wool from his ears.
"Well, Chesnel, is it something new?" Mlle. Armande began anxiously.
"Yes, things that cannot be told to M. le Marquis; he would drop down
in an apoplectic fit."
"Speak out," she said. With her beautiful head leant on the back of
her low chair, and her arms extended listlessly by her side, she
looked as if she were waiting passively for her deathblow.
"Mademoiselle, M. le Comte, with all his cleverness, is a plaything in
the hands of mean creatures, petty natures on the lookout for a
crushing revenge. They want to ruin us and bring us low! There is the
President of the Tribunal, M. de Ronceret; he has, as you know, a very
great notion of his descent----"
"His grandfather was an attorney," interposed Mlle. Armande.
"I know he was. And for that reason you have not received him; nor
does he go to M. de Troisville's, nor to M. le Duc de Verneuil's, nor
to the Marquis de Casteran's; but he is one of the pillars of du
Croisier's salon. Your nephew may rub shoulders with young M. Fabien
du Ronceret without condescending too far, for he must have companions
of his own age. Well and good. That young fellow is at the bottom of
all M. le Comte's follies; he and two or three of the rest of them
belong to the other side, the side of M. le Chevalier's enemy, who
does nothing but breathe threats of vengeance against you and all the
nobles together. They all hope to ruin you through your nephew. The
ringleader of the conspiracy is this sycophant of a du Croisier, the
pretended Royalist. Du Croisier's wife, poor thing, knows nothing
about it; you know her, I should have heard of it before this if she
had ears to hear evil. For some time these wild young fellows were not
in the secret, nor was anybody else; but the ringleaders let something
drop in jest, and then the fools got to know about it, and after the
Count's recent escapades they let fall some words while they were
drunk. And those words were carried to me by others who are sorry to
see such a fine, handsome, noble, charming lad ruining himself with
pleasure. So far people feel sorry for him; before many days are over
they will--I am afraid to say what----"
"They will despise him; say it out, Chesnel!" Mlle. Armande cried
"Ah! How can you keep the best people in the town from finding out
faults in their neighbors? They do not know what to do with themselves
from morning to night. And so M. le Comte's losses at play are all
reckoned up. Thirty thousand francs have taken flight during these two
months, and everybody wonders where he gets the money. If they mention
it when I am present, I just call them to order. Ah! but--'Do you
suppose' (I told them this morning), 'do you suppose that if the
d'Esgrignon family have lost their manorial rights, that therefore
they have been robbed of their hoard of treasure? The young Count has
a right to do as he pleases; and so long as he does not owe you a
half-penny, you have no right to say a word.'"
Mlle, Armande held out her hand, and the notary kissed it
"Good Chesnel! . . . But, my friend, how shall we find the money for
this journey? Victurnien must appear as befits his rank at court."
"Oh! I have borrowed money on Le Jard, mademoiselle."
"What? You have nothing left! Ah, heaven! what can we do to reward
"You can take the hundred thousand francs which I hold at your
disposal. You can understand that the loan was negotiated in
confidence, so that it might not reflect on you; for it is known in
the town that I am closely connected with the d'Esgrignon family."
Tears came into Mlle. Armande's eyes. Chesnel saw them, took a fold of
the noble woman's dress in his hands, and kissed it.
"Never mind," he said, "a lad must sow his wild oats. In great salons
in Paris his boyish ideas will take a new turn. And, really, though
our old friends here are the worthiest folk in the world, and no one
could have nobler hearts than they, they are not amusing. If M. le
Comte wants amusement, he is obliged to look below his rank, and he
will end by getting into low company."
Next day the old traveling coach saw the light, and was sent to be put
in repair. In a solemn interview after breakfast, the hope of the
house was duly informed of his father's intentions regarding him--he
was to go to court and ask to serve His Majesty. He would have time
during the journey to make up his mind about his career. The navy or
the army, the privy council, an embassy, or the Royal Household,--all
were open to a d'Esgrignon, a d'Esgrignon had only to choose. The King
would certainly look favorably upon the d'Esgrignons, because they had
asked nothing of him, and had sent the youngest representative of
their house to receive the recognition of Majesty.
But young d'Esgrignon, with all his wild pranks, had guessed
instinctively what society in Paris meant, and formed his own opinions
of life. So when they talked of his leaving the country and the
paternal roof, he listened with a grave countenance to his revered
parent's lecture, and refrained from giving him a good deal of
information in reply. As, for instance, that young men no longer went
into the army or the navy as they used to do; that if a man had a mind
to be a second lieutenant in a cavalry regiment without passing
through a special training in the Ecoles, he must first serve in the
Pages; that sons of the greatest houses went exactly like commoners to
Saint-Cyr and the Ecole polytechnique, and took their chances of being
beaten by base blood. If he had enlightened his relatives on these
points, funds might not have been forthcoming for a stay in Paris; so
he allowed his father and Aunt Armande to believe that he would be
permitted a seat in the King's carriages, that he must support his
dignity at court as the d'Esgrignon of the time, and rub shoulders
with great lords of the realm.
It grieved the Marquis that he could send but one servant with his
son; but he gave him his own valet Josephin, a man who can be trusted
to take care of his young master, and to watch faithfully over his
interests. The poor father must do without Josephin, and hope to
replace him with a young lad.
"Remember that you are a Carol, my boy," he said; "remember that you
come of an unalloyed descent, and that your scutcheon bears the motto
Cil est nostre; with such arms you may hold your head high everywhere,
and aspire to queens. Render grace to your father, as I to mine. We
owe it to the honor of our ancestors, kept stainless until now, that
we can look all men in the face, and need bend the knee to none save a
mistress, the King, and God. This is the greatest of your privileges."
Chesnel, good man, was breakfasting with the family. He took no part
in counsels based on heraldry, nor in the inditing of letters
addressed to divers mighty personages of the day; but he had spent the
night in writing to an old friend of his, one of the oldest
established notaries of Paris. Without this letter it is not possible
to understand Chesnel's real and assumed fatherhood. It almost recalls
Daedalus' address to Icarus; for where, save in old mythology, can you
look for comparisons worthy of this man of antique mould?
"MY DEAR AND ESTIMABLE SORBIER,--I remember with no little
pleasure that I made my first campaign in our honorable profession
under your father, and that you had a liking for me, poor little
clerk that I was. And now I appeal to old memories of the days
when we worked in the same office, old pleasant memories for our
hearts, to ask you to do me the one service that I have ever asked
of you in the course of our long lives, crossed as they have been
by political catastrophes, to which, perhaps, I owe it that I have
the honor to be your colleague. And now I ask this service of you,
my friend, and my white hairs will be brought with sorrow to the
grave if you should refuse my entreaty. It is no question of
myself or of mine, Sorbier, for I lost poor Mme. Chesnel, and I
have no child of my own. Something more to me than my own family
(if I had one) is involved--it is the Marquis d'Esgrignon's only
son. I have had the honor to be the Marquis' land steward ever
since I left the office to which his father sent me at his own
expense, with the idea of providing for me. The house which
nurtured me has passed through all the troubles of the Revolution.
