Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

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" You are wounded ! " she said.

"Oh, it is nothing, mademoiselle; the cut is healing," re-
plied the young officer.

At this moment the shrill and piercing tones of men in the
street came up to the studio, crying out, "This is the sen-
tence which condemns to death " All three shuddered.

The soldier was the first to hear a name at which he turned

" Labedoyere ! " he exclaimed, dropping on to a stool.

They looked at each other in silence. Drops of sweat gath-
ered on the young man's livid brow; with a gesture of despair
he clutched the black curls of his hair, resting his elbow on
Ginevra's easel.

"After all," said he, starting to his feet, " Labedoyere and
I knew what we were doing. We knew the fate that awaited
us if we triumphed or if we failed. He is dying for the
cause, while I am in hiding "


He hurried towards the studio door; but Ginevra, more
nimble than he, rushed forward and stopped the way.

"Can you restore the Emperor?" she said. "Do you
think you can raise the giant again, when he could not keep
his feet?"

"What then is to become of me?" said the refugee,
addressing the two friends whom chance had sent him. " I
have not a relation in the world ; Labedoyere was my friend
and protector, I am now alone ; to-morrow I shall be exiled
or condemned ; I have never had any fortune but my pay ; I
spent my last crown-piece to come and snatch Labedoyere
from death and get him away. Death is an obvious necessity
to me. When a man is determined to die, he must know
how to sell his head to the executioner. I was thinking just
now that an honest man's life is well worth that of two
traitors, and that a dagger-thrust, judiciously placed, may give
one immortality. "

This passion of despair frightened the painter, and even
Ginevra, who fully understood the young man. The Italian
admired the beautiful head and the delightful voice, of which
the accents of rage scarcely disguised the sweetness ; then
she suddenly dropped balm on all the hapless man's wounds.

" Monsieur ! " said she, "as to your pecuniary difficulties,
allow me to offer you the money I myself have saved. My
father is rich ; I am his only child ; he loves me, and I am
quite sure he will not blame me. Have no scruples in accept-
ing it ; our wealth come j from the Emperor, we have nothing
which is not the bounty of his munificence. Is it not grati-
tude to help one of his faithful soldiers ? So take this money
with as little ceremony as I make about offering it. It is
only money," she added in a scornful tone. "Then, as to
friends you will find friends ! " And she proudly raised her
head, while her eyes shone with unwonted brilliancy. " The
head which must fall to-morrow the mark of a dozen guns
saves yours," she went on. "Wait till this storm is over,


and you can take service in a foreign land if you are not for-
gotten, or in the French army if you are."

In the comfort offered by a woman there is a delicacy of
feeling which always has a touch of something motherly,
something far-seeing and complete ; but when such words
of peace and hope are seconded by grace of gesture, and
the eloquence which comes from the heart, above all, when
the comforter is beautiful, it is hard for a young man to resist.
The young colonel inhaled love by every sense. A faint flush
tinged his white cheeks, and his eyes lost a little of the
melancholy that dimmed them as he said, in a strange tone
of voice, " You are an angel of goodness ! But, Labedoyere !"
he added, " Labedoyere ! "

At this cry they all three looked at each other, speechless,
and understood each other. They were friends, not of twenty
minutes, but of twenty years.

" My dear fellow," said Servin, "can you save him? "

" I can avenge him."

Ginevra was thrilled. Though the stranger was handsome,
his appearance had not moved her. The gentle pity that
women find in their heart for suffering which is not ignoble
had, in Ginevra, stifled every other emotion ; but to hear a
cry of revenge, to find in this fugitive an Italian soul and
Corsican magnanimity ! This was too much for her ; she
gazed at the officer with respectful emotion, which powerfully
stirred her heart. It was the first time a man had ever made
her feel so strongly. Like all women, it pleased her to im-
agine that the soul of this stranger must be in harmony with
the remarkable beauty of his features and the fine proportions
of his figure, which she admired as an artist. Led by chance
curiosity to pity, from pity to eager interest, she now from
interest had reached sensations so strong and deep that she
thought it rash to remain there any longer.

"Till to-morrow," she said, leaving her sweetest smile
with the officer, to console him.


As he saw that smile, which threw a new light, as it were,
on Ginevra's face, the stranger for a moment forgot all else.

