Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

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left a sort of large closet which Luigi had arranged for his
beloved wife, where she found easels, her paint-box, some
casts, models, lay figures, pictures, portfolios ; in short, all the
apparatus of an artist.

" Here I shall work," said she, with childlike glee.

She looked for a long time at the paper and the furniture,
constantly turning to Luigi to thank him, for there was a
kind of magnificence in this humble retreat ; a bookcase con-
tained Ginevra's favorite books, and there was a piano. She

* The other : Napoleon.


sat down on an ottoman, drew Luigi to her side, and clasping
his hand, "You have such good taste," said she, in a caress-
ing tone.

"Your words make me very happy," he replied.

"But come, let us see everything," said Ginevra, from
whom Luigi had hitherto kept the secret of this charming
little home.

They went into a bridal chamber that was as fresh and
white as a maiden.

" Oh ! come away," said Luigi, laughing.

"But I must see everything," and Ginevra imperiously
went on, examining all the furniture with the curiosity of an
antiquary studying a medal. She touched the silk stuff and
scrutinized everything with the childlike delight of a bride
turning over the treasures of the wedding basket brought her
by her husband.

" We have begun by ruining ourselves," she said in a half-
glad, half-regretful tone.

" It is true ; all my arrears of pay are there," replied Luigi.
" I sold it to a good fellow named Gigonnet."

"Why?" she asked, in a reproachful voice, which be-
trayed, however, a secret satisfaction. " Do you think I
should be less happy under a bare roof? Still," she went on,
" it is all very pretty, and it is ours ! "

Luigi looked at her with such enthusiasm that she cast down
her eyes, and said, "Let us see the rest."

Above these three rooms, in the attics, were a workroom
for Luigi, a kitchen, and a servant's room. Ginevra was
content with her little domain, though the view was limited
by the high wall of a neighboring house, and the courtyard
on which the rooms looked was gloomy. But the lovers were
so glad of heart, hope so beautified the future, that they would
see nothing but enchantment in their mysterious dwelling.
They were buried in this huge house, lost in the immensity
of Paris, like two pearls in their shell, in the bosom of the


deep sea. For any one else it would have been a prison : to
them it was paradise.

The first days of their married life were given to love ; it
was difficult for them to devote themselves at once to work,
and they could not resist the fascination of their mutual pas-
sion. Luigi would recline for hours at his wife's feet,
admiring the color of her hair, the shape of her forehead,
the exquisite setting of her eyes, the purity and whiteness of
the arched brow beneath which they slowly rose or fell, ex-
pressing the happiness of satisfied love. Ginevra stroked her
Luigi's locks, never tiring of gazing at what she called, in
one of her own phrases, the belta folgorante of the young man,
and his delicately cut features ; always fascinated by the
dignity of his manners, while always charming him by the
grace of her own. They played like children with the merest
trifles, these trifles always brought them back to their passion,
and they ceased playing only to lapse into the day dreams of
far niente. An air sung by Ginevra would reproduce for
them the exquisite hues of their love.

Or, matching their steps as they had matched their souls,
they wandered about the country, finding their love in every-
thing, in the flowers, in the sky, in the heart of the fiery glow
of the setting sun ; they read it even in the changing clouds
that were tossed on the winds. No day was ever like the last,
their love continued to grow because it was true. In a very
few days they had proved each other, and had instinctively
perceived that their souls were of such a temper that their
inexhaustible riches seemed to promise ever-new joys for the
future. This was love in all its fresh candor, with its endless
prattle, its unfinished sentences, its long silences, its oriental
restfulness and ardor. Luigi and Ginevra had wholly under-
stood love. Is not love like the sea, which, seen superficially
or in haste, is accused of monotony by vulgar minds, while
certain privileged beings can spend all their life admiring it
and finding in it changeful phenomena which delight them ?


