Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

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young ladies during the Hundred Days. Did she ever say a
word that could hurt them? On the contrary, she avoided



318 THE VENDETTA.

talking politics. But our ultras seem to be prompted by
jealousy rather than by party spirit."

" I have a great mind to fetch Mademoiselle Piombo's easel
and place it by mine," said Mathilde Roguin. She rose, but
on second thoughts she sat down again. " With a spirit like
Mademoiselle Ginevra's," said she, " it is impossible to know
how she would take our civility. Let us wait and see," and
she resumed her work at the easel.

" Eccola!" said the black-eyed girl languidly. In fact,
the sound of footsteps coming upstairs was heard in the studio.
The words, " Here she comes !" passed from mouth to mouth,
and then perfect silence fell.

To understand the full importance of the ostracism carried
into effect by Amelie Thirion, it must be told that this scene
took place towards the end of the month of July, 1815. The
second restoration of the Bourbons broke up many friendships
which had weathered the turmoil of the first. At this time
families, almost always divided among themselves, renewed
many of the most deplorable scenes which tarnish the history
of all countries at periods of civil or religious struggles.
Children, young girls, old men, had caught the monarchical
fever from which the government was suffering. Discord flew
in under the domestic roof, and suspicion dyed in gloomy
hues the most intimate conversations and actions.

Ginevra di Piombo idolized Napoleon; indeed, how could
she have hated him? The Emperor was her fellow-country-
man, and her father's benefactor. Baron di Piombo was one
of Napoleon's followers who had most efficiently worked to
bring him back from Elba. Incapable of renouncing his
political faith, nay, eager to proclaim it, Piombo had re-
mained in Paris in the midst of enemies. Hence Ginevra di
Piombo was ranked with the "suspicious characters," all the
more so because she made no secret of the regret her family
felt at the second restoration. The only tears she had per-
haps ever shed in her life were wrung from her by the twofold



THE VENDETTA. 319

tidings of Bonaparte's surrender on board the Bellerophon
and the arrest of Labedoyere.

The young ladies forming the aristocratic party in the studio
belonged to the most enthusiastically Royalist families of Paris.
It would be difficult to give any idea of the exaggerated feel-
ings of the time, and of the horror felt towards Bonapartists.
However mean and trivial Amelie Thirion's conduct may
seem to-day, it was then a very natural demonstration of
hatred. Ginevra di Piombo, one of Servin's earliest pupils,
had occupied the place of which they wished to deprive her
ever since the first day she had come to the studio. The
aristocratic group had gradually settled round her; and to
turn her out of a place, which in a certain sense belonged to
her, was not merely to insult her, but to cause her some pain,
for all artists have a predilection for the spot where they work.

However, political hostility had perhaps not much to do
with the conduct of this little studio party of the right.
Ginevra di Piombo, the most accomplished of Servin's pupils,
was an object of the deepest jealousy. The master professed
an equal admiration for the talents and the character of this
favorite pupil, who served as the standard of all his compari-
sons; and, indeed, while it was impossible to explain the
ascendency this young girl exercised over all who were about
her, she enjoyed in this small world an influence resembling
that of Bonaparte over his soldiers. The aristocratic clique
had, some days since, resolved on the overthrow of this
queen ; but as no one had been bold enough to repulse the
Bonapartists, Mademoiselle Thirion had just struck the deci-
sive blow so as to make her companions the accomplices of
her hatred. Though Ginevra was really beloved by some of
the Royalist party, who at home were abundantly lectured on
politics, with the tact peculiar to women, they judged it best
not to interfere in the quarrel.

On entering, Ginevra was received in perfect silence. Of
all the girls who had yet appeared at Servin's studio, she was



320 THE VENDETTA.

the handsomest, the tallest, and the most finely made. Her
gait had a stamp of dignity and grace which commanded
respect. Her face, full of intelligence, seemed radiant, it
was so transfused with the animation peculiar to Corsicans,
which does not exclude calmness. Her abundant hair, her
eyes, and their black lashes told of passion. Though the
corners of her mouth were softly drawn and her lips a little
too thick, they had the kindly expression which strong people
derive from the consciousness of strength. By a singular
freak of nature the charm of her features was in some sort
belied by a marble forehead stamped with an almost savage
pride, and the traditional habits of Corsica. That was the
only bond between her and her native land ; in every other
detail of her person the simplicity and freedom of Lombard
beauties were so bewitching, that only in her absence could
any one bear to cause her the smallest pain. She was, indeed,
so attractive, that her old father, out of prudence, never
allowed her to walk alone to the studio.

