The next day, about two in the afternoon, Madame d'Espard, who had seen and heard nothing of the princess for more than a month, went to see her under the impulse of extreme curiosity. Nothing was ever more amusing of its kind than the conversation of these two crafty adders during the first half-hour of this visit.
Diane d'Uxelles cautiously avoided, as she would the wearing of a yellow gown, all mention of d'Arthez. The marquise circled round and round that topic like a Bedouin round a caravan. Diane amused herself; the marquise fumed. Diane waited; she intended to utilize her friend and use her in the chase. Of these two women, both so celebrated in the social world, one was far stronger than the other. The princess rose by a head above the marquise, and the marquise was inwardly conscious of that superiority. In this, perhaps, lay the secret of their intimacy. The weaker of the two crouched low in her false attachment, watching for the hour, long awaited by feeble beings, of springing at the throat of the stronger and leaving the mark of a joyful bite. Diane saw clear; but the world was the dupe of the wile caresses of the two friends.
The instant that the princess perceived a direct question on the lips of her friend, she said:—
"Ah! dearest, I owe you a most complete, immense, infinite, celestial happiness."
"What can you mean?"
"Have you forgotten what we ruminated three months ago in the little garden, sitting on a bench in the sun, under the jasmine? Ah! there are none but men of genius who know how to love! I apply to my grand Daniel d'Arthez the Duke of Alba's saying to Catherine de' Medici: 'The head of a single salmon is worth all the frogs in the world.'"
"I am not surprised that I no longer see you," said Madame d'Espard.
"Promise me, if you meet him, not to say to him one word about me, my angel," said the princess, taking her friend's hand. "I am happy, oh! happy beyond all expression; but you know that in society a word, a mere jest can do much harm. One speech can kill, for they put such venom into a single sentence! Ah! if you knew how I long that you might meet with a love like this! Yes, it is a sweet, a precious triumph for women like ourselves to end our woman's life in this way; to rest in an ardent, pure, devoted, complete and absolute love; above all, when we have sought it long."
"Why do you ask me to be faithful to my dearest friend?" said Madame d'Espard. "Do you think me capable of playing you some villainous trick?"
"When a woman possesses such a treasure the fear of losing it is so strong that it naturally inspires a feeling of terror. I am absurd, I know; forgive me, dear."
A few moments later the marquise departed; as she watched her go the princess said to herself:—
"How she will pluck me! But to save her the trouble of trying to get Daniel away from here I'll send him to her."
At three o'clock, or a few moments after, d'Arthez arrived. In the midst of some interesting topic on which he was discoursing eloquently, the princess suddenly cut him short by laying her hand on his arm.
"Pardon me, my dear friend," she said, interrupting him, "but I fear I may forget a thing which seems a mere trifle but may be of great importance. You have not set foot in Madame d'Espard's salon since the ever-blessed day when I met you there. Pray go at once; not for your sake, nor by way of politeness, but for me. You may already have made her an enemy of mine, if by chance she has discovered that since her dinner you have scarcely left my house. Besides, my friend, I don't like to see you dropping your connection with society, and neglecting your occupations and your work. I should again be strangely calumniated. What would the world say? That I held you in leading-strings, absorbed you, feared comparisons, and clung to my conquest knowing it to be my last! Who will know that you are my friend, my only friend? If you love me indeed, as you say you love me, you will make the world believe that we are purely and simply brother and sister— Go on with what you were saying."
In his armor of tenderness, riveted by the knowledge of so many splendid virtues, d'Arthez obeyed this behest on the following day and went to see Madame d'Espard, who received him with charming coquetry. The marquise took very good care not to say a single word to him about the princess, but she asked him to dinner on a coming day.
