Honoré de Balzac.

A woman of thirty ; The seamy side of history and other stories online

. (page 46 of 63)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacA woman of thirty ; The seamy side of history and other stories → online text (page 46 of 63)
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me to supply you with the means of living better," added
the young man, smiling, "you may call me Godefroid dc

The old lawyer was too much touched to laugh at the jest.
He held out his hand to Godefroid and grasped the young
man's warmly.

** You wish to remain unknown?" said Monsieur Bernard,
looking at Godefroid with melancholy, mixed with some un-

** If you will allow me.'*

" Well, do as you think proper. And come in this evening;
you will see my daughter, if her state allows."

This was evidently the greatest concession the poor father
could make; and seeing Godefroid's grateful look, the old
man had the pleasure of feeling that he was understood.

An hour later Cartier came back with some beautiful
flowers, replanted the stands with his own hands in fresh moss,
and Godefroid paid the bill, as he did the subscription to the
lending library, for which the account was sent in soon after.
Books and flowers were the staff" of life to this poor sick, or,
rather, tormented woman, who could live on so little food.

As he thought of this family in the coils of disaster, like
that of Laocoon — a sublime allegory of many lives ! — Gode-
froid, making his way leisurely on foot to the Rue Marbeuf,
felt in his heart that he was curious rather than benevolent.
The idea of the sick woman, surrounded with luxuries in the
midst of abject squalor, made him forget the horrible details
of the strange nervous malady, which is happily an extraordi-
nary exception, though abundantly proved by various histo-
rians. One of our gossiping chronicle writers, Tallemant des
R^aux, mentions an instance. We like to think of women as
elegant even in their worst sufferings, and Godefroid promised
himself some pleasure in penetrating into the room which only
* A strong, clear soup.

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the physician, the father, and the son had entered for six years
past. However, he ended by reproaching himself for his curi-
osity. The neophyte even understood that his feeling, however
natural, would die out by degrees as he carried out his merciful
errands, by dint of seeing new homes and new sorrows. Such
messengers, in fact, attain to a heavenly benignity which
nothing can shock or amaze, just as in love we attain to a
sublime quiescence of feeling in the conviction of its strength
and duration, by a constant habit of submission and sweet-

Godefroid was told that Halpersohn had come home during
the night, but had been obliged to go out in his carriage the
first thing in the morning to see the patients who were awaiting
him. The woman at the gate told Godefroid to come back
next morning before nine. .

Remembering Monsieur Alain's advice as to parsimony in
his personal expenses, Godefroid dined for twenty-five sous in
the Rue de Tournon, and was rewarded for his self-denial by
finding himself among compositors and proof-readers. He
heard a discussion about the cost of production, and, joining
in, picked up the information that an octavo volume of forty
sheets, of which a thousand copies were printed, would not
cost more than thirty sous per copy under favorable circum-
stances. He determined on going to inquire the price com-
monly asked for such volumes on sale at the law publishers, so
as to be in a position to dispute the point with the publishers
who had a hold on Monsieur Bernard, if he should happen to
meet them.

At about seven in the evening he came back to the Boulevard
Mont-Pamasse along the Rue de Vaugirard, the Rue Madame,
and the Rue de TOuest, and he saw how deserted that part
of the town is, for he met nobody. It is true that the cold
was severe, snow fell in large flakes, and the carts made no
noise on the stones.

"Ah, here you are, monsieur I '* said Madame Vauthier


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when she saw him. '' If I had known you would come in 80
early, I would have lighted your fire."

''It is unnecessary/' replied Godefroid, as the woman fol«
■owed him ; '' I am going to spend the evening with Monsieur

*'Ah ! ver) ^ood. You are cousins, I suppose, that you are
hand and glove with him by the second day. I thought, per-
haps, you would have liked to finish what we were saying '*

"Oh, about the four hundred francs! " said Godefroid in
an undertone. '*Look here. Mother Vauthier, you would
have had them this evening if you had said nothing to Mon-
sieur Bernard. You want to hunt with the hounds and run
with the hare, and you will get neither ; for, so far as I am
concerned, you have spoiled my game — my chances are alto-
gether ruined "

" Don't you believe that, my good sir. To-morrow, when
you are at breakfast "

"Oh, to-morrow I must be off at daybreak like your

Godefroid's past experience and life as a dandy and jour-
nalist had been so far of use to him as to lead him to guess
that if he did not take this line. Barbel's spy would warn the
publisher that there was something in the wind, and he would
then take such steps as would ere long endanger Monsieur
Bernard's liberty; whereas, by leaving the three usurious
negotiators to believe that their schemes were not in peril,
they would keep quiet.

