FÉDER or the Gilded Husband

IV

Féder immediately obeyed.

“Pray, Madame, would you please take up a position a little more to the right, the arm which is resting on the sofa a little more toward me, the head tilted less forward. You are a little removed from the position in which the portrait began.”

The rectification of the pose was carried out, not without several little slight expressions of coldness on Valentine’s part, after which the lovers fell little by little into a charming silence that was only interrupted from time to time by these words from Féder:

“Madame, please look at me.”

Without hesitation, Féder accepted the invitation to dinner that he was given; he even accepted a seat in the box for the performance, but he found time to say to Delangle:

“I had the weakness of counting on a position that will be vacant at the Institute; a friend had taken care to put a lodger into a room on the sixth floor of the house, where the Academy member, who is quite sick, occupies the second. Well, this evening I am not going to complain about the academician; he is critically ill, but two of his colleagues, who had promised their vote to the person who supports me, seem to be leaning toward my rival, who is distantly related to the finance minister appointed yesterday.”

“This is a disgraceful thing!” exclaimed Delangle in his loudest voice and in an angry tone.

“And why a disgrace, you boor?” thought Féder. “Now I can be dreamy and silent as long as I please, my sadness will be taken to be on account of the failed position at the Institute.” He fell again into the supreme joy of admiring Valentine.

A moment later, Féder heard Boissaux, who said to his brother-in-law in the tone of the most ridiculous envy:

“Curses, knight of the Legion of Honor and member of the Institute in the same year! The gentleman doesn’t pull his punches!”

The vice president of the commercial court believed he was speaking in a lowered voice, but the reflections of the provincial colossus were not lost on the neighboring boxes. After two or three minutes, he added:

“It is true that his portraits, being by a member of the Institute, will do greater honor to the people who will have them!”

Valentine spoke no more than Féder; her glances and her voice, deeply emotional, betrayed an acute preoccupation. In spite of the very expressive disavowals that had followed so closely on the offense, Valentine had been repeating herself this lovely conviction: “He didn’t tell me that he loved me out of presumptuousness, still less out of insolence, the poor boy; he told me because it is true.” Then the energetic disavowals of the painter appeared to her eyes, and the judgment that had to be made about them came to occupy all the young woman’s attention.

In the middle of the headlong pounding of her heart, the slight uncertainties still remaining stopped her from becoming indignant about that terrible thing which, in Provincial style, is called a declaration. Then there came to Valentine an extreme curiosity to know Féder’s story. She remembered that when her brother had spoken to her of having her portrait done, he had said these very words to her: “A young painter of a monumental talent, who has the most magnificent success at the Opéra!” She no longer dared put Delangle back on this subject and ask him for new details. Valentine endlessly sought out the company of her brother; she became clever, constantly dreaming of the cleverest methods to put him back on the story of the young painter’s good fortune. Monsieur Boissaux was dying from the desire to have a box for two months at the Opéra. That done, he would throw a large dinner on a Friday for all the people of his province who were in Paris; then, he would leave them proudly at eight o’clock, saying to them: “I have a business meeting in my box at the Opéra.” Valentine, who, suddenly, had been taken with a passion for the Opéra, said to her husband:

“Nothing irritates me as much as the silly superiority that people who enjoy a certain fortune in Paris claim over us others who were born two-hundred leagues from the capital, and who are just as good in all respects. It seems to me that there are only two ways of having status among this insolent aristocracy: you must buy land in a canton where a few beautiful homes of rich bankers or receivers general are, or else, if there’s no land, you must at least have a box at the Opéra. Nothing seems to me, in my opinion, to lower us more than this necessity of changing boxes upon every performance.”

For the first time in her life, Valentine knowingly ridiculed her husband, or at least used turns of phrase that she found ridiculous to persuade him. She passionately wanted to have a box; she counted on luring to it several of her Bordelais friends, whom the love of dance led to the Opéra each day. Discretion not being the dominant virtue of these gentlemen born in Gascony, she hoped to get a few specific details about Féder’s accomplishments.

