A few days after this conversation Blondet and Rastignac, who knew d'Arthez, promised Madame d'Espard that they would bring him to dine with her. This promise might have proved rash had it not been for the name of the princess, a meeting with whom was not a matter of indifference to the great writer.
Daniel d'Arthez, one of the rare men who, in our day, unite a noble character with great talent, had already obtained, not all the popularity his works deserve, but a respectful esteem to which souls of his own calibre could add nothing. His reputation will certainly increase; but in the eyes of connoisseurs it had already attained its full development. He is one of those authors who, sooner or later, are put in their right place, and never lose it. A poor nobleman, he had understood his epoch well enough to seek personal distinction only. He had struggled long in the Parisian arena, against the wishes of a rich uncle who, by a contradiction which vanity must explain, after leaving his nephew a prey to the utmost penury, bequeathed to the man who had reached celebrity the fortune so pitilessly refused to the unknown writer. This sudden change in his position made no change in Daniel d'Arthez's habits; he continued to work with a simplicity worthy of the antique past, and even assumed new toils by accepting a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, where he took his seat on the Right.
Since his accession to fame he had sometimes gone into society. One of his old friends, the now-famous physician, Horace Bianchon, persuaded him to make the acquaintance of the Baron de Rastignac, under-secretary of State, and a friend of de Marsay, the prime minister. These two political officials acquiesced, rather nobly, in the strong wish of d'Arthez, Bianchon, and other friends of Michel Chrestien for the removal of the body of that republican to the church of Saint-Merri for the purpose of giving it funeral honors. Gratitude for a service which contrasted with the administrative rigor displayed at a time when political passions were so violent, had bound, so to speak, d'Arthez to Rastignac. The latter and de Marsay were much too clever not to profit by that circumstance; and thus they won over other friends of Michel Chrestien, who did not share his political opinions, and who now attached themselves to the new government. One of them, Leon Giraud, appointed in the first instance master of petitions, became eventually a Councillor of State.
The whole existence of Daniel d'Arthez is consecrated to work; he sees society only by snatches; it is to him a sort of dream. His house is a convent, where he leads the life of a Benedictine; the same sobriety of regimen, the same regularity of occupation. His friends knew that up to the present time woman had been to him no more than an always dreaded circumstance; he had observed her too much not to fear her; but by dint of studying her he had ceased to understand her,—like, in this, to those deep strategists who are always beaten on unexpected ground, where their scientific axioms are either modified or contradicted. In character he still remains a simple-hearted child, all the while proving himself an observer of the first rank. This contrast, apparently impossible, is explainable to those who know how to measure the depths which separate faculties from feelings; the former proceed from the head, the latter from the heart. A man can be a great man and a wicked one, just as he can be a fool and a devoted lover. D'Arthez is one of those privileged beings in whom shrewdness of mind and a broad expanse of the qualities of the brain do not exclude either the strength or the grandeur of sentiments. He is, by rare privilege, equally a man of action and a man of thought. His private life is noble and generous. If he carefully avoided love, it was because he knew himself, and felt a premonition of the empire such a passion would exercise upon him.
For several years the crushing toil by which he prepared the solid ground of his subsequent works, and the chill of poverty, were marvellous preservatives. But when ease with his inherited fortune came to him, he formed a vulgar and most incomprehensible connection with a rather handsome woman, belonging to the lower classes, without education or manners, whom he carefully concealed from every eye. Michel Chrestien attributed to men of genius the power of transforming the most massive creatures into sylphs, fools into clever women, peasants into countesses; the more accomplished a woman was, the more she lost her value in their eyes, for, according to Michel, their imagination had the less to do. In his opinion love, a mere matter of the senses to inferior beings, was to great souls the most immense of all moral creations and the most binding. To justify d'Arthez, he instanced the example of Raffaele and the Fornarina. He might have offered himself as an instance for this theory, he who had seen an angel in the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse. This strange fancy of d'Arthez might, however, be explained in other ways; perhaps he had despaired of meeting here below with a woman who answered to that delightful vision which all men of intellect dream of and cherish; perhaps his heart was too sensitive, too delicate, to yield itself to a woman of society; perhaps he thought best to let nature have her way, and keep his illusions by cultivating his ideal; perhaps he had laid aside love as being incompatible with his work and the regularity of a monastic life which love would have wholly upset.