I have managed to save some of their property; but what is it,
after all, in comparison with the wealth that they have lost? I
cannot tell you, Sorbier, how deeply I am attached to the great
house, which has been all but swallowed up under my eyes by the
abyss of time. M. le Marquis was proscribed, and his lands
confiscated, he was getting on in years, he had no child.
Misfortunes upon misfortunes! Then M. le Marquis married, and his
wife died when the young Count was born, and to-day this noble,
dear, and precious child is all the life of the d'Esgrignon
family; the fate of the house hangs upon him. He has got into debt
here with amusing himself. What else should he do in the provinces
with an allowance of a miserable hundred louis? Yes, my friend, a
hundred louis, the great house has come to this.
"In this extremity his father thinks it necessary to send the
Count to Paris to ask for the King's favor at court. Paris is a
very dangerous place for a lad; if he is to keep steady there, he
must have the grain of sense which makes notaries of us. Besides,
I should be heartbroken to think of the poor boy living amid such
hardships as we have known.--Do you remember the pleasure with
which we spent a day and a night there waiting to see The Marriage
of Figaro? Oh, blind that we were!--We were happy and poor, but a
noble cannot be happy in poverty. A noble in want--it is a thing
against nature! Ah! Sorbier, when one has known the satisfaction
of propping one of the grandest genealogical trees in the kingdom
in its fall, it is so natural to interest oneself in it and to
grow fond of it, and love it and water it and look to see it
blossom. So you will not be surprised at so many precautions on my
part; you will not wonder when I beg the help of your lights, so
that all may go well with our young man.
"Keep yourself informed of his movements and doings, of the
company which he keeps, and watch over his connections with women.
M. le Chevalier says that an opera dancer often costs less than a
court lady. Obtain information on that point and let me know. If
you are too busy, perhaps Mme. Sorbier might know what becomes of
the young man, and where he goes. The idea of playing the part of
guardian angel to such a noble and charming boy might have
attractions for her. God will remember her for accepting the
sacred trust. Perhaps when you see M. le Comte Victurnien, her
heart may tremble at the thought of all the dangers awaiting him
in Paris; he is very young, and handsome; clever, and at the same
time disposed to trust others. If he forms a connection with some
designing woman, Mme. Sorbier could counsel him better than you
yourself could do. The old man-servant who is with him can tell
you many things; sound Josephin, I have told him to go to you in
"But why should I say more? We once were clerks together, and a
pair of scamps; remember our escapades, and be a little bit young
again, my old friend, in your dealings with him. The sixty
thousand francs will be remitted to you in the shape of a bill on
the Treasury by a gentlemen who is going to Paris," and so forth.
If the old couple to whom this epistle was addressed had followed out
Chesnel's instructions, they would have been compelled to take three
private detectives into their pay. And yet there was ample wisdom
shown in Chesnel's choice of a depositary. A banker pays money to any
one accredited to him so long as the money lasts; whereas, Victurnien
was obliged, every time that he was in want of money, to make a
personal visit to the notary, who was quite sure to use the right of
Victurnien heard that he was to be allowed two thousand francs every
month, and thought that he betrayed his joy. He knew nothing of Paris.
He fancied that he could keep up princely state on such a sum.
Next day he started on his journey. All the benedictions of the
Collection of Antiquities went with him; he was kissed by the
dowagers; good wishes were heaped on his head; his old father, his
aunt, and Chesnel went with him out of the town, tears filling the
eyes of all three. The sudden departure supplied material for
conversation for several evenings; and what was more, it stirred the
rancorous minds of the salon du Croisier to the depths. The
forage-contractor, the president, and others who had vowed to ruin
the d'Esgrignons, saw their prey escaping out of their hands. They
had based their schemes of revenge on a young man's follies, and now
he was beyond their reach.
The tendency in human nature, which often gives a bigot a rake for a
daughter, and makes a frivolous woman the mother of a narrow pietist;
that rule of contraries, which, in all probability, is the "resultant"
of the law of similarities, drew Victurnien to Paris by a desire to
which he must sooner or later have yielded. Brought up as he had been
in the old-fashioned provincial house, among the quiet, gentle faces
that smiled upon him, among sober servants attached to the family, and
surroundings tinged with a general color of age, the boy had only seen
friends worthy of respect. All of those about him, with the exception
of the Chevalier, had example of venerable age, were elderly men and
women, sedate of manner, decorous and sententious of speech. He had
been petted by those women in gray gowns and embroidered mittens
described by Blondet. The antiquated splendors of his father's house
were as little calculated as possible to suggest frivolous thoughts;
and lastly, he had been educated by a sincerely religious abbe,
possessed of all the charm of old age, which has dwelt in two
centuries, and brings to the Present its gifts of the dried roses of
experience, the faded flowers of the old customs of its youth.
Everything should have combined to fashion Victurnien to serious
habits; his whole surroundings from childhood bade him continue the
glory of a historic name, by taking his life as something noble and
great; and yet Victurnien listened to dangerous promptings.
For him, his noble birth was a stepping-stone which raised him above
other men. He felt that the idol of Noblesse, before which they burned
incense at home, was hollow; he had come to be one of the commonest as
well as one of the worst types from a social point of view--a
consistent egoist. The aristocratic cult of the /ego/ simply taught him
to follow his own fancies; he had been idolized by those who had the
care of him in childhood, and adored by the companions who shared in
his boyish escapades, and so he had formed a habit of looking and
judging everything as it affected his own pleasure; he took it as a
matter of course when good souls saved him from the consequences of
his follies, a piece of mistaken kindness which could only lead to his
ruin. Victurnien's early training, noble and pious though it was, had
isolated him too much. He was out of the current of the life of the
time, for the life of a provincial town is certainly not in the main
current of the age; Victurnien's true destiny lifted him above it. He
had learned to think of an action, not as it affected others, nor
relatively, but absolutely from his own point of view. Like despots,
he made the law to suit the circumstance, a system which works in the
lives of prodigal sons the same confusion which fancy brings into art.
Victurnien was quick-sighted, he saw clearly and without illusion, but
he acted on impulse, and unwisely. An indefinable flaw of character,
often seen in young men, but impossible to explain, led him to will
one thing and do another. In spite of an active mind, which showed
itself in unexpected ways, the senses had but to assert themselves,
and the darkened brain seemed to exist no longer. He might have
astonished wise men; he was capable of setting fools agape. His
desires, like a sudden squall of bad weather, overclouded all the
clear and lucid spaces of his brain in a moment; and then, after the
dissipations which he could not resist, he sank, utterly exhausted in
body, heart, and mind, into a collapsed condition bordering upon
imbecility. Such a character will drag a man down into the mire if he
is left to himself, or bring him to the highest heights of political
power if he has some stern friend to keep him in hand. Neither
Chesnel, nor the lad's father, nor Aunt Armande had fathomed the
depths of a nature so nearly akin on many sides to the poetic
temperament, yet smitten with a terrible weakness at its core.