The only fault of this really poetic creature came of the
very power of such fully developed beauty. She had refused
to marry, out of affection for her father and mother, feeling
herself necessary to them in their old age. Her taste for
painting had taken the place of the passions which commonly
agitate women.

"You are all very silent to-day," she said, after coming
forward a step or two. "Good-morning, my little Laure,"
she added in a gentle, caressing tone, as she went up to
the young girl who was painting apart from the rest. " That
head is very good. The flesh is a little too pink, but it is all
capitally drawn."

Laure raised her head, looked at Ginevra much touched,
and their faces brightened with an expression of mutual affec-
tion. A faint smile gave life to the Italian's lips, but she
seemed pensive, and went slowly to her place, carelessly glanc-
ing at the drawings and pictures, and saying good-morning to



THE VENDETTA. 321

each of the girls of the first group, without observing the
unusual curiosity excited by her presence. She might have
been a queen amid her court. She did not observe the deep
silence that reigned among the aristocrats, and passed their
camp without saying a word. Her absence of mind was so
complete that she went to her easel, opened her paint-box,
took out her brushes, slipped on her brown linen cuffs, tied
her apron, examined her palette, all without thinking, as it
seemed, of what she was doing. All the heads of the humbler
group were turned to look at her. And if the young ladies
of the Thirion faction were less frankly impatient than their
companions, their side glances were nevertheless directed to
Ginevra.

" She notices nothing," said Mademoiselle Roguin.

At this moment Ginevra, roused from the meditative atti-
tude in which she had gazed at her canvas, turned her head
towards the aristocratic party. With one glance she measured
the distance that lay between them, and held her peace.

" It has not occurred to her that they meant to insult her,"
said Mathilde. " She has neither colored nor turned pale.
How provoked those young ladies will be if she likes her new
place better than the old one ! You are quite apart there,
mademoiselle," she added louder, and addressing Ginevra.

The Italian girl affected not to hear, or perhaps she did not
hear ; she hastily rose, walked rather slowly along the parti-
tion which divided the dark closet from the studio, seeming
to examine the skylight from which the light fell ; and to this
she ascribed so much importance that she got upon a chair to
fasten the green baize which interfered with the light, a good
deal higher. At this elevation she was on a level with a
small crack in the boarding, the real object of her efforts, for
the look she cast through it can only be compared with that
of a miser discovering Aladdin's treasure. She quickly
descended, came back to her place, arranged her picture,
affected still to be dissatisfied with the light, pushed a table
21



322 THE VENDETTA.

close to the partition, and placed a chair on it ; then she
nimbly mounted this scaffolding, and again peeped through
the crack. She gave but one look into the closet, which was
lighted by a window at the top of the partition, but what she
saw impressed her so vividly that she started.

" You will fall, Mademoiselle Ginevra ! " cried Laure.

All the girls turned to look at their imprudent companion,
who was tottering. The fear of seeing them gather round her
gave her courage ; she recovered her strength and her balance,
and, dancing on the chair, she turned to Laure and said with
some agitation :

" Bah ! It is at any rate safer than a throne ! "

She quickly arranged the baize, came down, pushed the
table and the chair far from the partition, returned to her
easel, and made a few more attempts, seeming to try for an
effect of light that suited her. Her picture did not really
trouble her at all ; her aim was to get close to the dark closet
by which she placed herself, as she wished, at the end near
the door. Then she prepared to set her palette, still in per-
fect silence. Where she now was she soon heard more dis-
tinctly a slight noise which, on the day before, had greatly
stirred her curiosity, and sent her young imagination wander-
ing over a wide field of conjecture. She easily recognized it
as the deep, regular breathing of the sleeping man whom she
had just now seen. Her curiosity was satisfied, but she found
herself burdened with an immense responsibility. Through
the crack she had caught sight of the imperial eagle, and on
a camp bed, in the dim light, had seen the figure of an officer
of the Guards. She guessed it all. Servin was sheltering a
refugee.

