Another Study of Woman
by Honore de Balzac
At Paris there are almost always two separate parties going on at
every ball and rout. First, an official party, composed of the persons
invited, a fashionable and much-bored circle. Each one grimaces for
his neighbor's eye; most of the younger women are there for one person
only; when each woman has assured herself that for that one she is the
handsomest woman in the room, and that the opinion is perhaps shared
by a few others, a few insignificant phrases are exchanged, as: "Do
you think of going away soon to La Crampade?" "How well Madame de
Portenduere sang!" "Who is that little woman with such a load of
diamonds?" Or, after firing off some smart epigrams, which give
transient pleasure, and leave wounds that rankle long, the groups thin
out, the mere lookers on go away, and the waxlights burn down to the
The mistress of the house then waylays a few artists, amusing people
or intimate friends, saying, "Do not go yet; we will have a snug
little supper." These collect in some small room. The second, the real
party, now begins; a party where, as of old, every one can hear what
is said, conversation is general, each one is bound to be witty and to
contribute to the amusement of all. Everything is made to tell, honest
laughter takes the place of the gloom which in company saddens the
prettiest faces. In short, where the rout ends pleasure begins.
The Rout, a cold display of luxury, a review of self-conceits in full
dress, is one of those English inventions which tend to mechanize
other nations. England seems bent on seeing the whole world as dull as
itself, and dull in the same way. So this second party is, in some
French houses, a happy protest on the part of the old spirit of our
light-hearted people. Only, unfortunately, so few houses protest; and
the reason is a simple one. If we no longer have many suppers
nowadays, it is because never, under any rule, have there been fewer
men placed, established, and successful than under the reign of Louis
Philippe, when the Revolution began again, lawfully. Everybody is on
the march some whither, or trotting at the heels of Fortune. Time has
become the costliest commodity, so no one can afford the lavish
extravagance of going home to-morrow morning and getting up late.
Hence, there is no second soiree now but at the houses of women rich
enough to entertain, and since July 1830 such women may be counted in
In spite of the covert opposition of the Faubourg Saint-Germain, two
or three women, among them Madame d'Espard and Mademoiselle des
Touches, have not chosen to give up the share of influence they
exercised in Paris, and have not closed their houses.
The salon of Mademoiselle des Touches is noted in Paris as being the
last refuge where the old French wit has found a home, with its
reserved depths, its myriad subtle byways, and its exquisite
politeness. You will there still find grace of manner notwithstanding
the conventionalities of courtesy, perfect freedom of talk
notwithstanding the reserve which is natural to persons of breeding,
and, above all, a liberal flow of ideas. No one there thinks of
keeping his thought for a play; and no one regards a story as material
for a book. In short, the hideous skeleton of literature at bay never
stalks there, on the prowl for a clever sally or an interesting
The memory of one of these evenings especially dwells with me, less by
reason of a confidence in which the illustrious de Marsay opened up
one of the deepest recesses of woman's heart, than on account of the
reflections to which his narrative gave rise, as to the changes that
have taken place in the French woman since the fateful revolution of
On that evening chance had brought together several persons, whose
indisputable merits have won them European reputations. This is not a
piece of flattery addressed to France, for there were a good many
foreigners present. And, indeed, the men who most shone were not the
most famous. Ingenious repartee, acute remarks, admirable banter,
pictures sketched with brilliant precision, all sparkled and flowed
without elaboration, were poured out without disdain, but without
effort, and were exquisitely expressed and delicately appreciated. The
men of the world especially were conspicuous for their really artistic
grace and spirit.
Elsewhere in Europe you will find elegant manners, cordiality, genial
fellowship, and knowledge; but only in Paris, in this drawing-room,
and those to which I have alluded, does the particular wit abound
which gives an agreeable and changeful unity to all these social
qualities, an indescribable river-like flow which makes this profusion
of ideas, of definitions, of anecdotes, of historical incidents,
meander with ease. Paris, the capital of taste, alone possesses the
science which makes conversation a tourney in which each type of wit
is condensed into a shaft, each speaker utters his phrase and casts
his experience in a word, in which every one finds amusement,
relaxation, and exercise. Here, then, alone, will you exchange ideas;
here you need not, like the dolphin in the fable, carry a monkey on
your shoulders; here you will be understood, and will not risk staking
your gold pieces against base metal.
Here, again, secrets neatly betrayed, and talk, light or deep, play
and eddy, changing their aspect and hue at every phrase. Eager
criticism and crisp anecdotes lead on from one to the next. All eyes
are listening, a gesture asks a question, and an expressive look gives
the answer. In short, and in a word, everything is wit and mind.
The phenomenon of speech, which, when duly studied and well handled,
is the power of the actor and the story-teller, had never so
completely bewitched me. Nor was I alone under the influence of its
spell; we all spent a delightful evening. The conversation had drifted
into anecdote, and brought out in its rushing course some curious
confessions, several portraits, and a thousand follies, which make
this enchanting improvisation impossible to record; still, by setting
these things down in all their natural freshness and abruptness, their
elusive divarications, you may perhaps feel the charm of a real French
evening, taken at the moment when the most engaging familiarity makes
each one forget his own interests, his personal conceit, or, if you
like, his pretensions.
At about two in the morning, as supper ended, no one was left sitting
round the table but intimate friends, proved by intercourse of fifteen
years, and some persons of great taste and good breeding, who knew the
world. By tacit agreement, perfectly carried out, at supper every one
renounced his pretensions to importance. Perfect equality set the
tone. But indeed there was no one present who was not very proud of
Mademoiselle des Touches always insists on her guests remaining at
table till they leave, having frequently remarked the change which a
move produces in the spirit of a party. Between the dining-room and
the drawing-room the charm is destroyed. According to Sterne, the
ideas of an author after shaving are different from those he had
before. If Sterne is right, may it not be boldly asserted that the
frame of mind of a party at table is not the same as that of the same
persons returned to the drawing-room? The atmosphere is not heady, the
eye no longer contemplates the brilliant disorder of the dessert, lost
are the happy effects of that laxness of mood, that benevolence which
comes over us while we remain in the humor peculiar to the well-filled
man, settled comfortably on one of the springy chairs which are made
in these days. Perhaps we are not more ready to talk face to face with
the dessert and in the society of good wine, during the delightful
interval when every one may sit with an elbow on the table and his
head resting on his hand. Not only does every one like to talk then,
but also to listen. Digestion, which is almost always attent, is
loquacious or silent, as characters differ. Then every one finds his
Was not this preamble necessary to make you know the charm of the
narrative, by which a celebrated man, now dead, depicted the innocent
jesuistry of women, painting it with the subtlety peculiar to persons
who have seen much of the world, and which makes statesmen such
delightful storytellers when, like Prince Talleyrand and Prince
Metternich, they vouchsafe to tell a story?
De Marsay, prime minister for some six months, had already given
proofs of superior capabilities. Those who had known him long were not
indeed surprised to see him display all the talents and various
aptitudes of a statesman; still it might yet be a question whether he
would prove to be a solid politician, or had merely been moulded in
the fire of circumstance. This question had just been asked by a man
whom he had made a prefet, a man of wit and observation, who had for a
long time been a journalist, and who admired de Marsay without
infusing into his admiration that dash of acrid criticism by which, in
Paris, one superior man excuses himself from admiring another.
"Was there ever," said he, "in your former life, any event, any
thought or wish which told you what your vocation was?" asked Emile
Blondet; "for we all, like Newton, have our apple, which falls and
leads us to the spot where our faculties develop----"
"Yes," said de Marsay; "I will tell you about it."
Pretty women, political dandies, artists, old men, de Marsay's
intimate friends,--all settled themselves comfortably, each in his
favorite attitude, to look at the Minister. Need it be said that the
servants had left, that the doors were shut, and the curtains drawn
over them? The silence was so complete that the murmurs of the
coachmen's voices could be heard from the courtyard, and the pawing
and champing made by horses when asking to be taken back to their
"The statesman, my friends, exists by one single quality," said the
Minister, playing with his gold and mother-of-pearl dessert knife. "To
wit: the power of always being master of himself; of profiting more or
less, under all circumstances, by every event, however fortuitous; in
short, of having within himself a cold and disinterested other self,
who looks on as a spectator at all the changes of life, noting our
passions and our sentiments, and whispering to us in every case the
judgment of a sort of moral ready-reckoner."
"That explains why a statesman is so rare a thing in France," said old
"From a sentimental point of view, this is horrible," the Minister
went on. "Hence, when such a phenomenon is seen in a young man--
Richelieu, who, when warned overnight by a letter of Concini's peril,
slept till midday, when his benefactor was killed at ten o'clock--or
say Pitt, or Napoleon, he was a monster. I became such a monster at a
very early age, thanks to a woman."