“Finally,” her husband said to her, taking her arm in friendship, “you understand what sort of life a man such as me must lead. Since we have a fortune, why shouldn’t the Vice President of the commercial court be a deputy? Portal, Lainé, Ravez, Martignac, etc., etc., did they begin otherwise? You may have noticed that, at the dinners that we give, I practice speaking. At heart, I am for absolute government; it is the only sort that gives fine periods of tranquility during which we have time, we other constructive folk, to amass fortunes, but, since one must be nominated, I release to them sometimes scraps about the freedom of the press, electoral reform, and other nonsense. N…, peer of France, gave me a young lawyer without a cause, who, twice a week, comes to read with me the spoutings of someone by the name of Benjamin Constant, another poor devil, not many years dead, who was never able to be anything, not even in the Institute in which our little painter Féder will perhaps join very soon.”

This name made Madame Boissaux quiver.

“For the rest,” continued the Vice-President, “N…, peer of France, told me that you can think yourself a statesman only insofar as you catch yourself habitually upholding an opinion that is not your own. To start with, I constantly tease the young lawyer who comes to teach me, as he says, the principles of the government of France by France. I pretend to share the opinion of his Benjamin Constant (what a Jew’s name!), and thus show myself superior to this young Parisian. Because as N…, peer of France, also says: ‘He who fools the other is always superior,’ etc., etc.”

The Opéra box was found by Féder and rented immediately, and if Valentine had remotely wanted, they could have started to look for land in a canton already sufficiently peopled with rich bankers and receivers general. Valentine still didn’t have any opinion about the land; she promised herself to speak to Féder about it. As for the tirades of energetic eloquence that Monsieur Boissaux inflicted upon his guests, she hadn’t noticed them; she had insensibly gotten in the habit of listening to nothing that was said in places where Féder was, and he was always part of her dinners. A statement can be made about them that is quite dangerous for what it exposes: the looks they addressed to one another were much more intimate than their words. If a stenographer had taken down and printed their dialogue, it would have been possible to see in them only politeness, while their looks announced quite other things, things which were quite far from being the reality.

At that very dinner, which Monsieur Boissaux gave on a Friday so as to facilitate this lovely exit—“Excuse me, gentlemen, I must leave you for a business meeting that I have in my box in the Opéra”—two or three of the diners noticed quite clearly the looks with which Madame Boissaux sought out at every moment Féder’s opinion on everything about which one happened to speak. Féder didn’t believe his vows of indifference would be broken if he troubled himself to teach the woman he loved what it was necessary to think about everything in Paris. He didn’t want for anything in the world to hear her repeat the exaggerated, or at least coarse, ideas that Monsieur Boissaux expressed in all circumstances.

The Provincials, who had noticed Madame Boissaux’s glances and who respected her excellent dinners immensely, were not people afraid of offending her delicacy. Thus, when Boissaux left to go to his supposed rendezvous and Féder exclaimed, “I beg of you to drop me somewhere,” they suddenly hurried to praise Féder in speaking to Madame Boissaux. That woman, whose delicate mind grasped the slightest affectation in society, was not shocked by this praise for the young painter, which was motivated by nothing if not the crude desire to latch onto a few good dinners. The parasite set apart by the recklessness of his laudations was enlisted to come that very evening to the box at the Opéra and, in addition, was not at all forgotten on the list of invitations for the next dinner.

Far from exaggerating to himself the feeling that he was experiencing, Féder, without noticing it, put a little affectedness in weakening its importance; he believed himself to be firmly on the verge of going back to his rounds in the Sunday dances of the towns surrounding Paris. Since the words of love so daringly pronounced in speaking to Valentine, and of which we have had an account, a second instance of words of love had not left his mouth.