She now trembled lest one of her companions should come
to examine her picture, and should hear the unfortunate man
breathe or heave too deep a sigh, such as had fallen on her
ear during yesterday's lesson. She resolved to remain near
the door, and trust to her wits to cheat the tricks of fate.



THE VENDETTA. 323

"I had better remain here," thought she, "to prevent
some disaster, than leave the poor prisoner at the mercy of
some giddy prank. ' '

This was the secret of Ginevra's apparent indifference when
she found her easel transplanted ; she was secretly delighted,
since she had been able to satisfy her curiosity in a natural
manner; and, besides, she was too much absorbed at this
moment to inquire into the reason of her exclusion. Nothing
is more mortifying to young girls, or indeed to any one, than
to see a practical joke, an insult, or a witticism fail of its effect
in consequence of the victim's contempt. It would seem that
our hatred of an enemy is increased by the height to which
he can rise above us.

Ginevra's conduct remained a riddle to all her companions.
Her friends and her foes were alike surprised, for she was
allowed to have every good quality excepting forgiveness of
injuries. Though the opportunities for showing this vice of
temper had rarely been offered to Ginevra by the incidents
of studio life, the instances she had happened to give of her
vindictive spirit and determination had none the less made
a deep impression on her companions' minds. After many
guesses, Mademoiselle Roguin finally regarded the Italian's
silence as evidence of a magnanimity above all praise ; and
her party, inspired by her, conceived a plan to humiliate the
aristocrats of the studio. They achieved their purpose by a
fire of sarcasms directed at the pride and airs of the party of
the right.

Madame Servin's arrival put an end to this contest of self-
assertiveness. Amelie, with the shrewdness which is always
coupled with malice, had remarked, watched, and wondered
at the excessive absence of mind which hindered Ginevra
from hearing the keenly polite dispute of which she was the
subject. The revenge which Mademoiselle Roguin and her
followers were wreaking on Mademoiselle Thirion and her
party had thus the fatal effect of setting the young ultras to



324 THE VENDETTA.

discover the cause of Ginevra's absorbed silence. The beau-
tiful Italian became the centre of observation, and was watched
by her friends as much as by her enemies. It is very difficult
to hide the slightest excitement, the most trifling feeling from
fifteen idle and inquisitive girls whose mischief and wits crave
only for secrets to guess and intrigues to plot or to baffle,
and who can ascribe to a gesture, to a glance, to a word, so
many meanings, that they can hardly fail to discover the true
one. Thus Ginevra di Piombo's secret was in great peril of
being found out.

At this moment Madame Servin's presence produced a di-
version in the drama that was being obscurely played at the
bottom of these young hearts ; while its sentiments, its ideas,
its development were expressed by almost allegorical words,
by significant looks, by gestures, and even by silence, often
more emphatic than speech.

The moment Madame Servin came into the studio her eyes
turned to the door by which Ginevra was standing. Under
the present circumstances this look was not lost. If at first
none of the maidens observed it, Mademoiselle Thirion remem-
bered it afterwards, and accounted for the suspiciousness, the
alarm, and mystery which gave a hunted expression to Madame
Servin's eyes.

" Mesdemoiselles," she said, " Monsieur Servin cannot come
to-day." Then she paid some little compliment to each pupil,
all of them welcoming her in the girlish caressing way which
lies as much in the voice and eyes as in actions. She imme-
diately went to Ginevra under an impulse of uneasiness, which
she vainly tried to conceal. The Italian and the painter's
wife exchanged friendly nods and then stood in silence, one
painting, the other watching her paint. The officer's breath-
ing was easily audible, but Madame Servin could take no
notice of it; and her dissimulation was so complete that
Ginevra was tempted to accuse her of willful deafness. At
this moment the stranger turned on the bed. The Italian girl



THE VENDETTA. 325

looked Madame Servin steadily in the face, and, without be-
traying the smallest agitation, the lady said, "Your copy is as
fine as the original. If I had to choose, I should really be
puzzled. ' '

" Monsieur Servin has not let his wife into the secret of this
mystery," thought Ginevra, who, after answering the young
wife with a gentle smile of incredulity, sang a snatch of some
national canzonetta to cover any sounds the prisoner might
make.