By the time the old town lay several miles away, Victurnien felt not
the slightest regret; he thought no more about the father, who had
loved ten generations in his son, nor of the aunt, and her almost
insane devotion. He was looking forward to Paris with vehement
ill-starred longings; in thought he had lived in that fairyland, it
had been the background of his brightest dreams. He imagined that he
would be first in Paris, as he had been in the town and the department
where his father's name was potent; but it was vanity, not pride, that
filled his soul, and in his dreams his pleasures were to be magnified
by all the greatness of Paris. The distance was soon crossed. The
traveling coach, like his own thoughts, left the narrow horizon of the
province for the vast world of the great city, without a break in the
journey. He stayed in the Rue de Richelieu, in a handsome hotel close
to the boulevard, and hastened to take possession of Paris as a
famished horse rushes into a meadow.
He was not long in finding out the difference between country and
town, and was rather surprised than abashed by the change. His mental
quickness soon discovered how small an entity he was in the midst of
this all-comprehending Babylon; how insane it would be to attempt to
stem the torrent of new ideas and new ways. A single incident was
enough. He delivered his father's letter of introduction to the Duc de
Lenoncourt, a noble who stood high in favor with the King. He saw the
duke in his splendid mansion, among surroundings befitting his rank.
Next day he met him again. This time the Peer of France was lounging
on foot along the boulevard, just like any ordinary mortal, with an
umbrella in his hand; he did not even wear the Blue Ribbon, without
which no knight of the order could have appeared in public in other
times. And, duke and peer and first gentleman of the bedchamber though
he was, M. de Lenoncourt, in spite of his high courtesy, could not
repress a smile as he read his relative's letter; and that smile told
Victurnien that the Collection of Antiquities and the Tuileries were
separated by more than sixty leagues of road; the distance of several
centuries lay between them.
The names of the families grouped about the throne are quite different
in each successive reign, and the characters change with the names. It
would seem that, in the sphere of court, the same thing happens over
and over again in each generation; but each time there is a quite
different set of personages. If history did not prove that this is so,
it would seem incredible. The prominent men at the court of Louis
XVIII., for instance, had scarcely any connection with the
Rivieres, Blacas, d'Avarays, Vitrolles, d'Autichamps, Pasquiers,
Larochejaqueleins, Decazes, Dambrays, Laines, de Villeles, La
Bourdonnayes, and others who shone at the court of Louis XV. Compare
the courtiers of Henri IV. with those of Louis XIV.; you will hardly
find five great families of the former time still in existence. The
nephew of the great Richelieu was a very insignificant person at the
court of Louis XIV.; while His Majesty's favorite, Villeroi, was the
grandson of a secretary ennobled by Charles IX. And so it befell that
the d'Esgrignons, all but princes under the Valois, and all-powerful
in the time of Henri IV., had no fortune whatever at the court of
Louis XVIII., which gave them not so much as a thought. At this day
there are names as famous as those of royal houses--the Foix-Graillys,
for instance, or the d'Herouvilles--left to obscurity tantamount to
extinction for want of money, the one power of the time.
All which things Victurnien beheld entirely from his own point of
view; he felt the equality that he saw in Paris as a personal wrong.
The monster Equality was swallowing down the last fragments of social
distinction in the Restoration. Having made up his mind on this head,
he immediately proceeded to try to win back his place with such
dangerous, if blunted weapons, as the age left to the noblesse. It is
an expensive matter to gain the attention of Paris. To this end,
Victurnien adopted some of the ways then in vogue. He felt that it was
a necessity to have horses and fine carriages, and all the accessories
of modern luxury; he felt, in short, "that a man must keep abreast of
the times," as de Marsay said--de Marsay, the first dandy that he came
across in the first drawing-room to which he was introduced. For his
misfortune, he fell in with a set of roues, with de Marsay, de
Ronquerolles, Maxime de Trailles, des Lupeaulx, Rastignac,
Ajuda-Pinto, Beaudenord, de la Roche-Hugon, de Manerville, and the
Vandenesses, whom he met wherever he went, and a great many houses
were open to a young man with his ancient name and reputation for
wealth. He went to the Marquise d'Espard's, to the Duchesses de
Grandlieu, de Carigliano, and de Chaulieu, to the Marquises
d'Aiglemont and de Listomere, to Mme. de Serizy's, to the Opera, to
the embassies and elsewhere. The Faubourg Saint-Germain has its
provincial genealogies at its fingers' ends; a great name once
recognized and adopted therein is a passport which opens many a door
that will scarcely turn on its hinges for unknown names or the lions
of a lower rank.
Victurnien found his relatives both amiable and ready to welcome him
so long as he did not appear as a suppliant; he saw at once that the
surest way of obtaining nothing was to ask for something. At Paris, if
the first impulse moves people to protect, second thoughts (which last
a good deal longer) impel them to despise the protege. Independence,
vanity, and pride, all the young Count's better and worse feelings
combined, led him, on the contrary, to assume an aggressive attitude.
And therefore the Ducs de Verneuil, de Lenoncourt, de Chaulieu, de
Navarreins, d'Herouville, de Grandlieu, and de Maufrigneuse, the
Princes de Cadignan and de Blamont-Chauvry, were delighted to present
the charming survivor of the wreck of an ancient family at court.
Victurnien went to the Tuileries in a splendid carriage with his
armorial bearings on the panels; but his presentation to His Majesty
made it abundantly clear to him that the people occupied the royal
mind so much that his nobility was like to be forgotten. The restored
dynasty, moreover, was surrounded by triple ranks of eligible old men
and gray-headed courtiers; the young noblesse was reduced to a cipher,
and this Victurnien guessed at once. He saw that there was no suitable
place for him at court, nor in the government, nor the army, nor,
indeed, anywhere else. So he launched out into the world of pleasure.
Introduced at the Elyess-Bourbon, at the Duchesse d'Angouleme's, at
the Pavillon Marsan, he met on all sides with the surface civilities
due to the heir of an old family, not so old but it could be called to
mind by the sight of a living member. And, after all, it was not a
small thing to be remembered. In the distinction with which Victurnien
was honored lay the way to the peerage and a splendid marriage; he had
taken the field with a false appearance of wealth, and his vanity
would not allow him to declare his real position. Besides, he had been
so much complimented on the figure that he made, he was so pleased
with his first success, that, like many other young men, he felt
ashamed to draw back. He took a suite of rooms in the Rue du Bac, with
stables and a complete equipment for the fashionable life to which he
had committed himself. These preliminaries cost him fifty thousand
francs, which money, moreover, the young gentleman managed to draw in
spite of all Chesnel's wise precautions, thanks to a series of
Chesnel's letter certainly reached his friend's office, but Maitre
Sorbier was dead; and Mme. Sorbier, a matter-of-fact person, seeing it
was a business letter, handed it on to her husband's successor. Maitre
Cardot, the new notary, informed the young Count that a draft on the
Treasury made payable to the deceased would be useless; and by way of
reply to the letter, which had cost the old provincial notary so much
thought, Cardot despatched four lines intended not to reach Chesnel's
heart, but to produce the money. Chesnel made the draft payable to
Sorbier's young successor; and the latter, feeling but little
inclination to adopt his correspondent's sentimentality, was delighted
to put himself at the Count's orders, and gave Victurnien as much
money as he wanted.