But Godefroid was not yet a match for Parisian humanity
when it assumes the guise of a Madame Vauthier. This
woman meant to have Godefroid's money and her landlord's
too. She flew right off to Monsieur Barbet, while Godefiroid
changed his dress to call on Monsieur Bernard's daughter.

Eight o'clock was striking at the convent of the Visitation,
whose clock regulated the life of the whole neighborhood,
when Godefroid, very full of curiosity, knocked at his friend's

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door. Auguste opened it; as it was Saturday, the lad
spent his evening at home; Godefroid saw that he wore a
jacket of black velvet, black trousers that were quite decent,
and a blue silk tie ; but his surprise at seeing the youth so
unlike his usual self ceased when he entered the invalid's
room. He at once understood the necessity for the father
and the boy to be presentably dressed.

The walls of the room, hung with yellow silk, paneled with
bright green cord, made the room look extremely cheerful ;
the cold tiled floor was covered by a flowered carpet on a
white ground. The two windows, with their handsome cur-
tains lined with white silk, were like bowers, the flower-stands
were so full of beauty, and blinds hindered them from being
seen from outside in a quarter where such lavishness was rare.
The woodwork, painted white, and varnished, was touched up
with gold lines. A heavy curtain, embroidered in tent-stitch
with grotesque foliage on a yellow ground, hung over the door
and deadened every sound from outside. This splendid cur-
tain had been worked by the invalid, who embroidered like a
fairy when she had the use of her hands.

Opposite the door, at the farther end of the room, the
mantel-shelf, covered with green velvet, had a set of very
costly ornaments, the only relic of the wealth of the two
families. There was a very curious clock ; an elephant sup-
porting a porcelain tower filled with beautiful flowers; two
candelabra in the same style, and some valuable Oriental
pieces. The fender, the dogs, and and-irons were all of the
finest workmanship.

The largest of the three flower-stands stood in the middle
of the ipom, and above it hung a porcelain chandelier of
floral design.

ilie bed on which the judge's daughter lay was one of
those fine examples of carved wood, painted white and gold,
that were made in the time of Louis XV. By the invalid's
pillow was a pretty inlaid table, on which were the various

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objects necessary for a life spent in bed ; a light bracket foi
two candles was fixed to the wall, and could be turned back-
ward and forward by a touch. In front of her was a bed-
table, wonderfully contrived for her convenience. The t)ed
was covered with a magnificent counterpane, and draped with
curtains looped back in festoons; it was loaded with books
and a work-basket, and among these various objects Godefroid
would hardly have discovered the sick woman but for the
tapers in the two candle-branches.

There seemed to be nothing of her but a very white face,
darkly marked round the eyes by much sufiering ; her eyes
shone like fire ; and her principal ornament was her splendid
black hair, of which the h^^vy curls, set out in bunches of
numerous ringlets, showed that the care and arrangement of
her hair occupied a great part of the invalid's day ; a movable
mirror at the foot of the bed confirmed the idea.

No kind of modern elegance was lacking, and a few trifling
toys for poor Vanda's amusement showed that her father's
affection verged on mania.

The old man rose from a very handsome easy-chair of Louis
XV. style, white and gold, and covered with needlework,
and went forward a few steps to welcome Godefroid, who
certainly would not have recognized him ; for his cold, stem
face had assumed the gay expression peculiar to old men who
have preserved their dignity of manner and the superficial
frivolity of courtiers. His purple, wadded dressing-gown
was in harmony with the luxury about him, and he took snuff
out of a gold box set with diamonds.

** Here, my dear," said Monsieur Bernard to his daughter,
" is our neighbor of whom I spoke to you.*' And he signed
to his grandson to bring forward one of two armchairs, in the
same style as his own, which were standing on either side of
the fireplace.