“It must be she who asks me for these word of love!” he had thought at the beginning, but the true motives for his conduct were quite different. He found a perfectly exquisite pleasure in the extreme intimacy that was established between himself and Valentine in all things; he was in no rush to change his life, “because,” he thought basically, “she is still a child. If I want to take a step forward, this step can only be decisive; if religion gets the upper hand over her, as is quite likely, she will run away to Bordeaux, where I cannot with any decency follow her, and I will spend every evening without a delicious hour, which gives interest to all my other hours, and which, truth be told, is the soul of my life. If she gives in, it will be like all the others; at the end of a month or two, I won’t find anything but boredom where I went looking for pleasure. Then will come reproaches and soon the break, and I will again have lost that delicious hour that I go in search of each evening, the expectation of which enlivens my whole day.”

Valentine, without seeing as clearly into her heart (she was only twenty-two and had spent all her life in the convent), started seriously to reproach herself. For a long time, she thought: “But there is nothing to take back between Féder and myself.” Thus had she discovered that she took an unceasing interest in him; then, to her inexpressible shame, she perceived transports of love for him when he was absent. She had bought a vulgar lithograph, which she had had framed and put near to her piano, at a height of four feet, because she imagined that one of the people in it looked like Féder. To justify the presence of this one lithograph, she had bought seven others. When she was alone and pensive in her chamber, she often happened to give kisses to the glass, covering the face of the young soldier who looked like Féder. As we have said, their conversations might have been heard by the most respectable and the strictest people, but these people had not to pay too strict attention to their glances.

The result of Valentine’s remorse and Féder’s system was that he did without love the actions that showed the most passion. Thus, long after the miniature was finished, upon Valentine having wanted to see the painter’s studio, he took advantage of one of the moments when Delangle and two or three people accompanying Madame Boissaux were looking at a nice Rembrandt to turn over one of the paintings, which made a nice gallery of this studio, and showed Valentine a magnificent oil painting representing a nun: it was the admirably done likeness of Valentine herself. She blushed a great deal, and Féder hurried to rejoin Delangle, but before Madame Boissaux’s exit, he told her, in seemingly the most indifferent manner:

“It isn’t for nothing that I took the liberty of showing you the portrait of this nun; it is a priceless piece in my eyes, but I give you my word that if you do not utter the words ‘I give it to you,’ then tomorrow I will take this painting into the Montmorency woods and burn it.”

Valentine diverted her eyes and uttered, blushing a great deal, the words:

“Well, I give it to you.”

The rather sweet intimacy that Féder didn’t want to bring to an end, expressing itself entirely by glances, could have provided space for quite compromising suppositions, but suspicions didn’t come into Monsieur Boissaux’s mind. He was a man entirely of real facts, for whom things that were only imagined or possible didn’t exist; he only now noticed, in seeing the role that the principal bankers and other moneyed people played regarding the government, that aristocratic power had deserted the great names of the Saint-Germain district to come into the salons of the financiers, who knew how to be impertinent about it to the ministers.