Now those who know what life in Paris means, know that fifty thousand
francs will not go very far in furniture, horses, carriages, and
elegance generally; but it must be borne in mind that Victurnien
immediately contracted some twenty thousand francs' worth of debts
besides, and his tradespeople at first were not at all anxious to be
paid, for our young gentleman's fortune had been prodigiously
increased, partly by rumor, partly by Josephin, that Chesnel in
Victurnien had not been in town a month before he was obliged to
repair to his man of business for ten thousand francs; he had only
been playing whist with the Ducs de Navarreins, de Chaulieu, and de
Lenoncourt, and now and again at his club. He had begun by winning
some thousands of francs but pretty soon lost five or six thousand,
which brought home to him the necessity of a purse for play.
Victurnien had the spirit that gains goodwill everywhere, and puts a
young man of a great family on a level with the very highest. He was
not merely admitted at once into the band of patrician youth, but was
even envied by the rest. It was intoxicating to him to feel that he
was envied, nor was he in this mood very likely to think of reform.
Indeed, he had completely lost his head. He would not think of the
means; he dipped into his money-bags as if they could be refilled
indefinitely; he deliberately shut his eyes to the inevitable results
of the system. In that dissipated set, in the continual whirl of
gaiety, people take the actors in their brilliant costumes as they
find them, no one inquires whether a man can afford to make the figure
he does, there is nothing in worse taste than inquiries as to ways and
means. A man ought to renew his wealth perpetually, and as Nature does
--below the surface and out of sight. People talk if somebody comes to
grief; they joke about a newcomer's fortune till their minds are set
at rest, and at this they draw the line. Victurnien d'Esgrignon, with
all the Faubourg Saint-Germain to back him, with all his protectors
exaggerating the amount of his fortune (were it only to rid themselves
of responsibility), and magnifying his possessions in the most refined
and well-bred way, with a hint or a word; with all these advantages
--to repeat--Victurnien was, in fact, an eligible Count. He was
handsome, witty, sound in politics; his father still possessed the
ancestral castle and the lands of the marquisate. Such a young fellow
is sure of an admirable reception in houses where there are
marriageable daughters, fair but portionless partners at dances, and
young married women who find that time hangs heavy on their hands. So
the world, smiling, beckoned him to the foremost benches in its booth;
the seats reserved for marquises are still in the same place in Paris;
and if the names are changed, the things are the same as ever.
In the most exclusive circle of society in the Faubourg Saint-Germain,
Victurnien found the Chevalier's double in the person of the Vidame de
Pamiers. The Vidame was a Chevalier de Valois raised to the tenth
power, invested with all the prestige of wealth, enjoying all the
advantages of high position. The dear Vidame was a repositary for
everybody's secrets, and the gazette of the Faubourg besides;
nevertheless, he was discreet, and, like other gazettes, only said
things that might safely be published. Again Victurnien listened to
the Chevalier's esoteric doctrines. The Vidame told young d'Esgrignon,
without mincing matters, to make conquests among women of quality,
supplementing the advice with anecdotes from his own experience. The
Vicomte de Pamiers, it seemed, had permitted himself much that it
would serve no purpose to relate here; so remote was it all from our
modern manners, in which soul and passion play so large a part, that
nobody would believe it. But the excellent Vidame did more than this.
"Dine with me at a tavern to-morrow," said he, by way of conclusion.
"We will digest our dinner at the Opera, and afterwards I will take
you to a house where several people have the greatest wish to meet
The Vidame gave a delightful little dinner at the Rocher de Cancale;
three guests only were asked to meet Victurnien--de Marsay, Rastignac,
and Blondet. Emile Blondet, the young Count's fellow-townsman, was a
man of letters on the outskirts of society to which he had been
introduced by a charming woman from the same province. This was one of
the Vicomte de Troisville's daughters, now married to the Comte de
Montcornet, one of those of Napoleon's generals who went over to the
Bourbons. The Vidame held that a dinner-party of more than six persons
was beneath contempt. In that case, according to him, there was an end
alike of cookery and conversation, and a man could not sip his wine in
a proper frame of mind.
"I have not yet told you, my dear boy, where I mean to take you
to-night," he said, taking Victurnien's hands and tapping on them.
"You are going to see Mlle. des Touches; all the pretty women with any
pretensions to wit will be at her house en petit comite. Literature,
art, poetry, any sort of genius, in short, is held in great esteem
there. It is one of our old-world bureaux d'esprit, with a veneer of
monarchical doctrine, the livery of this present age."
"It is sometimes as tiresome and tedious there as a pair of new boots,
but there are women with whom you cannot meet anywhere else," said de
"If all the poets who went there to rub up their muse were like our
friend here," said Rastignac, tapping Blondet familiarly on the
shoulder, "we should have some fun. But a plague of odes, and ballads,
and driveling meditations, and novels with wide margins, pervades the
sofas and the atmosphere."
"I don't dislike them," said de Marsay, "so long as they corrupt
girls' minds, and don't spoil women."
"Gentlemen," smiled Blondet, "you are encroaching on my field of
"You need not talk. You have robbed us of the most charming woman in
the world, you lucky rogue; we may be allowed to steal your less
brilliant ideas," cried Rastignac.
"Yes, he is a lucky rascal," said the Vidame, and he twitched
Blondet's ear. "But perhaps Victurnien here will be luckier still this
"/Already/!" exclaimed de Marsay. "Why, he only came here a month ago;
he has scarcely had time to shake the dust of his old manor house off
his feet, to wipe off the brine in which his aunt kept him preserved;
he has only just set up a decent horse, a tilbury in the latest style,
"No, no, not a groom," interrupted Rastignac; "he has some sort of an
agricultural laborer that he brought with him 'from his place.'
Buisson, who understands a livery as well as most, declared that the
man was physically incapable of wearing a jacket."
"I will tell you what, you ought to have modeled yourself on
Beaudenord," the Vidame said seriously. "He has this advantage over
all of you, my young friends, he has a genuine specimen of the English
"Just see, gentlemen, what the noblesse have come to in France!" cried
Victurnien. "For them the one important thing is to have a tiger, a
thoroughbred, and baubles----"
"Bless me!" said Blondet. "'This gentleman's good sense at times
appalls me.'--Well, yes, young moralist, you nobles have come to that.
You have not even left to you that lustre of lavish expenditure for
which the dear Vidame was famous fifty years ago. We revel on a second
floor in the Rue Montorgueil. There are no more wars with the
Cardinal, no Field of the Cloth of Gold. You, Comte d'Esgrignon, in
short, are supping in the company of one Blondet, younger son of a
miserable provincial magistrate, with whom you would not shake hands
down yonder; and in ten years' time you may sit beside him among peers
of the realm. Believe in yourself after that, if you can."
