This expenditure, which would have seemed so stupid to Boissaux a month after his arrival in Paris, seemed decisive to Féder, who for more than a fortnight had watched and doubted. To give advice to a Provincial millionaire is such a dangerous thing! On the other hand, the sinister notion that Féder saw in Delangle was such an imminent danger!
To make his advice less odious, Féder resolved to give it to Boissaux in a coarse tone.
Since a nouveau riche is not the sort to let the smallest pleasures of vanity be lost, one day Boissaux had Féder admire eighty new volumes, well-gilded on the edges, which had just arrived from Paris.
“Mistake,” Féder said to him, with a terrible look, “Mistake, deplorable mistake! By throwing away your money to buy these books, you destroy as if for the fun of it the attitude that I wanted to create for you.”
“What are you saying?” interrupted Boissaux grumpily.
“I’m saying that you are destroying the character that I wanted to give you! A man like you, in possession of your fortune, might have been able to have a name in the world, but you don’t want that. You throw to the ground the ladder that could have let you reach the peak of the social edifice. God! How ignorant you are of things!”
“And yet I didn’t think myself to be so ignorant,” continued Boissaux with restrained anger.
Falling back on his habitual gesture for when he wanted to reassure himself against some drawback, he plunged his right hand into the pocket of his waistcoat, which was filled with napoleons; he took a fistful of them, shook it forcefully in his hand, then let it fall back into his pocket. Then again he violently seized them: he was literally handling gold.
“First, you buy books! But don’t you know that a book is a deadly weapon, a double-edged sword, of which you have to be careful?”
“Who doesn’t know that there are bad books?” exclaimed Boissaux, in the bitterest tone of disdain.
This was his way of expressing the anxieties that such direct advice gave to his vanity.
“No, you don’t know all there is in these accursed books,” continued Féder, with the energy of growing rudeness. “It is the devil to admit it. Any man who hasn’t had a taste for reading since the age of ten will never know all that there is in books. Now, the slightest error about their contents exposes you to bitter ridicule, which becomes attached to you; the simple forgetting of a date is enough to stir the laughter of a whole table.”
Here, Boissaux became more attentive. He pulled from the pocket of his waistcoat his hand full of napoleons, and didn’t plunge it back in again; in him this was the sign of attention, verging on anxiety.
“I know your powerful imagination loves the marvelous; well, the marvelous will serve me by painting all your danger for you. Let’s imagine a magician to whom you will hand over ten bills of a thousand francs, and who, in return, will give you perfect knowledge of all there is in the works of Voltaire and Rousseau, and even in all those other books you bought with the extravagance that sets you apart. I say you shouldn’t take this bargain, that it is a fool’s bargain. To advance in the world of Paris and to make good business, whose goodwill do you need? The goodwill of the people with money, the big capitalists, the receivers general. If you want to go farther and make yourself known in the Chamber of Peers, you need the goodwill of the government.”
Here, Boissaux’s attention redoubled; he took on a mournful appearance and a pike’s mouth—which is to say lowered at the corners—of a merchant suffering losses. At the word government, he feared that Féder might have guessed his growing ambition.
