This experience filled our hero with a profound anxiety; Delangle’s suspicions weren’t appeased, and he was not the man to forget or neglect the consequences of an idea once it had entered his head. The anxiety that this suspicion gave to the young painter made him think about things; he was forced to admit that unlike a passing acquaintance, it would not be a matter of just three days to forget her entirely. Delangle could close the door of the Boissaux home to him forever. This idea made Féder shudder; then he was angry at himself for being moved to this degree. He was genuinely afraid of Delangle; this fear made him ashamed. As if by instinct, he again sought out Boissaux’s friendship. One of the receivers general, who knew how best to pay honor to his fortune, had left a pretty country house that he had rented at Viroflay. Féder cried out to Boissaux:
“Grab that house, don’t hesitate: the horses of the people you need to align yourself with are used to going to Viroflay. You will give dinners there, and men and beasts will come to your house like they went to receiver general Bourdois, whose place you are taking.”
Without saying a word, so as not to show his gratitude (which might have led to an obligation), Boissaux took advantage of this counsel. He gave a rather large number of dinners there. One day, sitting down at the table, Boissaux calculated with exquisite delight that, though the guests at this dinner at Viroflay were only eleven in number, they combined between them total assets of twenty-six million, and among these guests one saw a peer of France, a receiver general, and two deputies. What was useful to Féder, the giver of advice, was that his assents weren’t counted in this tallying up of all the fortunes, and, in addition, he was the only one in that category. One of the diners, who, on the contrary, was entered for one and a half million in the accounting above, had just that very morning bought a beautiful library, all of gilt-edged volumes. He wasn’t the sort not to speak of his acquisition; Bidaire had been busy since that morning learning, practically by heart, the names of the major authors he had just acquired; he gave them the list, starting with the names of Diderot and the Baron of Holbach, which he pronounced Holbache.
“Say Holbach!” exclaimed the peer of France, with all the importance of recently acquired knowledge.
They spoke with a certain contempt of this man of letters with a barbaric name, when Delangle let fall casually that this Holbach was the son of a retailer and had several million. These words seemed to be food for thought for the rich gathering, and they spoke a few minutes more about Diderot and Holbach. Since the conversation was going to end on this subject, Madame Boissaux dared raise her voice to ask timidly if Diderot and Holbach hadn’t been hung with Cartouche and Mandrin. The laughter was lively and widespread. In vain did politeness desire to moderate it after the first moment; the idea of Diderot, the protégé of empress Catherine II, hanged as an accomplice of Cartouche, was so pleasant that giggling began again in all quarters.
“Well, gentlemen,” continued Madame Boissaux, who was also laughing like a madwoman without knowing why, “well, gentlemen, at the convent where I was raised, they never explained to us too clearly who Mandrin, Cartouche, Diderot, and other horrible villains were; I believed them people of the same stripe.”
After this courageous effort, Madame Boissaux looked at Féder, who, for a moment, was in despair over this imprudent glance, and then fell into a delicious reverie. Moments like this made him forget for entire days the grief of having been wrong for ten years in a row about his true vocation.
Valentine’s naïve response removed from the laughter what was too sharp and offensive about it; a soft smile replaced it on all lips. Then Delangle, who had been quite shocked by this family misfortune, came to the aid of his sister, and with the help of a few burlesque anecdotes, aroused the crude cheerfulness of the gathering. However, the diner who had just bought, at a good price, an entire library gilded on the edges, again started to speak of literature; he praised especially a magnificent J.-J. Rousseau printed by Dalibon.
“Are the letters quite big?” exclaimed the deputy who had four million. “I have read so much in my life that my eyes are starting to beg me for mercy. If the J.-J. Rousseau has big letters, I’ll order it to read once again his Essay on Morals: it is the most beautiful history book I know.”
The honorable deputy, as you can see, was slightly confusing those two great criminal culprits of 1793, Voltaire and Rousseau. Delangle burst out laughing; his example was followed by all the guests. He strained his coarse Midi voice a little, to make the laughter with which his sister’s ignorance had met be forgotten. And, in fact, all of those guests who believed themselves certain that it was Voltaire and not Rousseau who did the Essay on Morals were merciless toward the poor deputy, a very rich wool merchant, who claimed to have lost his eyesight by reading.