For several months past d'Arthez had been subjected to the jests and satire of Blondet and Rastignac, who reproached him with knowing neither the world nor women. According to them, his authorship was sufficiently advanced, and his works numerous enough, to allow him a few distractions; he had a fine fortune, and here he was living like a student; he enjoyed nothing,—neither his money nor his fame; he was ignorant of the exquisite enjoyments of the noble and delicate love which well-born and well-bred women could inspire and feel; he knew nothing of the charming refinements of language, nothing of the proofs of affection incessantly given by refined women to the commonest things. He might, perhaps, know woman; but he knew nothing of the divinity. Why not take his rightful place in the world, and taste the delights of Parisian society?
"Why doesn't a man who bears party per bend gules and or, a bezant and crab counterchanged," cried Rastignac, "display that ancient escutcheon of Picardy on the panels of a carriage? You have thirty thousand francs a year, and the proceeds of your pen; you have justified your motto: Ars thesaurusque virtus, that punning device our ancestors were always seeking, and yet you never appear in the Bois de Boulogne! We live in times when virtue ought to show itself."
"If you read your works to that species of stout Laforet, whom you seem to fancy, I would forgive you," said Blondet. "But, my dear fellow, you are living on dry bread, materially speaking; in the matter of intellect you haven't even bread."
This friendly little warfare had been going on for several months between Daniel and his friends, when Madame d'Espard asked Rastignac and Blondet to induce d'Arthez to come and dine with her, telling them that the Princesse de Cadignan had a great desire to see that celebrated man. Such curiosities are to certain women what magic lanterns are to children,—a pleasure to the eyes, but rather shallow and full of disappointments. The more sentiments a man of talent excites at a distance, the less he responds to them on nearer view; the more brilliant fancy has pictured him, the duller he will seem in reality. Consequently, disenchanted curiosity is often unjust.
Neither Blondet nor Rastignac could deceive d'Arthez; but they told him, laughing, that they now offered him a most seductive opportunity to polish up his heart and know the supreme fascinations which love conferred on a Parisian great lady. The princess was evidently in love with him; he had nothing to fear but everything to gain by accepting the interview; it was quite impossible he could descend from the pedestal on which madame de Cadignan had placed him. Neither Blondet nor Rastignac saw any impropriety in attributing this love to the princess; she whose past had given rise to so many anecdotes could very well stand that lesser calumny. Together they began to relate to d'Arthez the adventures of the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse: her first affair with de Marsay; her second with d'Ajuda, whom she had, they said, distracted from his wife, thus avenging Madame de Beausant; also her later connection with young d'Esgrignon, who had travelled with her in Italy, and had horribly compromised himself on her account; after that they told him how unhappy she had been with a certain celebrated ambassador, how happy with a Russian general, besides becoming the Egeria of two ministers of Foreign affairs, and various other anecdotes. D'Arthez replied that he knew a great deal more than they could tell him about her through their poor friend, Michel Chrestien, who adored her secretly for four years, and had well-nigh gone mad about her.
"I have often accompanied him," said Daniel, "to the opera. He would make me run through the streets as far as her horses that he might see the princess through the window of her coupe."
"Well, there you have a topic all ready for you," said Blondet, smiling. "This is the very woman you need; she'll initiate you most gracefully into the mysteries of elegance; but take care! she has wasted many fortunes. The beautiful Diane is one of those spendthrifts who don't cost a penny, but for whom a man spends millions. Give yourself up to her, body and soul, if you choose; but keep your money in your hand, like the old fellow in Girodet's 'Deluge.'"
From the tenor of these remarks it was to be inferred that the princess had the depth of a precipice, the grace of a queen, the corruption of diplomatists, the mystery of a first initiation, and the dangerous qualities of a siren. The two clever men of the world, incapable of foreseeing the denouement of their joke, succeeded in presenting Diane d'Uxelles as a consummate specimen of the Parisian woman, the cleverest of coquettes, the most enchanting mistress in the world. Right or wrong, the woman whom they thus treated so lightly was sacred to d'Arthez; his desire to meet her needed no spur; he consented to do so at the first word, which was all the two friends wanted of him.
Madame d'Espard went to see the princess as soon as she had received this answer.
