In a Winter City/Chapter 4
"What do you think of Della Rocca, Hilda," asked Madame Mila at the same hour that night, toasting her pink satin slipper before her dressing-room fire.
Lady Hilda yawned, unclasping her rivière of sapphires.
"He has a very good manner. There is some truth in what Olga Schouvaloff always maintains, that after an Italian all other men seem boors."
"I am sure Maurice is not a boor!" said the Countess, pettishly.
"Oh no, my dear; he parts his hair in the middle, talks the last new, unintelligible, aristocratic argot, and has the charms of every actress and dancer in Paris catalogued clearly in a brain otherwise duly clouded, as fashion requires, by brandy in the morning and absinthe before dinner! Boors don't do those things, nor yet get half as learned as to Mlle. Rose Thé and la Petite Boulotte."
Madame Mila reddened angrily.
"What spiteful things to say; he never looked at that hideous little Boulotte, or any of the horrible creatures, and he never drinks; he is a perfect gentleman."
"Not quite that, ma chère; if he had been, he would never have let himself be called bon enfant by your husband!"
Madame Mila raged in passionate wrath for five minutes, and then began to cry a little, whimperingly.
Lady Hilda gathered up her rivière, took her candlestick, and bade her good night.
"It is no use making that noise, Mila," she said coolly. "You have always known what I think, but you prefer to be in the fashion; of course you must go on as you like; only please to remember,—don't let me see too much of Des Gommeux."
Madame Mila, left alone to the contemplation of her pink slippers, fumed and sulked and felt very angry indeed; but she had borrowed a thousand pounds some six or eight times from the Lady Hilda to pay her debts at play; and of course it was such a trifle that she had always forgotten to pay it again, because if ever she had any ready money there was always some jeweller, or man dressmaker, or creditor of some kind who would not wait; and then, though it was not her fault, because she played as high as she could any night she got a chance to do so, somehow or other she generally lost, and never had a single sou to spare;—so she muttered her rage to the pink slippers alone, and decided that it was never worth while to be put out about the Lady Hilda's "ways."
"She is a bit of ice herself," she said to her slippers, and wondered how Lady Hilda or anybody else could object to what she did, or see any harm in it. Maurice always went to another hôtel.
Mme. Mila lived her life in a manner very closely resembling that of the horrible creatures Mlles. Rose Thé and Boulotte; really, when compared by a cynic there was very little difference to be found between those persons and pretty Madame Mila. But Rose Thé and Boulotte of course were creatures, and she was a very great little lady, and went to all the courts and embassies in Europe, and was sought and courted by the very best and stiffest people, being very chic and very rich, and very lofty in every way, and very careful to make Maurice go to a different hôtel.
She had had twenty Maurices in her time indeed, but then the Count de Caviare never complained, and was careful to drive with her in the Bois, and pass at least three months of each year under the same roof with her, so that nobody could say anything; it being an accepted axiom with Society that when the husband does not object to his own dishonour, there is no dishonour at all in the matter for any one. If he be sensitive to it then indeed you must cut his wife, and there will be nothing too bad to be said of her; but if he only do but connive at his own shame himself, then all is quite right, and everything is as it should be.
When the Prince of Cracow, with half Little Russia in his possession, entertains the beautiful Lady Lightwood at a banquet at his villa at Frascati, Richmond, or Auteuil, a score of gilded lackeys shout "La voiture de Madame la Comtesse!" the assembled guests receive her sweet good night, the Prince of Cracow bows low, and thanks her for the honour she has done to him; she goes out at the hall door, and the carriage bowls away with loud crash and fiery steeds, and rolls on its way out of the park-gates. Society is quite satisfied. Society knows very well that a million roubles find their yearly way into the empty pockets of Lord Lightwood, and that a little later the carriage will sweep round again to a side-door hidden under the laurels wide open, and receive the beautiful Lady Lightwood: but what is that to Society? It has seen her drive away; that is quite sufficient, everybody is satisfied with that.
If you give Society very good dinners, Society will never be so ill-bred as to see that side-door under your laurels.
Do drive out at the hall-door;—do;—for sake of les Bienséances—that is all Society asks of you; there are some things Society feels it owes to Itself, and this is one of them.
Of course, whether you come back again or not, can be nobody's business.
Society can swear to the fact of the hall-door.