Dinner barely over, and Féder thought it prudent to disappear. He feared new glances. During a walk in the royal forest, which was reached through a little door in the garden, Delangle, still quite shocked by the laughter, found the means to say a few words to his sister in private:
“No doubt your husband is very fond of you and very good to you, but in the end he is a man and, at the bottom of his heart, would not be too angry to find a reason not to be so thankful for the dowry of eighteen hundred thousand francs that you brought to him and which made him vice president of the commercial court. With the help of a few meaningful shrugs, no doubt, he will make the gentlemen understand that you are an imbecile, and, precisely because it has only been perhaps six months since they themselves learned the names of Diderot and Baron Holbach, these gentlemen will speak at length about your ignorance. So, forget very quickly all those pious frauds the good nuns used to try to smother your mind, a mind which frightened them. Now don’t get discouraged; the two times I showed up at your convent, Madame d’Aché, the mother superior, literally told me that you had a mind which made them shudder.”
Delangle added this last phrase because he saw his sister on the verge of dissolving into tears.
“Twice a week, without saying anything about it to anyone but Monsieur Boissaux,” he continued, “you will go to Paris to take history lessons. I will look for a teacher for you, who will tell you all that has happened during the last hundred years that is most essential to know in society; they make endless allusions to these recent things. To rid yourself of your convent foolishness, never go to bed without having read one or two of Voltaire’s letters, or those of Diderot—who, unlike Cartouche and Mandrin, was not hanged.”
And in spite of himself, Delangle was laughing when he left his sister.
Valentine remained quite thoughtful all evening; at the noble convent of … her mind has been carefully impoverished by reading those books of etiquette praised by La Quotidienne and in which Napoleon is called M. de Buonaparte. It will be difficult to believe us if we add that she was not very sure that M. le marquis de Buonaparte hadn’t been, at a certain period in his life, one of Louis XVIII’s generals.
Luckily, one of the nuns, whose family was obscure and quite poor, and who, not atoning for this misfortune by any hypocrisy, was quite despised by all the others, had felt pity and consequently affection for the young Valentine.
She saw her being made stupid with all the greater concern since the entire convent reverberated each day with the importance of her dowry, which, according to the nuns, must have stood at six million. What a triumph for religion if a girl that rich renounced the world and consecrated her millions to build convents! Madame Gerlat, the poor nun, and, in addition, as everybody in the convent knew, the daughter of a miller, had Valentine copy, every Monday, a chapter of the Philothée of Saint Francis de Sales; the next day, the young woman was obliged to explain this chapter to the poor nun as if the latter were ignorant of all that this book concerned. Every Thursday, Valentine copied a chapter of the Imitation of Jesus Christ, which she also had to explain the next day, and the nun, to whom an unhappy life had taught the true meaning of words, didn’t tolerate, in the young woman’s explanations, any vague expression, any word that didn’t clearly explain the student’s thought or feelings. The nun and the student could have been severely punished if the mother superior had taken notice of this ploy. What is prohibited above all, in the good thinking convents, are private friendships; they might give to the souls in them some energy.
Even before this burst of very cruel laughter, made especially so by the importance that Monsieur Delangle seemed to give to it, Valentine—hearing spoken in the world as givens, facts or ideas that might have caused horror in the convent—had told herself that to preserve her faith in the midst of the world she must impose upon herself the law of never thinking about certain things that she heard said.
It might perhaps be found that we dwell a little too much on the ridiculousness of the present period, which probably will be called into doubt in a few years, but the fact is that Delangle was not able to find any history schoolmistress who wanted to demonstrate this discipline through any books other than those praised by La Quotidienne.
“We would soon not have even a single student,” these schoolmistresses answered, “and even our morality would be attacked if someone came to know that we used books other than those adopted by the convents of Sacré Coeur.
Finally, Delangle discovered an old Irish priest, the venerable father Yéky, who took responsibility for teaching Madame Boissaux all that had happened in Europe since the year 1700.
Without bad intentions, but led exclusively by the coarseness of his character, Monsieur Boissaux alluded two or three times throughout the evening to the burst of laughter that had welcomed the image of Diderot and Holbach sharing the lot of Cartouche and Mandrin. Boissaux was all the more horrified by this fault, because he always feared committing one like it. In truth, it had been less than two years since he had made the acquaintance of these baroque names: Diderot and Holbach. What increased his terror was that during the dinner, when his wife’s historical knowledge had met such a disastrous stumbling block, he believed that the Essay on Morals was by Rollin. Do we need to say that the day after the dinner he came to Paris to order six hundred volumes with gilt edges, and he absolutely wanted to bring back in his carriage a magnificent copy of Voltaire? The binding of each volume cost twenty francs. Immediately, he established permanently on his desk, in the middle of the business letters and opened to page 150, the first volume of the Essay on Morals.