"Ah, well," said Rastignac, "we have passed from action to thought,
from brute force to force of intellect, we are talking----"
"Let us not talk of our reverses," protested the Vidame; "I have made
up my mind to die merrily. If our friend here has not a tiger as yet,
he comes of a race of lions, and can dispense with one."
"He cannot do without a tiger," said Blondet; "he is too newly come to
"His elegance may be new as yet," returned de Marsay, "but we are
adopting it. He is worthy of us, he understands his age, he has
brains, he is nobly born and gently bred; we are going to like him,
and serve him, and push him----"
"Whither?" inquired Blondet.
"Inquisitive soul!" said Rastignac.
"With whom will he take up to-night?" de Marsay asked.
"With a whole seraglio," said the Vidame.
"Plague take it! What can we have done that the dear Vidame is
punishing us by keeping his word to the infanta? I should be pitiable
indeed if I did not know her----"
"And I was once a coxcomb even as he," said the Vidame, indicating de
The conversation continued pitched in the same key, charmingly
scandalous, and agreeably corrupt. The dinner went off very
pleasantly. Rastignac and de Marsay went to the Opera with the Vidame
and Victurnien, with a view to following them afterwards to Mlle. des
Touches' salon. And thither, accordingly, this pair of rakes betook
themselves, calculating that by that time the tragedy would have been
read; for of all things to be taken between eleven and twelve o'clock
at night, a tragedy in their opinion was the most unwholesome. They
went to keep a watch on Victurnien and to embarrass him, a piece of
schoolboys's mischief embittered by a jealous dandy's spite. But
Victurnien was gifted with that page's effrontery which is a great
help to ease of manner; and Rastignac, watching him as he made his
entrance, was surprised to see how quickly he caught the tone of the
"That young d'Esgrignon will go far, will he not?" he said, addressing
"That is as may be," returned de Marsay, "but he is in a fair way."
The Vidame introduced his young friend to one of the most amiable and
frivolous duchesses of the day, a lady whose adventures caused an
explosion five years later. Just then, however, she was in the full
blaze of her glory; she had been suspected, it is true, of equivocal
conduct; but suspicion, while it is still suspicion and not proof,
marks a woman out with the kind of distinction which slander gives to
a man. Nonentities are never slandered; they chafe because they are
left in peace. This woman was, in fact, the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse,
a daughter of the d'Uxelles; her father-in-law was still alive; she
was not to be the Princesse de Cadignan for some years to come. A
friend of the Duchesse de Langeais and the Vicomtesse de Beauseant,
two glories departed, she was likewise intimate with the Marquise
d'Espard, with whom she disputed her fragile sovereignty as queen of
fashion. Great relations lent her countenance for a long while, but
the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse was one of those women who, in some way,
nobody knows how, or why, or where, will spend the rents of all the
lands of earth, and of the moon likewise, if they were not out of
reach. The general outline of her character was scarcely known as yet;
de Marsay, and de Marsay only, really had read her. That redoubtable
dandy now watched the Vidame de Pamiers' introduction of his young
friend to that lovely woman, and bent over to say in Rastignac's ear:
"My dear fellow, he will go up /whizz/! like a rocket, and come down
like a stick," an atrociously vulgar saying which was remarkably
The Duchesse de Maufrigneuse had lost her heart to Victurnien after
first giving her mind to a serious study of him. Any lover who should
have caught the glance by which she expressed her gratitude to the
Vidame might well have been jealous of such friendship. Women are like
horses let loose on a steppe when they feel, as the Duchess felt with
the Vidame de Pamiers, that the ground is safe; at such moments they
are themselves; perhaps it pleases them to give, as it were, samples
of their tenderness in intimacy in this way. It was a guarded glance,
nothing was lost between eye and eye; there was no possibility of
reflection in any mirror. Nobody intercepted it.
"See how she has prepared herself," Rastignac said, turning to de
Marsay. "What a virginal toilette; what swan's grace in that
snow-white throat of hers! How white her gown is, and she is wearing
a sash like a little girl; she looks round like a madonna inviolate.
Who would think that you had passed that way?"
"The very reason why she looks as she does," returned de Marsay, with
a triumphant air.
The two young men exchanged a smile. Mme. de Maufrigneuse saw the
smile and guessed at their conversation, and gave the pair a broadside
of her eyes, an art acquired by Frenchwomen since the Peace, when
Englishwomen imported it into this country, together with the shape of
their silver plate, their horses and harness, and the piles of insular
ice which impart a refreshing coolness to the atmosphere of any room
in which a certain number of British females are gathered together.
The young men grew serious as a couple of clerks at the end of a
homily from headquarters before the receipt of an expected bonus.
The Duchess when she lost her heart to Victurnien had made up her mind
to play the part of romantic Innocence, a role much understudied
subsequently by other women, for the misfortune of modern youth. Her
Grace of Maufrigneuse had just come out as an angel at a moment's
notice, precisely as she meant to turn to literature and science
somewhere about her fortieth year instead of taking to devotion. She
made a point of being like nobody else. Her parts, her dresses, her
caps, opinions, toilettes, and manner of acting were all entirely new
and original. Soon after her marriage, when she was scarcely more than
a girl, she had played the part of a knowing and almost depraved
woman; she ventured on risky repartees with shallow people, and
betrayed her ignorance to those who knew better. As the date of that
marriage made it impossible to abstract one little year from her age
without the knowledge of Time, she had taken it into her head to be
immaculate. She scarcely seemed to belong to earth; she shook out her
wide sleeves as if they had been wings. Her eyes fled to heaven at too
warm a glance, or word, or thought.
There is a madonna painted by Piola, the great Genoese painter, who
bade fair to bring out a second edition of Raphael till his career was
cut short by jealousy and murder; his madonna, however, you may dimly
discern through a pane of glass in a little street in Genoa.
A more chaste-eyed madonna than Piola's does not exist but compared
with Mme. de Maufrigneuse, that heavenly creature was a Messalina.
Women wondered among themselves how such a giddy young thing had been
transformed by a change of dress into the fair veiled seraph who
seemed (to use an expression now in vogue) to have a soul as white as
new fallen snow on the highest Alpine crests. How had she solved in
such short space the Jesuitical problem how to display a bosom whiter
than her soul by hiding it in gauze? How could she look so ethereal
while her eyes drooped so murderously? Those almost wanton glances
seemed to give promise of untold languorous delight, while by an
ascetic's sigh of aspiration after a better life the mouth appeared to
add that none of those promises would be fulfilled. Ingenuous youths
(for there were a few to be found in the Guards of that day) privately
wondered whether, in the most intimate moments, it were possible to
speak familiarly to this White Lady, this starry vapor slidden down
from the Milky Way. This system, which answered completely for some
years at a stretch, was turned to good account by women of fashion,
whose breasts were lined with a stout philosophy, for they could cloak
no inconsiderable exactions with these little airs from the sacristy.