“In Provence, we had no idea of the advantages of employment,” said Boissaux to his wife, “and I really can see myself as something quite different than a simple vice-president of the commercial court. Had I not thought it suitable to my life in Bordeaux to sacrifice a thousand or so Louis to show my young wife Paris, I would never have had any idea of the true state of things. In Bordeaux, I will be in favor of freedom of the press and of electoral reform, in Paris, I will still hold on to several sentiments of this sort, but in all the large matters, I will be completely under the command of the one of the ministers who is the best in court. It is thus that one becomes receiver general, peer of France and even deputy. If I were a deputy, my little lawyer without a cause would make the most beautiful speeches in the world for me. You are very pretty, and the purity of your character, reflected in your features, gives you a certain naïve grace that one is hardly accustomed to encounter in Paris, especially with banker’s ladies; our Féder taught me that impertinent phrase. Well, you are on the eve of having the greatest success; all you are lacking is the desire. I ask you on my knees to pray have this willingness—it is I, your husband, who asks you—to be a little bit flirtatious. For instance, next Friday I have invited to dinner two receivers general who probably dine better at their homes than they will do at yours, but respond to what they say to you in a way that makes the conversation last. If they start to tell you stories, seem to listen to them with interest and, if it comes to mind, speak to them of the admirable English garden that I planted ten leagues from Bordeaux, on the beautiful banks of the Dordogne and in a field that I bought exclusively, because there were twenty large trees or so on it. You might add, if it suits what you are saying, that this garden is an exact copy of the one which Pope planted in times past in Twickenham. Then, if you want to oblige me completely, you could say that, swept away by the beauty of this thrilling spot, you urged me to build a house; you insisted especially this house not have the appearance of a chateau, because you abhor all that which seems calculated to have an effect. It is important for me to become intimately acquainted with these two receivers general. These gentlemen are the natural line that puts large fortunes in touch with the minister of finance, and through this minister, we will reach the others. It is, in addition, important—and this idea I owe to Féder—it is important, I say, that you pretend to have a sway over my wishes, and that you will have a good command over my important decisions as soon as you deign to want to take it. I give myself up entirely, on the face of it, to my new friends; they are all people enjoying the greatest opulence, and it is not at all through speeches that I can pay court to them. You justly sense that in this country of chattering, they are overwhelmed and exhausted by this type of success; as for me, I am looking to please them by giving them a real role in excellent investments, but I have a wild card. In the quite probable event that these gentlemen would like to pull a carrot from me a little too forcefully, I will put forward to them the will or the caprice of the lovely woman whom, so often, they will have seen shining at our Friday dinners; by these means, I will be able to protect my money without them being reasonably able to doubt my devotion to their interests.”

We see from this conversation that Féder had done better than to get used to suffering the appalling voice of the vice president; he sought out his conversation to the point of mollifying his ravenous vanity, making him understand a few ideas necessary to his fortune. If Féder was not rich, he at least displayed an endless respect for the happy beings that had a fortune. Boissaux thus was sure to be venerated by him, because he had treated him as one of his new friends, chosen among the people with money, the receivers general, etc. He had let Féder see with an apparent negligence (one can judge the success with which the heavy and greedy Monsieur Boissaux played apparent negligence), he made him see, let’s say, various papers, from which resulted the proof that Monsieur Boissaux had inherited from his father mortgage-free buildings, buildings worth three-million at the least, and that the dowry of his wife, rising to nine-hundred fifty-thousand francs, was situated in various industrial enterprises in Bordeaux, and moreover, Madame Boissaux still had two rather rich and childless uncles.

Féder had conversed complacently about these domestic details, hardly entertaining for anyone other than a lover, and with the help of this complacency and many others, his behavior with Valentine had not awakened Monsieur Boissaux’s susceptibility at all, but Féder had not had the same success with his friend Delangle. This provincial no doubt had his absurdities. For example, he was fond of conducting business with the quickness and the eagle-eyed view of a man of genius; he remarked complacently to his friends that he didn’t have office clerks, and he was said to restrict all his writing to card games. Despite that affectation and many others, Delangle saw things as they were well enough. Six years of a nearly continuous stay in Paris had opened his eyes. Thus, the bored look that Valentine gave the society collected by her husband disappeared the moment when Féder entered the salon; an intimate look and suppressed joy searched him out at every moment, in all the places he occupied successively, and this look seemed to consult the young painter on which position to take. Delangle more or less saw all of that, and, by natural consequence, Féder found a certain coldness in his friend.

One day, they went to see a charming house, located at Saint-Gratien, very close to the little church where the remains of Catinat rested, walking up and down the garden, Féder found himself alone, for a moment, with Madame Boissaux.

“Delangle,” he said to her with a smile, which painted all the passion that he felt, “Delangle has suspicions, most certainly quite unfounded; he believes that we are in love with each other. When we took the path which we are on and when the rest of the society wanted to get closer to the lake, Delangle held back: I bet he is going to try to listen to us; but I have good eyes. The moment I take out my watch without saying anything, I will have seen our friend slip behind some clump of greenery to overhear what we might say when we are alone. We must, beautiful Valentine,” continued Féder, “share a conversation that proves above all that I do not love you.”