It was so unusual to hear the studious Italian sing that all
the girls looked at her in surprise. Later this incident served
as evidence to the charitable suppositions of hatred. Madame
Servin soon went away, and the hours of study ended without
further event. Ginevra let all her companions leave, affect-
ing to work on ; but she unconsciously betrayed her wish to
be alone, for as the pupils made ready to go she looked at
them with ill-disguised impatience. Mademoiselle Thirion,
who within these few hours had become a cruel foe to the
young girl who was her superior in everything, guessed by
the instinct of hatred that her rival's affected industry covered
a mystery. She had been struck more than once by the atten-
tion with which Ginevra seemed to be listening to a sound no
one else could hear. The expression she now read in the
Italian's eyes was as a flash of illumination. She was the last to
leave, and went in on her way down to see Madame Servin, with
whom she stayed a few minutes. Then, pretending that she
had forgotten her bag, she very softly went upstairs again to the
studio, and discovered Ginevra at the stop of a hastily-con-
structed scaffolding, so lost in contemplation of the unknown
soldier that she did not hear the light sound of her compan-
ion's footsteps. It is true that Amelie walked on eggs to use
a phrase of Walter Scott's ; she retired to the door and
coughed. Ginevra started, turned her head, saw her enemy,
and colored ; then she quickly untied the blind, to mislead
her as to her purpose, and came down. After putting away



326 THE VENDETTA.

her paint-box, she left the studio, carrying stamped upon her
heart the image of a man's head as charming as the Endy-
mion, Girodet's masterpiece, which she had copied a few days
previously.

"So young a man, and proscribed! Who can he be?
for it is not Marshal Ney."

These two sentences are the simplest expression of all the
ideas which Ginevra turned over in her mind during two days.
The next day but one, notwithstanding her hurry to be first
at the painting gallery, she found that Mademoiselle Thirion
had already come in a carriage. Ginevra and her enemy
watched each other for some time, but each kept her counte-
nance impenetrable by the other. Amelie had seen the
stranger's handsome face ; but happily, and at the same time
unhappily, the eagles and the uniform were not within the
range of her eye through the crack. She lost herself in con-
jecture. Suddenly Servin came in, much earlier than usual.

" Mademoiselle Ginevra," said he, after casting an eye
round the gallery, "why have you placed yourself there ?
The light is bad. Come nearer to these young ladies, and
lower your blind a little."

Then he sat down by Laure, whose work deserved his most
lenient criticism.

" Well done ! " he exclaimed, "this head is capitally done.
You will be a second Ginevra."

The master went from easel to easel, blaming, flattering,
and jesting ; and making himself, as usual, more feared for
his jests than for his reproofs.

The Italian had not obeyed his wishes; she remained at
her post with the firm intention of staying there. She took
out a sheet of paper and began to sketch in sepia the head of
the unhappy refugee. A work conceived of with passion
always bears a particular stamp. The faculty of giving truth
to a rendering of nature or of a thought constitutes genius,
and passion can often take its place. Thus in the circum-



THE VENDETTA. 327

stances in which Ginevra found herself, either the intuition
she owed to her memory, which had been deeply struck, or
perhaps necessity, the mother of greatness, lent her a super-
natural flash of talent. The officer's head was thrown off on
the paper with an inward trembling that she ascribed to fear,
and which a physiologist would have recognized as the fever
of inspiration. From time to time she stole a furtive glance
at her companions, so as to be able to hide the sketch in case
of any indiscretion on their part. But, in spite of her sharp
lookout, there was a moment when she failed to perceive
that her relentless enemy, under the shelter of a huge port-
folio, had turned her eyeglass on the mysterious drawing.
Mademoiselle Thirion, recognizing the refugee's features,
raised her head suddenly, and Ginevra slipped away the sheet
of paper.

"Why do you stay there, in spite of my opinion, Made-
moiselle ! " the professor gravely asked Ginevra.

The girl hastily turned her easel so that no one could see
her sketch, and said, in an agitated voice, as she showed it to
her master.

" Don't you think with me that this is a better light ? May
I not stay where I am ? "

Servin turned pale. As nothing can escape the keen eyes
of hatred, Mademoiselle Thirion threw herself, so to speak,
into the excited feelings that agitated the professor and his
pupil.

"You are right," said Servin. "But you will soon
know more than I do," he added, with a forced laugh.
There was a silence, during which the master looked at
the head of the officer. "This is a masterpiece, worthy
of Salvator Rosa!" he exclaimed, with an artist's vehe-
mence.