Her husband’s reproaches caused a revolution in Valentine’s mind. It was not a letter or two by Voltaire that she read each evening before extinguishing her candles, but a good two or three hundred pages. In truth, many things were unintelligible for her. She complained of it to Féder, who brought her the Dictionary of Etiquette and the Memoirs of Dangeau, edited by Madame de Genlis. The sweet Valentine became an enthusiast of the works of the dry Madame de Genlis; they pleased her because of their flaws. It was not emotions she needed but positive instruction.
The crude joy of Boissaux, the excellence of his cook, the care he took always to have out of season produce, and the striking beauty of his wife, made it so that people got into the habit of coming to dine at Viroflay upon leaving the Stock Exchange. For the moneyed people who flocked there, the secret and all-powerful attraction of this house was that nothing was done in it to threaten their self-esteem. Boissaux, and especially Delangle, could be counted among the most able in the art of buying any object in a place where it was cheap, and of transporting it quickly to where it was most expensive. But, with the exception of this great art at gaining money, Boissaux’s ignorance was such that no one’s self-esteem could suffer from it.
Valentine was very careful not to speak in public of the charming things she found daily in books; she was afraid of seeing them turned to ridicule by these people whose coarseness she was starting to see. The in-depth study she had made in the past of Philothée and the Imitation had this effect: she understood and read with delight certain parts of The Princess de Clèves, Marivaux’s Marianne, and The New Héloïse. All these books appeared with honor among the gilt-edged volumes that were brought daily from Paris to Viroflay.
Living among people with money, Valentine arrived at this idea, memorable for its distributive justice: “Every day we pay eighty or a hundred francs for a box at the theater, for a pleasure often mixed with boredom, which lasts an hour or two: and, if I take a sometimes quite lively pleasure in reading the handsome volumes of my husband, to whom do I owe this, if not to that good nun Sister Gerlat, who instead of systematically stupefying my mind had me study at the convent the sublime Imitation of Jesus Christ and that charming Philothée by Saint Françis de Sales?” The next day, since her husband was sending one of his clerks as a messenger to Bordeaux, Valentine asked for a hundred napoleons from her brother and the clerk was charged with calling to the visitor’s room the good nun Sister Gerlat and of handing over to her this memento, by means of which she might acquire consideration in the convent.
That month, during which Valentine acquired wit, was exquisite for her, and marked an important time in her life. She discussed with Féder, without any fear, all the ideas which arose in her from a first reading—so exquisite for a woman of her age—of The Princess of Clèves, The New Héloïse, and Zadig. She loathed everything that was ironic; she sympathized joyfully with the expression of all tender feelings. One can judge Féder’s moral state when charged with explaining such things to such a candid soul. He was constantly on the verge of betraying himself, and it was only through the greatest effort that he succeeded in not telling her that he loved her. Each day he had the pleasure of admiring Valentine’s astonishing mind.
Perhaps the reader remembers that, near the end of the New Héloïse, Saint-Preux arrives in Paris and tells his female friends of the impression that this great city makes on him. The idea that Valentine had formed of Paris was quite different: Féder admired the accuracy of mind with which she had drawn conclusions from the small number of facts that she had observed herself; even her errors had a special charm. She could not conceive, for example, that all those lovely barouches that traveled throughout the shady parts of the Bois de Boulogne, contained, for the most part, only bored women. As for Valentine, she nearly never went to the Bois de Boulogne without Féder riding on horseback a few steps from her carriage.
She couldn’t understand that boredom was almost the sole motivator of people who are born in Paris with horses in their stable.
“Those beings whom the vulgar believe so happy,” added Féder, “imagine themselves to have the same passions as other men—love, hate, friendship, etc.—but their hearts can no longer be moved except by the lone pleasures which vanity brings. The passions, in Paris, take refuge in the upper floors of the houses, and I would even bet,” added Féder, “that in that beautiful street of the Saint-Honoré district, where you live, never has a tender, lively, and generous emotion descended lower than the third floor.”
“Ah, you slander us!” exclaimed Valentine, who absolutely refused to admit such things to herself.
Sometimes Féder suddenly stopped; he reproached himself for saying the truth to such a young woman: wasn’t doing so to run a risk to his happiness? On the other hand, Féder did himself this justice: he didn’t say anything with the design of facilitating plans that his love might have for her. In fact, he had no plan; he couldn’t resist the pleasure of passing his life in the most sincere intimacy with a charming young woman who perhaps loved him, but he himself trembled to embark on a passion, and there is no doubt that if he could have been certain he would end up loving Valentine passionately, he might have left Paris immediately. One can truthfully say in painting the portrait of his soul that it was the hideous dilemma of the day after his departure that kept him in Paris and stopped him from thinking severely about the likely results of his conduct. “I will be only too soon reduced to no longer seeing her. Delangle will say a crude word about my attentions for Valentine, and the door of the house will be closed to me. Then, once this little schoolgirl no longer sees me, she will no longer think about me. Six weeks after our separation, she will remember Féder just like all her other acquaintances from Paris.”