" Monsieur's name is Godefroid, and he is most kind m
standing on no ceremony *'

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Vanda moved her head in acknowledgment of Godcfroid's
low bow ; and by the movement of her throat as it bent and
unbent, he discovered that all this woman's vitality was seated
in her head. Her emaciated arms and lifeless hands lay on
the fine white sheet like objects quite apart from the body,
and that seemed to fill no space in the bed. The things
needed for her use were on a set of shelves behind the bed,
and screened by a silk curtain.

"You, my dear sir, are the first person, excepting only the
doctors — who have ceased to be men to me — whom I have set
eyes on for six years ; so you can have no idea of the interest
I have felt in you ever since my father told me you were
coming to call on us. It was passionate, unconquerable curi-
osity, like that of our mother Eve. My father, who is so good
to me ; my son, of whom I am so fond, are undoubtedly
enough to fill up the vacuum of a soul now almost bereft of
body ; but that soul is still a woman's after all ! I recognized
that in the childish joy I felt in the idea of your visit. You
will do me the pleasure of taking a cup of tea with us, I

** Yes, Monsieur Godefroid has promised us the pleasure of
his company for the evening," said the old man, with the air
of a millionaire doing the honors of his house.

Auguste, seated in a low, worsted-work chair by a small
table of inlaid wood, finished with brass mouldings, was read-
ing a book by the light of the wax-candles on the elegant

*' Auguste, my dear, tell Jean to bring tea in an hour's

She spoke with some pointed meaning, and Auguste replied
by a nod.

** Will you believe, monsieur, that for the past six years no
one has waited on me but my father and my boy, and I could
not endure anybody else. If I were to lose them, I should
die of it. My father will not even allow Jean, a poor old

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Normandy peasant who has lived with us for thirty years — ^will
not even let him come into the room."

** I should think not, indeed ! " said the old man readily.
** Monsieur Godefroid has seen him ; he saws and brings in
wood, he cooks and runs errands, and wears a dirty apron ; he
would have made hash of all these pretty things, which are so
necessary to my poor child, to whom this elegance is second

''Indeed, madame, your father is quite right "

"But, why?" she urged. " If Jean had damaged my
room, my father would have renewed it.**

" Of course, my child ; but what would have prevented me
is the fact that you cannot leave it ; and you have no idea
what Paris workmen are. It would take them more than
three months to restore your room. Only think of the dust
that would come out of your carpet if it were taken up. Let
Jean do your room ! Do not think of such a thing. By
taking the extreme care which only your father and your boy
can take, we have spared you sweeping and dust ; if Jean came
in to help, everything would be broken and done for in a

'* It is not so much out of economy as for the sake of your
health," said Godefroid. ''Monsieur your father is quite

"Oh, I am not complaining," said Vanda in a saucy tone.

Her voice had the quality of a concert; soul, action, and
life were all concentrated in her eyes and her voice ; for
Vanda, by careful practice, for which time had certainly not
been lacking, had succeeded in overcoming the difficulties
arising from her loss of teeth.

" I am still happy, monsieur, in spite of the dreadful malady
that tortures me ; for wealth is certainly a great help in en-
during my sufferings. If we had been in poverty, I should
have died eighteen years ago, and I am still alive. I have
many enjoyments, and they are all the keener because I iivc

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on, triumphing over death. You will think me a great chat-
terbox/' she added, with a smile.

'' Madame/' said Godefroid, '^ I could beg you to talk for
ever, for I never heard a voice to compare with yours — it is
music I Rubini is not more delightful "

'' Do not mention Rubini or the opera/' said the old man
sadly. " However rich we may be, it is impossible to give
my daughter, who was a great musician, a pleasure to which
she was devoted."

"I apologize," said Godefroid.

"You will fall into our ways," said the old man.

**This is your training," said the invalid, smiling. " When
we have warned you several times by crying, * Lookout ! •
you will know all the blindman's-buff of our conversation ! "

Godefroid exchanged a swift glance with Monsieur Bernard,
who, seeing tears in his new friend's eyes, put his finger to
his lip as a warning not to betray the heroic devotion he and
the boy had shown for the past seven years.

This devoted and unflagging imposture, proved by the in-
valid's entire deception, produced on Godefroid at this mo-
ment the effect of looking at a precipitous rock whence two
chamois-hunters were on the point of falling.