Not one of the celestial creatures but was quite well aware of the
possibilities of less ethereal love which lay in the longing of every
well-conditioned male to recall such beings to earth. It was a fashion
which permitted them to abide in a semi-religious, semi-Ossianic
empyrean; they could, and did, ignore all the practical details of
daily life, a short and easy method of disposing of many questions. De
Marsay, foreseeing the future developments of the system, added a last
word, for he saw that Rastignac was jealous of Victurnien.
"My boy," said he, "stay as you are. Our Nucingen will make your
fortune, whereas the Duchess would ruin you. She is too expensive."
Rastignac allowed de Marsay to go without asking further questions. He
knew Paris. He knew that the most refined and noble and disinterested
of women--a woman who cannot be induced to accept anything but a
bouquet--can be as dangerous an acquaintance for a young man as any
opera girl of former days. As a matter of fact, the opera girl is an
almost mythical being. As things are now at the theatres, dancers and
actresses are about as amusing as a declaration of the rights of
woman, they are puppets that go abroad in the morning in the character
of respected and respectable mothers of families, and act men's parts
in tight-fitting garments at night.
Worthy M. Chesnel, in his country notary's office, was right; he had
foreseen one of the reefs on which the Count might shipwreck.
Victurnien was dazzled by the poetic aureole which Mme. de
Maufrigneuse chose to assume; he was chained and padlocked from the
first hour in her company, bound captive by that girlish sash, and
caught by the curls twined round fairy fingers. Far corrupted the boy
was already, but he really believed in that farrago of maidenliness
and muslin, in sweet looks as much studied as an Act of Parliament.
And if the one man, who is in duty bound to believe in feminine fibs,
is deceived by them, is not that enough?
For a pair of lovers, the rest of their species are about as much
alive as figures on the tapestry. The Duchess, flattery apart, was
avowedly and admittedly one of the ten handsomest women in society.
"The loveliest woman in Paris" is, as you know, as often met with in
the world of love-making as "the finest book that has appeared in this
generation," in the world of letters.
The converse which Victurnien held with the Duchess can be kept up at
his age without too great a strain. He was young enough and ignorant
enough of life in Paris to feel no necessity to be upon his guard, no
need to keep a watch over his lightest words and glances. The
religious sentimentalism, which finds a broadly humorous commentary in
the after-thoughts of either speaker, puts the old-world French chat
of men and women, with its pleasant familiarity, its lively ease,
quite out of the question; they make love in a mist nowadays.
Victurnien was just sufficient of an unsophisticated provincial to
remain suspended in a highly appropriate and unfeigned rapture which
pleased the Duchess; for women are no more to be deceived by the
comedies which men play than by their own. Mme. de Maufrigneuse
calculated, not without dismay, that the young Count's infatuation was
likely to hold good for six whole months of disinterested love. She
looked so lovely in this dove's mood, quenching the light in her eyes
by the golden fringe of their lashes, that when the Marquise d'Espard
bade her friend good-night, she whispered, "Good! very good, dear!"
And with those farewell words, the fair Marquise left her rival to
make the tour of the modern Pays du Tendre; which, by the way, is not
so absurd a conception as some appear to think. New maps of the
country are engraved for each generation; and if the names of the
routes are different, they still lead to the same capital city.
In the course of an hour's tete-a-tete, on a corner sofa, under the
eyes of the world, the Duchess brought young d'Esgrignon as far as
Scipio's Generosity, the Devotion of Amadis, and Chivalrous
Self-abnegation (for the Middle Ages were just coming into fashion,
with their daggers, machicolations, hauberks, chain-mail, peaked shoes,
and romantic painted card-board properties). She had an admirable turn,
moreover, for leaving things unsaid, for leaving ideas in a discreet,
seeming careless way, to work their way down, one by one, into
Victurnien's heart, like needles into a cushion. She possessed a
marvelous skill in reticence; she was charming in hypocrisy, lavish of
subtle promises, which revived hope and then melted away like ice in
the sun if you looked at them closely, and most treacherous in the
desire which she felt and inspired. At the close of this charming
encounter she produced the running noose of an invitation to call, and
flung it over him with a dainty demureness which the printed page can
never set forth.
"You will forget me," she said. "You will find so many women eager to
pay court to you instead of enlightening you. . . . But you will come
back to me undeceived. Are you coming to me first? . . . No. As you
will.--For my own part, I tell you frankly that your visits will be a
great pleasure to me. People of soul are so rare, and I think that you
are one of them.--Come, good-bye; people will begin to talk about us
if we talk together any longer."
She made good her words and took flight. Victurnien went soon
afterwards, but not before others had guessed his ecstatic condition;
his face wore the expression peculiar to happy men, something between
an Inquisitor's calm discretion and the self-contained beatitude of a
devotee, fresh from the confessional and absolution.
"Mme. de Maufrigneuse went pretty briskly to the point this evening,"
said the Duchesse de Grandlieu, when only half-a-dozen persons were
left in Mlle. des Touches' little drawing-room--to wit, des Lupeaulx,
a Master of Requests, who at that time stood very well at court,
Vandenesse, the Vicomtesse de Grandlieu, Canalis, and Mme. de Serizy.
"D'Esgrignon and Maufrigneuse are two names that are sure to cling
together," said Mme. de Serizy, who aspired to epigram.
"For some days past she has been out at grass on Platonism," said des
"She will ruin that poor innocent," added Charles de Vandenesse.
"What do you mean?" asked Mlle. des Touches.
"Oh, morally and financially, beyond all doubt," said the Vicomtesse,
The cruel words were cruelly true for young d'Esgrignon.
Next morning he wrote to his aunt describing his introduction into the
high world of the Faubourg Saint-Germain in bright colors flung by the
prism of love, explaining the reception which met him everywhere in a
way which gratified his father's family pride. The Marquis would have
the whole long letter read to him twice; he rubbed his hands when he
heard of the Vidame de Pamiers' dinner--the Vidame was an old
acquaintance--and of the subsequent introduction to the Duchess; but
at Blondet's name he lost himself in conjectures. What could the
younger son of a judge, a public prosecutor during the Revolution,
have been doing there?
There was joy that evening among the Collection of Antiquities. They
talked over the young Count's success. So discreet were they with
regard to Mme. de Maufrigneuse, that the one man who heard the secret
was the Chevalier. There was no financial postscript at the end of the
letter, no unpleasant reference to the sinews of war, which every
young man makes in such a case. Mlle. Armande showed it to Chesnel.
Chesnel was pleased and raised not a single objection. It was clear,
as the Marquis and the Chevalier agreed, that a young man in favor
with the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse would shortly be a hero at court,
where in the old days women were all-powerful. The Count had not made
a bad choice. The dowagers told over all the gallant adventures of the
Maufrigneuses from Louis XIII. to Louis XVI.--they spared to inquire
into preceding reigns--and when all was done they were enchanted.