"To-morrow," he repeated sadly. "To-morrow, Labe-
doyere "

Ginevra turned to him and laid a finger on her lips, looking
at him as though she would say, "Be calm, be prudent."

Then the young man exclaimed : " O Dio ! Chi non vorrci
vivere dopo aver la veduta /" (" O God ! who would not live
after having seen her ! ") The peculiar accent with which he
spoke the words startled Ginevra.

"You are a Corsican ! " she exclaimed, coming back to
him, her heart beating with gladness.

" I was born in Corsica," he replied ; " but I was taken to
Genoa when very young ; and, as soon as I was of an age to
enter the army, I enlisted."

The stranger's handsome person, the transcendent charm
he derived from his attachment to the Emperor, his wound,
his misfortunes, even his danger, all vanished before Ginevra's
eyes, or rather all were fused in one new and exquisite senti-
ment. This refugee was a son of Corsica, and spoke its be-
loved tongue. In a minute the girl stood motionless, spell-
bound by a magical sensation. She saw before her eyes a
living picture to which a combination of human feeling and
chance lent dazzling hues. At Servin's invitation the officer
had taken his seat on an ottoman, the painter had untied the
string which supported his guest's arm, and was now undoing
the bandages in order to dress the wound. Ginevra shuddered
as she saw the long wide gash, made by a sabre-cut, on the
young man's forearm, and gave a little groan. The stranger
looked up at her and began to smile. There was something
very touching that went to the soul in Servin's attentive care
as he removed the lint and touched the tender flesh, while
the wounded man's face, though pale and sickly, expressed
pleasure rather than suffering as he looked at the young girl.

An artist could not help admiring the antithesis of senti-


ments, and the contrast of color between the whiteness of the
linen and the bare arm and the officer's blue and red coat.
Soft dusk had now fallen on the studio, but a last sunbeam
shone in on the spot where the refugee was sitting, in such a
way that his pale, noble face, his black hair, his uniform were
all flooded with light. This simple effect the superstitious
Italian took for an omen of good-luck. The stranger seemed
to her a celestial messenger who had spoken to her in the
language of her native land, and put her under the spell of
childish memories ; while in her heart a feeling had birth as
fresh and pure as her first age of innocence. In a very short
instant she stood pensive, lost in infinite thought ; then she
blushed to have betrayed her absence of mind, exchanged a
swift, sweet look with the officer, and made her escape, seeing
him still.

The next day there was no painting lesson ; Ginevra could
come to the studio, and the prisoner could be with his fellow-
countrywoman. Servin, who had a sketch to finish, allowed
the officer to sit there while he played guardian to the two
young people who frequently spoke in Corsican. The poor
soldier told of his sufferings during the retreat from Moscow;
for, at the age of nineteen, he had found himself at the
passage of the Beresina, alone of all his regiment, having
lost in his comrades the only men who could care for him, an
orphan. He described, in words of fire, the great disaster of

His voice was music to the Italian girl. Brought up in
Corsican ways, Ginevra was, to some extent, a child of
nature ; falsehood was unknown to her, and she gave herself
up without disguise to her impressions, owning them, or
rather letting them be seen without the trickery, the mean
and calculating vanity of the Parisian girl. During this day
she remained more than once, her palette in one hand, a
brush in the other, while the brush was undipped in the colors
on the palette ; her eyes fixed on the officer's face, her lips


slightly parted, she sat listening, ready to lay on the touch
which was not given. She was not surprised to find such
sweetness in the young man's eyes, for she felt her own soften
in spite of her determination to keep them severe and cold.
Thus, for hours, she painted with resolute attention, not rais-
ing her head because he was there watching her work. The
first time he sat down to gaze at her in silence, she said to
him in an agitated voice, after a long pause, " Does it amuse
you, then, to look on at painting?"

That day she learned that his name was Luigi. Before
they parted it was agreed that if any important political
events should occur on the days when the studio was open,
Ginevra was to inform him by singing in an undertone cer-
tain Italian airs.

On the following day Mademoiselle Thirion informed all
her companions, as a great secret, that Ginevra di Piombo
had a lover a young man who came during the hours de-
voted to lessons to hide in the dark closet of the studio.

"You, who take her part," said she to Mademoiselle
Roguin, "watch her well, and you will see how she spends
her time."