One day, however, prudence dragged the young couple
from their Garden of Eden ; they must work for their
living. Ginevra, who had a remarkable talent for copying
pictures, set to work to produce copies, and formed a connec-
tion among dealers. Luigi, too, eagerly sought some
occupation ; but it was difficult for a young officer, whose
talents were limited to a thorough knowledge of tactics, to find
any employment in Paris. At last, one day when, weary of
his vain efforts, he felt despair in his soul at seeing that the
whole burthen of providing for their existence rested on Gi-
nevra, it occurred to him that he might earn something by
his handwriting, which was beautiful. With a perseverance,
of which his wife had set the example, he went to ask work
of the attorneys, the notaries, and the pleaders of Paris.
The frankness of his manners and his painful situation greatly
interested people in his favor, and he got enough copying to
be obliged to employ youths under him. Presently he took
work on a larger scale. The income derived from this office-
work and the price of Ginevra's paintings put the young
household on a footing of comfort, which they were proud of
as the fruit of their own industry.

This was the sunniest period of their life. The days glided
swiftly by between work and the happiness of love. In the
evening after working hard they found themselves happy in
Ginevra's cell. Music then consoled them for their fatigues.
No shade of melancholy ever clouded the young wife's feat-
ures, and she never allowed herself to utter a lament. She
could always appear to her Luigi with a smile on her lips and
a light in her eyes. Each cherished a ruling thought which
would have made them take pleasure in the hardest toil :
Ginevra told herself she was working for Luigi, and Luigi for
Ginevra. Sometimes, in her husband's absence, the young
wife would think of the perfect joy it would have been if this
life of love might have been spent in the sight of her father
and mother ; then she would sink into deep melancholy, and


feel all the pangs of remorse ; dark pictures would pass like
shadows before her fancy ; she would see her old father alone,
or her mother weeping in the evenings, and hiding her tears
from the inexorable Piombo. Those two grave, white heads
would suddenly rise up before her, and she fancied she would
never see them again but in the fantastical light of memory.
This idea haunted her like a presentiment.

She kept the anniversary of their wedding by giving her
husband a portrait he had often wished for that of his Gi-
nevra. The young artist had never executed so remarkable a
work. Apart from the likeness, which was"perfect, the bril-
liancy of her beauty, the purity of her feelings, the happiness
of love, were rendered with a kind of magic. The master-
piece was hung up with due ceremony.

They spent another year in the midst of comfort. The his-
tory of their life can be told in these words: "They were
happy." No event occurred deserving to be related.

At the beginning of the winter of 1819 the picture-dealers
advised Ginevra to bring them something else than copies, as,
in consequence of the great competition, they could no longer
sell them to advantage. Madame Porta acknowledged the mis-
take she had made in not busying herself with genre pictures,
which would have won her a name ; she undertook to paint
portraits; but she had to contend against a crowd of artists
even poorer than herself. However, as Luigi and Ginevra
had saved some money, they did not despair of the future.
At the end of this same winter Luigi was working without
ceasing. He, too, had to compete with rivals ; the price of
copying had fallen so low that he could no longer employ
assistants, and was compelled to give up more time to his
labor to earn the same amount. His wife had painted several
pictures which were not devoid of merit, but dealers were
scarcely buying even those of artists of repute. Ginevra
offered them for almost nothing, and could not sell them.

The situation of the household was something terrible ; the


souls of the husband and wife floated in happiness, love loaded
them with its treasures ; poverty rose up like a skeleton in the
midst of this harvest of joys, and they hid their alarms from
each other. When Ginevra felt herself on the verge of tears
as she saw Luigi suffering, she heaped caresses on him ; Luigi,
in the same way, hid the blackest care in his heart, while
expressing the fondest devotion to Ginevra. They sought
some compensation for their woes in the enthusiasm of their
feelings, and their words, their joys, their playfulness, were
marked by a kind of frenzy. They were alarmed at the future.
What sentiment is there to compare in strength with a passion
which must end to-morrow killed by death or necessity?
When they spoke of their poverty, they felt the need of de-
luding each other, and snatched at the smallest hope with
equal eagerness.

One night Ginevra sought in vain for Luigi at her side,
and got up quite frightened. A pale gleam reflected from
the dingy wall of the little courtyard led her to guess that
her husband sat up to work at night. Luigi waited till his
wife was asleep to go up to his workroom. The clock struck
four. Ginevra went back to bed and feigned sleep ; Luigi
came back, overwhelmed by fatigue and want of sleep, and
Ginevra gazed sadly at the handsome face on which labor
and anxiety had already traced some lines.

" And it is for me that he spends the night in writing,"
she thought, and she wept.