"I fancied," said Madame de Montcornet with a smile, "that more
politicians were undone by us than we could make."
"The monster of which I speak is a monster just because he withstands
you," replied de Marsay, with a little ironical bow.
"If this is a love-story," the Baronne de Nucingen interposed, "I
request that it may not be interrupted by any reflections."
"Reflection is so antipathetic to it!" cried Joseph Bridau.
"I was seventeen," de Marsay went on; "the Restoration was being
consolidated; my old friends know how impetuous and fervid I was then.
I was in love for the first time, and I was--I may say so now--one of
the handsomest young fellows in Paris. I had youth and good looks, two
advantages due to good fortune, but of which we are all as proud as of
a conquest. I must be silent as to the rest.--Like all youths, I was
in love with a woman six years older than myself. No one of you here,"
said he, looking carefully round the table, "can suspect her name or
recognize her. Ronquerolles alone, at the time, ever guessed my
secret. He had kept it well, but I should have feared his smile.
However, he is gone," said the Minister, looking round.
"He would not stay to supper," said Madame de Nucingen.
"For six months, possessed by my passion," de Marsay went on, "but
incapable of suspecting that it had overmastered me, I had abandoned
myself to that rapturous idolatry which is at once the triumph and the
frail joy of the young. I treasured her old gloves; I drank an
infusion of the flowers she had worn; I got out of bed at night to
go and gaze at her window. All my blood rushed to my heart when I
inhaled the perfume she used. I was miles away from knowing that woman
is a stove with a marble casing."
"Oh! spare us your terrible verdicts," cried Madame de Montcornet with
"I believe I should have crushed with my scorn the philosopher who
first uttered this terrible but profoundly true thought," said de
Marsay. "You are all far too keen-sighted for me to say any more on
that point. These few words will remind you of your own follies.
"A great lady if ever there was one, a widow without children--oh! all
was perfect--my idol would shut herself up to mark my linen with her
hair; in short, she responded to my madness by her own. And how can we
fail to believe in passion when it has the guarantee of madness?
"We each devoted all our minds to concealing a love so perfect and so
beautiful from the eyes of the world; and we succeeded. And what charm
we found in our escapades! Of her I will say nothing. She was
perfection then, and to this day is considered one of the most
beautiful women in Paris; but at that time a man would have endured
death to win one of her glances. She had been left with an amount of
fortune sufficient for a woman who had loved and was adored; but the
Restoration, to which she owed renewed lustre, made it seem inadequate
in comparison with her name. In my position I was so fatuous as never
to dream of a suspicion. Though my jealousy would have been of a
hundred and twenty Othello-power, that terrible passion slumbered in
me as gold in the nugget. I would have ordered my servant to thrash me
if I had been so base as ever to doubt the purity of that angel--so
fragile and so strong, so fair, so artless, pure, spotless, and whose
blue eyes allowed my gaze to sound it to the very depths of her heart
with adorable submissiveness. Never was there the slightest hesitancy
in her attitude, her look, or word; always white and fresh, and ready
for the Beloved like the Oriental Lily of the 'Song of Songs!' Ah! my
friends!" sadly exclaimed the Minister, grown young again, "a man must
hit his head very hard on the marble to dispel that poem!"
This cry of nature, finding an echo in the listeners, spurred the
curiosity he had excited in them with so much skill.
"Every morning, riding Sultan--the fine horse you sent me from
England," de Marsay went on, addressing Lord Dudley, "I rode past her
open carriage, the horses' pace being intentionally reduced to a walk,
and read the order of the day signaled to me by the flowers of her
bouquet in case we were unable to exchange a few words. Though we saw
each other almost every evening in society, and she wrote to me every
day, to deceive the curious and mislead the observant we had adopted a
scheme of conduct: never to look at each other; to avoid meeting; to
speak ill of each other. Self-admiration, swagger, or playing the
disdained swain,--all these old manoeuvres are not to compare on
either part with a false passion professed for an indifferent person
and an air of indifference towards the true idol. If two lovers will
only play that game, the world will always be deceived; but then they
must be very secure of each other.
"Her stalking-horse was a man in high favor, a courtier, cold and
sanctimonious, whom she never received at her own house. This little
comedy was performed for the benefit of simpletons and drawing-room
circles, who laughed at it. Marriage was never spoken of between us;
six years' difference of age might give her pause; she knew nothing of
my fortune, of which, on principle, I have always kept the secret. I,
on my part, fascinated by her wit and manners, by the extent of her
knowledge and her experience of the world, would have married her
without a thought. At the same time, her reserve charmed me. If she
had been the first to speak of marriage in a certain tone, I might
perhaps have noted it as vulgar in that accomplished soul.
"Six months, full and perfect--a diamond of the purest water! That has
been my portion of love in this base world.
"One morning, attacked by the feverish stiffness which marks the
beginning of a cold, I wrote her a line to put off one of those secret
festivals which are buried under the roofs of Paris like pearls in the
sea. No sooner was the letter sent than remorse seized me: she will
not believe that I am ill! thought I. She was wont to affect jealousy
and suspiciousness.--When jealousy is genuine," said de Marsay,
interrupting himself, "it is the visible sign of an unique passion."
"Why?" asked the Princesse de Cadignan eagerly.
"Unique and true love," said de Marsay, "produces a sort of corporeal
apathy attuned to the contemplation into which one falls. Then the
mind complicates everything; it works on itself, pictures its fancies,
turns them into reality and torment; and such jealousy is as
delightful as it is distressing."
A foreign minister smiled as, by the light of memory, he felt the
truth of this remark.
"Besides," de Marsay went on, "I said to myself, why miss a happy
hour? Was it not better to go, even though feverish? And, then, if she
learns that I am ill, I believe her capable of hurrying here and
compromising herself. I made an effort; I wrote a second letter, and
carried it myself, for my confidential servant was now gone. The river
lay between us. I had to cross Paris; but at last, within a suitable
distance of her house, I caught sight of a messenger; I charged him to
have the note sent up to her at once, and I had the happy idea of
driving past her door in a hackney cab to see whether she might not by
chance receive the two letters together. At the moment when I arrived
it was two o'clock; the great gate opened to admit a carriage. Whose?
--That of the stalking-horse!
"It is fifteen years since--well, even while I tell the tale, I, the
exhausted orator, the Minister dried up by the friction of public
business, I still feel a surging in my heart and the hot blood about
my diaphragm. At the end of an hour I passed once more; the carriage
was still in the courtyard! My note no doubt was in the porter's
hands. At last, at half-past three, the carriage drove out. I could
observe my rival's expression; he was grave, and did not smile; but he
was in love, and no doubt there was business in hand.
"I went to keep my appointment; the queen of my heart met me; I saw
her calm, pure, serene. And here I must confess that I have always
thought that Othello was not only stupid, but showed very bad taste.
Only a man who is half a Negro could behave so: indeed Shakespeare
felt this when he called his play 'The Moor of Venice.' The sight of
the woman we love is such a balm to the heart that it must dispel
anguish, doubt, and sorrow. All my rage vanished. I could smile again.
Hence this cheerfulness, which at my age now would be the most
atrocious dissimulation, was the result of my youth and my love. My
jealousy once buried, I had the power of observation. My ailing
condition was evident; the horrible doubts that had fermented in me
increased it. At last I found an opening for putting in these words:
'You have had no one with you this morning?' making a pretext of the
uneasiness I had felt in the fear lest she should have disposed of her
time after receiving my first note.--'Ah!' she exclaimed, 'only a man
could have such ideas! As if I could think of anything but your
suffering. Till the moment when I received your second note I could
think only of how I could contrive to see you.'--'And you were
alone?'--'Alone,' said she, looking at me with a face of innocence so
perfect that it must have been his distrust of such a look as that
which made the Moor kill Desdemona. As she lived alone in the house,
the word was a fearful lie. One single lie destroys the absolute
confidence which to some souls is the very foundation of happiness.
"To explain to you what passed in me at that moment it must be assumed
that we have an internal self of which the exterior I is but the
husk; that this self, as brilliant as light, is as fragile as a shade
--well, that beautiful self was in me thenceforth for ever shrouded in
crape. Yes; I felt a cold and fleshless hand cast over me the winding-
sheet of experience, dooming me to the eternal mourning into which the
first betrayal plunges the soul. As I cast my eyes down that she might
not observe my dizziness, this proud thought somewhat restored my
strength: 'If she is deceiving you, she is unworthy of you!'