So Ginevra was watched with diabolical vigilance. Her
songs were listened to, her glances spied. At moments when
she believed that no one saw her, a dozen eyes were inces-
santly centred on her. And being forewarned, the girls
interpreted in their true sense the agitations which passed
across the Italian's radiant face, and her snatches of song,
and the attention with which she listened to the muffled
sounds which she alone could hear through the partition.

By the end of a week, only Laure, of the fifteen students,
had resisted the temptation to scrutinize Luigi through the
crack in the panel, or, by an instinct of weakness, still de-
fended the beautiful Corsican girl. Mademoiselle Roguin
wanted to make her wait on the stairs at the hour when they
all left, to prove to her the intimacy between Ginevra and the


handsome young man by finding them together ; but she re-
fused to condescend to an espionage which curiosity could not
justify, and thus became an object of general reprobation.

Ere long the daughter of the gentleman usher thought it
unbecoming in her to work in the studio of a painter whose
opinions were tainted with patriotism or Bonapartism which
at that time were regarded as one and the same thing ; so she
came no more to Servin's. Though Amelie forgot Ginevra,
the evil she had sown bore fruit. Insensibly, by chance, for
gossip or out of prudery, the other damsels informed their
mothers of the strange adventure in progress at the studio.
One day Mathilde Roguin did not come; the next time
another was absent ; at last the three or four pupils, who had
still remained, came no more. Ginevra and her little friend,
Mademoiselle Laure, were for two or three days the sole occu-
pants of the deserted studio.

The Italian did not observe the isolation in which she was
left, and did not even wonder at the cause of her companions'
absence. Having devised the means of communicating with
Luigi, she lived in the studio as in a delightful retreat, secluded
in the midst of the world, thinking only of the officer, and of
the dangers which threatened him. This young creature,
though sincerely admiring those noble characters who would
not be false to their political faith, urged Luigi to submit at
once to royal authority, in order to keep him in France, while
Luigi refused to submit, that he might not have to leave his

If, indeed, passions only have their birth and grow up under
the influence of romantic clauses, never had so many cir-
cumstances occurred to link two beings by one feeling. Gi-
nevra's regard for Luigi, and his for her, thus made greater
progress in a month than a fashionable friendship can make
in ten years in a drawing-room. Is not adversity the touch-
stone of character? Hence Ginevra could really appreciate
Luigi, and know him, and they soon felt a reciprocal esteem.


Ginevra, who was older than Luigi, found it sweet to be courted
by a young man already so great, so tried by fortune, who
united the experience of a man with the graces of youth.
Luigi, on his part, felt an unspeakable delight in allowing
himself to be apparently protected by a girl of five-and-twenty.
Was it not a proof of love ? The union in Ginevra of pride
and sweetness, of strength and weakness, had an irresistible
charm ; Luigi was indeed completely her slave. In short,
they were already so deeply in love that they felt no need
either to deny it themselves nor to tell it.

One day, towards evening, Ginevra heard the signal agreed
on. Luigi tapped on the woodwork with a pin, so gently as to
make no more noise than a spider attaching its thread thus
asking if he might come out. She glanced round the studio,
did not see little Laure, and answered the summons ; but as the
door was opened, Luigi caught sight of the girl, and hastily
retreated. Ginevra, much surprised, looked about her, saw
Laure, and, going up to her easel, said, " You are staying very
late, dear. And that head seems to me finished ; there is only
a reflected light to put in on that lock of hair."

"It would be very kind of you," said Laure, in a tremu-
lous voice, " if you would correct this copy for me ; I should
have something of your doing to keep."

"Of course I will," said Ginevra, sure of thus dismissing
her. " I thought," she added, as she put in a few light
touches, " that you had a long way to go home from the

"Oh! Ginevra, I am going away for good," cried the
girl, sadly.

"You are leaving Monsieur Servin ? " asked the Italian,
not seeming affected by her words, as she would have been a
month since.

" Have you not noticed, Ginevra, that for some time there
has been nobody here but you and I ? "

"It is true," replied Ginevra, suddenly struck as by a remi-


niscence. " Are they ill, or going to be married, or are all
their fathers employed now at the palace ? ' '

"They have all left Monsieur Servin," said Laure.

