The Muse of the Department/Part 18
From that day forth Etienne lived in luxury; and Dinah, on first nights, could hold her own with the best dressed women in Paris. Lousteau was so fatuous as to affect, among his friends, the attitude of a man overborne, bored to extinction, ruined by Madame de la Baudraye.
"Oh, what would I not give to the friend who would deliver me from Dinah! But no one ever can!" said he. "She loves me enough to throw herself out of the window if I told her."
The journalist was duly pitied; he would take precautions against Dinah's jealousy when he accepted an invitation. And then he was shamelessly unfaithful. Monsieur de Clagny, really in despair at seeing Dinah in such disgraceful circumstances when she might have been so rich, and in so wretched a position at the time when her original ambitions would have been fulfilled, came to warn her, to tell her "You are betrayed," and she only replied, "I know it."
The lawyer was silenced; still he found his tongue to say one thing.
Madame de la Baudraye interrupted him when he had scarcely spoken a word.
"Do you still love me?" she asked.
"I would lose my soul for you!" he exclaimed, starting to his feet.
The hapless man's eyes flashed like torches, he trembled like a leaf, his throat was rigid, his hair thrilled to the roots; he believed he was so blessed as to be accepted as his idol's avenger, and this poor joy filled him with rapture.
"Why are you so startled?" said she, making him sit down again. "That is how I love him."
The lawyer understood this argument ad hominem. And there were tears in the eyes of the Judge, who had just condemned a man to death!
Lousteau's satiety, that odious conclusion of such illicit relations, had betrayed itself in a thousand little things, which are like grains of sand thrown against the panes of the little magical hut where those who love dwell and dream. These grains of sand, which grow to be pebbles, had never been discerned by Dinah till they were as big as rocks. Madame de la Baudraye had at last thoroughly understood Lousteau's character.
"He is," she said to her mother, "a poet, defenceless against disaster, mean out of laziness, not for want of heart, and rather too prone to pleasure; in short, a great cat, whom it is impossible to hate. What would become of him without me? I hindered his marriage; he has no prospects. His talent would perish in privations."
"Oh, my Dinah!" Madame Piedefer had exclaimed, "what a hell you live in! What is the feeling that gives you strength enough to persist?"
"I will be a mother to him!" she had replied.
There are certain horrible situations in which we come to no decision till the moment when our friends discern our dishonor. We accept compromises with ourself so long as we escape a censor who comes to play prosecutor. Monsieur de Clagny, as clumsy as a tortured man, had been torturing Dinah.
"To preserve my love I will be all that Madame de Pompadour was to preserve her power," said she to herself when Monsieur de Clagny had left her. And this phrase sufficiently proves that her love was becoming a burden to her, and would presently be a toil rather than a pleasure.
The part now assumed by Dinah was horribly painful, and Lousteau made it no easier to play. When he wanted to go out after dinner he would perform the tenderest little farces of affection, and address Dinah in words full of devotion; he would take her by the chain, and when he had bruised her with it, even while he hurt her, the lordly ingrate would say, "Did I wound you?"
These false caresses and deceptions had degrading consequences for Dinah, who believed in a revival of his love. The mother, alas, gave way to the mistress with shameful readiness. She felt herself a mere plaything in the man's hands, and at last she confessed to herself:
"Well, then, I will be his plaything!" finding joy in it the rapture of damnation.
When this woman, of a really manly spirit, pictured herself as living in solitude, she felt her courage fail. She preferred the anticipated and inevitable miseries of this fierce intimacy to the absence of the joys, which were all the more exquisite because they arose from the midst of remorse, of terrible struggles with herself, of a No persuaded to be Yes. At every moment she seemed to come across the pool of bitter water found in a desert, and drunk with greater relish than the traveler would find in sipping the finest wines at a prince's table.
When Dinah wondered to herself at midnight:
"Will he come home, or will he not?" she was not alive again till she heard the familiar sound of Lousteau's boots, and his well-known ring at the bell.
She would often try to restrain him by giving him pleasure; she would hope to be a match for her rivals, and leave them no hold on that agitated heart. How many times a day would she rehearse the tragedy of Le Dernier Jour d'un condamne, saying to herself, "To-morrow we part." And how often would a word, a look, a kiss full of apparently artless feeling, bring her back to the depths of her love!