On this occasion d'Arthez found a numerous company. The marquise had invited Rastignac, Blondet, the Marquis d'Ajuda-Pinto, Maxime de Trailles, the Marquis d'Esgrignon, the two brothers Vandenesse, du Tillet, one of the richest bankers in Paris, the Baron de Nucingen, Raoul Nathan, Lady Dudley, two very treacherous secretaries of embassies and the Chevalier d'Espard, the wiliest person in this assemblage and the chief instigator of his sister-in-law's policy.
When dinner was well under way, Maxime de Trailles turned to d'Arthez and said smiling:—
"You see a great deal, don't you, of the Princesse de Cadignan?"
To this question d'Arthez responded by curtly nodding his head. Maxime de Trailles was a "bravo" of the social order, without faith or law, capable of everything, ruining the women who trusted him, compelling them to pawn their diamonds to give him money, but covering this conduct with a brilliant varnish; a man of charming manners and satanic mind. He inspired all who knew him with equal contempt and fear; but as no one was bold enough to show him any sentiments but those of the utmost courtesy he saw nothing of this public opinion, or else he accepted and shared the general dissimulation. He owed to the Comte de Marsay the greatest degree of elevation to which he could attain. De Marsay, whose knowledge of Maxime was of long-standing, judged him capable of fulfilling certain secret and diplomatic functions which he confided to him and of which de Trailles acquitted himself admirably. D'Arthez had for some time past mingled sufficiently in political matters to know the man for what he was, and he alone had sufficient strength and height of character to express aloud what others thought or said in a whisper.
"Is it for her that you neglect the Chamber?" asked Baron de Nucingen in his German accent.
"Ah! the princess is one of the most dangerous women a man can have anything to do with. I owe to her the miseries of my marriage," exclaimed the Marquis d'Esgrignon.
"Dangerous?" said Madame d'Espard. "Don't speak so of my nearest friend. I have never seen or known anything in the princess that did not seem to come from the noblest sentiments."
"Let the marquis say what he thinks," cried Rastignac. "When a man has been thrown by a fine horse he thinks it has vices and he sells it."
Piqued by these words, the Marquis d'Esgrignon looked at d'Arthez and said:—
"Monsieur is not, I trust, on such terms with the princess that we cannot speak freely of her?"
D'Arthez kept silence. D'Esgrignon, who was not wanting in cleverness, replied to Rastignac's speech with an apologetic portrait of the princess, which put the whole table in good humor. As the jest was extremely obscure to d'Arthez he leaned towards his neighbor, Madame de Montcornet, and asked her, in a whisper, what it meant.
"Excepting yourself—judging by the excellent opinion you seem to have of the princess—all the other guests are said to have been in her good graces."
"I can assure you that such an accusation is absolutely false," said Daniel.
"And yet, here is Monsieur d'Esgrignon of an old family of Alencon, who completely ruined himself for her some twelve years ago, and, if all is true, came very near going to the scaffold."
"I know the particulars of that affair," said d'Arthez. "Madame de Cadignan went to Alencon to save Monsieur d'Esgrignon from a trial before the court of assizes; and this is how he rewards her to-day!"
Madame de Montcornet looked at d'Arthez with a surprise and curiosity that were almost stupid, then she turned her eyes on Madame d'Espard with a look which seemed to say: "He is bewitched!"
During this short conversation Madame de Cadignan was protected by Madame d'Espard, whose protection was like that of the lightning-rod which draws the flash. When d'Arthez returned to the general conversation Maxime de Trailles was saying:—
"With Diane, depravity is not an effect but a cause; perhaps she owes that cause to her exquisite nature; she doesn't invent, she makes no effort, she offers you the choicest refinements as the inspiration of a spontaneous and naive love; and it is absolutely impossible not to believe her."
