Honoré de Balzac.

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

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Comes there an echo from thy vest-pocket, Blondet? Be-
tween ourselves, let the heart alone, it spoils the intellect.

'' Let us resume. Godefroid de Beaudenord was respected
by hb tradespeople, for they were paid with tolerable regu-
larity. The witty woman before quoted — I cannot give her
name, for she is still living, thanks to her want of heart "

''Who is this?"

''The Marquise d'Espard. She said that a young man
ought to live on an entresol; there should be no sign of
domesticity about* the place; no cook, no kitchen, an old
manservant to wait upon him, and no pretense of a perma-
nence. In her opinion, any other sort of establishment is bad
form. Godefroid de Beaudenord, faithful to this programme,
lodged on an entresol on the Quai Malaquais ; he had, how-
ever, been obliged to have this much in common with mar-
ried couples, he had put a bedstead in his room, though for
that matter it was so narrow that he seldom slept in it. An
Englishwoman might have visited his rooms and found nothing
* improper ' there. Finot, you have yet to learn the great
law of the ' Improper ' that rules Britain. But, for the sake
of the ^nd between us — that bill for a thousand francs — I
will just give you some idea of it. I have been in England
myself. I will give him wit enough for a couple of thousand,*'
he added in an aside to Blondet.

" In England, Finot, you grow extremely intimate with a
woman in the course of an evening, at a ball or wherever it
is ; next day you meet her in the street and look as though
you knew her again — * improper.' At dinner you discover a
delightful man beneath your l^ft-hand neighbor's dress-coat ;



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THE FIRM OF NUCINGEN. 800

a clever man ; no high- mightiness, no constrain t, nothing of
an Englishman about him. In accordance with the tradition
of French breeding, so urbane, so gracious as they are, you
address your neighbor — * improper.* At a ball you walk up
to a pretty woman to ask her to dance — * improper.' You wax
enthusiastic, you argue, laugh, and give yourself out, you fling
yourself heart and soul into the conversation, you give expres-
sion to your real feelings, you play when you are at the card-
table, chat while you chat, eat while you cat — 'improper I
improper ! improper 1 * Stendhal, one of the cleverest and
profoundest minds of the age, hit off" the * improper' excel-
lently well when he said that such-and-such a British peer did
not dare to cross his legs when he sat alone before his own
hearth for fear of being improper. An English gentlewoman,
were she one of the rabid * Saints ' — that most straiUst sect of
Protestants that would leave their whole family to starve if the
said family did anything * improper * — may play the deuce's
own delight in her bedroom, and need not be * improper,' but
she would look on herself as lost if she received a visit from a
man of her acquaintance in the aforesaid room. Thanks to
propriety, London and its inhabitants will be found petrified
some of these days."

"And to think that there are asses here in France that
want to import the solemn tomfoolery that the English keep
up among themselves with that admirable self-possession which
you know 1 " added Blondet. "It is enough to make any
man shudder if he has seen the English at home, and recollects
the charming, gracious French manners. Sir Walter Scott
was afraid to paint women as they are for fear of being * im-
proper; ' and at the close of his life repented of the creation
of the great character of Effie in ' The Heart of Midlothian.' "

** Do you wish not to be * improper' in England?" asked
Bixiou, addressing Finot.

"Well?"

** Go to the Tuileries and look at a figure there, something



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810 THE FIRM OF NUCINGEN.

like a fireman carved in marble (* Themistocles/ the statuary
calls it)» try to walk like the commandant's statue, and you
will never be * improper.' It was through strict observance of
the great law of the //^proper that Godefroid's happiness be*
came complete. Here is the story :