It was terrible. More than once had she meditated suicide as she paced the little town garden where a few pale flowers bloomed. In fact, she had not yet exhausted the vast treasure of devotion and love which a loving woman bears in her heart.
The romance of Adolphe was her Bible, her study, for above all else she would not be an Ellenore. She allowed herself no tears, she avoided all the bitterness so cleverly described by the critic to whom we owe an analysis of this striking work; whose comments indeed seemed to Dinah almost superior to the book. And she read again and again this fine essay by the only real critic who has written in the Revue des Deux Mondes, an article now printed at the beginning of the new edition of Adolphe.
"No," she would say to herself, as she repeated the author's fateful words, "no, I will not 'give my requests the form of an order,' I will not 'fly to tears as a means of revenge,' I will not 'condemn the things I once approved without reservation,' I will not 'dog his footsteps with a prying eye'; if he plays truant, he shall not on his return 'see a scornful lip, whose kiss is an unanswerable command.' No, 'my silence shall not be a reproach nor my first word a quarrel.' I will not be like every other woman!" she went on, laying on her table the little yellow paper volume which had already attracted Lousteau's remark, "What! are you studying Adolphe?" "If for one day only he should recognize my merits and say, 'That victim never uttered a cry!' it will be all I ask. And besides, the others only have him for an hour; I have him for life!"
Thinking himself justified by his private tribunal in punishing his wife, Monsieur de la Baudraye robbed her to achieve his cherished enterprise of reclaiming three thousand acres of moorland, to which he had devoted himself ever since 1836, living like a mouse. He manipulated the property left by Monsieur Silas Piedefer so ingeniously, that he contrived to reduce the proved value to eight hundred thousand francs, while pocketing twelve hundred thousand. He did not announce his return; but while his wife was enduring unspeakable woes, he was building farms, digging trenches, and ploughing rough ground with a courage that ranked him among the most remarkable agriculturists of the province.
The four hundred thousand francs he had filched from his wife were spent in three years on this undertaking, and the estate of Anzy was expected to return seventy-two thousand francs a year of net profits after the taxes were paid. The eight hundred thousand he invested at four and a half per cent in the funds, buying at eighty francs, at the time of the financial crisis brought about by the Ministry of the First of March, as it was called. By thus securing to his wife an income of forty-eight thousand francs he considered himself no longer in her debt. Could he not restore the odd twelve hundred thousand as soon as the four and a half per cents had risen above a hundred? He was now the greatest man in Sancerre, with the exception of one the richest proprietor in France whose rival he considered himself. He saw himself with an income of a hundred and forty thousand francs, of which ninety thousand formed the revenue from the lands he had entailed. Having calculated that besides this net income he paid ten thousand francs in taxes, three thousand in working expenses, ten thousand to his wife, and twelve hundred to his mother-in-law, he would say in the literary circles of Sancerre:
"I am reputed miserly, and said to spend nothing; but my outlay amounts to twenty-six thousand five hundred francs a year. And I have still to pay for the education of my two children! I daresay it is not a pleasing fact to the Milauds of Nevers, but the second house of La Baudraye may yet have as noble a center as the first. I shall most likely go to Paris and petition the King of the French to grant me the title of Count Monsieur Roy is a Count and my wife would be pleased to be Madame la Comtesse."
And this was said with such splendid coolness that no one would have dared to laugh at the little man. Only Monsieur Boirouge, the Presiding Judge, remarked:
"In your place, I should not be happy unless I had a daughter."
"Well, I shall go to Paris before long " said the Baron.
In the early part of 1842 Madame de la Baudraye, feeling that she was to Lousteau no more than a reserve in the background, had again sacrificed herself absolutely to secure his comfort; she had resumed her black raiment, but now it was in sign of mourning, for her pleasure was turning to remorse. She was too often put to shame not to feel the weight of the chain, and her mother found her sunk in those moods of meditation into which visions of the future cast unhappy souls in a sort of torpor.