"My dear, do you feel yourself in full beauty and coquetry?" she said. "If so, come and dine with me a few days hence, and I'll serve up d'Arthez. Our man of genius is by nature, it seems, a savage; he fears women, and has never loved! Make your plans on that. He is all intellect, and so simple that he'll mislead you into feeling no distrust. But his penetration, which is wholly retrospective, acts later, and frustrates calculation. You may hoodwink him to-day, but to-morrow nothing can dupe him."
"Ah!" cried the princess, "if I were only thirty years old what amusement I might have with him! The one enjoyment I have lacked up to the present is a man of intellect to fool. I have had only partners, never adversaries. Love was a mere game instead of being a battle."
"Dear princess, admit that I am very generous; for, after all, you know!—charity begins at home."
The two women looked at each other, laughing, and clasped hands in a friendly way. Assuredly they both knew each other's secrets, and this was not the first man nor the first service that one had given to the other; for sincere and lasting friendships between women of the world need to be cemented by a few little crimes. When two friends are liable to kill each other reciprocally, and see a poisoned dagger in each other's hand, they present a touching spectacle of harmony, which is never troubled, unless, by chance, one of them is careless enough to drop her weapon.
So, eight days later, a little dinner such as are given to intimates by verbal invitation only, during which the doors are closed to all other visitors, took place at Madame d'Espard's house. Five persons were invited,—Emile Blondet and Madame de Montcornet, Daniel d'Arthez, Rastignac, and the Princesse de Cadignan. Counting the mistress of the house, there were as many men as women.
Chance never exerted itself to make wiser preparations than those which opened the way to a meeting between d'Arthez and Madame de Cadignan. The princess is still considered one of the chief authorities on dress, which, to women, is the first of arts. On this occasion she wore a gown of blue velvet with flowing white sleeves, and a tulle guimpe, slightly frilled and edged with blue, covering the shoulders, and rising nearly to the throat, as we see in several of Raffaele's portraits. Her maid had dressed her hair with white heather, adroitly placed among its blond cascades, which were one of the great beauties to which she owed her celebrity.
Certainly Diane did not look to be more than twenty-five years old. Four years of solitude and repose had restored the freshness of her complexion. Besides, there are moments when the desire to please gives an increase of beauty to women. The will is not without influence on the variations of the face. If violent emotions have the power to yellow the white tones of persons of bilious and melancholy temperament, and to green lymphatic faces, shall we not grant to desire, hope, and joy, the faculty of clearing the skin, giving brilliancy to the eye, and brightening the glow of beauty with a light as jocund as that of a lovely morning? The celebrated faintness of the princess had taken on a ripeness which now made her seem more august. At this moment of her life, impressed by her many vicissitudes and by serious reflections, her noble, dreamy brow harmonized delightfully with the slow, majestic glance of her blue eyes. It was impossible for the ablest physiognomist to imagine calculation or self-will beneath that unspeakable delicacy of feature. There were faces of women which deceive knowledge, and mislead observation by their calmness and delicacy; it is necessary to examine such faces when passions speak, and that is difficult, or after they have spoken, which is no longer of any use, for then the woman is old and has ceased to dissimulate.
The princess is one of those impenetrable women; she can make herself what she pleases to be: playful, childlike, distractingly innocent; or reflective, serious, and profound enough to excite anxiety. She came to Madame d'Espard's dinner with the intention of being a gentle, simple woman, to whom life was known only through its deceptions: a woman full of soul, and calumniated, but resigned,—in short, a wounded angel.
She arrived early, so as to pose on a sofa near the fire beside Madame d'Espard, as she wished to be first seen: that is, in one of those attitudes in which science is concealed beneath an exquisite naturalness; a studied attitude, putting in relief the beautiful serpentine outline which, starting from the foot, rises gracefully to the hip, and continues with adorable curves to the shoulder, presenting, in fact, a profile of the whole body. With a subtlety which few women would have dreamed of, Diane, to the great amazement of the marquise, had brought her son with her. After a moment's reflection, Madame d'Espard pressed the princess's hand, with a look of intelligence that seemed to say:—
"I understand you! By making d'Arthez accept all the difficulties at once you will not have to conquer them later."