" Beaudenord had a tiger, not a ' groom/ as they write that
know nothing of society. The tiger, a diminutive Irish page,
called Paddy, Toby, Joby (which you please), was three feet
in height by twenty inches in breadth, a weasel-faced infant,
with nerves of steel tempered in fire-water, and agile as a
squirrel. He drove a landau with a skill never yet at fault in
London or Paris. He had a lizard's eye, as sharp as my own,
and he could mount a horse like the elder Franconi. With
the rosy cheeks and yellow hair of one of Ruben's Madonnas,
he was double-faced as a prince, and as knowing as an old
attorney ; in short, at the age of ten he was nothing more nor
less than a blossom of depravity, gambling and swearing,
partial to jam and punch, pert as ^ifeuiUeton (news-skit), im-
pudent and light-fingered as any Paris street-arab. He had
been a source of honor and profit to a well-known Englbh
lord, for whom he had already won seven hundred thousand
francs on the racecourse. The aforesaid nobleman set no
small store on Toby. His tiger was a curiosity, the very
smallest tiger in town. Perched aloft on the back of a thor-
oughbred, Joby looked like a hawk. Yet — the great man dis-
missed him. Not for greediness, not for dishonesty, nor
murder, nor for criminal conversation, nor for bad manners,
nor rudeness to my lady, nor for cutting holes in my lady's
own woman's pockets, nor because he had been ' got at ' by
some of his master's rivals on the turf, nor for playing games
of a Sunday, nor for bad behavior of any sort or description.
Toby might have done all these things, he might even have
spoken to milord before milord spoke to him, and his noble
master might, perhaps, have pardoned that breach of the law*
domestic. Milord would have put up with a good deal from



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THE FIRM OF NUCINGEN, 311

Toby ; he was very fond of him. Toby could drive a tandem
dog-cart, riding on the wheeler, postillion fashion ; his legs
did not reach the shafts, he looked in fact very much like one
of the cherub heads circling about the Eternal Father in old
Italian pictures. But an English journalist wrote a delicious
description of the little angel, in the course of which he said
that Paddy was quite too pretty for a tiger ; in fact, he offered
to bet that Paddy was a tame tigress. The description, on the
heads of it, was calculated to poison minds and end in some-
thing * improper.' And the superlative of * improper ' is the
way to the gallows. Milord's circumspection was highly ap-
proved by ray lady.

** But poor Toby, now that his precise position in insular
zoology had been called in question, found himself hopelessly
out of place. At that time Godefroid had blossomed out at
the French Embassy in London^ where he learned the adven-
tures of Joby, Toby, Paddy. Godefroid found the infant
weeping over a pot of jam (he had already lost the guineas
with which milord gilded his misfortune). Godefroid took
possession of him ; and so it fell out that on his return among
us he brought back with him the sweetest thing in tigers from
England. He was known by his tiger — as Couture is known
by his waistcoats — and found no difficulty in entering the
fraternity of the club yclept to-day the Grammont. He had
renounced the diplomatic career; he ceased accordingly to
alarm the susceptibilities of the ambitious ; and as he had no
very dangerous amount of intellect, he was well-looked upon
everywhere.

"Some of us would feel mortified if we saw only smiling
faces wherever we went ; we enjoy the sour contortions of
envy. Godefroid did not like to be disliked. Every one has
his taste. Now for the solid, practical aspects of life !

"The distinguishing feature of his chambers, where I have
licked my lips over breakfast more than once, was a mysterious
dressing-closet, nicely decorated, and comfortably appointed^



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812 THE FIRM OF NVCINGEN.

with a grate in it and a bath-tub. It gave upon a narrow
staircase, the folding doors were noiseless, the locks well
oiled, the hinges discreet, the window-panes of frosted glass,
the curtain impervious to light. While the bedroom was, as
it ought to have been, in a fine disorder which would suit
the most exacting painter in water-colors ; while everything
therein was redolent of the bohemian life of a young man of
fashion, the dressing-closet was like a shrine — white, spotless,
neat, and warm. There were no draughts from door or win-
dow, the carpet had been made soft for bare feet hastily put
to the floor in a sudden panic of alarm — which stamps him as
your thoroughbred dandy that knows life ; for here, in a few
moments, he may show himself either a noodle or a master in
those little details in which a man's character is revealed.
The marquise previously quoted — no, it was the Marquise de
Rochefide — came out of that dressing-closet in a furious rage,
and never went back again. She discovered nothing 'im-
proper ' in it. Godefroid used to keep a little cupboard full
of "

** Waistcoats ? " suggested Finot.

** Come, now, just like you, great Turcaret that you are.
(I shall never form that fellow.) Why, no. J*ull of cakes,
and fruit, and dainty little flasks of Malaga and Lunel ; an
en cos de nuit in Louis Quatorze's style ; an)rthing that can
tickle the delicate and well-bred appetite of sixteen quarter-
ings. A knowing old manservant, very strong in matters
veterinary, waited on the horses and groomed Godefroid.
He had been with the late Monsieur de Beaudenord, Gode-
froid's father, and bore Godefroid an inveterate affection, a
kind of heart complaint which has almost disappeared among
domestic servants since savings banks were established.

