The Muse of the Department/Part 16
That evening was the last gleam of the delusive well-being in which Madame de la Baudraye had lived since coming to Paris. Three days later she observed a cloud on Lousteau's brow as he walked round the little garden-plot smoking a cigar. This woman, who had acquired from her husband the habit and the pleasure of never owing anybody a sou, was informed that the household was penniless, with two quarters' rent owing, and on the eve, in fact, of an execution.
This reality of Paris life pierced Dinah's heart like a thorn; she repented of having tempted Etienne into the extravagances of love. It is so difficult to pass from pleasure to work, that happiness has wrecked more poems than sorrows ever helped to flow in sparkling jets. Dinah, happy in seeing Etienne taking his ease, smoking a cigar after breakfast, his face beaming as he basked like a lizard in the sunshine, could not summon up courage enough to make herself the bum-bailiff of a magazine.
It struck her that through the worthy Migeon, Pamela's father, she might pawn the few jewels she possessed, on which her "uncle," for she was learning to talk the slang of the town, advanced her nine hundred francs. She kept three hundred for her baby-clothes and the expenses of her illness, and joyfully presented the sum due to Lousteau, who was ploughing, furrow by furrow, or, if you will, line by line, through a novel for a periodical.
"Dearest heart," said she, "finish your novel without making any sacrifice to necessity; polish the style, work up the subject. I have played the fine lady too long; I am going to be the housewife and attend to business."
For the last four months Etienne had been taking Dinah to the Cafe Riche to dine every day, a corner being always kept for them. The countrywoman was in dismay at being told that five hundred francs were owing for the last fortnight.
"What! we have been drinking wine at six francs a bottle! A sole Normande costs five francs! and twenty centimes for a roll?" she exclaimed, as she looked through the bill Lousteau showed her.
"Well, it makes very little difference to us whether we are robbed at a restaurant or by a cook," said Lousteau.
"Henceforth, for the cost of your dinner, you shall live like a prince."
Having induced the landlord to let her have a kitchen and two servants' rooms, Madame de la Baudraye wrote a few lines to her mother, begging her to send her some linen and a loan of a thousand francs. She received two trunks full of linen, some plate, and two thousand francs, sent by the hand of an honest and pious cook recommended her by her mother.
Ten days after the evening at the theatre when they had met, Monsieur de Clagny came to call at four o'clock, after coming out of court, and found Madame de la Baudraye making a little cap. The sight of this proud and ambitious woman, whose mind was so accomplished, and who had queened it so well at the Chateau d'Anzy, now condescending to household cares and sewing for the coming infant, moved the poor lawyer, who had just left the bench. And as he saw the pricks on one of the taper fingers he had so often kissed, he understood that Madame de la Baudraye was not merely playing at this maternal task.
In the course of this first interview the magistrate saw to the depths of Dinah's soul. This perspicacity in a man so much in love was a superhuman effort. He saw that Didine meant to be the journalist's guardian spirit and lead him into a nobler road; she had seen that the difficulties of his practical life were due to some moral defects. Between two beings united by love in one so genuine, and in the other so well feigned more than one confidence had been exchanged in the course of four months. Notwithstanding the care with which Etienne wrapped up his true self, a word now and then had not failed to enlighten Dinah as to the previous life of a man whose talents were so hampered by poverty, so perverted by bad examples, so thwarted by obstacles beyond his courage to surmount. "He will be a greater man if life is easy to him," said she to herself. And she strove to make him happy, to give him the sense of a sheltered home by dint of such economy and method as are familiar to provincial folks. Thus Dinah became a housekeeper, as she had become a poet, by the soaring of her soul towards the heights.
"His happiness will be my absolution."
These words, wrung from Madame de la Baudraye by her friend the lawyer, accounted for the existing state of things. The publicity of his triumph, flaunted by Etienne on the evening of the first performance, had very plainly shown the lawyer what Lousteau's purpose was. To Etienne, Madame de la Baudraye was, to use his own phrase, "a fine feather in his cap." Far from preferring the joys of a shy and mysterious passion, of hiding such exquisite happiness from the eyes of the world, he found a vulgar satisfaction in displaying the first woman of respectability who had ever honored him with her affection.
The Judge, however, was for some time deceived by the attentions which any man would lavish on any woman in Madame de la Baudraye's situation, and Lousteau made them doubly charming by the ingratiating ways characteristic of men whose manners are naturally attractive. There are, in fact, men who have something of the monkey in them by nature, and to whom the assumption of the most engaging forms of sentiment is so easy that the actor is not detected; and Lousteau's natural gifts had been fully developed on the stage on which he had hitherto figured.