Rastignac brought d'Arthez. The princess made none of those compliments to the celebrated author with which vulgar persons overwhelmed him; but she treated him with a kindness full of graceful respect, which, with her, was the utmost extent of her concessions. Her manner was doubtless the same with the King of France and the royal princes. She seemed happy to see this great man, and glad that she had sought him. Persons of taste, like the princess, are especially distinguished for their manner of listening, for an affability without superciliousness, which is to politeness what practice is to virtue. When the celebrated man spoke, she took an attentive attitude, a thousand times more flattering than the best-seasoned compliments. The mutual presentation was made quietly, without emphasis, and in perfectly good taste, by the marquise.
At dinner d'Arthez was placed beside the princess, who, far from imitating the eccentricities of diet which many affected women display, ate her dinner with a very good appetite, making it a point of honor to seem a natural woman, without strange ways or fancies. Between two courses she took advantage of the conversation becoming general to say to d'Arthez, in a sort of aside:—
"The secret of the pleasure I take in finding myself beside you, is the desire I feel to learn something of an unfortunate friend of yours, monsieur. He died for another cause greater than ours; but I was under the greatest obligations to him, although unable to acknowledge or thank him for them. I know that you were one of his best friends. Your mutual friendship, pure and unalterable, is a claim upon me. You will not, I am sure, think it extraordinary, that I have wished to know all you could tell me of a man so dear to you. Though I am attached to the exiled family, and bound, of course, to hold monarchical opinions, I am not among those who think it is impossible to be both republican and noble in heart. Monarchy and the republic are two forms of government which do not stifle noble sentiments."
"Michel Chrestien was an angel, madame," replied Daniel, in a voice of emotion. "I don't know among the heroes of antiquity a greater than he. Be careful not to think him one of those narrow-minded republicans who would like to restore the Convention and the amenities of the Committee of Public Safety. No, Michel dreamed of the Swiss federation applied to all Europe. Let us own, between ourselves, that after the glorious government of one man only, which, as I think, is particularly suited to our nation, Michel's system would lead to the suppression of war in this old world, and its reconstruction on bases other than those of conquest, which formerly feudalized it. From this point of view the republicans came nearest to his idea. That is why he lent them his arm in July, and was killed at Saint-Merri. Though completely apart in opinion, he and I were closely bound together as friends."
"That is noble praise for both natures," said Madame de Cadignan, timidly.
"During the last four years of his life," continued Daniel, "he made to me alone a confidence of his love for you, and this confidence knitted closer than ever the already strong ties of brotherly affection. He alone, madame, can have loved you as you ought to be loved. Many a time I have been pelted with rain as we accompanied your carriage at the pace of the horses, to keep at a parallel distance, and see you—admire you."
"Ah! monsieur," said the princess, "how can I repay such feelings!"
"Why is Michel not here!" exclaimed Daniel, in melancholy accents.
"Perhaps he would not have loved me long," said the princess, shaking her head sadly. "Republicans are more absolute in their ideas than we absolutists, whose fault is indulgence. No doubt he imagined me perfect, and society would have cruelly undeceived him. We are pursued, we women, by as many calumnies as you authors are compelled to endure in your literary life; but we, alas! cannot defend ourselves either by our works or by our fame. The world will not believe us to be what we are, but what it thinks us to be. It would soon have hidden from his eyes the real but unknown woman that is in me, behind the false portrait of the imaginary woman which the world considers true. He would have come to think me unworthy of the noble feelings he had for me, and incapable of comprehending him."
Here the princess shook her head, swaying the beautiful blond curls, full of heather, with a touching gesture. This plaintive expression of grievous doubts and hidden sorrows is indescribable. Daniel understood them all; and he looked at the princess with keen emotion.
"And yet, the night on which I last saw him, after the revolution of July, I was on the point of giving way to the desire I felt to take his hand and press it before all the world, under the peristyle of the opera-house. But the thought came to me that such a proof of gratitude might be misinterpreted; like so many other little things done from noble motives which are called to-day the follies of Madame de Maufrigneuse—things which I can never explain, for none but my son and God have understood me."
These words, breathed into the ear of the listener, in tones inaudible to the other guests, and with accents worthy of the cleverest actress, were calculated to reach the heart; and they did reach that of d'Arthez. There was no question of himself in the matter; this woman was seeking to rehabilitate herself in favor of the dead. She had been calumniated; and she evidently wanted to know if anything had tarnished her in the eyes of him who had loved her; had he died with all his illusions?