--Mme. de Maufrigneuse was much praised for interesting herself in
Victurnien. Any writer of plays in search of a piece of pure comedy
would have found it well worth his while to listen to the Antiquities
Victurnien received charming letters from his father and aunt, and
also from the Chevalier. That gentleman recalled himself to the
Vidame's memory. He had been at Spa with M. de Pamiers in 1778, after
a certain journey made by a celebrated Hungarian princess. And Chesnel
also wrote. The fond flattery to which the unhappy boy was only too
well accustomed shone out of every page; and Mlle. Armande seemed to
share half of Mme. de Maufrigneuse's happiness.
Thus happy in the approval of his family, the young Count made a
spirited beginning in the perilous and costly ways of dandyism. He had
five horses--he was moderate--de Marsay had fourteen! He returned the
Vidame's hospitality, even including Blondet in the invitation, as
well as de Marsay and Rastignac. The dinner cost five hundred francs,
and the noble provincial was feted on the same scale. Victurnien
played a good deal, and, for his misfortune, at the fashionable game
He laid out his days in busy idleness. Every day between twelve and
three o'clock he was with the Duchess; afterwards he went to meet her
in the Bois de Boulogne and ride beside her carriage. Sometimes the
charming couple rode together, but this was early in fine summer
mornings. Society, balls, the theatre, and gaiety filled the Count's
evening hours. Everywhere Victurnien made a brilliant figure,
everywhere he flung the pearls of his wit broadcast. He gave his
opinion on men, affairs, and events in profound sayings; he would have
put you in mind of a fruit-tree putting forth all its strength in
blossom. He was leading an enervating life wasteful of money, and even
yet more wasteful, it may be of a man's soul; in that life the fairest
talents are buried out of sight, the most incorruptible honesty
perishes, the best-tempered springs of will are slackened.
The Duchess, so white and fragile and angel-like, felt attracted to
the dissipations of bachelor life; she enjoyed first nights, she liked
anything amusing, anything improvised. Bohemian restaurants lay
outside her experience; so d'Esgrignon got up a charming little party
at the Rocher de Cancale for her benefit, asked all the amiable scamps
whom she cultivated and sermonized, and there was a vast amount of
merriment, wit, and gaiety, and a corresponding bill to pay. That
supper led to others. And through it all Victurnien worshiped her as
an angel. Mme. de Maufrigneuse for him was still an angel, untouched
by any taint of earth; an angel at the Varietes, where she sat out the
half-obscene, vulgar farces, which made her laugh; an angel through
the cross-fire of highly-flavored jests and scandalous anecdotes,
which enlivened a stolen frolic; a languishing angel in the latticed
box at the Vaudeville; an angel while she criticised the postures of
opera dancers with the experience of an elderly habitue of le coin de
la reine; an angel at the Porte Saint-Martin, at the little boulevard
theatres, at the masked balls, which she enjoyed like any schoolboy.
She was an angel who asked him for the love that lives by
self-abnegation and heroism and self-sacrifice; an angel who would have
her lover live like an English lord, with an income of a million francs.
D'Esgrignon once exchanged a horse because the animal's coat did not
satisfy her notions. At play she was an angel, and certainly no
bourgeoise that ever lived could have bidden d'Esgrignon "Stake for
me!" in such an angelic way. She was so divinely reckless in her
folly, that a man might well have sold his soul to the devil lest this
angel should lose her taste for earthly pleasures.
The first winter went by. The Count had drawn on M. Cardot for the
trifling sum of thirty thousand francs over and above Chesnel's
remittance. As Cardot very carefully refrained from using his right of
remonstrance, Victurnien now learned for the first time that he had
overdrawn his account. He was the more offended by an extremely polite
refusal to make any further advance, since it so happened that he had
just lost six thousand francs at play at the club, and he could not
very well show himself there until they were paid.
After growing indignant with Maitre Cardot, who had trusted him with
thirty thousand francs (Cardot had written to Chesnel, but to the fair
Duchess' favorite he made the most of his so-called confidence in
him), after all this, d'Esgrignon was obliged to ask the lawyer to
tell him how to set about raising the money, since debts of honor were
"Draw bills on your father's banker, and take them to his
correspondent; he, no doubt, will discount them for you. Then write to
your family, and tell them to remit the amount to the banker."
An inner voice seemed to suggest du Croisier's name in this
predicament. He had seen du Croisier on his knees to the aristocracy,
and of the man's real disposition he was entirely ignorant. So to du
Croisier he wrote a very offhand letter, informing him that he had
drawn a bill of exchange on him for ten thousand francs, adding that
the amount would be repaid on receipt of the letter either by M.
Chesnel or by Mlle. Armande d'Esgrignon. Then he indited two touching
epistles--one to Chesnel, another to his aunt. In the matter of going
headlong to ruin, a young man often shows singular ingenuity and
ability, and fortune favors him. In the morning Victurnien happened on
the name of the Paris bankers in correspondence with du Croisier, and
de Marsay furnished him with the Kellers' address. De Marsay knew
everything in Paris. The Kellers took the bill and gave him the sum
without a word, after deducting the discount. The balance of the
account was in du Croisier's favor.
But the gaming debt was as nothing in comparison with the state of
things at home. Invoices showered in upon Victurnien.
"I say! Do you trouble yourself about that sort of thing?" Rastignac
said, laughing. "Are you putting them in order, my dear boy? I did not
think you were so business-like."
"My dear fellow, it is quite time I thought about it; there are twenty
odd thousand francs there."
De Marsay, coming in to look up d'Esgrignon for a steeplechase,
produced a dainty little pocket-book, took out twenty thousand francs,
and handed them to him.
"It is the best way of keeping the money safe," said he; "I am twice
enchanted to have won it yesterday from my honored father, Milord
Such French grace completely fascinated d'Esgrignon; he took it for
friendship; and as to the money, punctually forgot to pay his debts
with it, and spent it on his pleasures. The fact was that de Marsay
was looking on with an unspeakable pleasure while young d'Esgrignon
"got out of his depth," in dandy's idiom; it pleased de Marsay in all
sorts of fondling ways to lay an arm on the lad's shoulder; by and by
he should feel its weight, and disappear the sooner. For de Marsay was
jealous; the Duchess flaunted her love affair; she was not at home to
other visitors when d'Esgrignon was with her. And besides, de Marsay
was one of those savage humorists who delight in mischief, as Turkish
women in the bath. So when he had carried off the prize, and bets were
settled at the tavern where they breakfasted, and a bottle or two of
good wine had appeared, de Marsay turned to d'Esgrignon with a laugh:
"Those bills that you are worrying over are not yours, I am sure."
"Eh! if they weren't, why should he worry himself?" asked Rastignac.
"And whose should they be?" d'Esgrignon inquired.
"Then you do not know the Duchess' position?" queried de Marsay, as he
sprang into the saddle.
"No," said d'Esgrignon, his curiosity aroused.
"Well, dear fellow, it is like this," returned de Marsay--"thirty
thousand francs to Victorine, eighteen thousand francs to Houbigaut,
lesser amounts to Herbault, Nattier, Nourtier, and those Latour
people,--altogether a hundred thousand francs."