"I ascribed my sudden reddening and the tears which started to my eyes
to an attack of pain, and the sweet creature insisted on driving me
home with the blinds of the cab drawn. On the way she was full of a
solicitude and tenderness that might have deceived the Moor of Venice
whom I have taken as a standard of comparison. Indeed, if that great
child were to hesitate two seconds longer, every intelligent spectator
feels that he would ask Desdemona's forgiveness. Thus, killing the
woman is the act of a boy.--She wept as we parted, so much was she
distressed at being unable to nurse me herself. She wished she were my
valet, in whose happiness she found a cause of envy, and all this was
as elegantly expressed, oh! as Clarissa might have written in her
happiness. There is always a precious ape in the prettiest and most
At these words all the women looked down, as if hurt by this brutal
truth so brutally stated.
"I will say nothing of the night, nor of the week I spent," de Marsay
went on. "I discovered that I was a statesman."
It was so well said that we all uttered an admiring exclamation.
"As I thought over the really cruel vengeance to be taken on a woman,"
said de Marsay, continuing his story, "with infernal ingenuity--for,
as we had loved each other, some terrible and irreparable revenges
were possible--I despised myself, I felt how common I was, I
insensibly formulated a horrible code--that of Indulgence. In taking
vengeance on a woman, do we not in fact admit that there is but one
for us, that we cannot do without her? And, then, is revenge the way
to win her back? If she is not indispensable, if there are other women
in the world, why not grant her the right to change which we assume?
"This, of course, applies only to passion; in any other sense it would
be socially wrong. Nothing more clearly proves the necessity for
indissoluble marriage than the instability of passion. The two sexes
must be chained up, like wild beasts as they are, by inevitable law,
deaf and mute. Eliminate revenge, and infidelity in love is nothing.
Those who believe that for them there is but one woman in the world
must be in favor of vengeance, and then there is but one form of it--
that of Othello.
"Mine was different."
The words produced in each of us the imperceptible movement which
newspaper writers represent in Parliamentary reports by the words:
"Cured of my cold, and of my pure, absolute, divine love, I flung
myself into an adventure, of which the heroine was charming, and of a
style of beauty utterly opposed to that of my deceiving angel. I took
care not to quarrel with this clever woman, who was so good an
actress, for I doubt whether true love can give such gracious delights
as those lavished by such a dexterous fraud. Such refined hypocrisy is
as good as virtue.--I am not speaking to you Englishwomen, my lady,"
said the Minister, suavely, addressing Lady Barimore, Lord Dudley's
daughter. "I tried to be the same lover.
"I wished to have some of my hair worked up for my new angel, and I
went to a skilled artist who at that time dwelt in the Rue Boucher.
The man had a monopoly of capillary keepsakes, and I mention his
address for the benefit of those who have not much hair; he has plenty
of every kind and every color. After I had explained my order, he
showed me his work. I then saw achievements of patience surpassing
those which the story books ascribe to fairies, or which are executed
by prisoners. He brought me up to date as to the caprices and fashions
governing the use of hair. 'For the last year,' said he, 'there has
been a rage for marking linen with hair; happily I had a fine
collection of hair and skilled needlewomen,'--on hearing this a
suspicion flashed upon me; I took out my handkerchief and said, 'So
this was done in your shop, with false hair?'--He looked at the
handkerchief, and said, 'Ay! that lady was very particular, she
insisted on verifying the tint of the hair. My wife herself marked
those handkerchiefs. You have there, sir, one of the finest pieces of
work we have ever executed.' Before this last ray of light I might
have believed something--might have taken a woman's word. I left the
shop still having faith in pleasure, but where love was concerned I
was as atheistical as a mathematician.
"Two months later I was sitting by the side of the ethereal being in
her boudoir, on her sofa; I was holding one of her hands--they were
very beautiful--and we scaled the Alps of sentiment, culling their
sweetest flowers, and pulling off the daisy-petals; there is always a
moment when one pulls daisies to pieces, even if it is in a drawing-
room and there are no daisies. At the intensest moment of tenderness,
and when we are most in love, love is so well aware of its own short
duration that we are irresistibly urged to ask, 'Do you love me? Will
you love me always?' I seized the elegiac moment, so warm, so flowery,
so full-blown, to lead her to tell her most delightful lies, in the
enchanting language of love. Charlotte displayed her choicest
allurements: She could not live without me; I was to her the only man
in the world; she feared to weary me, because my presence bereft her
of all her wits; with me, all her faculties were lost in love; she was
indeed too tender to escape alarms; for the last six months she had
been seeking some way to bind me to her eternally, and God alone knew
that secret; in short, I was her god!"
The women who heard de Marsay seemed offended by seeing themselves so
well acted, for he seconded the words by airs, and sidelong attitudes,
and mincing grimaces which were quite illusory.
"At the very moment when I might have believed these adorable
falsehoods, as I still held her right hand in mine, I said to her,
'When are you to marry the Duke?'
"The thrust was so direct, my gaze met hers so boldly, and her hand
lay so tightly in mine, that her start, slight as it was, could not be
disguised; her eyes fell before mine, and a faint blush colored her
cheeks.--'The Duke! What do you mean?' she said, affecting great
astonishment.--'I know everything,' replied I; 'and in my opinion, you
should delay no longer; he is rich; he is a duke; but he is more than
devout, he is religious! I am sure, therefore, that you have been
faithful to me, thanks to his scruples. You cannot imagine how
urgently necessary it is that you should compromise him with himself
and with God; short of that you will never bring him to the point.'--
'Is this a dream?' said she, pushing her hair from her forehead,
fifteen years before Malibran, with the gesture which Malibran has
made so famous.--'Come, do not be childish, my angel,' said I, trying
to take her hands; but she folded them before her with a little
prudish and indignant mein.--'Marry him, you have my permission,' said
I, replying to this gesture by using the formal vous instead of
tu. 'Nay, better, I beg you to do so.'--'But,' cried she, falling at
my knees, 'there is some horrible mistake; I love no one in the world
but you; you may demand any proofs you please.'--'Rise, my dear,' said
I, 'and do me the honor of being truthful.'--'As before God.'--'Do you
doubt my love?'--'No.'--'Nor my fidelity?'--'No.'--'Well, I have
committed the greatest crime,' I went on. 'I have doubted your love
and your fidelity. Between two intoxications I looked calmly about
me.'--'Calmly!' sighed she. 'That is enough, Henri; you no longer love
"She had at once found, you perceive, a loophole for escape. In scenes
like these an adverb is dangerous. But, happily, curiosity made her
add: 'And what did you see? Have I ever spoken of the Duke excepting
in public? Have you detected in my eyes----?'--'No,' said I, 'but in
his. And you have eight times made me go to Saint-Thomas d'Aquin to
see you listening to the same mass as he.'--'Ah!' she exclaimed, 'then
I have made you jealous!'--Oh! I only wish I could be!' said I,
admiring the pliancy of her quick intelligence, and these acrobatic
feats which can only be successful in the eyes of the blind. 'But by
dint of going to church I have become very incredulous. On the day of
my first cold, and your first treachery, when you thought I was in
bed, you received the Duke, and you told me you had seen no one.'--'Do
you know that your conduct is infamous?'--'In what respect? I consider
your marriage to the Duke an excellent arrangement; he gives you a
great name, the only rank that suits you, a brilliant and
distinguished position. You will be one of the queens of Paris. I
should be doing you a wrong if I placed any obstacle in the way of
this prospect, this distinguished life, this splendid alliance. Ah!
Charlotte, some day you will do me justice by discovering how unlike
my character is to that of other young men. You would have been
compelled to deceive me; yes, you would have found it very difficult
to break with me, for he watches you. It is time that we should part,
for the Duke is rigidly virtuous. You must turn prude; I advise you to
do so. The Duke is vain; he will be proud of his wife.'--'Oh!' cried
she, bursting into tears, 'Henri, if only you had spoken! Yes, if you
had chosen'--it was I who was to blame, you understand--'we would have
gone to live all our days in a corner, married, happy, and defied the
world.'--'Well, it is too late now,' said I, kissing her hands, and
putting on a victimized air.--'Good God! But I can undo it all!' said
she.--'No, you have gone too far with the Duke. I ought indeed to go a
journey to part us more effectually. We should both have reason to
fear our own affection----'--'Henri, do you think the Duke has any
suspicions?' I was still 'Henri,' but the tu was lost for ever.--'I
do not think so,' I replied, assuming the manner of a friend; 'but be
as devout as possible, reconcile yourself to God, for the Duke waits
for proofs; he hesitates, you must bring him to the point.'
"She rose, and walked twice round the boudoir in real or affected
agitation; then she no doubt found an attitude and a look beseeming
the new state of affairs, for she stopped in front of me, held out her
hand, and said in a voice broken by emotion, 'Well, Henri, you are
loyal, noble, and a charming man; I shall never forget you.'