The splendid gold and diamond snuff-box with which the
old man trifled, leaning over the foot of his daughter's bed,
was the same touch of genius which in a great actor wrings
from us a cry of admiration. Godefroid looked at the snuff-
box, wondering why it had not been sold or pawned, but he
postponed the idea till he could discuss it with the old man.

" This evening, Monsieur Godefroid, my daughter was so
greatly excited by the promise of your visit, that the various
strange symptoms of her malady which, for nearly a fortnight
past, have driven us to despair, suddenly disappeared. You
may imagine my gratitude I "

"And mine I " cried Vanda, in an insinuating voice, with
a graceful inclination of her head. '* You are a deputation

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from the outer world. Since I was twenty I have not known
what a drawing-room is like, or a party, or a ball ; and I love
dancing, I am crazy about the play, and, above all, about
music. Well, I imagine everything in my mtfiJ. I read a
great deal, and my father tells me all about the gay world and
its doings "

As he listened, Godefroid felt prompted to kneel at the feet
of this poor old man.

" When he goes to the opera — and he often goes — he de-
scribes the dresses to me and all the singers. Oh I I should
like to be well again ; in the first place, for my father's sake,
for he lives for me alone, as I live for him and through him,
and then for my son's — I should like him to know another
mother. Oh ! monsieur, what perfect men are my dear old
father and my admirable son I Then, I could wish for health
also, that I might hear Lablache, Rubini, Tamburini, Grisi,
the ' Puritani ' too I But "

** Come, my dear, compose yourself. If we talk about music,
it is fatal ! " said the old father, with a smile.

And that smile, which made him look younger, evidently
constantly deceived the sick woman.

" Well, I will be good," said Vanda, with a saucy pout.
"But let me have a melodeon."

This instrument had lately been invented ; it could, by a
little contrivance, be placed by the invalid's bed, and would
only need the pressure of the foot to give out an organ-like
tone. This instrument, in its most improved form, was as
effective as a piano ; but at that time it cost three hundred
francs. Vanda, who read newspapers and reviews, had heard
of such an instrument, and had been longfng for one for two
months past.

'* Yes, madame, and I can procure you one," replied Gode-
froid at an appealing glance from the old- man. "A friend
of mine who is setting out for Algiers has a very fine one,
which I will borrow of him ; for before buying one, you had

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better try it. It is quite possible that the sound, which is
strongly vibrating, may be too much for you."

**Can I have it to-morrow?** she asked with the eagerness
of a Creole.

** To-morrow ! *' objected Monsieur Bernard. "That is
very soon; beside, to-morrow will be Sunday.**

**To be sure,'* said she, looking at Godefroid, who felt as
though he saw a soul fluttering as he admired the ubiquity of
Vanda*s eyes.

Until now he had never understood what the power of the
voice and eyes might be when the entire vitality was concen-
trated in them. Her glance was more than a glance ; it was
a flame, or, rather, a blaze of divine light, a communicative
ray of life and intelligence, thought made visible. The voice,
with its endless intonations, supplied the place of movement,
gesture, and turns of the head. And her changing color,
varying like that of the fabled chameleon, made the illusion —
or, if you will, the delusion^omplete. That weary head,
buried in a cambric pillow frilled with lace^ was a complete

Never in his life had Godefroid seen so noble a spectacle,
and he could hardly endure his emotions. Another grand
feature, where everything was strange in a situation so full of
romance and of horror, was that the soul alone seemed to be
living in the spectators. This atmosphere, where all was sen-
timent, had a celestial influence. They were as unconscious
of their bodies as the woman in bed ; everything was pure
spirit. By dint of gazing at these frail remains of a pretty
woman, Godefroid forgot the elegant luxury of the room, and
felt himself in heaven. It was not till half-an-hour after that
he noticed a whatnot covered with curiosities, over which
hung a noble portrait that Vanda desired him to look it, as it
was by G^ricault.

•*G6ricault,** said she, "was a native of Rouen, and his
family being under some obligations to my father, who was

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president of the supreme court there, he showed his gratitude
by painting that masterpiece, in which you see me at the age
of sixteen."

" You have there a very fine picture," said Godefroid, "and
one that is quite unknown to those who have studied the rare
works of that great genius."