"Michel," replied d'Arthez, "was one of those men who love absolutely, and who, if they choose ill, can suffer without renouncing the woman they have once elected."
"Was I loved thus?" she said, with an air of exalted beatitude.
"I made his happiness?"
"For four years."
"A woman never hears of such a thing without a sentiment of proud satisfaction," she said, turning her sweet and noble face to d'Arthez with a movement full of modest confusion.
One of the most skilful manoeuvres of these actresses is to veil their manner when words are too expressive, and speak with their eyes when language is restrained. These clever discords, slipped into the music of their love, be it false or true, produce irresistible attractions.
"Is it not," she said, lowering her voice and her eyes, after feeling well assured they had produced her effect,—"is it not fulfilling one's destiny to have rendered a great man happy?"
"Did he not write that to you?"
"Yes; but I wanted to be sure, quite sure; for, believe me, monsieur, in putting me so high he was not mistaken."
Women know how to give a peculiar sacredness to their words; they communicate something vibrant to them, which extends the meaning of their ideas, and gives them depth; though later their fascinated listener may not remember precisely what they said, their end has been completely attained,—which is the object of all eloquence. The princess might at that moment have been wearing the diadem of France, and her brow could not have seemed more imposing than it was beneath that crown of golden hair, braided like a coronet, and adorned with heather. She was simple and calm; nothing betrayed a sense of any necessity to appear so, nor any desire to seem grand or loving. D'Arthez, the solitary toiler, to whom the ways of the world were unknown, whom study had wrapped in its protecting veils, was the dupe of her tones and words. He was under the spell of those exquisite manners; he admired that perfect beauty, ripened by misfortune, placid in retirement; he adored the union of so rare a mind and so noble a soul; and he longed to become, himself, the heir of Michel Chrestien.
The beginning of this passion was, as in the case of almost all deep thinkers, an idea. Looking at the princess, studying the shape of her head, the arrangement of those sweet features, her figure, her hand, so finely modelled, closer than when he accompanied his friend in their wild rush through the streets, he was struck by the surprising phenomenon of the moral second-sight which a man exalted by love invariably finds within him. With what lucidity had Michel Chrestien read into that soul, that heart, illumined by the fires of love! Thus the princess acquired, in d'Arthez's eyes, another charm; a halo of poesy surrounded her.
As the dinner proceeded, Daniel called to mind the various confidences of his friend, his despair, his hopes, the noble poems of a true sentiment sung to his ear alone, in honor of this woman. It is rare that a man passes without remorse from the position of confidant to that of rival, and d'Arthez was free to do so without dishonor. He had suddenly, in a moment, perceived the enormous differences existing between a well-bred woman, that flower of the great world, and common women, though of the latter he did not know beyond one specimen. He was thus captured on the most accessible and sensitive sides of his soul and of his genius. Impelled by his simplicity, and by the impetuosity of his ideas, to lay immediate claim to this woman, he found himself restrained by society, also by the barrier which the manners and, let us say the word, the majesty of the princess placed between them. The conversation, which remained upon the topic of Michel Chrestien until the dessert, was an excellent pretext for both to speak in a low voice: love, sympathy, comprehension! she could pose as a maligned and misunderstood woman; he could slip his feet into the shoes of the dead republican. Perhaps his candid mind detected itself in regretting his dead friend less. The princess, at the moment when the dessert appeared upon the table, and the guests were separated by a brilliant hedge of fruits and sweetmeats, thought best to put an end to this flow of confidences by a charming little speech, in which she delicately expressed the idea that Daniel and Michel were twin souls.
After this d'Arthez threw himself into the general conversation with the gayety of a child, and a self-conceited air that was worthy of a schoolboy. When they left the dining-room, the princess took d'Arthez's arm, in the simplest manner, to return to Madame d'Espard's little salon. As they crossed the grand salon she walked slowly, and when sufficiently separated from the marquise, who was on Blondet's arm, she stopped.
"I do not wish to be inaccessible to the friend of that poor man," she said to d'Arthez; "and though I have made it a rule to receive no visitors, you will always be welcome in my house. Do not think this a favor. A favor is only for strangers, and to my mind you and I seem old friends; I see in you the brother of Michel."