An idea came to dry her tears : she would imitate Luigi.
That same day she went to a rich print-seller, and by the
help of a letter of recommendation to him that she had
obtained from Elie Magus, a picture-dealer, she got some
work in coloring prints. All day she painted and attended
to her household cares, then at night she colored prints.
These two beings, so tenderly in love, got into bed only to
get out of it again. Each pretended to sleep, and out of
Devotion to the other stole away as soon as one had deceived


the other. One night Luigi, knocked over by a sort of fever
caused by work, of which the burthen was beginning to crush
him, threw open the window of his workroom to inhale the
fresh morning air, and shake off his pain, when, happening to
look down, he saw the light thrown on the wall by Ginevra's
lamp ; the unhappy man guessed the truth ; he went down-
stairs, walking softly, and discovered his wife in her studio
coloring prints.

" Oh, Ginevra ! " he exclaimed.

She started convulsively in her chair, and turned scarlet.

" Could I sleep while you were wearing yourself out with
work ? " said she.

" But I alone have a right to work so hard."

"And can I sit idle?" replied the young wife, whose
eyes filled with tears, "when I know that every morsel of
bread almost costs us a drop of your blood ? I should die if
I did not add my efforts to yours. Ought we not to have
everything in common, pleasures and pains?"

"She is cold!" cried Luigi, in despair. "Wrap your
shawl closer over your chest, my Ginevra, the night is damp
and chilly."

They went to the window, the young wife leaning her head
on her beloved husband's shoulder, he with his arm round
her, sunk in deep silence, and watching the sky which dawn
was slowly lighting up.

Gray clouds swept across in quick succession, and the east
grew brighter by degrees.

"See," said Ginevra, "it is a promise we shall be

"Yes, in heaven!" replied Luigi, with a bitter smile.
" Oh, Ginevra ! you who deserved all the riches of earth "

" I have your heart ! " said she in a glad tone.

"Ah, and I do not complain," he went on, clasping her
closely to him. And he covered the delicate face with kisses;
it was already beginning to lose the freshness of youth, but


the expression was so tender and sweet that he could never
look at it without feeling comforted.

"How still!" said Ginevra. "I enjoy sitting late, my
dearest. The majesty of night is really contagious; it is im-
pressive, inspiring ; there is something strangely solemn in
the thought : all sleeps, but I am awake."

"Oh, my Ginevra, I feel, not for the first time, the refined
grace of your soul but, see, this is daybreak, come and

"Yes," said she, "if I am not the only one to sleep. I
was miserable indeed the night when I discovered that my
Luigi was awake and at work without me."

The valor with which the young people defied misfortune
for some time found a reward. But the event which usually
crowns the joys of a household was destined to be fatal to
them. Ginevra gave birth to a boy, who, to use a common
phrase, was as beautiful as the day. The feeling of mother-
hood doubled the young creature's strength. Luigi borrowed
money to defray the expenses of her confinement. Thus, just
at first, she did not feel all the painfulness of their situation,
and the young parents gave themselves up to the joy of rear-
ing a child. This was their last gleam of happiness. Like
two swimmers who unite their forces to stem a current, the
Corsicans at first struggled bravely ; but sometimes they gave
themselves up to an apathy resembling the torpor that precedes
death, and they were soon obliged to sell their little treasures.

Poverty suddenly stood before them, not hideous, but
humbly attired, almost pleasant to endure ; there was noth-
ing appalling in her voice ; she did not bring despair with
her, nor spectres, nor squalor, but she made them forget the
traditions and the habit of comfort ; she broke the mainsprings
of pride. Then came misery in all its horror, reckless of her
rags, and trampling every human feeling under foot. Seven
or eight months after the birth of little Bartolomeo it would
have been difficult to recognize the original of the beautiful


portrait, the sole adornment of their bare room, in the mother
who was suckling a sickly baby. Without any fire in bitter
winter weather, Ginevra saw the soft outlines of her face
gradually disappear, her cheeks became as white as porcelain,
her eyes colorless, as though the springs of life were drying
up in her. And watching her starved and pallid infant, she
suffered only in his young misery, while Luigi had not the
heart even to smile at his boy.