One can imagine the tone in which these words were pronounced. Since the very sincere avowal of which we spoke and which took place during the second sitting dedicated to the portrait, the word love had not even appeared in the conversations Féder had had with Valentine; yes, Féder saw her more or less every day, and this moment was the object of the hopes or the memories of the rest of the day. Upon the first word that he had addressed to her in the garden at Saint-Gratien, she became purplish-red. Soon, a little acacia branch which Féder had torn off a tree slipped from Valentine’s hand; Féder stopped as if to pick it up; in standing up again, he pulled out his watch: he had seen Delangle quite distinctly, hidden behind a clump of acacias.

“Why don’t you arrange one of your salons, in your house at Bordeaux, which opens onto the garden, like the admirable salon of the house that we just saw? It is quite simply the perfection of the style, and, I am sure of it, they couldn’t deny letting us make a drawing of this salon. Monsieur Boissaux could employ the architect who made the plans for the house to be erected on the banks of the Dordogne, next to that famous garden, etc.”

The expression that Valentine made while this prudent conversation lasted was worthy of a painting; she made a pretense of cheerfulness, and then she reproached herself for fooling her brother; to fool this brother, who had in this world fondness only for her, wasn’t this a crime? It must therefore be that her way of being habitually with Féder was quite reprehensible, since she was obliged to take a comedic precaution to hide it from her brother, who might have risked his life, and even more might have risked his fortune, to be useful to her. From another angle, the strangeness of this precaution gave Valentine the idea that perhaps the period of her everyday relations with Féder were threatened. “Well,” she thought, “perhaps it is not as simple a thing as it seems that Féder is making me do; I judge it by my emotions; I was perhaps wrong to obey him. In what terms might I, on this question, consult the sainted man who guides my conscience?”

As one can see, during the time of this conversation, which might have been merely pleasant for a Parisian soul, two or three tragic fears fought for the mind of the young provincial woman. She had too much shrewdness to say things that might compromise her, but the emotion of her voice was so striking that the test had not turned out in a way as advantageous as Féder had hoped. The things said were certainly quite prudent, but in what a trembling and passionate voice had they been uttered! The thing reached a point that hardly five minutes had gone by when Féder took out his handkerchief, which he immediately let fall. Valentine exclaimed:

“They’re sailing on the lake; let’s go sailing too!”

Having reached the landing, Féder and Valentine found no more boats; they had taken to the open sea and were no longer to be seen. The walls of a house concealed them from the gaze of people who were in the park. Féder looked at Valentine: he wanted to reprimand her. She had not slipped into her role well; she looked at him with eyes full of tears. He was on the point of saying to her the one thing, the one word, which must never come out of his mouth; he looked at her in silence, but at the moment when he won the so-difficult victory over himself of not saying anything, he found that without having thought about it and almost without knowing he had planted a kiss on her neck.

Valentine was on the verge of fainting; then her two arms stretched forward swiftly, with her two hands extended and her face turned away, expressing the most lively dissatisfaction and almost horror.

“If Delangle appears, I will say we were on the verge of falling into the lake.”

Féder took two steps, entered the water and dampened his white trousers up to the knee. The sight of this unusual action diverted Valentine a little from the strange action that had preceded this incident, and quite fortunately, her face did not betray more than ordinary trouble when Delangle arrived all out of breath and running. He exclaimed:

“I want to get on board too.”



Check in every month for another installment of, Féder (or the Gilded Husband), this fantastic and unfinished novella that we will be serializing throughout the winter, spring and summer of ’11.

Contributor

Stendhall , translated from the French by Brian Evenson

MARIE-HENRI BEYLE (23 January 1783 - 23 March 1842), known by his nom de plume STENDHAL, was a master at acutely analyzing his characters' psychology. He is considered one of the earliest and foremost practitioners of realism. Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black, 1830) and La Chartreuse de Parme (The Chartreuse of Parma, 1839) are the two novels for which he is best known.

BRIAN EVENSON is the author of ten books of fiction, most recently the limited edition novella Baby Leg. He has translated work by Christian Gailly, Jean Fremon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, and others. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship.

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