“Well! The moneyed men—whom your magnificent dinners attract to Viroflay, and who see these damned books that you parade for them—are afraid that you know them better than they, and it arouses their mistrust. As for the government, isn’t it obvious that any man who has or aspires to ideas can be swayed over to the opposition by the first shameless chatterbox who grabs him? Thus, the man of ideas doesn’t work for the government. Your own dignity alone should enlist you to send these books back to the bookstore. There must not be a single volume at your house; otherwise, you expose yourself to ridicule. If you flaunt your books, then you think highly of the sort of mind of people who read, and you are obliged to pretend to have read; certain allusions will be made, and you will be obliged to give the appearance of a man who understands them: what is more dangerous? Openly scorn books, and you are unassailable on that front. If some scatterbrain happens to speak to you of the Jacobin books of Rousseau and Voltaire, you answer, with the haughtiness that is suitable to your position: ‘As for me, I earn money in the morning, and in the evening, I surrender myself to my pleasures.’ Pleasures are something real, which everybody in Paris sees, and which only the rich man can give himself. This is the great difference between Paris and Bordeaux. The meeting place of all that is active and brilliant in Paris is the boulevard. Now how can the public of the boulevard not have consideration for the man whom they see arrive at six o’clock (in the evening) at the Café de Paris in a magnificent carriage, and whom is soon seated at a table near a window, surrounded by buckets of ice, in which bottles of champagne are chilling? I speak to you only of the most vulgar means of acquiring consideration and placing yourself on the list that the government skims over when it has resolved to place two or three merchants into a new batch of peers. I know that a man like you will change the barouche that takes him to the Bois de Boulogne every year. If you appear at the races at Chantilly, you will show a horse that has a name in the world, and you will bet a hundred Louis in favor of the racehorse that all the enthusiasts seem to abandon. Ask the greatest scholar in Paris to do these things and many others: he can’t. For example, you offer at dinner out of season produce in the month of February; the idea comes to you to have peas on your table, and you send a five hundred franc note to market. Now everyone sees these peas on your table. The envy that a man such as you inspires naturally cannot be denied, in this Jacobin century, when the first person to come along who doesn’t like a scholar, an Academic, can easily say: “I read his works, and he bores me.” Now, since there are so many newspapers at Paris, every morning it is necessary to find something to fill them, and you see how they open everything up for discussion. I challenge your greatest enemy to repudiate your dish of peas costing a hundred crowns. You possess a quite rare advantage; there are not five hundred people in all of Paris who might rival you—you can add out-of-season produce to each of your dinners for five hundred francs, for a thousand francs, for fifteen hundred francs. You buy books, and you give in to expensive bindings, so as to show everyone that you love books, but you don’t know books. The most insignificant lawyer can overtake you, and, if you balk, engage you in a discussion where he has all the advantages, where he is the great man, and you the little boy! While if you had remained faithful to the worship of physical pleasures, you didn’t have more than five hundred rivals in all of Paris, and everyone saw you enjoy those pleasures that everyone desires and that nobody can deny. When you have spent two thousand francs for a dinner of twelve, what can envy and malice say? That excellent Monsieur Boissaux, the premier merchant from Bordeaux, lives it up in a way that won’t last. He is ruining himself, etc. Yet envy and malice cannot deny your dinner of two thousand francs. You bought the works of Rousseau and Voltaire; even more, you have the impudence to have one of the volumes of those people open on your desk. The first person to enter will say to you, ‘This page that you are reading is absurd’ Or else, if you find it bad, he is going to maintain to you that it is sublime. If you avoid the conversation, you seem like a man who doesn’t understand what he reads, or, even more, who keeps a book open on his desk and doesn’t read at all. Let’s suppose that two or three people arrive unexpectedly. I know you: you are full of daring and bravery and don’t want to look as though you are yielding to a little prig who perhaps doesn’t have a thousand crowns of income. Your mind, no doubt, is in a completely different category than his, but perhaps he has read the passage from Rousseau which is there, open on your desk twenty times. This little prig has a memory, at the expense of judgment; he has read ten newspaper articles on this work by Jean-Jacques, and he remembers them. In one of the thousand answers that you are obliged to make to him, you confuse one word for another, and, for example, attribute to Rousseau an antireligious pamphlet that is the work of Voltaire. The interlocutor answers you with a barbed quip; this nasty quip is no longer separate from your name; the little prig and his friends go about repeating it everywhere, and there you are like a green tree whose crown someone has broken. You can no longer rise; every time someone mentions your name, there is an idiot in the corner of the salon to exclaim: “Ah, he’s that merchant who takes Rousseau for Voltaire, who believes that The Man of Forty Crowns is by the author of The New Héloïse.”