"These were admirable tactics. She was bewitching in this transition
of feeling, indispensable to the situation in which she wished to
place herself in regard to me. I fell into the attitude, the manners,
and the look of a man so deeply distressed, that I saw her too newly
assumed dignity giving way; she looked at me, took my hand, drew me
along almost, threw me on the sofa, but quite gently, and said after a
moment's silence, 'I am dreadfully unhappy, my dear fellow. Do you
love me?'--'Oh! yes.'--'Well, then, what will become of you?' "
At this point the women all looked at each other.
"Though I can still suffer when I recall her perfidy, I still laugh at
her expression of entire conviction and sweet satisfaction that I must
die, or at any rate sink into perpetual melancholy," de Marsay went
on. "Oh! do not laugh yet!" he said to his listeners; "there is better
to come. I looked at her very tenderly after a pause, and said to her,
'Yes, that is what I have been wondering.'--'Well, what will you do?'
--'I asked myself that the day after my cold.'--'And----?' she asked
with eager anxiety.--'And I have made advances to the little lady to
whom I was supposed to be attached.'
"Charlotte started up from the sofa like a frightened doe, trembling
like a leaf, gave me one of those looks in which women forgo all their
dignity, all their modesty, their refinement, and even their grace,
the sparkling glitter of a hunted viper's eye when driven into a
corner, and said, 'And I have loved this man! I have struggled! I
have----' On this last thought, which I leave you to guess, she made
the most impressive pause I ever heard.--'Good God!' she cried, 'how
unhappy are we women! we never can be loved. To you there is nothing
serious in the purest feelings. But never mind; when you cheat us you
still are our dupes!'--'I see that plainly,' said I, with a stricken
air; 'you have far too much wit in your anger for your heart to suffer
from it.'--This modest epigram increased her rage; she found some
tears of vexation. 'You disgust me with the world and with life.' she
said; 'you snatch away all my illusions; you deprave my heart.'
"She said to me all that I had a right to say to her, and with a
simple effrontery, an artless audacity, which would certainly have
nailed any man but me on the spot.--'What is to become of us poor
women in a state of society such as Louis XVIII.'s charter made it?'--
(Imagine how her words had run away with her.)--'Yes, indeed, we are
born to suffer. In matters of passion we are always superior to you,
and you are beneath all loyalty. There is no honesty in your hearts.
To you love is a game in which you always cheat.'--'My dear,' said I,
'to take anything serious in society nowadays would be like making
romantic love to an actress.'--'What a shameless betrayal! It was
deliberately planned!'--'No, only a rational issue.'--'Good-bye,
Monsieur de Marsay,' said she; 'you have deceived me horribly.'--
'Surely,' I replied, taking up a submissive attitude, 'Madame la
Duchesse will not remember Charlotte's grievances?'--'Certainly,' she
answered bitterly.--'Then, in fact, you hate me?'--She bowed, and I
said to myself, 'There is something still left!'
"The feeling she had when I parted from her allowed her to believe
that she still had something to avenge. Well, my friends, I have
carefully studied the lives of men who have had great success with
women, but I do not believe that the Marechal de Richelieu, or Lauzun,
or Louis de Valois ever effected a more judicious retreat at the first
attempt. As to my mind and heart, they were cast in a mould then and
there, once for all, and the power of control I thus acquired over the
thoughtless impulses which make us commit so many follies gained me
the admirable presence of mind you all know."
"How deeply I pity the second!" exclaimed the Baronne de Nucingen.
A scarcely perceptible smile on de Marsay's pale lips made Delphine de
"How we do forget!" said the Baron de Nucingen.
The great banker's simplicity was so extremely droll, that his wife,
who was de Marsay's "second," could not help laughing like every one
"You are all ready to condemn the woman," said Lady Dudley. "Well, I
quite understand that she did not regard her marriage as an act of
inconstancy. Men will never distinguish between constancy and
fidelity.--I know the woman whose story Monsieur de Marsay has told
us, and she is one of the last of your truly great ladies."
"Alas! my lady, you are right," replied de Marsay. "For very nearly
fifty years we have been looking on at the progressive ruin of all
social distinctions. We ought to have saved our women from this great
wreck, but the Civil Code has swept its leveling influence over their
heads. However terrible the words, they must be spoken: Duchesses are
vanishing, and marquises too! As to the baronesses--I must apologize
to Madame de Nucingen, who will become a countess when her husband is
made a peer of France--baronesses have never succeeded in getting
people to take them seriously."
"Aristocracy begins with the viscountess," said Blondet with a smile.
"Countesses will survive," said de Marsay. "An elegant woman will be
more or less of a countess--a countess of the Empire or of yesterday,
a countess of the old block, or, as they say in Italy, a countess by
courtesy. But as to the great lady, she died out with the dignified
splendor of the last century, with powder, patches, high-heeled
slippers, and stiff bodices with a delta stomacher of bows. Duchesses
in these days can pass through a door without any need to widen it for
their hoops. The Empire saw the last of gowns with trains! I am still
puzzled to understand how a sovereign who wished to see his drawing-
room swept by ducal satin and velvet did not make indestructible laws.
Napoleon never guessed the results of the Code he was so proud of.
That man, by creating duchesses, founded the race of our 'ladies' of
to-day--the indirect offspring of his legislation."
"It was logic, handled as a hammer by boys just out of school and by
obscure journalists, which demolished the splendors of the social
state," said the Comte de Vandenesse. "In these days every rogue who
can hold his head straight in his collar, cover his manly bosom with
half an ell of satin by way of a cuirass, display a brow where
apocryphal genius gleams under curling locks, and strut in a pair of
patent-leather pumps graced by silk socks which cost six francs,
screws his eye-glass into one of his eye-sockets by puckering up his
cheek, and whether he be an attorney's clerk, a contractor's son, or a
banker's bastard, he stares impertinently at the prettiest duchess,
appraises her as she walks downstairs, and says to his friend--dressed
by Buisson, as we all are, and mounted in patent-leather like any duke
himself--'There, my boy, that is a perfect lady.' "
"You have not known how to form a party," said Lord Dudley; "it will
be a long time yet before you have a policy. You talk a great deal in
France about organizing labor, and you have not yet organized
property. So this is what happens: Any duke--and even in the time of
Louis XVIII. and Charles X. there were some left who had two hundred
thousand francs a year, a magnificent residence, and a sumptuous train
of servants--well, such a duke could live like a great lord. The last
of these great gentlemen in France was the Prince de Talleyrand.--This
duke leaves four children, two of them girls. Granting that he has
great luck in marrying them all well, each of these descendants will
have but sixty or eighty thousand francs a year now; each is the
father or mother of children, and consequently obliged to live with
the strictest economy in a flat on the ground floor or first floor of
a large house. Who knows if they may not even be hunting a fortune?
Henceforth the eldest son's wife, a duchess in name only, has no
carriage, no people, no opera-box, no time to herself. She has not her
own rooms in the family mansion, nor her fortune, nor her pretty toys;
she is buried in trade; she buys socks for her dear little children,
nurses them herself, and keeps an eye on her girls, whom she no longer
sends to school at a convent. Thus your noblest dames have been turned
into worthy brood-hens."
"Alas! it is true," said Joseph Bridau. "In our day we cannot show
those beautiful flowers of womanhood which graced the golden ages of
the French Monarchy. The great lady's fan is broken. A woman has
nothing now to blush for; she need not slander or whisper, hide her
face or reveal it. A fan is of no use now but for fanning herself.
When once a thing is no more than what it is, it is too useful to be a
form of luxury."
"Everything in France has aided and abetted the 'perfect lady,' " said
Daniel d'Arthez. "The aristocracy has acknowledged her by retreating
to the recesses of its landed estates, where it has hidden itself to
die--emigrating inland before the march of ideas, as of old to foreign
lands before that of the masses. The women who could have founded
European salons, could have guided opinion and turned it inside out
like a glove, could have ruled the world by ruling the men of art or
of intellect who ought to have ruled it, have committed the blunder of
abandoning their ground; they were ashamed of having to fight against
the citizen class drunk with power, and rushing out on to the stage of
the world, there to be cut to pieces perhaps by the barbarians who are
at its heels. Hence, where the middle class insist on seeing
princesses, these are really only ladylike young women. In these days
princes can find no great ladies whom they may compromise; they cannot
even confer honor on a woman taken up at random. The Duc de Bourbon
was the last prince to avail himself of this privilege."
"And God alone knows how dearly he paid for it," said Lord Dudley.
"Nowadays princes have lady-like wives, obliged to share their opera-
box with other ladies; royal favor could not raise them higher by a
hair's breadth; they glide unremarkable between the waters of the
citizen class and those of the nobility--not altogether noble nor
altogether bourgeoises," said the Marquise de Rochegude acridly.