"And why?"

"On your account, Ginevra."

" Mine ! " repeated the Corsican, rising, with a threatening
brow, and a proud sparkle in her eyes.

" Oh, do not be angry, dear Ginevra," Laure piteously
exclaimed. "But my mother wishes that I should leave too.
All the young ladies said that you had an intrigue; that
Monsieur Servin had lent himself to allowing a young man
who loves you to stay in the dark closet ; but I never be-
lieved these calumnies, and did not tell my mother. Last
evening Madame Roguin met my mother at a ball, and asked
her whether she still sent me here. When mamma said
'Yes,' she repeated all those girls' tales. Mamma scolded
me well ; she declared I must have known it all, and that I
had failed in the confidence of a daughter in her mother by
not telling her. Oh, my dear Ginevra, I, who always took
you for my model, how grieved I am not to be allowed to
stay on with you "

"We shall meet again in the world; young women get
married," said Ginevra.

" When they are rich," replied Laure.

" Come to see me, my father has wealth "

"Ginevra," Laure went on, much moved, "Madame Ro-
guin and my mother are coming to-morrow to see Monsieur
Servin, and complain of his conduct. At least let him be

A thunderbolt falling at her feet would have astonished
Ginevra less than this announcement.

" What could it matter to them? " she innocently asked.

"Every one thinks it very wrong. Mamma says it is
quite improper."

" And you, Laure, what do you think about it?"


The girl looked at Ginevra, and their hearts met. Laure
could no longer restrain her tears ; she threw herself on her
friend's neck and kissed her. At this moment Servin came

"Mademoiselle Ginevra," he said, enthusiastically, " I have
finished my picture, it is being varnished. But what is the
matter ? All the young ladies are making holiday, it would
seem, or are gone into the country."

Laure wiped away her tears, took leave of Servin, and went

"The studio has been deserted for some days," said Gi-
nevra, " and those young ladies will return no more."


"Nay, do not laugh," said Ginevra, "listen to me. I am
the involuntary cause of your loss of repute."

The artist smiled, and said, interrupting his pupil, " My
repute ? But in a few days my picture will be exhibited."

" It is not your talent that is in question," said the Italian
girl; "but your morality. The young ladies have spread a
report that Luigi is shut up here, ana that you lent yourself
to our love-making."

"There is some truth in that, mademoiselle," replied the
professor. "The girls' mothers are airified prudes," he went
on. " If they had but come to me, everything would have
been explained. But what do I care for such things ? Life is
too short ! "

And the painter snapped his fingers in the air.

Luigi, who had heard part of the conversation, came out
of his cupboard.

"You are losing all your pupils," he cried, "and I shall
have been your ruin ! "

The artist took his hand and Ginevra's and joined them.
" Will you marry each other, my children ? " he asked, with
touching bluntness. They both looked down, and their
silence was their first mutual confession of love. " Well,"


said Servin, "and you will be happy, will you not? Can
anything purchase such happiness as that of two beings like

"I am rich," said Ginevra, "if you will allow me to
indemnify you "

"Indemnify ! " Servin broke in. " Why, as soon as it is
known that I have been the victim of a few little fools, and
that I have sheltered a fugitive, all the Liberals in Paris will
send me their daughters ! Perhaps I shall be in your debt

Luigi grasped his protector's hand, unable to speak a
word ; but at last he said, in a broken voice, " To you I
shall owe all my happiness."

"Be happy; I unite you," said the painter with comic
unction, laying his hands on the heads of the lovers.

This pleasantry put an end to their emotional mood. They
looked at each other, and all three laughed. The Italian
girl wrung Luigi's hand with a passionate grasp, and with a
simple impulse worthy of her Corsican traditions.

"Ah, but, my dear children," said Servin, "you fancy
that now everything will go on swimmingly ? Well, you are
mistaken." They looked at him in amazement.

" Do not be alarmed ; I am the only person inconveni-
enced by your giddy behavior. But Madame Servin is the
pink of propriety, and I really do not know how we shall
settle matters with her."

" Heavens ! I had forgotten. To-morrow Madame Roguin
and Laure's mother are coming to you "

" I understand ! " said the painter, interrupting her.