This eloquent picture of Féder’s caused Boissaux so much fear that without thinking he dashed to the open volume of Voltaire on his desk and threw it into a distant armchair.
“What evil can this little loudmouth say about your dinner for twelve which cost you two thousand francs? One of your friends will exclaim, ‘He speaks out of envy; this poor devil, has he ever seen such a dinner, other than through a keyhole?’ The government is attacked by the throng of the lawyers; in buying Rousseau and Voltaire, you enlist in the party of loudmouths and malcontents. As a man of physical pleasures, you stand solidly behind the rich, you espouse their interests; they are sure of it, and the government is also sure of you: the man who gives two thousand franc dinners is afraid of the masses.”
At these words, Féder consulted his watch and left like a shot; he claimed to have forgotten a business matter. Boissaux’s vanity was set at ease by his disappearance. All the attention of the fat merchant was no longer turned toward looking for some plausible objection to the facts put forward by Féder; it was left entirely to examining the truth of the things said by the young painter.
Féder faithfully described to Valentine all he had said against books and in favor of the cult of physical pleasure.
“If Boissaux,” he added, “gives dinners according to the instructions I give him, he might spend fifty thousand-franc notes; in less than six months, he will be known at the Opéra and on the boulevard, and vanity will be responsible for procuring for him pleasures such that he will laugh in Delangle’s face when the latter comes to say to him: ‘But can’t you see that Féder is in love with Valentine?’”
It is in this tone that the two lovers spoke to each other. Our hero had accustomed Madame Boissaux to this language. True, Féder never added: “Yes, I love you passionately, you have changed my life, will you never be susceptible to so much love, etc., etc.” Never had a single word of this sort escaped him, but everything about him spoke of love except for his words, and Valentine indeed arranged a rendezvous with him, which is to say that she indicated to him with a scrupulous exactitude the moment she would be setting out from Viroflay for the Bois de Boulogne. It was there that our young friends saw each other on the days when Féder didn’t go to Viroflay. It was he who had given Boissaux the coach and the footmen who climbed up behind it. When Féder was quite assured that these servants were not people given to gossip, little by little, under the pretext of giving his horse exercise, he picked up the habit of going ahead of Madame Boissaux at the Neuilly Bridge, and he never appeared beside her in the Bois de Boulogne. He told Valentine everything except for these precautions, which would have alarmed that naïve soul.
For several days, Boissaux didn’t tackle the subject of books at all. Finally, since he didn’t understand the advice given by Féder to its full extent, he returned to the subject. It is true that he spoke absolutely as if it were he, Boissaux, who was looking to convince Féder that books must not been seen in the house of a man who aspired to be accepted into good society. Féder was at the height of happiness to see the turn that this matter was taking, and he employed all his skill in the long conversations that he had had with Boissaux to banish the slightest words which might have seemed to claim for himself the paternity of the sublime idea of replacing richly-bound volumes with the most expensive out-of-season produce.
Boissaux claimed, in the presence of his wife, all the honor for this great change.
“The people who come dine with you will never say, in the evening, after returning to Paris: ‘That Boissaux owns a Voltaire with a binding that would do honor to the library of the richest Englishman.’ Yet they will quite rightly say in the season of early produce: ‘the peas that we had today at Boissau’s were already well-formed and full of flavor.’”
Who might have thought it of Féder a few months before, when the powerful voice of Monsieur Boissaux grated on his nerves? At eleven in the morning, Féder went to see Monsieur de Cussy waking up, obtaining an audience of a quarter of an hour and discussing with this great artist the menu for a dinner that Boissaux had to give three days later. We must make a much more painful admission: several times Féder got up at six in the morning and hurried to the market hall, after having taken into his cabriolet an outstanding chef who, under his direction, bought dishes for the dinners at Viroflay that could be said to be unique.