"The press has fallen heir to the Woman," exclaimed Rastignac. "She no
longer has the quality of a spoken feuilleton--delightful calumnies
graced by elegant language. We read feuilletons written in a dialect
which changes every three years, society papers about as mirthful as
an undertaker's mute, and as light as the lead of their type. French
conversation is carried on from one end of the country to the other in
a revolutionary jargon, through long columns of type printed in old
mansions where a press groans in the place where formerly elegant
company used to meet."
"The knell of the highest society is tolling," said a Russian Prince.
"Do you hear it? And the first stroke is your modern word lady."
"You are right, Prince," said de Marsay. "The 'perfect lady,' issuing
from the ranks of the nobility, or sprouting from the citizen class,
and the product of every soil, even of the provinces is the expression
of these times, a last remaining embodiment of good taste, grace, wit,
and distinction, all combined, but dwarfed. We shall see no more great
ladies in France, but there will be 'ladies' for a long time, elected
by public opinion to form an upper chamber of women, and who will be
among the fair sex what a 'gentleman' is in England."
"And that they call progress!" exclaimed Mademoiselle des Touches. "I
should like to know where the progress lies?"
"Why, in this," said Madame de Nucingen. "Formerly a woman might have
the voice of a fish-seller, the walk of a grenadier, the face of an
impudent courtesan, her hair too high on her forehead, a large foot, a
thick hand--she was a great lady in spite of it all; but in these
days, even if she were a Montmorency--if a Montmorency would ever be
such a creature--she would not be a lady."
"But what do you mean by a 'perfect lady'?" asked Count Adam Laginski.
"She is a modern product, a deplorable triumph of the elective system
as applied to the fair sex," said the Minister. "Every revolution has
a word of its own which epitomizes and depicts it."
"You are right," said the Russian, who had come to make a literary
reputation in Paris. "The explanation of certain words added from time
to time to your beautiful language would make a magnificent history.
Organize, for instance, is the word of the Empire, and sums up
"But all that does not explain what is meant by a lady!" the young
Pole exclaimed, with some impatience.
"Well, I will tell you," said Emile Blondet to Count Adam. "One fine
morning you go for a saunter in Paris. It is past two, but five has
not yet struck. You see a woman coming towards you; your first glance
at her is like the preface to a good book, it leads you to expect a
world of elegance and refinement. Like a botanist over hill and dale
in his pursuit of plants, among the vulgarities of Paris life you have
at last found a rare flower. This woman is attended by two very
distinguished-looking men, of whom one, at any rate, wears an order;
or else a servant out of livery follows her at a distance of ten
yards. She displays no gaudy colors, no open-worked stockings, no
over-elaborate waist-buckle, no embroidered frills to her drawers
fussing round her ankles. You will see that she is shod with prunella
shoes, with sandals crossed over extremely fine cotton stockings, or
plain gray silk stockings; or perhaps she wears boots of the most
exquisite simplicity. You notice that her gown is made of a neat and
inexpensive material, but made in a way that surprises more than one
woman of the middle class; it is almost always a long pelisse, with
bows to fasten it, and neatly bound with fine cord or an imperceptible
braid. The Unknown has a way of her own in wrapping herself in her
shawl or mantilla; she knows how to draw it round her from her hips to
her neck, outlining a carapace, as it were, which would make an
ordinary woman look like a turtle, but which in her sets off the most
beautiful forms while concealing them. How does she do it? This secret
she keeps, though unguarded by any patent.
"As she walks she gives herself a little concentric and harmonious
twist, which makes her supple or dangerous slenderness writhe under
the stuff, as a snake does under the green gauze of trembling grass.
Is it to an angel or a devil that she owes the graceful undulation
which plays under her long black silk cape, stirs its lace frill,
sheds an airy balm, and what I should like to call the breeze of a
Parisienne? You may recognize over her arms, round her waist, about
her throat, a science of drapery recalling the antique Mnemosyne.
"Oh! how thoroughly she understands the cut of her gait--forgive the
expression. Study the way she puts her foot forward moulding her skirt
with such a decent preciseness that the passer-by is filled with
admiration, mingled with desire, but subdued by deep respect. When an
Englishwoman attempts this step, she looks like a grenadier marching
forward to attack a redoubt. The women of Paris have a genius for
walking. The municipality really owed them asphalt footwalks.
"Our Unknown jostles no one. If she wants to pass, she waits with
proud humility till some one makes way. The distinction peculiar to a
well-bred woman betrays itself, especially in the way she holds her
shawl or cloak crossed over her bosom. Even as she walks she has a
little air of serene dignity, like Raphael's Madonnas in their frames.
Her aspect, at once quiet and disdainful, makes the most insolent
dandy step aside for her.
"Her bonnet, remarkable for its simplicity, is trimmed with crisp
ribbons; there may be flowers in it, but the cleverest of such women
wear only bows. Feathers demand a carriage; flowers are too showy.
Beneath it you see the fresh unworn face of a woman who, without
conceit, is sure of herself; who looks at nothing, and sees
everything; whose vanity, satiated by being constantly gratified,
stamps her face with an indifference which piques your curiosity. She
knows that she is looked at, she knows that everybody, even women,
turn round to see her again. And she threads her way through Paris
like a gossamer, spotless and pure.
"This delightful species affects the hottest latitudes, the cleanest
longitudes of Paris; you will meet her between the 10th and 110th
Arcade of the Rue de Rivoli; along the line of the Boulevards from the
equator of the Passage des Panoramas, where the products of India
flourish, where the warmest creations of industry are displayed, to
the Cape of the Madeleine; in the least muddy districts of the citizen
quarters, between No. 30 and No. 130 of the Rue du Faubourg Saint-
Honore. During the winter, she haunts the terrace of the Feuillants,
but not the asphalt pavement that lies parallel. According to the
weather, she may be seen flying in the Avenue of the Champs-Elysees,
which is bounded on the east by the Place Louis XV., on the west by
the Avenue de Marigny, to the south by the road, to the north by the
gardens of the Faubourg Saint-Honore. Never is this pretty variety of
woman to be seen in the hyperborean regions of the Rue Saint-Denis,
never in the Kamtschatka of miry, narrow, commercial streets, never
anywhere in bad weather. These flowers of Paris, blooming only in
Oriental weather, perfume the highways; and after five o'clock fold up
like morning-glory flowers. The women you will see later, looking a
little like them, are would-be ladies; while the fair Unknown, your
Beatrice of a day, is a 'perfect lady.'
"It is not very easy for a foreigner, my dear Count, to recognize the
differences by which the observer emeritus distinguishes them--women
are such consummate actresses; but they are glaring in the eyes of
Parisians: hooks ill fastened, strings showing loops of rusty-white
tape through a gaping slit in the back, rubbed shoe-leather, ironed
bonnet-strings, an over-full skirt, an over-tight waist. You will see
a certain effort in the intentional droop of the eyelid. There is
something conventional in the attitude.
"As to the bourgeoise, the citizen womankind, she cannot possibly be
mistaken for the spell cast over you by the Unknown. She is bustling,
and goes out in all weathers, trots about, comes, goes, gazes, does
not know whether she will or will not go into a shop. Where the lady
knows just what she wants and what she is doing, the townswoman is
undecided, tucks up her skirts to cross a gutter, dragging a child by
the hand, which compels her to look out for the vehicles; she is a
mother in public, and talks to her daughter; she carries money in her
bag, and has open-work stockings on her feet; in winter, she wears a
boa over her fur cloak; in summer, a shawl and a scarf; she is
accomplished in the redundancies of dress.
"You will meet the fair Unknown again at the Italiens, at the Opera,
at a ball. She will then appear under such a different aspect that you
would think them two beings devoid of any analogy. The woman has
emerged from those mysterious garments like a butterfly from its silky
cocoon. She serves up, like some rare dainty, to your lavished eyes,
the forms which her bodice scarcely revealed in the morning. At the
theatre she never mounts higher than the second tier, excepting at the
Italiens. You can there watch at your leisure the studied
deliberateness of her movements. The enchanting deceiver plays off all
the little political artifices of her sex so naturally as to exclude
all idea of art or premeditation. If she has a royally beautiful hand,
the most perspicacious beholder will believe that it is absolutely
necessary that she should twist, or refix, or push aside the ringlet
or curl she plays with. If she has some dignity of profile, you will
be persuaded that she is giving irony or grace to what she says to her
neighbor, sitting in such a position as to produce the magical effect
of the 'lost profile,' so dear to great painters, by which the cheek
catches the high light, the nose is shown in clear outline, the
nostrils are transparently rosy, the forehead squarely modeled, the
eye has its spangle of fire, but fixed on space, and the white
roundness of the chin is accentuated by a line of light. If she has a
pretty foot, she will throw herself on a sofa with the coquettish
grace of a cat in the sunshine, her feet outstretched without your
feeling that her attitude is anything but the most charming model ever
given to a sculptor by lassitude.