''To me it is no longer an object of anything but affec-
tionate regard," said she, ''since I live only by my feelings;
and I have a beautiful life," she went on, looking at her father
with her whole soul in her eyes. " Oh, monsieur, if you could
but know what my father is ! Who would believe that the
austere and dignified judge to whom the Emperor owed so
much that he gave him that snuff-box, and whom Charles X.
rewarded by the gift of that Sevres tray" — and she looked at
a side- table — " that the stanch upholder of law and authority,
the learned political writer, has in a heart of rock all the ten-
derness of a mother I Oh, papa, papa ! Come, kiss me — I
insist on it — if you love me."

The old man rose, leaned over the bed, and set a kiss on
his daughter's high poetic brow, for her sickly fancies were
not invariably furies of affection. Then he walked up and
down the room, but without a sound, for he wore slippers —
the work of his daughter's hands.

" And what is your occupation ? " she asked Godefroid after
a pause.

" Madame, I am employed by certain pious persons to take
help to the unfortunate."

" A beautiful mission ! " said she. " Do you know that the
idea of devoting myself to such work has often occurred to
me? But what ideas have not occurred to me?" said she,
with a little shake of her head. " Pain is a torch that throws
light on life, and if I ever recover my health "

" You shall enjoy yourself, my child," the old man put in.

" Certainly I long to enjoy life," said she, "but should I be
able for it ? My son, I hope, will be a lawyer, worthy of his

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two grandfathers, and he must leave me. What is to be done?
If God restores me to life, I will dedicate it to Him. Oh,
not till I have given you both as much of it as you desire 1 **
she exclaimed, looking at her father and her boy. ** There
are times, my dear father, when Monsieur de Maistre's ideas
work in my brain, and I fancy I am expiating some sin."

*' That is what comes of so much reading I " cried the old
man, visibly grieved.

"There was that brave Polish general, my great-grand-
father; he meddled very innocently in the concerns of
Poland '*

** Now we have come back to Poland 1 " cficclaimed Bernard.

" How can I help it, papa? My sufferings are intolerable,
they make me hate life and disgust me with myself. Well,
what have I done to deserve them ? Such an illness is not
merely disordered health ; it is a complete wreck of the whole
constitution, and **

*' Sing the national air your poor mother used to sing ; it
will please Monsieur Godefroid, I have spoken to him of your
voice," said her father, evidently quite anxious to divert his
daughter's mind from the ideas she was following out.

Vanda began to sing in a low, soft voice a hymn in the
Polish tongue, which left Godefroid bewildered with admira-
tion and sadness. This melody, a good deal like the long-
drawn melancholy tunes of Brittany, is one of those poetic
airs that linger in the mind long after being heard. As he
listened to Vanda, Godefroid at first looked at her ; but he
could not bear the ecstatic eyes of this remnant of a woman,
now half-crazed, and he gazed at some tasseb that hung on
each side of the top of the bed.

**Ah, ha I*' said Vanda, laughing at Godefroid's evident
curiosity, ** you are wondering what those are for?"

"Vanda, Vanda, be calm, my child I See, here comes the
tea. This, monsieur, is a very expensive contrivance," he
said to Godefroid. " My daughter cannot raise herself, nor

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can she remain in bed without its being made and the sheets
changed. Those cords work over pulleys, and by slipping a
sheet of leather under her and attaching it by rings at the
corners to those ropes, we can lift her without fatiguing her
or ourselves."

** Yes, I am carried up — up I " said Vanda deliriously,

Auguste happily came in with a teapot, which he set on a
little table, where he also placed the Sdvres tray, covered with
sandwiches and cakes. Then he brought in the cream and
butter. This diverted the sick woman's mind; she had been
on the verge of an attack.

" Here, Vanda, is Nathan's last novel. If you should lie
awake to-night, you will have something to read."

** * La Perle de Dol ! '—The Pearl of Deceit. That will be
a love-story no doubt. Auguste, what do you think ? I am
to have a melodeon I "

Auguste raised his head quickly, and looked strangely at
his grandfather.

" You see how fond he is of his mother ! " Vanda went on,
** Come and kiss me, dear rogue. No, it is not your grand-

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacA woman of thirty ; The seamy side of history and other stories → online text (page 46 of 63)