For several months, Féder worked miracles of this sort. Boissaux never complained of the ridiculous expenditure he made for these dinners, and yet their fame spread only at a tortoise’s pace. He was red as a rooster when he did the honors to an expensive dish; his vanity was so crazy with joy, and this joy was so revolting, that everyone seemed to pass around the word not to speak of the admirable dish, which might have distinguished any other dinner.
To all the charms of wit that you already know him to have, Boissaux linked those physical annoyances that denounce the lack of an early education. He made scenes with his servants in the middle of the dinner: he recalled, in scolding them, the purchase price of the rare dishes that he offered to his guests, and he took care to serve himself twice. Finally—I don’t know how to express this—he chewed heavily, making with his mouth so much noise that it was heard at the other end of the table. These little drawbacks of still too recent affluence were veritable good fortunes for the coarse vanity of the financiers, who devoured, without admiring them, these dinners whose menus often passed for the masterpieces of a great artist.
Instead of speaking of the admirable delicacies they had been served and of the ingenious order, in which they were presented, done to enliven the appetite, the crude guests of the rich man of Viroflay mentioned, in their evening conversations, only the signs of provincial foolishness escaping from their host.
Féder, in despair over the little fame that Boissaux acquired while making an enormous expenditure, was obliged to have recourse to a quite dangerous step: he was admitted into the box at the Opéra and then had invited several of the distinguished gourmands, who make a profession of dining at other people’s houses, to the dinners at Viroflay; the morality of these gentlemen does not always reach the height of the delicacy of their gastronomical tact.
By the second dinner that these gentlemen attended, the glory of Boissaux rang out in all of Paris; it had a surprising effect, and it is appropriate to recall certain set designs at the Opéra. Fortunately, Boissaux found himself on the road to his fame; he was astonished by it, thrilled, transported to such a point that he addressed Féder with words resembling the language of friendship. Finally, our poor hero was rewarded for so much trouble, and he at least could hope to be sheltered for some time from a malicious comment from Delangle. Happily, the latter was busy with delicate calculations on sugars, which took all this time. Since, under no pretext, had Féder wanted to receive payment for the portrait of Madame Boissaux, nor for those of Delangle and Boissaux, either with which he was next occupied, Delangle had absolutely insisted on giving him in the advantageous sugar transaction a portion completely equal to what he reserved for his brother-in-law Boissaux. Féder had accepted with rapture; it mattered greatly to him to be a little bit of a moneyed man, and not a simple painter, in the eyes of all the moneyed men who, henceforth, formed Madame Boissaux’s society.
Carried away by the gastronomical developments of our story, we forgot to mention, in its proper time, the striking divorce Boissaux had had from those imprudently purchased books, which would have caused him to follow a false path without the wise advice of our hero.
At one of those admirable dinners that were worthy of so much fame (but still had so little of it, because of the sad impact of the negative charms of the master of the house and because of the dreadful and overly visible vanity with which he did the honors to those expensive dishes), Monsieur Boissaux, having reached dessert, said something to his valet. A moment later, raising his voice, he said to his guests:
“I don’t want books any more; they annoy me—I have just had brought into the anteroom a few hundred volumes whose only good trait is their binding. Who wants them? I urge you, Gentlemen, to take them off in your coaches. For the three months I have had them, the devil if I have read three pages; they very much resemble a speech by one of our liberals of the Chamber, who strive, very smoothly, to take us back to the pleasures of 1793. God preserve me from getting aboard all these arguments of tramps and Jacobins! But yesterday, at the hour of the Stock Exchange, which is to say at the moment for me of leaving Viroflay at one o’clock and not really wanting to wear out my horses, I let myself go while listening to the chattering of a devil of a bookbinder, who brought me the works of Monsieur de Florian, first gentleman of the Duke de Penthièrre. He couldn’t have been a Jacobin, although a contemporary of Voltaire’s. To tell the truth, I didn’t read a single line; if I recommend it to you, it is exclusively because the binding of each volume costs sixteen francs. From the effect of this devilish book, I only arrived at the Stock Exchange at a quarter to two, and the people to whom I wanted to speak were no longer there. Books are useless to me, since I hate the Jacobins and never read. I don’t want a single one to remain in the house, and this evening I will send for our respectable priest so that he can sell for the profit of the poor those books that you haven’t taken away.”