Between the months of April and July, when Dinah expected her confinement, she discovered why it was that Lousteau had not triumphed over poverty; he was idle and had no power of will. The brain, to be sure, must obey its own laws; it recognizes neither the exigencies of life nor the voice of honor; a man cannot write a great book because a woman is dying, or to pay a discreditable debt, or to bring up a family; at the same time, there is no great talent without a strong will. These twin forces are requisite for the erection of the vast edifice of personal glory. A distinguished genius keeps his brain in a productive condition, just as the knights of old kept their weapons always ready for battle. They conquer indolence, they deny themselves enervating pleasures, or indulge only to a fixed limit proportioned to their powers. This explains the life of such men as Walter Scott, Cuvier, Voltaire, Newton, Buffon, Bayle, Bossuet, Leibnitz, Lopez de Vega, Calderon, Boccacio, Aretino, Aristotle in short, every man who delighted, governed, or led his contemporaries.
A man may and ought to pride himself more on his will than on his talent. Though Talent has its germ in a cultivated gift, Will means the incessant conquest of his instincts, of proclivities subdued and mortified, and difficulties of every kind heroically defeated. The abuse of smoking encouraged Lousteau's indolence. Tobacco, which can lull grief, inevitably numbs a man's energy.
Then, while the cigar deteriorated him physically, criticism as a profession morally stultified a man so easily tempted by pleasure. Criticism is as fatal to the critic as seeing two sides to a question is to a pleader. In these professions the judgment is undermined, the mind loses its lucid rectitude. The writer lives by taking sides. Thus, we may distinguish two kinds of criticism, as in painting we may distinguish art from practical dexterity. Criticism, after the pattern of most contemporary leader-writers, is the expression of judgments formed at random in a more or less witty way, just as an advocate pleads in court on the most contradictory briefs. The newspaper critic always finds a subject to work up in the book he is discussing. Done after this fashion, the business is well adapted to indolent brains, to men devoid of the sublime faculty of imagination, or, possessed of it indeed, but lacking courage to cultivate it. Every play, every book comes to their pen as a subject, making no demand on their imagination, and of which they simply write a report, seriously or in irony, according to the mood of the moment. As to an opinion, whatever it may be, French wit can always justify it, being admirably ready to defend either side of any case. And conscience counts for so little, these bravi have so little value for their own words, that they will loudly praise in the greenroom the work they tear to tatters in print.
Nay, men have been known to transfer their services from one paper to another without being at the pains to consider that the opinions of the new sheet must be diametrically antagonistic to those of the old. Madame de la Baudraye could smile to see Lousteau with one article on the Legitimist side and one on the side of the new dynasty, both on the same occasion. She admired the maxim he preached:
"We are the attorneys of public opinion."
The other kind of criticism is a science. It necessitates a thorough comprehension of each work, a lucid insight into the tendencies of the age, the adoption of a system, and faith in fixed principles that is to say, a scheme of jurisprudence, a summing-up, and a verdict. The critic is then a magistrate of ideas, the censor of his time; he fulfils a sacred function; while in the former case he is but an acrobat who turns somersaults for a living so long as he had a leg to stand on. Between Claude Vignon and Lousteau lay the gulf that divides mere dexterity from art.
Dinah, whose mind was soon freed from rust, and whose intellect was by no means narrow, had ere long taken literary measure of her idol. She saw Lousteau working up to the last minute under the most discreditable compulsion, and scamping his work, as painters say of a picture from which sound technique is absent; but she would excuse him by saying, "He is a poet!" so anxious was she to justify him in her own eyes. When she thus guessed the secret of many a writer's existence, she also guessed that Lousteau's pen could never be trusted to as a resource.
Then her love for him led her to take a step she would never had thought of for her own sake. Through her mother she tried to negotiate with her husband for an allowance, but without Etienne's knowledge; for, as she thought, it would be an offence to his delicate feelings, which must be considered. A few days before the end of July, Dinah crumbled up in her wrath the letter from her mother containing Monsieur de la Baudraye's ultimatum:
"Madame de la Baudraye cannot need an allowance in Paris when she can live in perfect luxury at her Chateau of Anzy: she may return."
Lousteau picked up this letter and read it.
"I will avenge you!" said he to Dinah in the ominous tone that delights a woman when her antipathies are flattered.
Five days after this Bianchon and Duriau, the famous ladies' doctor, were engaged at Lousteau's; for he, ever since little La Baudraye's reply, had been making a great display of his joy and importance over the advent of the infant. Monsieur de Clagny and Madame Piedefer sent for in all haste were to be the godparents, for the cautious magistrate feared lest Lousteau should commit some compromising blunder. Madame de la Baudraye gave birth to a boy that might have filled a queen with envy who hoped for an heir-presumptive.
Bianchon and Monsieur de Clagny went off to register the child at the Mayor's office as the son of Monsieur and Madame de la Baudraye, unknown to Etienne, who, on his part, rushed off to a printer's to have this circular set up:
"Madame la Baronne de la Baudraye is happily delivered of a son.