" But you can justify yourself," said the girl, with a toss of
her head of emphatic pride. " Monsieur Luigi," and she
turned to him with an arch look, " has surely no longer an
antipathy for the King's government? Well, then," she
went on, after seeing him smile, " to-morrow morning I shall
address a petition to one of the most influential persons at


the ministry of war, a man who can refuse the Baron di
Piombo's daughter nothing. We will obtain a tacit pardon
for Captain Luigi for they will not recognize your grade as
colonel. And you," she added, speaking to Servin, "may
annihilate the mammas of my charitable young companions
by simply telling them the truth."

" You are an angel ! " said Servin.

While this scene was going on at the studio, Ginevra's
father and mother were impatiently expecting her return.

"It is six o'clock, and Ginevra is not yet home," said

" She was never so late before," replied his wife.

The old people looked at each other with all the signs of
very unusual anxiety. Bartolomeo, too much excited to sit
still, rose and paced the room twice, briskly enough for a
man of seventy-seven. Thanks to a strong constitution, he
had changed but little since the day of his arrival at Paris,
and tall as he was, he was still upright. His hair, thin and
white now, had left his head bald, a broad and bossy skull
which gave token of great strength and firmness. His face,
deeply furrowed, had grown full and wide, with the pale
complexion that inspires veneration. The fire of a passionate
nature still lurked in the unearthly glow of his eyes, and the
brows, which were not quite white, preserved their terrible
mobility. The aspect of the man was severe, but it could be
seen that Bartolomeo had the right to be so. His kindness
and gentleness were known only to his wife and daughter.
In his official position, or before strangers, he never set aside
the majesty which time had lent to his appearance ; and his
habit of knitting those thick brows, of setting every line in
his face, and assuming a Napoleonic fixity of gaze, made him
seem as cold as marble.

In the course of his political life he had been so generally
feared that he was thought unsociable ; but it is not difficult
to find the causes of such a reputation. Piombo's life, habits,


and fidelity were a censure on most of the courtiers. Not-
withstanding the secret missions intrusted to his discretion,
which to any other man would have proved lucrative, he had
not more than thirty thousand francs a year in government
securities. And when we consider the low price of stock
under the Empire, and Napoleon's liberality to those of his
faithful adherents who knew how to ask, it is easy to perceive
that the Baron di Piombo was a man of stern honesty ; he
owed his Baron's plumage only to the necessity of bearing a
title when sent by Napoleon to a foreign court.

Bartolomeo had always professed implacable hatred of the
traitors whom Napoleon had gathered about him, believing
he could win them over by his victories. It was he so it
was said who took three steps towards the door of the Em-
peror's room, after advising him to get rid of three men then
in France, on the day before he set out on his famous and
brilliant campaign of 1814. Since the second return of the
Bourbons, Bartolomeo had ceased to wear the ribbon of the
Legion of Honor. No man ever offered a finer image of the
old Republicans, the incorruptible supporters of the Empire,
who survived as the living derelicts of the two most vigorous
governments the world has perhaps ever seen. If Baron di
Piombo had displeased some courtiers, Daru, Drouot, and Car-
not were his friends. And, indeed, since Waterloo, he cared
no more about other political figures than for the puffs of smoke
he blew from his cigar.

With the moderate sum which Madame, Napoleon's mother,
had paid him for his estates in Corsica, Bartolomeo di Piombo
had acquired the old Hotel de Portenduere, in which he made
no alterations. Living almost always in official residences at
the cost of the government, he had resided in this mansion
only since the catastrophe of Fontainebleau. Like all simple
folks of lofty character, the Baron and his wife cared nothing
for external splendor; they still used the old furniture they
had found in the house. The reception-rooms of this dwell-


ing, lofty, gloomy, and bare, the huge mirrors set in old gilt
frames almost black with age, the furniture from the time of
Louis XIV., were in keeping with Bartolomeo and his wife
figures worthy of antiquity. Under the Empire, and during
the Hundred Days, while holding offices that brought hand-
some salaries, the old Corsican had kept house in grand style,
but rather to do honor to his position than with a view to

His life and that of his wife and daughter were so frugal,
so quiet, that their modest fortune sufficed for their needs.
To them their child Ginevra outweighed all the riches on
earth. And when, in May, 1814, Baron di Piombo resigned

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 27 of 31)