"Only the perfect lady is quite at her ease in full dress; nothing
inconveniences her. You will never see her, like the woman of the
citizen class, pulling up a refractory shoulder-strap, or pushing down
a rebellious whalebone, or looking whether her tucker is doing its
office of faithful guardian to two treasures of dazzling whiteness, or
glancing in the mirrors to see if her head-dress is keeping its place.
Her toilet is always in harmony with her character; she had had time
to study herself, to learn what becomes her, for she has long known
what does not suit her. You will not find her as you go out; she
vanishes before the end of the play. If by chance she is to be seen,
calm and stately, on the stairs, she is experiencing some violent
emotion; she has to bestow a glance, to receive a promise. Perhaps she
goes down so slowly on purpose to gratify the vanity of a slave whom
she sometimes obeys. If your meeting takes place at a ball or an
evening party, you will gather the honey, natural or affected of her
insinuating voice; her empty words will enchant you, and she will know
how to give them the value of thought by her inimitable bearing."
"To be such a woman, is it not necessary to be very clever?" asked the
"It is necessary to have great taste," replied the Princesse de
"And in France taste is more than cleverness," said the Russian.
"This woman's cleverness is the triumph of a purely plastic art,"
Blondet went on. "You will not know what she said, but you will be
fascinated. She will toss her head, or gently shrug her white
shoulders; she will gild an insignificant speech with a charming pout
and smile; or throw a Voltairean epigram into an 'Indeed!' an 'Ah!' a
'What then!' A jerk of her head will be her most pertinent form of
questioning; she will give meaning to the movement by which she twirls
a vinaigrette hanging to her finger by a ring. She gets an artificial
grandeur out of superlative trivialities; she simply drops her hand
impressively, letting it fall over the arm of her chair as dewdrops
hang on the cup of a flower, and all is said--she has pronounced
judgment beyond appeal, to the apprehension of the most obtuse. She
knows how to listen to you; she gives you the opportunity of shining,
and--I ask your modesty--those moments are rare?"
The candid simplicity of the young Pole, to whom Blondet spoke, made
all the party shout with laughter.
"Now, you will not talk for half-an-hour with a bourgeoise without
her alluding to her husband in one way or another," Blondet went on
with unperturbed gravity; "whereas, even if you know that your lady is
married, she will have the delicacy to conceal her husband so
effectually that it will need the enterprise of Christopher Columbus
to discover him. Often you will fail in the attempt single-handed. If
you have had no opportunity of inquiring, towards the end of the
evening you detect her gazing fixedly at a middle-aged man wearing a
decoration, who bows and goes out. She has ordered her carriage, and
"You are not the rose, but you have been with the rose, and you go to
bed under the golden canopy of a delicious dream, which will last
perhaps after Sleep, with his heavy finger, has opened the ivory gates
of the temple of dreams.
"The lady, when she is at home, sees no one before four; she is shrewd
enough always to keep you waiting. In her house you will find
everything in good taste; her luxury is for hourly use, and duly
renewed; you will see nothing under glass shades, no rags of wrappings
hanging about, and looking like a pantry. You will find the staircase
warmed. Flowers on all sides will charm your sight--flowers, the only
gift she accepts, and those only from certain people, for nosegays
live but a day; they give pleasure, and must be replaced; to her they
are, as in the East, a symbol and a promise. The costly toys of
fashion lie about, but not so as to suggest a museum or a curiosity
shop. You will find her sitting by the fire in a low chair, from which
she will not rise to greet you. Her talk will not now be what it was
at the ball; there she was our creditor; in her own home she owes you
the pleasure of her wit. These are the shades of which the lady is a
marvelous mistress. What she likes in you is a man to swell her
circle, an object for the cares and attentions which such women are
now happy to bestow. Therefore, to attract you to her drawing-room,
she will be bewitchingly charming. This especially is where you feel
how isolated women are nowadays, and why they want a little world of
their own, to which they may seem a constellation. Conversation is
impossible without generalities."
"Yes," said de Marsay, "you have truly hit the fault of our age. The
epigram--a volume in a word--no longer strikes, as it did in the
eighteenth century, at persons or at things, but at squalid events,
and it dies in a day."
"Hence," said Blondet, "the intelligence of the lady, if she has any,
consists in casting doubts on everything. Here lies the great
difference between two women; the townswoman is certainly virtuous;
the lady does not know yet whether she is, or whether she always will
be; she hesitates and struggles where the other refuses point-blank
and falls full length. This hesitancy in everything is one of the last
graces left to her by our horrible times. She rarely goes to church,
but she will talk to you of religion; and if you have the good taste
to affect Free-thought, she will try to convert you, for you will have
opened the way for the stereotyped phrases, the head-shaking and
gestures understood by all these women: 'For shame! I thought you had
too much sense to attack religion. Society is tottering, and you
deprive it of its support. Why, religion at this moment means you and
me; it is property, and the future of our children! Ah! let us not be
selfish! Individualism is the disease of the age, and religion is the
only remedy; it unites families which your laws put asunder,' and so
forth. Then she plunges into some neo-Christian speech sprinkled with
political notions which is neither Catholic nor Protestant--but moral?
Oh! deuced moral!--in which you may recognize a fag end of every
material woven by modern doctrines, at loggerheads together."
The women could not help laughing at the airs by which Blondet
illustrated his satire.
"This explanation, dear Count Adam," said Blondet, turning to the
Pole, "will have proved to you that the 'perfect lady' represents the
intellectual no less than the political muddle, just as she is
surrounded by the showy and not very lasting products of an industry
which is always aiming at destroying its work in order to replace it
by something else. When you leave her you say to yourself: She
certainly has superior ideas! And you believe it all the more because
she will have sounded your heart with a delicate touch, and have asked
you your secrets; she affects ignorance, to learn everything; there
are some things she never knows, not even when she knows them. You
alone will be uneasy, you will know nothing of the state of her heart.
The great ladies of old flaunted their love-affairs, with newspapers
and advertisements; in these days the lady has her little passion
neatly ruled like a sheet of music with its crotchets and quavers and
minims, its rests, its pauses, its sharps to sign the key. A mere weak
women, she is anxious not to compromise her love, or her husband, or
the future of her children. Name, position, and fortune are no longer
flags so respected as to protect all kinds of merchandise on board.
The whole aristocracy no longer advances in a body to screen the lady.
She has not, like the great lady of the past, the demeanor of lofty
antagonism; she can crush nothing under foot, it is she who would be
crushed. Thus she is apt at Jesuitical mezzo termine, she is a
creature of equivocal compromises, of guarded proprieties, of
anonymous passions steered between two reef-bound shores. She is as
much afraid of her servants as an Englishwoman who lives in dread of a
trial in the divorce-court. This woman--so free at a ball, so
attractive out walking--is a slave at home; she is never independent
but in perfect privacy, or theoretically. She must preserve herself in
her position as a lady. This is her task.
"For in our day a woman repudiated by her husband, reduced to a meagre
allowance, with no carriage, no luxury, no opera-box, none of the
divine accessories of the toilet, is no longer a wife, a maid, or a
townswoman; she is adrift, and becomes a chattel. The Carmelites will
not receive a married woman; it would be bigamy. Would her lover still
have anything to say to her? That is the question. Thus your perfect
lady may perhaps give occasion to calumny, never to slander."
"It is all so horribly true," said the Princesse de Cadignan.
"And so," said Blondet, "our 'perfect lady' lives between English
hypocrisy and the delightful frankness of the eighteenth century--a
bastard system, symptomatic of an age in which nothing that grows up
is at all like the thing that has vanished, in which transition leads
nowhere, everything is a matter of degree; all the great figures
shrink into the background, and distinction is purely personal. I am
fully convinced that it is impossible for a woman, even if she were
born close to a throne, to acquire before the age of five-and-twenty
the encyclopaedic knowledge of trifles, the practice of manoeuvring,
the important small things, the musical tones and harmony of coloring,
the angelic bedevilments and innocent cunning, the speech and the
silence, the seriousness and the banter, the wit and the obtuseness,
the diplomacy and the ignorance which make up the perfect lady."
"And where, in accordance with the sketch you have drawn," said
Mademoiselle des Touches to Emile Blondet, "would you class the female
author? Is she a perfect lady, a woman comme il faut?"
"When she has no genius, she is a woman comme il n'en faut pas,"
Blondet replied, emphasizing the words with a stolen glance, which
might make them seem praise frankly addressed to Camille Maupin. "This
epigram is not mine, but Napoleon's," he added.