But it was quite rare for our hero to reason about his situation in such a profound way; he was perfectly in accord with himself about the truth of this maxim: “One must not be in love and have all one’s happiness hanging on the whim of a fickle woman.” What he absolutely didn’t want to see were the natural consequences of this truth: if he was afraid of falling into this situation, so dangerous for a man who has a heart, he should leave.
Féder exercised all imaginable resources not to arrive at such a terrible conclusion. So, if they found themselves alone for more than a little while, he gave himself the task of examining the question: “Is it good for Valentine’s happiness for me to disabuse her of all the false ideas that have come with her from the convent? Isn’t it as if I were giving her the advantages of premature old age?” Féder had committed so many rash acts in his early youth that he now had a character more prudent than his age, and he easily came to a decision to disabuse Valentine only of those false notions which could lead her, in his eyes, to unpleasant errors; when the moment to act appeared, Féder often no longer had the time or the opportunity to explain to his young friend all she should have to know to act in an appropriate manner. A lot of necessary explanations couldn’t be given with clarity and sincerity before Provincials as entrenched as Delangle and Boissaux; they would be scandalized over every slightly too sincere word. In the presence of these sorts of people, you must never stray from the approved script to which they are accustomed.
In his trouble over the question of knowing whether it was always necessary to tell Valentine the truth, Féder took the remarkable course of consulting her himself. No doubt, this tactic was the most agreeable to our hero, but it must be confessed that it had something puerile about it: Valentine had left the convent armed with five or six general rules, more often false than true, which she applied to everything with an intrepidity which was rather pleasant and charming to Féder’s eyes, since this monastic and ferocious intrepidity formed a perfect contrast with Valentine’s just and tender character.
“If I continue to tell you these sad truths, which you always order me to tell you, I will remove the most heavenly part of your agreeableness from you,” Féder said to her one day. “If you no longer accompany the daring statement of an atrocious maxim with your enchanting smile and your eagerness to disown the maxim as soon as you have been made to see all its consequences, you are instantly stripped of a striking and original superiority over all the women of your age.”
“Well, if I’ll be less agreeable in your eyes, don’t tell me the truth; I would rather say something foolish in the world, which will make them tease me.”
Féder had some difficulty not taking her hand and covering it with kisses. He hastened to speak to distract himself from such a dangerous impulse.
“Every time you speak to people who have lived for a long time in Paris,” exclaimed Féder with a pedantic air, “I see in your interlocutors vanity and continuous attention to others; while, in your defense, I see only good faith and kindness, as sincere as it is unlimited. You came forward unarmed and with your chest bare to people who above all are cautious and who enter into the arena only after being quite confident they are covered in iron and their vanity is invulnerable. If you weren’t so pretty, and if, thanks to me, Monsieur Boissaux didn’t give impeccable dinners, you would be ridiculed.”
This life was charming in appearance, and it might in fact have been so for Féder if he had had toward Valentine no more a simple taste for flirtation, as he tried sometimes to make himself believe. But he had a mortal fear of Delangle. The more his heart was moved and rejoiced with delight in this sweet life, exempt from the slightest tremor and completely filled with the sweetness of the most profound friendship, the deeper was his sudden chill when he came to think that a single word from a being who was crude and who prided himself on saying everything in the strongest terms, could knock over the entire charming edifice of his happiness. “I must conquer Boissaux,” he told himself, “for that, I must be useful to him; the simplicity of my comments and my good manners displease, I am sure, this crude being who has never loved anything else in his life but money. Only in the presence of a positive result will he be able to forgive what my Parisian ways have that is shocking to his brutal energy. Yesterday, I saw it again when the deputy from Lille came to join us on the promenade: as soon as he sees a man who doesn’t shout in approaching him, or doesn’t strike him on the shoulder as a sign of friendship, he tells himself, “No doubt this dandy despises me.”
In studying Boissaux deeply, Féder believed he saw that the more or less recent nomination to the Chamber of Peers of five or six merchants had been troubling his sleep for some time and had caused ambition to replace a voracious greed for hard cash. Upon returning from the house of the newly appointed peer, Boissaux didn’t say a word the whole evening: the next day, he ordered that every day his staff would wear silk stockings starting at four in the afternoon and asked Féder to obtain for him three new servants.
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.