Madame Mila was attentive to the matter of the hall-door; indeed, abhorred a scandal; it always made everything uncomfortable. She was always careful of appearances. Even if you called on her unexpectedly, Des Gommeux was always in an inner room, unseen, and you could declare with a clear conscience that you never found him alone with her, were the oath ever required in any drawing-room in defence of her character. Of course, you have no sort of business with who or what may be in inner rooms; Society does not require you to search a house as if you were a detective.
If you can say airily, "Oh, there's nothing in it; I never see him there," Society believes you, and is quite satisfied: that is, if it wish to believe you; if it do not wish, nothing would ever satisfy it. No, not though there rose one from the dead to bear witness.
Madame Mila would not have done anything to jeopardise her going to Courts, and having all the Embassies to show her jewels in, for any thing that any man in the whole world could have offered her.
Madame Mila thought a woman who left her husband and made a scandal, a horrid creature; nay, she was worse, she was a Blunder, and by her blunder made a great deal of unpleasantness for other and wiser women. After a stupid, open thing of that kind, Society always gets so dreadfully prudish for about three months, that it is disagreeable for everybody. To run off with a man, and lose your settlements, and very likely have to end in a boarding-house in Boulogne?—could anything be more idiotic?
Madame Mila thought that a woman so forgetting herself deserved even a worse fate than the boarding-house. Madame Mila, who was quite content that her husband should make a fool of himself about Blanche Souris, or anybody else, so long as he walked arm-in-arm now and then with Des Gommeux, and called him "mon cher,"—was indeed in every iota the true Femme Galante of the 19th century.
The Femme Galante has passed through many various changes, in many countries. The dames of the Decamerone were unlike the fair athlete-seekers of the days of Horace; and the powdered coquettes of the years of Molière, were sisters only by the kinship of a common vice to the frivolous and fragile faggot of impulses, that is called Frou-frou.
The Femme Galante has always been a feature in every age; poets from Juvenal to Musset, have railed at her; artists, from Titian to Winterhalter, have painted her; dramatists, from Aristophanes to Congreve and Dumas Fils, have pointed their arrows at her; satirists, from Archilochus and Simonides to Hogarth and Gavarni, have poured out their aqua-fortis for her. But the real Femme Galante of to-day has been missed hitherto.
Frou-frou, who stands for her, is not in the least the true type. Frou-frou is a creature that can love, can suffer, can repent, can die. She is false in sentiment and in art, but she is tender after all; poor, feverish, wistful, changeful morsel of humanity. A slender, helpless, breathless, and frail thing, who, under one sad, short sin, sinks down to death.
But Frou-frou is in no sense the true Femme Galante of her day. Frou-frou is much more a fancy than a fact. It is not Frou-frou that Molière would have handed down to other generations in enduring ridicule, had he been living now. To her he would have doffed his hat with dim eyes; what he would have fastened for all time in his pillory would have been a very different, and far more conspicuous, offender.
The Femme Galante, who has neither the scruples nor the follies of poor Frou-frou, who neither forfeits her place nor leaves her lord; who has studied adultery as one of the fine arts and made it one of the domestic virtues; who takes her wearied lover to her friends' houses as she takes her muff or her dog, and teaches her sons and daughters to call him by familiar names; who writes to the victim of her passions with the same pen that calls her boy home from school; and who smooths her child's curls with the same fingers that stray over her lover's lips; who challenges the world to find a flaw in her, and who smiles serene at her husband's table on a society she is careful to conciliate; who has woven the most sacred ties and most unholy pleasures into so deft a braid, that none can say where one commences or the other ends; who uses the sanctity of her maternity to cover the lawlessness of her license; and who, incapable alike of the self-abandonment of love or of the self-sacrifice of duty, has not even such poor, cheap honour as, in the creatures of the streets, may make guilt loyal to its dupe and partner.
This is the Femme Galante of the passing century, who, with her hand on her husband's arm, babbles of her virtue in complacent boast; and ignoring such a vulgar word as Sin, talks with a smile of Friendship. Beside her Frou-frou were innocence itself, Marion de l'Orme were honesty, Manon Lescaut were purity, Cleopatra were chaste, and Faustine were faithful.
She is the female Tartuffe of seduction, the Précieuse Ridicule of passion, the parody of Love, the standing gibe of Womanhood.