•'All material well-being is based upon arithmetic. You,
to whom Paris is known down to its very excrescences, will
see t?jat Beaudenord must have required about seventeen thou*
sand livres per annum ; for he paid some seventeen francs of



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THE FIRM OF NUCINGEK, 81S

taxes and spent a thousand crowns on his own whims. Well,
dear boys, when Godefroid came of age, the Marqub d' Aiglc-
mont submitted to him such an account of his trust as none
of us would be likely to give a nephew ; Godefroid's name
was inscribed as the owner of eighteen thousand livres of
rentes (government stock), a remnant of his father's wealth
spared by the harrow of the great reduction under the Republic
and the hailstorms of Imperial arrears. D'Aiglemont, that
upright guardian, also put his ward in possession of some thirty
thousand francs of savings invested with the firm of Nucingen ;
saying, with all the charm of a great lord and the indulgence
of a soldier of the Empire, that he had contrived to put it
aside for his ward's young man's follies. ' If you will take
my advice, Godefroid,' added he, ' instead of squandering
the money like a fool, as so many young men do, let it go in
follies that will be useful to you afterward. Take an attache's
post at Turin, and then go to Naples, and from Naples to
London, and you will be amused and learn something for
your money. Afterward, if you think of a career, the time
and the money will not have been thrown away.' The late
lamented d'Aiglemont had more sense than people credited
him with, which is more than can be said of some of us."

**A young fellow that starts with an assured income of
eighteen thousand livres at one-and-twenty is lost," said
Couture.

*' Unless he is miserly or very much above the ordinary
level," added Blondet.

** Well, Godefroid sojourned in the four capitals of Italy,"
continued Bixiou. ** He lived in England and Germany, he
spent some little time at St. Petersburg, he ran over Holland ;
but he parted company with the aforesaid thirty thousand
francs by living as if he had thirty thousand a year. Every-
where he found the same suprime de volaille (sublime poultry),
the same aspics, and French wines ; he heard French spoken
wherever he went — in short, he never got away from Paris.



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814 THE FIRM OF NUCINGEN.

He ought, of course, to have tried to deprave his disposition,
to fence himself in triple brass, to get rid of his illusions, to
learn to hear anything said without a blush, and to master the
inmost secrets of the Powers. Pooh ! with a good deal of
trouble he equipped himself with four languages — ^that is to
say, he laid in a stock of four words for one idea. Then he
came back, and certain tedious dowagers, styled ^ conquests '
abroad, were left disconsolate. Oodefroid came back, shy,
scarcely formed, a good fellow with a confiding disposition,
incapable of saying ill of any one who honored him with an
admittance to his house, too stanch to be a diplomatist —
altogether he was what we call a thoroughly whole-souled
good fellow."

'< To cut it short, a kid with eighteen thousand livres per
annum to drop over the first investment that turns up," said
Couture.

'* That confounded Couture has such a habit of anticipating
dividends that he is anticipating the end of my tale. Where
was I ? Oh ! Beaudenord came back. When he took up his
abode on the Quai Malaquais, it came to pass that a thousand
francs over and above his needs was altogether insufficient to
keep up his share of a box at the Italiens and the opera
properly. When he lost twenty-five or thirty louis at play at
one swoop, naturally he paid; when he won, he spent the
money; so should we if we were fools enough to be drawn into
a bet. Beaudenord, feeling pinched with his eighteen thousand
francs, saw the necessity of creating what we to-day call a
balance in hand. It was a great notion of his ' not to get
too deep.' He took counsel of his sometime guardian.
•The funds are now at par, my dear boy,' quoth d'Aigle-
roont; 'sell out. I have sold out mine and my wife's.
Nucingen has all my capital, and is giving me six per cent.;
do likewise, you will have one per cent, the more upon your
capital, and with that you will be quite comfortable.'

'• In three days' time our Godefroid was comfortable. Hia



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THE FIRM OF NLCINGBN. <Ah

increase of income exactly supplied his superfluities; his
material happiness was complete.