At this exclamation all the young people rose, and Made-
moiselle Thirion came forward with the swiftness of a tiger
springing on its prey. At this instant the prisoner, roused



328 THE VENDETTA.

by the turmoil, woke up. Ginevra overset her stool, spoke a
few incoherent sentences, and began to laugh ; but she had
folded the portrait in half and thrown it into a portfolio
before her terrible enemy could see it. The girls crowded
round the easel ; Servin enlarged in a loud voice on the beau-
ties of the copy on which his favorite pupil was just now
engaged ; and all the party were cheated by this stratagem,
excepting Amelie, who placed herself behind her companions
and tried to open the portfolio into which she had seen the
sketch put. Ginevra seized it and set it in front of her
without a word, and the two girls gazed at each other in
silence.

" Come, young ladies, to your places ! " said Servin. " If
you want to know as much as Mademoiselle di Piombo, you
must not be always talking of fashions and balls, and trifling
so much."

When the girls had all returned to their easels, the master
sat down by Ginevra.

" Was it not better that this mystery should be discovered
by me than by any one else?" said the Italian girl in a low
tone.

"Yes," answered the painter. "You are patriotic; but
even if you had not been, you are still the person to whom
I should intrust it."

The master and pupil understood each other, and Ginevra
was not now afraid to ask, " Who is he ! "

"An intimate friend of Labedoyere's ; the man who, next
to the unfortunate colonel, did most to effect a junction be-
tween the Seventh and the Grenadiers of Elba. He was a
major in the Guards, and has just come back from Waterloo."

" Why have you not burnt his uniform and shako, and put
him into civilian dress? " asked Ginevra vehemently.

" Some clothes are to be brought for him this evening."

" You should have shut up the studio for a few days."

" He is going away."



THE VENDETTA. 329

"Does he wish to die?" said the girl. "Let him stay
with you during these first days of the storm. Paris is the
only place in France where a man may be safely hidden. Is
he a friend of yours ? ' ' she added.

" No. He has no claim to my regard but his misfortunes.
This is how he fell into my hands ; my father-in-law, who
had rejoined his regiment during this campaign, met the poor
young man, and saved him very cleverly from those who have
arrested Labedoyere. He wanted to defend him, like a
madman ! "

" And do you call him so ! " cried Ginevra, with a glance
of surprise at the painter, who did not speak for a mo-
ment.

"My father-in-law is too closely watched to be able to
keep any one in his house," he went on. "He brought
him here by night last week. I hoped to hide him from
every eye by keeping him in this corner, the only place in
the house where he can be safe."

"If I can be of any use, command me," said Ginevra.
"I know Marshal Feltre."

" Well, we shall see," replied the painter.

This conversation had lasted too long not to be remarked
by all the other pupils. Servin left Ginevra, came back
to each easel, and gave such long lessons that he was still
upstairs when the clock struck the hour at which his pupils
usually left.

"You have forgotten your bag, mademoiselle," cried the
professor, running after the young lady, who condescended to
act the spy to gratify her hatred.

The inquisitive pupil came back for the bag, expressing
some surprise at her own carelessness ; but Servin's attention
was to her additional proof of the existence of a mystery
which was undoubtedly a serious one. She had already
planned what should follow, and could say, like the Abb6
Vertot, " I have laid my siege." She ran downstairs noisily,



330 THE VENDETTA.

and violently slammed the door leading to Servin's rooms,
that it might be supposed she had gone out ; but she
softly went upstairs again, and hid behind the door of the
studio.

When the painter and Ginevra supposed themselves alone,
he tapped in a particular manner at the door of the attic,
which at once opened on its rusty, creaking hinges. The
Italian girl saw a tall and well-built youth, whose imperial
uniform set her heart beating. The officer carried his arm in
a sling, and his pale face told of acute suffering. He started
at seeing her, a stranger. Amelie, who could see nothing,
was afraid to stay any longer; but she had heard the creaking
of the door, and that was enough. She silently stole away.

" Fear nothing," said the painter. " Mademoiselle is the
daughter of the Emperor's most faithful friend, the Baron di
Piombo."

The young officer felt no doubt of Ginevra's loyalty when
once he had looked at her.



Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 26 of 31)