"You need not owe Napoleon any grudge on that score," said Canalis,
with an emphatic tone and gesture. "It was one of his weaknesses to be
jealous of literary genius--for he had his mean points. Who will ever
explain, depict, or understand Napoleon? A man represented with his
arms folded, and who did everything, who was the greatest force ever
known, the most concentrated, the most mordant, the most acid of all
forces; a singular genius who carried armed civilization in every
direction without fixing it anywhere; a man who could do everything
because he willed everything; a prodigious phenomenon of will,
conquering an illness by a battle, and yet doomed to die of disease in
bed after living in the midst of ball and bullets; a man with a code
and a sword in his brain, word and deed; a clear-sighted spirit that
foresaw everything but his own fall; a capricious politician who
risked men by handfuls out of economy, and who spared three heads--
those of Talleyrand, of Pozzo de Borgo, and of Metternich,
diplomatists whose death would have saved the French Empire, and who
seemed to him of greater weight than thousands of soldiers; a man to
whom nature, as a rare privilege, had given a heart in a frame of
bronze; mirthful and kind at midnight amid women, and next morning
manipulating Europe as a young girl might amuse herself by splashing
water in her bath! Hypocritical and generous; loving tawdriness and
simplicity; devoid of taste, but protecting the arts; and in spite of
these antitheses, really great in everything by instinct or by
temperament; Caesar at five-and-twenty, Cromwell at thirty; and then,
like my grocer buried in Pere Lachaise, a good husband and a good
father. In short, he improvised public works, empires, kings, codes,
verses, a romance--and all with more range than precision. Did he not
aim at making all Europe France? And after making us weigh on the
earth in such a way as to change the laws of gravitation, he left us
poorer than on the day when he first laid hands on us; while he, who
had taken an empire by his name, lost his name on the frontier of his
empire in a sea of blood and soldiers. A man all thought and all
action, who comprehended Desaix and Fouche."
"All despotism and all justice at the right moments. The true king!"
said de Marsay.
"Ah! vat a pleashre it is to dichest vile you talk," said Baron de
"But do you suppose that the treat we are giving you is a common one?"
asked Joseph Bridau. "If you had to pay for the charms of conversation
as you do for those of dancing or of music, your fortune would be
inadequate! There is no second performance of the same flash of wit."
"And are we really so much deteriorated as these gentlemen think?"
said the Princesse de Cadignan, addressing the women with a smile at
once sceptical and ironical. "Because, in these days, under a regime
which makes everything small, you prefer small dishes, small rooms,
small pictures, small articles, small newspapers, small books, does
that prove that women too have grown smaller? Why should the human
heart change because you change your coat? In all ages the passions
remain the same. I know cases of beautiful devotion, of sublime
sufferings, which lack the publicity--the glory, if you choose--which
formerly gave lustre to the errors of some women. But though one may
not have saved a King of France, one is not the less an Agnes Sorel.
Do you believe that our dear Marquise d'Espard is not the peer of
Madame Doublet, or Madame du Deffant, in whose rooms so much evil was
spoken and done? Is not Taglioni a match for Camargo? or Malibran the
equal of Saint-Huberti? Are not our poets superior to those of the
eighteenth century? If at this moment, through the fault of the
Grocers who govern us, we have not a style of our own, had not the
Empire its distinguishing stamp as the age of Louis XV. had, and was
not its splendor fabulous? Have the sciences lost anything?"
"I am quite of your opinion, madame; the women of this age are truly
great," replied the Comte de Vandenesse. "When posterity shall have
followed us, will not Madame Recamier appear in proportions as fine as
those of the most beautiful women of the past? We have made so much
history that historians will be lacking. The age of Louis XIV. had but
one Madame de Sevigne; we have a thousand now in Paris who certainly
write better than she did, and who do not publish their letters.
Whether the Frenchwoman be called 'perfect lady,' or great lady, she
will always be the woman among women.
"Emile Blondet has given us a picture of the fascinations of a woman
of the day; but, at need, this creature who bridles or shows off, who
chirps out the ideas of Mr. This and Mr. That, would be heroic. And it
must be said, your faults, mesdames, are all the more poetical,
because they must always and under all circumstances be surrounded by
greater perils. I have seen much of the world, I have studied it
perhaps too late; but in cases where the illegality of your feelings
might be excused, I have always observed the effects of I know not
what chance--which you may call Providence--inevitably overwhelming
such as we consider light women."
"I hope," said Madame de Vandenesse, "that we can be great in other
"Oh, let the Comte de Vandenesse preach to us!" exclaimed Madame de
"With all the more reason because he has preached a great deal by
example," said the Baronne de Nucingen.
"On my honor!" said General de Montriveau, "in all the dramas--a word
you are very fond of," he said, looking at Blondet--"in which the
finger of God has been visible, the most frightful I ever knew was
very near being by my act----"
"Well, tell us all about it!" cried Lady Barimore; "I love to
"It is the taste of a virtuous woman," replied de Marsay, looking at
Lord Dudley's lovely daughter.
"During the campaign of 1812," General de Montriveau began, "I was the
involuntary cause of a terrible disaster which may be of use to you,
Doctor Bianchon," turning to me, "since, while devoting yourself to
the human body, you concern yourself a good deal with the mind; it may
tend to solve some of the problems of the will.
"I was going through my second campaign; I enjoyed danger, and laughed
at everything, like the young and foolish lieutenant of artillery that
I was. When we reached the Beresina, the army had, as you know, lost
all discipline, and had forgotten military obedience. It was a medley
of men of all nations, instinctively making their way from north to
south. The soldiers would drive a general in rags and bare-foot away
from their fire if he brought neither wood nor victuals. After the
passage of this famous river disorder did not diminish. I had come
quietly and alone, without food, out of the marshes of Zembin, and was
wandering in search of a house where I might be taken in. Finding none
or driven away from those I came across, happily towards evening I
perceived a wretched little Polish farm, of which nothing can give you
any idea unless you have seen the wooden houses of Lower Normandy, or
the poorest farm-buildings of la Beauce. These dwellings consist of a
single room, with one end divided off by a wooden partition, the
smaller division serving as a store-room for forage.
"In the darkness of twilight I could just see a faint smoke rising
above this house. Hoping to find there some comrades more
compassionate than those I had hitherto addressed, I boldly walked as
far as the farm. On going in, I found the table laid. Several
officers, and with them a woman--a common sight enough--were eating
potatoes, some horseflesh broiled over the charcoal, and some frozen
beetroots. I recognized among the company two or three artillery
captains of the regiment in which I had first served. I was welcomed
with a shout of acclamation, which would have amazed me greatly on the
other side of the Beresina; but at this moment the cold was less
intense; my fellow-officers were resting, they were warm, they had
food, and the room, strewn with trusses of straw, gave the promise of
a delightful night. We did not ask for so much in those days. My
comrades could be philanthropists gratis--one of the commonest ways
of being philanthropic. I sat down to eat on one of the bundles of
"At the end of the table, by the side of the door opening into the
smaller room full of straw and hay, sat my old colonel, one of the
most extraordinary men I ever saw among all the mixed collection of
men it has been my lot to meet. He was an Italian. Now, whenever human
nature is truly fine in the lands of the South, it is really sublime.
I do not know whether you have ever observed the extreme fairness of
Italians when they are fair. It is exquisite, especially under an
artificial light. When I read the fantastical portrait of Colonel
Oudet sketched by Charles Nodier, I found my own sensations in every
one of his elegant phrases. Italian, then, as were most of the
officers of his regiment, which had, in fact, been borrowed by the
Emperor from Eugene's army, my colonel was a tall man, at least eight
or nine inches above the standard, and was admirably proportioned--a
little stout perhaps, but prodigiously powerful, active, and clean-
limbed as a greyhound. His black hair in abundant curls showed up his
complexion, as white as a woman's; he had small hands, a shapely foot,
a pleasant mouth, and an aquiline nose delicately formed, of which the
tip used to become naturally pinched and white whenever he was angry,
as happened often. His irascibility was so far beyond belief that I
will tell you nothing about it; you will have the opportunity of
judging of it. No one could be calm in his presence. I alone, perhaps,
was not afraid of him; he had indeed taken such a singular fancy to me
that he thought everything I did right. When he was in a rage his brow
was knit and the muscles of the middle of his forehead set in a delta,
or, to be more explicit, in Redgauntlet's horseshoe. This mark was,
perhaps, even more terrifying than the magnetic flashes of his blue
eyes. His whole frame quivered, and his strength, great as it was in
his normal state, became almost unbounded.
"He spoke with a strong guttural roll. His voice, at least as powerful
as that of Charles Nordier's Oudet, threw an incredible fulness of
tone into the syllable or the consonant in which this burr was
sounded. Though this faulty pronunciation was at times a grace, when
commanding his men, or when he was excited, you cannot imagine, unless
you had heard it, what force was expressed by this accent, which at
Paris is so common. When the Colonel was quiescent, his blue eyes were
angelically sweet, and his smooth brow had a most charming expression.