D'Arthez could only press her arm, unable to make other reply.
After coffee was served, Diane de Cadignan wrapped herself, with coquettish motions, in a large shawl, and rose. Blondet and Rastignac were too much men of the world, and too polite to make the least remonstrance, or try to detain her; but Madame d'Espard compelled her friend to sit down again, whispering in her ear:—
"Wait till the servants have had their dinner; the carriage is not ready yet."
So saying, the marquise made a sign to the footman, who was taking away the coffee-tray. Madame de Montcornet perceived that the princess and Madame d'Espard had a word to say to each other, and she drew around her d'Arthez, Rastignac, and Blondet, amusing them with one of those clever paradoxical attacks which Parisian women understand so thoroughly.
"Well," said the marquise to Diane, "what do you think of him?"
"He is an adorable child, just out of swaddling-clothes! This time, like all other times, it will only be a triumph without a struggle."
"Well, it is disappointing," said Madame d'Espard. "But we might evade it."
"Let me be your rival."
"Just as you please," replied the princess. "I've decided on my course. Genius is a condition of the brain; I don't know what the heart gets out of it; we'll talk about that later."
Hearing the last few words, which were wholly incomprehensible to her, Madame d'Espard returned to the general conversation, showing neither offence at that indifferent "As you please," nor curiosity as to the outcome of the interview. The princess stayed an hour longer, seated on the sofa near the fire, in the careless, nonchalant attitude of Guerin's Dido, listening with the attention of an absorbed mind, and looking at Daniel now and then, without disguising her admiration, which never went, however, beyond due limits. She slipped away when the carriage was announced, with a pressure of the hand to the marquise, and an inclination of the head to Madame de Montcornet.
The evening concluded without any allusion to the princess. The other guests profited by the sort of exaltation which d'Arthez had reached, for he put forth the treasures of his mind. In Blondet and Rastignac he certainly had two acolytes of the first quality to bring forth the delicacy of his wit and the breadth of his intellect. As for the two women, they had long been counted among the cleverest in society. This evening was like a halt in the oasis of a desert,—a rare enjoyment, and well appreciated by these four persons, habitually victimized to the endless caution entailed by the world of salons and politics. There are beings who have the privilege of passing among men like beneficent stars, whose light illumines the mind, while its rays send a glow to the heart. D'Arthez was one of those beings. A writer who rises to his level, accustoms himself to free thought, and forgets that in society all things cannot be said; it is impossible for such a man to observe the restraint of persons who live in the world perpetually; but as his eccentricities of thought bore the mark of originality, no one felt inclined to complain. This zest, this piquancy, rare in mere talent, this youthfulness and simplicity of soul which made d'Arthez so nobly original, gave a delightful charm to this evening. He left the house with Rastignac, who, as they drove home, asked him how he liked the princess.
"Michel did well to love her," replied d'Arthez; "she is, indeed, an extraordinary woman."
"Very extraordinary," replied Rastignac, dryly. "By the tone of your voice I should judge you were in love with her already. You will be in her house within three days; and I am too old a denizen of Paris not to know what will be the upshot of that. Well, my dear Daniel, I do entreat you not to allow yourself to be drawn into any confusion of interests, so to speak. Love the princess if you feel any love for her in your heart, but keep an eye on your fortune. She has never taken or asked a penny from any man on earth, she is far too much of a d'Uxelles and a Cadignan for that; but, to my knowledge, she has not only spent her own fortune, which was very considerable, but she has made others waste millions. How? why? by what means? No one knows; she doesn't know herself. I myself saw her swallow up, some thirteen years ago, the entire fortune of a charming young fellow, and that of an old notary, in twenty months."
"Thirteen years ago!" exclaimed d'Arthez,—"why, how old is she now?"
"Didn't you see, at dinner," replied Rastignac, laughing, "her son, the Duc de Maufrigneuse. That young man is nineteen years old; nineteen and seventeen make—"
"Thirty-six!" cried the amazed author. "I gave her twenty."
"She'll accept them," said Rastignac; "but don't be uneasy, she will always be twenty to you. You are about to enter the most fantastic of worlds. Good-night, here you are at home," said the baron, as they entered the rue de Bellefond, where d'Arthez lived in a pretty little house of his own. "We shall meet at Mademoiselle des Touches's in the course of the week."