Barely had this speech finished when the guests got up from the table and pounced on the books: the bindings were so beautiful that not one volume remained, but Féder heard the next day that not one of the guests had gotten a complete set. In their plundering fervor, each had taken to his carriage the first volumes on which he had put his hands.
That scene, completely Boissaux’s idea, did him much honor in Féder’s mind. “Really,” he said to himself, “the wild desire to be a peer of France gives this man some wit; may it also give him slightly more bearable manners!”
Féder was helped by chance, which would strive to prove that in positions of difficulty, one must act. Delangle had indeed called his brother-in-law Boissaux to Paris, he had presented him to his friends, he had gotten him into several rather important businesses, but under the tacit condition that Boissaux would always remain secondary. The splendor that suddenly surrounded the dinners at Viroflay happened to bring a profound alteration in the relationship of the two brothers-in-law. In the past, Delangle had willingly paid homage to the genius that Boissaux had for fabricating speculations in places and with common prices that didn’t seem to offer any possibilities. Boissaux had a second talent; by force of thinking about them, he could draw money from certain speculations that appeared in the least attractive light.
Delangle had always thought that he should prevail immensely over his brother-in-law in the drawing room, who could pass for an accomplished specimen of all inelegancies. To crown it all, Boissaux, who in all other things was perfectly secretive, couldn’t hide the most ludicrous joy as soon as his vanity obtained the slightest success. Delangle had been counting on all those disadvantages in the intimate friend who became his rival. He was far from worrying at first about the excellence of the dinners at Viroflay; nothing was comparable to the red face and the voice trembling with happiness with which Boissaux did the honors to a dish of out-of-season produce of a somewhat extraordinary price. When Féder made up his mind to introduce a few parasites of high society to the excellent dinners at Viroflay, all of a sudden, the fame of the dinners exploded, and Delangle was cut to the quick. Several times he and his neighbors at the table made fun of the unusual ceremonies with which Boissaux did the honors at his dinners, and Féder was rather happy to point out to Boissaux this treachery in his dear brother-in-law. One day these two beings, in whom anger was easily excited, set about nearly quarreling in the middle of a dinner. Delangle claimed first, in an amusing tone, that one of the principle dishes wasn’t any good. Boissaux flared up in the defense of his dish, and, under the pretext of intimate friendship, the cutting remarks went quite deep. One of the guests, a fellow countryman of the two antagonists who had arrived at Paris only a few days before, exclaimed naively and in a voice that resounded through the dining room:
“The friend Delangle is jealous of the dinners given by the dear brother-in-law.”
This ingenious remark was so à propos that it made all the diners burst into laughter.
“Ah well, yes, by God! I am jealous!” exclaimed Delangle, trembling with fury and hardly able to contain himself. “I don’t have my place like Boissaux, I don’t have a good friend to give me advice; but I invite you to dine at the Rocher de Cancale, next Tuesday, if the day suits you, and I will give you a dinner thrown together in a manner different than this one.”
The dinner was given and was found decidedly inferior to those of Viroflay. It is not a small thing to give a truly good dinner, even in Paris; the desire to spend lavishly is not enough, and a dinner can be lacking even in the best culinary establishments. For example, at Delangle’s dinner, a quite disagreeable smell of frying spread through the room of the feast beginning with the second course. Despite all the good will possible, Madame Boissaux was obliged to ask permission to get some air for a few moments. When they saw her go out, the majority of the guests, although quite accustomed to all the odors smelled at the cabaret, declared that the smell of frying deeply bothered them, and the end of this dinner resembled a rout. Delangle was furious; Boissaux had, on his own, the idea of pretending to take pity on his misfortune.