** Suppose that it were possible to read the minds of all the
young men in Paris at one glance (as, it appears, will be done
at the Day of Judgment with all the millions upon millions
that have groveled in all spheres, and worn all uniforms or
the uniform of nature), and to ask them whether happiness at
six-and-twenty is or is not made up of the following items —
to wit : to own a saddle-horse and a tilbury, or a cab, with a
fresh, rosy-faced Toby, Joby, Paddy no bigger than your fist,
and to hire an unimpeachable brougham for twelve francs an
evening ; to appear elegantly Arrayed, agreeably to the laws
that regulate a man's clothes, at eight o'clock, noon, four
o'clock in the afternoon, and in the evening ; to be well re-
ceived at every embassy, and to cull the short-lived flowers of
superficial, cosmopolitan friendships; to be not insufferably
handsome, to carry your head, your coat and your name well ;
to inhabit a charming little entresol after the pattern of the
rooms just described on the Quai Malaquais; to be able to ask
a party of friends to dine at the Rocher de Cancale without a
previous consultation with your trousers' pocket ; never to be
pulled up in any rational project by the words, * And the
money?' and, finally, to be able to renew at pleasure the
pink rosettes that adorn the ears of your three thoroughbreds
and the lining of your hat ?

" To such inquiry any ordinary young man (and we our-
selves that are not ordinary men) would reply that the happi-
ness is incomplete ; that it is like the Madeleine without the
altar; that a man must love and be loved, or love without
return, or be loved without loving, or love at cross-purposes.
Now for happiness as a mental condition.

" In January, 1823, after Godefroid de Beaudenord had set
foot in the various social circles which it pleased him to enter,
and knew his way about in them, and felt himself secure amid
these joys, he saw the necessity of a sunshade — the advantage



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did THE FIRM OF NUClNGEN.

of having a great lady to complain of, instead of chewing the
stems of roses bought for ten sous apiece of Madame Provost,
after the manner of the callow youngsters that chirp and cackle
in the lobbies of the opera, like chickens in a coop. In short,
he resolved to centre his ideas, his sentiments, his affections
upon a woman, otu woman I — La Phamme I Ah I

"At first he conceived the preposterous notion of an un-
happy passion, and gyrated for a while about his lair cousin,
Mme. d'Aiglemont, not perceiving that she had already danced
the waltz in * Faust ' with a diplomatist. The year '25 went
by, spent in tentatives, in futile flirtations, and an unsuccessful
quest. The loving object of which he was in search did not
appear. Passion is extremely rare ; and in our time as many
barriers have been raised against passion in social life as barri-
cades in the streets. In truth, my brothers, the * improper *
is gaining upon us, I tell you I

"As we incur reproach for following on the heels of portrait
painters, auctioneers, and fashionable dressmakers, I will not
inflict any description upon you of Her in whom Godefroid
recognized the female of his species. Age, nineteen ; height,
four feet eleven inches ; fair hair, eyebrows idem^ blue eyes,
forehead neither high nor low, curved nose, little mouth,
short turned-up chin, oval face ; distinguishing signs — none.
Such was the description on the passport of the beloved object.
You will not ask more than the police, or their worships the
mayors, of all the towns and communes of France, the gen-
darmes and the rest of the powers that be ? In other respects
— I give you my word for it — she was a rough sketch of a
Venus de* Medici.

" The first time that Godefroid went to one of the balls for
which Madame de Nucingen enjoyed a certain not undeserved
reputation, he caught a glimpse of his future lady-love in a
quadrille, and was set marveling by that height of four feet
eleven inches. The fair hair rippled in a shower of curls
about the little girlish head, she looked as fresh as a naXad



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THE FIRM OP NVCINGEN. 317

peeping out through the crystal pane of her stream to take a
look at the spring flowers. (This is quite in the modern style,
strings of phrases as endless as the macaroni on the table a
while ago.) On that * eyebrows idem ' (no offense to the pre-
fect of police) Pamy, that writer of light and playful verse,
would have hung half-a-dozen couplets, comparing them very
agreeably to Cupid's bow, at the same time bidding us observe
that the dart was beneath ; the said dart, however, was neither
very potent nor very penetrating, for as yet it was controlled
by the namby-pamby sweetness of a Mademoiselle de la Val-
lifere as depicted on fire-screens, at the moment when she
solemnizes her betrothal in the sight of heaven, any solemni-
zation before the registrar being quite out of the question.

*' You know the effect of fair hair and blue eyes in the soft,
voluptuous decorous dance? Such a girl does not knock
audaciously at your heart, like the dark-haired damsels that
seem to say after the fashion of Spanish beggars : * Your money
or your life ; give me five francs or take my contempt ! '
These insolent and somewhat dangerous beauties may find
favor in the sight of many men, but to my thinking the blonde
that has the good-fortune to look extremely tender and
yielding, while foregoing none of her rights to scold, to tease,
to use unmeasured language, to be jealous without grounds,
to do anything, in short, that makes woman adorable — the
fair-haired girl, I say, will be always more sure to marry than
the ardent brunette. Firewood is dear, you see.