On parade, or with the army of Italy, not a man could compare with
him. Indeed, d'Orsay himself, the handsome d'Orsay, was eclipsed by
our colonel on the occasion of the last review held by Napoleon before
the invasion of Russia.
"Everything was in contrasts in this exceptional man. Passion lives on
contrast. Hence you need not ask whether he exerted over women the
irresistible influences to which our nature yields"--and the general
looked at the Princesse de Cadignan--"as vitreous matter is moulded
under the pipe of the glass-blower; still, by a singular fatality--an
observer might perhaps explain the phenomenon--the Colonel was not a
lady-killer, or was indifferent to such successes.
"To give you an idea of his violence, I will tell you in a few words
what I once saw him do in a paroxysm of fury. We were dragging our
guns up a very narrow road, bordered by a somewhat high slope on one
side, and by thickets on the other. When we were half-way up we met
another regiment of artillery, its colonel marching at the head. This
colonel wanted to make the captain who was at the head of our foremost
battery back down again. The captain, of course, refused; but the
colonel of the other regiment signed to his foremost battery to
advance, and in spite of the care the driver took to keep among the
scrub, the wheel of the first gun struck our captain's right leg and
broke it, throwing him over on the near side of his horse. All this
was the work of a moment. Our Colonel, who was but a little way off,
guessed that there was a quarrel; he galloped up, riding among the
guns at the risk of falling with his horse's four feet in the air, and
reached the spot, face to face with the other colonel, at the very
moment when the captain fell, calling out 'Help!' No, our Italian
colonel was no longer human! Foam like the froth of champagne rose to
his lips; he roared inarticulately like a lion. Incapable of uttering
a word, or even a cry, he made a terrific signal to his antagonist,
pointing to the wood and drawing his sword. The two colonels went
aside. In two seconds we saw our Colonel's opponent stretched on the
ground, his skull split in two. The soldiers of his regiment backed--
yes, by heaven, and pretty quickly too.
"The captain, who had been so nearly crushed, and who lay yelping in
the puddle where the gun carriage had thrown him, had an Italian wife,
a beautiful Sicilian of Messina, who was not indifferent to our
Colonel. This circumstance had aggravated his rage. He was pledged to
protect the husband, bound to defend him as he would have defended the
"Now, in the hovel beyond Zembin, where I was so well received, this
captain was sitting opposite to me, and his wife was at the other end
of the table, facing the Colonel. This Sicilian was a little woman
named Rosina, very dark, but with all the fire of the Southern sun in
her black almond-shaped eyes. At this moment she was deplorably thin;
her face was covered with dust, like fruit exposed to the drought of a
highroad. Scarcely clothed in rags, exhausted by marches, her hair in
disorder, and clinging together under a piece of a shawl tied close
over her head, still she had the graces of a woman; her movements were
engaging, her small rose mouth and white teeth, the outline of her
features and figure, charms which misery, cold, and neglect had not
altogether defaced, still suggested love to any man who could think of
a woman. Rosina had one of those frames which are fragile in
appearance, but wiry and full of spring. Her husband, a gentleman of
Piedmont, had a face expressive of ironical simplicity, if it is
allowable to ally the two words. Brave and well informed, he seemed to
know nothing of the connections which had subsisted between his wife
and the Colonel for three years past. I ascribed this unconcern to
Italian manners, or to some domestic secret; yet there was in the
man's countenance one feature which always filled me with involuntary
distrust. His under lip, which was thin and very restless, turned down
at the corners instead of turning up, and this, as I thought, betrayed
a streak of cruelty in a character which seemed so phlegmatic and
"As you may suppose the conversation was not very sparkling when I
went in. My weary comrades ate in silence; of course, they asked me
some questions, and we related our misadventures, mingled with
reflections on the campaign, the generals, their mistakes, the
Russians, and the cold. A minute after my arrival the colonel, having
finished his meagre meal, wiped his moustache, bid us good-night, shot
a black look at the Italian woman, saying, 'Rosina?' and then, without
waiting for a reply, went into the little barn full of hay, to bed.
The meaning of the Colonel's utterance was self-evident. The young
wife replied by an indescribable gesture, expressing all the annoyance
she could not feel at seeing her thralldom thus flaunted without human
decency, and the offence to her dignity as a woman, and to her
husband. But there was, too, in the rigid setting of her features and
the tight knitting of her brows a sort of presentiment; perhaps she
foresaw her fate. Rosina remained quietly in her place.
"A minute later, and apparently when the Colonel was snug in his couch
of straw or hay, he repeated, 'Rosina?'
"The tone of this second call was even more brutally questioning than
the first. The Colonel's strong burr, and the length which the Italian
language allows to be given to vowels and the final syllable,
concentrated all the man's despotism, impatience, and strength of
will. Rosina turned pale, but she rose, passed behind us, and went to
"All the party sat in utter silence; I, unluckily, after looking at
them all, began to laugh, and then they all laughed too.--'Tu ridi?
--you laugh?' said the husband.
" 'On my honor, old comrade,' said I, becoming serious again, 'I
confess that I was wrong; I ask your pardon a thousand times, and if
you are not satisfied by my apologies I am ready to give you
" 'Oh! it is not you who are wrong, it is I!' he replied coldly.
"Thereupon we all lay down in the room, and before long all were sound
"Next morning each one, without rousing his neighbor or seeking
companionship, set out again on his way, with that selfishness which
made our rout one of the most horrible dramas of self-seeking,
melancholy, and horror which ever was enacted under heaven.
Nevertheless, at about seven or eight hundred paces from our shelter
we, most of us, met again and walked on together, like geese led in
flocks by a child's wilful tyranny. The same necessity urged us all.
"Having reached a knoll where we could still see the farmhouse where
we had spent the night, we heard sounds resembling the roar of lions
in the desert, the bellowing of bulls--no, it was a noise which can be
compared to no known cry. And yet, mingling with this horrible and
ominous roar, we could hear a woman's feeble scream. We all looked
round, seized by I know not what impulse of terror; we no longer saw
the house, but a huge bonfire. The farmhouse had been barricaded, and
was in flames. Swirls of smoke borne on the wind brought us hoarse
cries and an indescribable pungent smell. A few yards behind, the
captain was quietly approaching to join our caravan; we gazed at him
in silence, for no one dared question him; but he, understanding our
curiosity, pointed to his breast with the forefinger of his right
hand, and, waving the left in the direction of the fire, he said,
"We all walked on without saying a word to him."
"There is nothing more terrible than the revolt of a sheep," said de
"It would be frightful to let us leave with this horrible picture in
our memory," said Madame de Montcornet. "I shall dream of it----"
"And what was the punishment of Monsieur de Marsay's 'First'?" said
Lord Dudley, smiling.
"When the English are in jest, their foils have the buttons on," said
"Monsieur Bianchon can tell us, for he saw her dying," replied de
Marsay, turning to me.
"Yes," said I; "and her end was one of the most beautiful I ever saw.
The Duke and I had spent the night by the dying woman's pillow;
pulmonary consumption, in the last stage, left no hope; she had taken
the sacrament the day before. The Duke had fallen asleep. The Duchess,
waking at about four in the morning, signed to me in the most touching
way, with a friendly smile, to bid me leave him to rest, and she
meanwhile was about to die. She had become incredibly thin, but her
face had preserved its really sublime outline and features. Her pallor
made her skin look like porcelain with a light within. Her bright eyes
and color contrasted with this languidly elegant complexion, and her
countenance was full of expressive calm. She seemed to pity the Duke,
and the feeling had its origin in a lofty tenderness which, as death
approached, seemed to know no bounds. The silence was absolute. The
room, softly lighted by a lamp, looked like every sickroom at the hour
"At this moment the clock struck. The Duke awoke, and was in despair
at having fallen asleep. I did not see the gesture of impatience by
which he manifested the regret he felt at having lost sight of his
wife for a few of the last minutes vouchsafed to him; but it is quite
certain that any one but the dying woman might have misunderstood it.
A busy statesman, always thinking of the interests of France, the Duke
had a thousand odd ways on the surface, such as often lead to a man of
genius being mistaken for a madman, and of which the explanation lies
in the exquisiteness and exacting needs of their intellect. He came to
seat himself in an armchair by his wife's side, and looked fixedly at
her. The dying woman put her hand out a little way, took her husband's
and clasped it feebly; and in a low but agitated voice she said, 'My
poor dear, who is left to understand you now?' Then she died, looking
"The stories the doctor tells us," said the Comte de Vandenesse,
"always leave a deep impression."
"But a sweet one," said Mademoiselle des Touches, rising.
PARIS, June 1839-42.