At the moment when they rose from the table, Boissaux announced to the company that the shack he had rented in Viroflay was threatening to fall on the head of the people who did him the honor of coming to his house; thus, due to repairs, next Thursday’s dinner was suspended, but he would await them all on the following Thursday, at exactly six o’clock.
Boissaux made the most of those few days to have a second dining room hastily built. He concealed rather successfully the existence of this room, and the surprise of the guests was complete when, having arrived at the moment when the fruit was going to be served, Boissaux exclaimed:
“Gentlemen, let’s pass into a dining room absolutely identical to this one. Let everyone take the place corresponding to what he had here; I have had this room built, Gentlemen, so that you won’t be bothered by the smell of the meats.
These words were a dagger blow for Delangle, and the building of this room put such a depth of sourness between the two brothers-in-law that Féder came to believe that if Delangle said to Boissaux: “Do you know to what you owe all Féder’s attentions? He is courting your wife,” the latter would not put faith in this remark, whose goal he would see as setting him against the man to whom he owed his success in Paris.
One day during a large dinner at Viroflay, near the end of the meal, a guest who had come twice to the Boissaux house and who didn’t know its inhabitants said, in speaking of the news of Paris (from where he came):
“There was a duel this morning: a young man who was a regular at the Opéra was killed. He was quite a handsome man, my word, but always sad as if he might have foreseen his fate, a Monsieur Féder.”
A neighbor of the guest who spoke thus seized his arm swiftly, and leaning toward him addressed a few words to him in a low voice. Neither Boissaux nor Delangle had heard the news; but Madame Boissaux hadn’t missed a single word; she felt herself die. She held onto the table to keep from falling, then looked around her to see if anyone had noticed her reaction: “There are,” she thought, “twenty five or thirty people here! What a scene I am going to cause! And what will they say tomorrow?” The horror of the scene she foresaw gave her courage, and taking her handkerchief, which she brought close to her face, she made a sign to her husband that she had a nosebleed, an accident to which she was often subject. Boissaux said a word to explain the exit of the mistress of the house and nobody otherwise paid attention to her departure.
She passed into her room; there the sobs burst out. “If I sit down,” she thought, “I will never be able to get up. This house is so small and these people are so coarse! They are capable, after dinner, of coming here… Ah! I must leave for Paris this evening, and for Bordeaux tomorrow; that’s the only way to save my reputation.”
This poor woman melted into tears, but she no longer had the strength to hold herself upright; it took her more than half an hour to reach, by leaning on the furniture, a greenhouse that was next to the bedroom. Leaning on the planters of the several orange trees, which the cold of the preceding winter had killed and which hadn’t yet been replaced, she reached the back of the greenhouse; she hid behind a kind of American rush, which was six feet high and had a hundred stalks. There, for the first time, she dared think: “He is dead! Never will my eyes see him again!” She wanted to lean on the planter of the American rush but didn’t have the strength to hold onto it; she fell sprawled out on to the ground, and it was to this that she owed not being seen by her husband who, worried by her absence, came looking for her a few minutes later.
When she regained consciousness, she had forgotten the news that she had just learned; she was quite astonished to find herself seated in the dust. Then, all of a sudden, the horrible truth returned to her; she imagined her husband coming to interrogate her, followed immediately afterward by five or six people who, among the diners, found themselves in his most intimate confidence. “What to do, what is to become of me?” exclaimed the unhappy woman, melting into tears. “Everyone now knows the fatal news, how can I explain in a more or less reasonable way the situation in which I find myself? Ten minutes from now I will be as dishonored as I am unhappy. Who in the world will believe that there was only a simple friendship between us? And I still believed myself, just a week ago, that I had nothing more than friendship for Féder.”