This speech, which seemed to have been prepared for a man of d'Arthez's stamp, was so tremendous an arraignment that the company appeared to accept it as a conclusion. No one said more; the princess was crushed. D'Arthez looked straight at de Trailles and then at d'Esgrignon with a sarcastic air, and said:—
"The greatest fault of that woman is that she has followed in the wake of men. She squanders patrimonies as they do; she drives her lovers to usurers; she pockets 'dots'; she ruins orphans; she inspires, possibly she commits, crimes, but—"
Never had the two men, whom d'Arthez was chiefly addressing, listened to such plain talk. At that BUT the whole table was startled, every one paused, fork in air, their eyes fixed alternately on the brave author and on the assailants of the princess, awaiting the conclusion of that horrible silence.
"But," said d'Arthez, with sarcastic airiness, "Madame la Princesse de Cadignan has one advantage over men: when they have put themselves in danger for her sake, she saves them, and says no harm of any one. Among the multitude, why shouldn't there be one woman who amuses herself with men as men amuse themselves with women? Why not allow the fair sex to take, from time to time, its revenge?"
"Genius is stronger than wit," said Blondet to Nathan.
This broadside of sarcasms was in fact the discharge of a battery of cannons against a platoon of musketry. When coffee was served, Blondet and Nathan went up to d'Arthez with an eagerness no one else dared to imitate, so unable were the rest of the company to show the admiration his conduct inspired from the fear of making two powerful enemies.
"This is not the first time we have seen that your character equals your talent in grandeur," said Blondet. "You behaved just now more like a demi-god than a man. Not to have been carried away by your heart or your imagination, not to have taken up the defence of a beloved woman—a fault they were enticing you to commit, because it would have given those men of society eaten up with jealousy of your literary fame a triumph over you—ah! give me leave to say you have attained the height of private statesmanship."
"Yes, you are a statesman," said Nathan. "It is as clever as it is difficult to avenge a woman without defending her."
"The princess is one of those heroines of the legitimist party, and it is the duty of all men of honor to protect her quand meme," replied d'Arthez, coldly. "What she has done for the cause of her masters would excuse all follies."
"He keeps his own counsel!" said Nathan to Blondet.
"Precisely as if the princess were worth it," said Rastignac, joining the other two.
D'Arthez went to the princess, who was awaiting him with the keenest anxiety. The result of this experiment, which Diane had herself brought about, might be fatal to her. For the first time in her life this woman suffered in her heart. She knew not what she should do in case d'Arthez believed the world which spoke the truth, instead of believing her who lied; for never had so noble a nature, so complete a man, a soul so pure, a conscience so ingenuous come beneath her hand. Though she had told him cruel lies she was driven to do so by the desire of knowing a true love. That love—she felt it dawning in her heart; yes, she loved d'Arthez; and now she was condemned forever to deceive him! She must henceforth remain to him the actress who had played that comedy to blind his eyes.
When she heard Daniel's step in the dining-room a violent commotion, a shudder which reached to her very vitals came over her. That convulsion, never felt during all the years of her adventurous existence, told her that she had staked her happiness on this issue. Her eyes, gazing into space, took in the whole of d'Arthez's person; their light poured through his flesh, she read his soul; suspicion had not so much as touched him with its bat's-wing. The terrible emotion of that fear then came to its reaction; joy almost stifled her; for there is no human being who is not more able to endure grief than to bear extreme felicity.
"Daniel, they have calumniated me, and you have avenged me!" she cried, rising, and opening her arms to him.
In the profound amazement caused by these words, the roots of which were utterly unknown to him, Daniel allowed his hand to be taken between her beautiful hands, as the princess kissed him sacredly on the forehead.
"But," he said, "how could you know—"
"Oh! illustrious ninny! do you not see that I love you fondly?"
Since that day nothing has been said of the Princess de Cadignan, nor of d'Arthez. The princess has inherited some fortune from her mother and she spends all her summers in a villa on the lake of Geneva, where the great writer joins her. She returns to Paris for a few months in winter. D'Arthez is never seen except in the Chamber. His writings are becoming exceedingly rare. Is this a conclusion? Yes, for people of sense; no, for persons who want to know everything.