"Monsieur Etienne Lousteau has the pleasure of informing you of
"The mother and child are doing well."
Lousteau had already sent out sixty of these announcements when Monsieur de Clagny, on coming to make inquiries, happened to see the list of persons at Sancerre to whom Lousteau proposed to send this amazing notice, written below the names of the persons in Paris to whom it was already gone. The lawyer confiscated the list and the remainder of the circulars, showed them to Madame Piedefer, begging her on no account to allow Lousteau to carry on this atrocious jest, and jumped into a cab. The devoted friend then ordered from the same printer another announcement in the following words:
"Madame la Baronne de la Baudraye is happily delivered of a son.
"Monsieur le Baron de la Baudraye has the honor of informing you
of the fact.
"Mother and child are doing well."
After seeing the proofs destroyed, the form of type, everything that could bear witness to the existence of the former document, Monsieur de Clagny set to work to intercept those that had been sent; in many cases he changed them at the porter's lodge, he got back thirty into his own hands, and at last, after three days of hard work, only one of the original notes existed, that, namely sent to Nathan.
Five times had the lawyer called on the great man without finding him. By the time Monsieur de Clagny was admitted, after requesting an interview, the story of the announcement was known to all Paris. Some persons regarded it as one of those waggish calumnies, a sort of stab to which every reputation, even the most ephemeral, is exposed; others said they had read the paper and returned it to some friend of the La Baudraye family; a great many declaimed against the immorality of journalists; in short, this last remaining specimen was regarded as a curiosity. Florine, with whom Nathan was living, had shown it about, stamped in the post as paid, and addressed in Etienne's hand. So, as soon as the judge spoke of the announcement, Nathan began to smile.
"Give up that monument of recklessness and folly?" cried he. "That autograph is one of those weapons which an athlete in the circus cannot afford to lay down. That note proves that Lousteau has no heart, no taste, no dignity; that he knows nothing of the world nor of public morality; that he insults himself when he can find no one else to insult. None but the son of a provincial citizen imported from Sancerre to become a poet, but who is only the bravo of some contemptible magazine, could ever have sent out such a circular letter, as you must allow, monsieur. This is a document indispensable to the archives of the age. To-day Lousteau flatters me, to-morrow he may ask for my head. Excuse me, I forgot you were a judge.
"I have gone through a passion for a lady, a great lady, as far superior to Madame de la Baudraye as your fine feeling, monsieur, is superior to Lousteau's vulgar retaliation; but I would have died rather than utter her name. A few months of her airs and graces cost me a hundred thousand francs and my prospects for life; but I do not think the price too high! And I have never murmured! If a woman betrays the secret of her passion, it is the supreme offering of her love, but a man! He must be a Lousteau!
"No, I would not give up that paper for a thousand crowns."
"Monsieur," said the lawyer at last, after an eloquent battle lasting half an hour, "I have called on fifteen or sixteen men of letters about this affair, and can it be that you are the only one immovable by an appeal of honor? It is not for Etienne Lousteau that I plead, but for a woman and child, both equally ignorant of the damage done to their fortune, their prospects, and their honor. Who knows, monsieur, whether you might not some day be compelled to plead for some favor of justice for a friend, for some person whose honor was dearer to you than your own. It might be remembered against you that you had been ruthless. Can such a man as you are hesitate?" added Monsieur de Clagny.
"I only wished you to understand the extent of the sacrifice," replied Nathan, giving up the letter, as he reflected on the judge's influence and accepted this implied bargain.
When the journalist's stupid jest had been counteracted, Monsieur de Clagny went to give him a rating in the presence of Madame Piedefer; but he found Lousteau fuming with irritation.
"What I did monsieur, I did with a purpose!" replied Etienne. "Monsieur de la Baudraye has sixty thousand francs a year and refuses to make his wife an allowance; I wished to make him feel that the child is in my power."
"Yes, monsieur, I quite suspected it," replied the lawyer. "For that reason I readily agreed to be little Polydore's godfather, and he is registered as the son of the Baron and Baronne de la Baudraye; if you have the feelings of a father, you ought to rejoice in knowing that the child is heir to one of the finest entailed estates in France."
"And pray, sir, is the mother to die of hunger?"
"Be quite easy," said the lawyer bitterly, having dragged from Lousteau the expression of feeling he had so long been expecting. "I will undertake to transact the matter with Monsieur de la Baudraye."
Monsieur de Clagny left the house with a chill at his heart.
Dinah, his idol, was loved for her money. Would she not, when too late, have her eyes opened?
"Poor woman!" said the lawyer, as he walked away. And this justice we will do him for to whom should justice be done unless to a Judge? he loved Dinah too sincerely to regard her degradation as a means of triumph one day; he was all pity and devotion; he really loved her.