"I have scoured Paris," he said in a hollow voice. "I
know no one, and how can I dare beg of strangers? Verg-
niaud, the horse-breeder, my old comrade in Egypt, is impli-
cated in some conspiracy, and has been sent to prison ; besides,
he had loaned me all he had to lend. As to the landlord, he
has not asked me for any rent for more than a year."

"But we do not want for anything," Ginevra gently an-
swered, with an affectation of calmness.

"Each day brings some fresh difficulty," replied Luigi,
with horror.

Luigi took all Ginevra's paintings, the portrait, some furni-
ture which they yet could dispense with, and sold them all
for a mere trifle ; the money thus obtained prolonged their
sufferings for a little while. During these dreadful days
Ginevra showed the sublime heights of her character, and the
extent of her resignation. She bore the inroads of suffering
with stoical firmness. Her vigorous soul upheld her under all
ills ; with a weak hand she worked on by her dying child, ful-
filled her household duties with miraculous activity, and was
equal to everything. She was even happy when she saw on
Luigi's lips a smile of surprise at the look of neatness she
contrived to give to the one room to which they had been

"I have kept you a piece of bread, dear," she said one
evening when he came in tired.

"And you?"

"I have dined, dear Luigi; I want nothing." And the


sweet expression of her face, even more than her words, urged
him to accept the food of which she had deprived herself.
Luigi embraced her with one of the despairing kisses which
friends gave each other in 1 793 as they mounted the scaffold
together. In such moments as these two human creatures see
each other heart to heart. Thus the unhappy Luigi, under-
standing at once that his wife was fasting, felt the fever that
was undermining her ; he shivered, and went out on the pre-
text of pressing business, for he would rather have taken the
most insidious poison than escape death by eating the last
morsel of bread in the house.

He wandered about Paris among the smart carriages, in the
midst of the insulting luxury that is everywhere flaunted ; he
hurried past the shops of the money-changers where gold
glitters in the window ; finally, he determined to sell himself,
to offer himself as a substitute for the conscription, hoping by
this sacrifice to save Ginevra, and that during his absence she
might be taken into favor again by Bartolomeo. So he went
in search of one of the men who deal in these white slaves,
and felt a gleam of happiness at recognizing in him an old
officer of the Imperial Guard.

"For two days I have eaten nothing," he said, in a slow,
weak voice. " My wife is dying of hunger, and never utters
a complaint ; she will die, I believe, with a smile on her lips.
For pity's sake, old comrade," he added, with a forlorn
smile, "pay for me in advance; I am strong, I have left the
service, and I "

The officer gave Luigi something on account of the sum he
promised to get for him. The unhappy man laughed con-
vulsively when he grasped a handful of gold-pieces, and ran
home as fast as he could go, panting, and exclaiming as he
went, " Oh, my Ginevra Ginevra ! "

It was growing dark by the time he reached home. He
went in softly, fearing to overexcite his wife, whom he had
left so weak ; the last pale rays of sunshine, coming in at the


dormer window, fell on Ginevra's face. She was asleep in
her chair with her baby at her breast.

"Wake up, my darling," said he, without noticing the
attitude of the child, which seemed at this moment to have a
supernatural glory.

On hearing his voice, the poor mother opened her eyes,
met Luigi's look, and smiled ; but Luigi gave a cry of terror.
He hardly recognized his half-crazed wife, to whom he showed
the gold, with a gesture of savage vehemence.

Ginevra began to laugh mechanically, but suddenly she
cried in a terrible voice, " Luigi, the child is cold ! "

She looked at the infant and fainted. Little Bartolomeo
was dead.

Luigi took his wife in his arms, without depriving her of
the child, which she clutched to her with incomprehensible
strength, and after laying her on the bed he went out to call
for help.

"Great heaven ! " he exclaimed to his landlord, whom he
met on the stairs, "I have money, and my child is dead of
hunger, and my wife is dying. Help us."

In despair he went back to his wife, leaving the worthy
builder and various neighbors to procure whatever might
relieve the misery of which till now they had known nothing,
so carefully had the Corsicans concealed it out of a feeling of
pride. Luigi had tossed the gold-pieces on the floor, and
was kneeling by the bed where his wife lay.

" Father, take charge of my son, who bears your name ! "
cried Ginevra in her delirium.