"Isaure, white as an Alsacienne (she first saw the light at
Strasbourg, and spoke German with a slight and very agreeable
French accent), danced to admiration. Her feet, omitted on
the passport, though they really might have found a place there
under the heading * Distinguishing Signs,' were remarkable for
their small size, and for that particular something which old*
fashioned dancing-masters used to call flic-flacy a something
that put you in mind of Mademoiselle Mars' agreeable de-
livery, for all the Muses are sisters, and dancer and poet



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818 THE FIRM OF NUaNGEK

alike have their feet upon the earth. Isaure's feet spoke
lightly and swiftly with a clearness and precision which
augured well for the things of the heart. ^EiU a du flic-flac *
(she has some flic-flac), was old Marcel's highest word of
praise, and old Marcel was the dancing-master that deserved
the epithet of 'the Great.' People used to say *the Great
Marcel/ as they said * Frederick the Great/ and in Frederick's
time."

" Did Marcel compose any ballets? " inquired Finot.

"Yes, something in the style ofl^s Quatre jklhnents (The
Four Elements) and r Europe galanie'' (The Gallants of
Europe).
f "What times they were, when great nobles dressed the
' dancers ! " said Finot.

" Improper I " said Bixiou. ** Isaure did not raise herself
on the tips of her toes, she stayed on the ground, she swayed
in the dance without jerks, and neither more nor less volup-
tuously than a young lady ought to do. There was a profound
philosophy in Marcel's remark that every age and condition
has its dance; a married woman should not dance like a
young girl, nor a little jackanapes like a capitalist, nor a sol-
dier like a page ; he even went so far as to say that the in-
fantry ought not to dance like the cavalry, and from this point
he proceeded to classify the world at large. All these fine
distinctions seem very far away."

** Ah ! " said Blondet, '* you have set your finger on a great
calamity. If Marcel had been properly understood, there
would have been no French Revolution."

" It had been Godefroid's privilege to nm over Europe,"
resumed Bixiou, " nor had he neglected his opportunities of
making a thorough comparative study of European dancing.
Perhaps but for profound diligence in the pursuit of what is
usually held to be useless knowledge, he would never have
fallen in love with this young lady ; as it was, out of the three
hundred guests that crowded the handsome rooms in the Rue



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THE FIRM OF NUCINGEN. 819

Saint-Lazare, he alone comprehended the unpublished romance
revealed by a garrulous quadrille. People certainly noticed
Isaure d* Aldrigger's dancing ; but in this present century the
cry is, * Skim lightly over the surface, do not lean your weight
on it ; ' so one said (he was a notary's clerk) : * There is a
girl that dances uncommonly well ; ' another (a lady in a tur-
ban) : * There is a young lady that dances enchantingly ; ' and
a third (a woman of thirty) : * That little thing is not dancing
badly.' But to return to the great Marcel, let us parody his
best-known saying with, * How much there is in an avant-
deuxr'

" And let us get on a little faster," said Blondet ; ** you are
maundering."

'< Isaure," continued Bixiou, looking askance at Blondet,
** wore a simple white crepe dress with green ribbons \ she had
a camellia in her hair, a camellia at her waist, another camellia
at her skirt-hem, and a camellia "

"Come, now I here come Sancho's three hundred goats."

" Therein lies all literature, dear boy. Clarissa is a master-
piece, there are fourteen volumes of her, and the most wooden-
headed playwright would give you the whole of Clarissa in a
single act. So long as I amuse you, what have you to com-
plain of? That costume was positively lovely. Don't you
like camellias ? Would you rather have dahlias? No ? Very
good, chestnuts then, here's for you." (And probably Bixiou
flung a chestnut across the table, for we heard something drop
on a plate.)

** I was wrong, I acknowledge it. Go on," said Blondet.

**I resume. 'Pretty enough to marry, isn't she?' said
Rastignac, coming up to Godefroid de Beaudenord, and in-
dicating the little one with the spotless white camellias, every
petal intact.

** Rastignac being an intimate firiend, Godefroid answered
in a low voice, * Well, so I was thinking. I was saying to
myself that instead of enjoying my happiness with fear and



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890 THE FIRM OF NUCINGEN.

trembling at every moment; instead of taking a world of



Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacA woman of thirty ; The seamy side of history and other stories → online text (page 57 of 63)