Madame Piedefer, by the advice of her spiritual director, was on the watch for the moment of exhaustion, which the priest told her would inevitably supervene, and then she pleaded in behalf of the children. She restricted herself to urging that Dinah and Lousteau should live apart, not asking her to give him up. In real life these violent situations are not closed as they are in books, by death or cleverly contrived catastrophes; they end far less poetically in disgust, in the blighting of every flower of the soul, in the commonplace of habit, and very often too in another passion, which robs a wife of the interest which is traditionally ascribed to women. So, when common sense, the law of social proprieties, family interest all the mixed elements which, since the Restoration, have been dignified by the mane of Public Morals, out of sheer aversion to the name of the Catholic religion where this is seconded by a sense of insults a little too offensive; when the fatigue of constant self-sacrifice has almost reached the point of exhaustion; and when, under these circumstances, a too cruel blow one of those mean acts which a man never lets a woman know of unless he believes himself to be her assured master puts the crowning touch to her revulsion and disenchantment, the moment has come for the intervention of the friend who undertakes the cure. Madame Piedefer had no great difficulty now in removing the film from her daughter's eyes.
She sent for Monsieur de Clagny, who completed the work by assuring Madame de la Baudraye that if she would give up Etienne, her husband would allow her to keep the children and to live in Paris, and would restore her to the command of her own fortune.
"And what a life you are leading!" said he. "With care and judgment, and the support of some pious and charitable persons, you may have a salon and conquer a position. Paris is not Sancerre."
Dinah left it to Monsieur de Clagny to negotiate a reconciliation with the old man.
Monsieur de la Baudraye had sold his wine well, he had sold his wool, he had felled his timber, and, without telling his wife, he had come to Paris to invest two hundred thousand francs in the purchase of a delightful residence in the Rue de l'Arcade, that was being sold in liquidation of an aristocratic House that was in difficulties. He had been a member of the Council for the Department since 1826, and now, paying ten thousand francs in taxes, he was doubly qualified for a peerage under the conditions of the new legislation.
Some time before the elections of 1842 he had put himself forward as candidate unless he were meanwhile called to the Upper House as Peer of France. At the same time, he asked for the title of Count, and for promotion to the higher grade of the Legion of Honor. In the matter of the elections, the dynastic nominations; now, in the event of Monsieur de la Baudraye being won over to the Government, Sancerre would be more than ever a rotten borough of royalism. Monsieur de Clagny, whose talents and modesty were more and more highly appreciated by the authorities, gave Monsieur de la Baudraye his support; he pointed out that by raising this enterprising agriculturist to the peerage, a guarantee would be offered to such important undertakings.
Monsieur de la Baudraye, then, a Count, a Peer of France, and Commander of the Legion of Honor, was vain enough to wish to cut a figure with a wife and handsomely appointed house. "He wanted to enjoy life," he said.
He therefore addressed a letter to his wife, dictated by Monsieur de Clagny, begging her to live under his roof and to furnish the house, giving play to the taste of which the evidences, he said, had charmed him at the Chateau d'Anzy. The newly made Count pointed out to his wife that while the interests of their property forbade his leaving Sancerre, the education of their boys required her presence in Paris. The accommodating husband desired Monsieur de Clagny to place sixty thousand francs at the disposal of Madame la Comtesse for the interior decoration of their mansion, requesting that she would have a marble tablet inserted over the gateway with the inscription: Hotel de la Baudraye.
He then accounted to his wife for the money derived from the estate of Silas Piedefer, told her of the investment at four and a half per cent of the eight hundred thousand francs he had brought from New York, and allowed her that income for her expenses, including the education of the children. As he would be compelled to stay in Paris during some part of the session of the House of Peers, he requested his wife to reserve for him a little suite of rooms in an entresol over the kitchens.
"Bless me! why, he is growing young again a gentleman! a magnifico! What will he become next? It is quite alarming," said Madame de la Baudraye.
"He now fulfils all your wishes at the age of twenty," replied the lawyer.
The comparison of her future prospects with her present position was unendurable to Dinah. Only the day before, Anna de Fontaine had turned her head away in order to avoid seeing her bosom friend at the Chamarolles' school.
"I am a countess," said Dinah to herself. "I shall have the peer's blue hammer-cloth on my carriage, and the leaders of the literary world in my drawing-room and I will look at her!" And it was this little triumph that told with all its weight at the moment of her rehabilitation, as the world's contempt had of old weighed on her happiness.