" Oh, my angel, be calm," said Luigi, kissing her, " better
days await us ! " His voice and embrace restored her to
some composure.

"Oh, my Luigi," she went on, looking at him with extra-
ordinary fixity, " listen to me. I feet that I am dying. My
death is quite natural. I have been suffering too much ; and
then happiness so great as mine had to be paid for. Yes, my


Luigi, be comforted. I have been so happy that if I had to
begin life again, I would again accept our lot. I am a bad
mother; I weep for you even more than for my child. My
child ! " she repeated in a full, deep voice. Two tears
dropped from her dying eyes, and she suddenly clasped yet
closer the little body she could not warm. " Give my hair
to my father in memory of his Ginevra," she added. " Tell
him that I never, never, accused him "

Her head fell back on her husband's arm.

"No, no, you cannot die ! " cried Luigi. "A doctor is
coming. We have food. Your father will receive you into
favor. Prosperity is dawning on us. Stay with us, angel of
beauty ! "

But that faithful and loving heart was growing cold. Gi-
nevra instinctively turned her eyes on the man she adored,
though she was no longer conscious of anything ; confused
images rose before her mind, fast losing all memories of earth.
She knew that Luigi was there, for she clung more and more
tightly to his ice-cold hand, as if to hold herself up above a
gulf into which she feared to fall.

"You are cold, dear," she said presently; "I will warm

She tried to lay her husband's hand over her heart, but she
was dead. Two doctors, a priest, and some neighbors came
in at this moment, bringing everything that was needful to
save the lives of the young couple and to soothe their despair.
At first these intruders made a good deal of noise, but when
they were all in the room an appalling silence fell.

While this scene was taking place Bartolomeo and his wife
were sitting in their old armchairs, each at one corner of the
immense fireplace that warmed the great drawing-room of
their mansion. The clock marked midnight. It was long
since the old couple had slept well. At this moment they
were silent, like two old folks in their second childhood, who


look at everything and see nothing. The deserted room, to
them full of memories, was feebly lighted by a single lamp
fast dying out. But for the dancing flames on the hearth they
would have been in total darkness. One of their friends had
just left them, and the chair on which he had sat during his
visit stood between the old people. Piombo had already cast
more than one glance at this chair, and these glances, fraught
with thoughts, followed each other like pangs of remorse, for
the empty chair was Ginevra's. Elisa Piombo watched the
expressions that passed across her old husband's pale face.
Though she was accustomed to guess the Corsican's feelings
from the violent changes in his features, they were to-night
by turns so threatening and so sad that she failed to read this
inscrutable soul.

Was Bartolomeo yielding to the overwhelming memories
aroused by that chair ? Was he pained at perceiving that it
had been used by a stranger for the first time since his
daughter's departure? Had the hour of mercy, the hour so
long and vainly hoped for, struck at last ?

These reflections agitated the heart of Elisa Piombo. For
a moment her husband's face was so terrible that she quaked
at having ventured on so innocent a device to give her an
opportunity of speaking of Ginevra. At this instant the
northerly blast flung the snowflakes against the shutters with
such violence that the old people could hear their soft pelting.
Ginevra's mother bent her head to hide her tears from her
husband. Suddenly a sigh broke from the old man's heart ;
his wife looked at him ; he was downcast. For the second
time in three years she ventured to speak to him of his

" Supposing Ginevra were cold ! " she exclaimed in an
undertone. " Or perhaps she is hungry," she went on. The
Corsican shed a tear. " She has a child, and cannot suckle
it, her milk is dried up," the mother added vehemently, with
an accent of despair.


" Let her come ; oh, let her come ! " cried Piombo. " Oh,
my darling child, you have conquered me."

The mother hastily rose, as if to go fetch her daughter. At
this instant the door was flung open, and a man, whose face
had lost all semblance of humanity, suddenly stood before

" Dead ! Our families were doomed to exterminate each
other ; for this is all that remains of her," he said, laying on
the table Ginevra's long, black hair.

The two old people started, as though they had been struck
by a thunderbolt ; they could not see Luigi.

" He has spared us a pistol-shot, for he is dead," said
Bartolomeo deliberately, as he looked on the ground.

PARIS, January, 1830.


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Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 30 of 31)