"An angel!" cried d'Esgrignon, with eyes uplifted to heaven.
"This is the bill for her wings," Rastignac cried facetiously.
"She owes all that, my dear boy," continued de Marsay, "precisely
because she is an angel. But we have all seen angels in this
position," he added, glancing at Rastignac; "there is this about women
that is sublime: they understand nothing of money; they do not meddle
with it, it is no affair of theirs; they are invited guests at the
'banquet of life,' as some poet or other said that came to an end in
"How do you know this when I do not?" d'Esgrignon artlessly returned.
"You are sure to be the last to know it, just as she is sure to be the
last to hear that you are in debt."
"I thought she had a hundred thousand livres a year," said
"Her husband," replied de Marsay, "lives apart from her. He stays with
his regiment and practises economy, for he has one or two little debts
of his own as well, has our dear Duke. Where do you come from? Just
learn to do as we do and keep our friends' accounts for them. Mlle.
Diane (I fell in love with her for the name's sake), Mlle. Diane
d'Uxelles brought her husband sixty thousand livres of income; for the
last eight years she has lived as if she had two hundred thousand. It
is perfectly plain that at this moment her lands are mortgaged up to
their full value; some fine morning the crash must come, and the angel
will be put to flight by--must it be said?--by sheriff's officers that
have the effrontery to lay hands on an angel just as they might take
hold of one of us."
"Lord! it costs a great deal to dwell in a Parisian heaven; you must
whiten your wings and your complexion every morning," said Rastignac.
Now as the thought of confessing his debts to his beloved Diane had
passed through d'Esgrignon's mind, something like a shudder ran
through him when he remembered that he still owed sixty thousand
francs, to say nothing of bills to come for another ten thousand. He
went back melancholy enough. His friends remarked his ill-disguised
preoccupation, and spoke of it among themselves at dinner.
"Young d'Esgrignon is getting out of his depth. He is not up to Paris.
He will blow his brains out. A little fool!" and so on and so on.
D'Esgrignon, however, promptly took comfort. His servant brought him
two letters. The first was from Chesnel. A letter from Chesnel smacked
of the stale grumbling faithfulness of honesty and its consecrated
formulas. With all respect he put it aside till the evening. But the
second letter he read with unspeakable pleasure. In Ciceronian
phrases, du Croisier groveled before him, like a Sganarelle before a
Geronte, begging the young Count in future to spare him the affront of
first depositing the amount of the bills which he should condescend to
draw. The concluding phrase seemed meant to convey the idea that here
was an open cashbox full of coin at the service of the noble
d'Esgrignon family. So strong was the impression that Victurnien, like
Sganarelle or Mascarille in the play, like everybody else who feels a
twinge of conscience at his finger-tips, made an involuntary gesture.
Now that he was sure of unlimited credit with the Kellers, he opened
Chesnel's letter gaily. He had expected four full pages, full of
expostulation to the brim; he glanced down the sheet for the familiar
words "prudence," "honor," "determination to do right," and the like,
and saw something else instead which made his head swim.
"MONSIEUR LE COMTE,--Of all my fortune I have now but two hundred
thousand francs left. I beg of you not to exceed that amount, if
you should do one of the most devoted servants of your family the
honor of taking it. I present my respects to you.
"He is one of Plutarch's men," Victurnien said to himself, as he
tossed the letter on the table. He felt chagrined; such magnanimity
made him feel very small.
"There! one must reform," he thought; and instead of going to a
restaurant and spending fifty or sixty francs over his dinner, he
retrenched by dining with the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, and told her
about the letter.
"I should like to see that man," she said, letting her eyes shine like
two fixed stars.
"What would you do?"
"Why, he should manage my affairs for me."
Diane de Maufrigneuse was divinely dressed; she meant her toilet to do
honor to Victurnien. The levity with which she treated his affairs or,
more properly speaking, his debts fascinated him.
The charming pair went to the Italiens. Never had that beautiful and
enchanting woman looked more seraphic, more ethereal. Nobody in the
house could have believed that she had debts which reached the sum
total mentioned by de Marsay that very morning. No single one of the
cares of earth had touched that sublime forehead of hers, full of
woman's pride of the highest kind. In her, a pensive air seemed to be
some gleam of an earthly love, nobly extinguished. The men for the
most part were wagering that Victurnien, with his handsome figure,
laid her under contribution; while the women, sure of their rival's
subterfuge, admired her as Michael Angelo admired Raphael, in petto.
Victurnien loved Diane, according to one of these ladies, for the sake
of her hair--she had the most beautiful fair hair in France; another
maintained that Diane's pallor was her principal merit, for she was
not really well shaped, her dress made the most of her figure; yet
others thought that Victurnien loved her for her foot, her one good
point, for she had a flat figure. But (and this brings the present-day
manner of Paris before you in an astonishing manner) whereas all the
men said that the Duchess was subsidizing Victurnien's splendor, the
women, on the other hand, gave people to understand that it was
Victurnien who paid for the angel's wings, as Rastignac said.
As they drove back again, Victurnien had it on the tip of his tongue a
score of times to open this chapter, for the Duchess' debts weighed
more heavily upon his mind than his own; and a score of times his
purpose died away before the attitude of the divine creature beside
him. He could see her by the light of the carriage lamps; she was
bewitching in the love-languor which always seemed to be extorted by
the violence of passion from her madonna's purity. The Duchess did not
fall into the mistake of talking of her virtue, of her angel's estate,
as provincial women, her imitators, do. She was far too clever. She
made him, for whom she made such great sacrifices, think these things
for himself. At the end of six months she could make him feel that a
harmless kiss on her hand was a deadly sin; she contrived that every
grace should be extorted from her, and this with such consummate art,
that it was impossible not to feel that she was more an angel than
ever when she yielded.
None but Parisian women are clever enough always to give a new charm
to the moon, to romanticize the stars, to roll in the same sack of
charcoal and emerge each time whiter than ever. This is the highest
refinement of intellectual and Parisian civilization. Women beyond the
Rhine or the English Channel believe nonsense of this sort when they
utter it; while your Parisienne makes her lover believe that she is an
angel, the better to add to his bliss by flattering his vanity on both
sides--temporal and spiritual. Certain persons, detractors of the
Duchess, maintain that she was the first dupe of her own white magic.
A wicked slander. The Duchess believed in nothing but herself.
By the end of the year 1823 the Kellers had supplied Victurnien with
two hundred thousand francs, and neither Chesnel nor Mlle. Armande
knew anything about it. He had had, besides, two thousand crowns from
Chesnel at one time and another, the better to hide the sources on
which he was drawing. He wrote lying letters to his poor father and
aunt, who lived on, happy and deceived, like most happy people under
the sun. The insidious current of life in Paris was bringing a
dreadful catastrophe upon the great and noble house; and only one
person was in the secret of it. This was du Croisier. He rubbed his
hands gleefully as he went past in the dark and looked in at the