When she heard herself pronounce this name, her sobs redoubled; they were so strong and close together that she was on the verge of completely losing her breath. “Oh, what do I care what is said about me? I am forever at the height of unhappiness; it is my poor husband that I pity. Is it his fault if he has not been able to inspire in me that feeling of divine happiness, that electric sensation, which seizes me from head to foot just in seeing Féder enter?”
Valentine, who had managed to seat herself in the dust, her head resting against a large vase, remained like that for more than half an hour, eyes closed and more or less unconscious. From time to time, a tear ran slowly down the length of her cheek; she half-pronounced these words: “I won’t see him again!” Finally she thought: “My first duty is to save my husband’s honor; I must ask for the carriage and drive to Paris without anyone seeing me… If a single one of the people who were at the dinner catches sight of me in the state I’m in, my poor husband will be forever dishonored.”
Valentine was beginning to foresee this idea in all its horror, but she was entirely lacking the strength to call the coachman. She wanted wholeheartedly to be seen only by this man. He was quite old and had been sent by the agency that furnished her husband with a leased carriage. “By giving money to this man, or even by speaking to his master, I will never have to see him again,” she thought. “And perhaps if he doesn’t come back tomorrow, he will be forever ignorant of the horrible event. While if a single one of my servants sees me, I am a lost woman.”
This idea inspired in Valentine a desperate effort; holding onto the corner of an orange-tree planter, she managed to stand up. Then, after unimaginable effort, she went to get a shawl from her room, which she threw over her head as if she were cold. “I will tell the coachman I was seized with a chill and a bout of fever, and that, so as not to trouble my husband, I want to return to Paris immediately.”
To reach the leased carriage without going inside the house, Valentine, who had again passed into the greenhouse, opened one of the French windows that looked out on the garden, but the effort necessary to open the shutter had nearly entirely exhausted her strength; she was motionless on the threshold of this French window; she heard someone walking softly and as if with caution all around her. Her fear was extreme; she hid her face with her hands and was going back into the greenhouse, when the man who was coming down the length of the wall found himself next to the window. Seeing that it was open, this man had the audacity to enter. Separating the hands covering her face a little, Valentine looked angrily to see at who this indiscreet person might be: it was Féder.
“Oh, my only friend!” she exclaimed, throwing herself into his arms, “So you’re not dead!”
(Here, perhaps, this story should end.)
Surprised and charmed by this welcome, Féder entirely forgot the prudence to which he had so often promised himself to remain faithful; he covered that charming face with kisses. Little by little he noticed Valentine’s extreme emotion; her face was covered in tears, but Féder, so sensible until now, had lost all control over himself; he wiped these tears away with his lips. It must be confessed that Valentine’s way of being was not of a nature to recall him to reason; she abandoned herself to his caresses, she held him tightly against her breast with convulsive movements, and we don’t know how to confess, with delicacy, that two or three times she returned his kisses to him.
“You love me, then?” exclaimed Féder in a broken voice.
“Do I love you!” answered Valentine.
This strange dialog had already lasted several minutes when suddenly Valentine became conscious of what was happening to her. She took several steps backward with an astonishing rapidity and a feeling of surprise mixed with horror painted itself on her features.
“Oh! Monsieur Féder, we must forget forever what just happened.”
“Never, I swear to you, never will a word from my mouth remind you of this moment of sublime happiness. Since I can’t submit myself to such a painful effort, do I have to tell you that, in the future as in the past, your name will never be pronounced by me?”
“I am dying of shame in looking at you; be good enough to let me have moment alone.”
Féder moved away with every appearance of the most profound respect.
“But you must think me crazy!” exclaimed Valentine, moving closer to the window.
Féder, for his part, also took several steps, and found himself quite close to Valentine.
“I had just been told of your death,” said the latter. “You were killed in a duel, and the moment which separates us from a true friend is always, as you know, accompanied by an extreme emotion… for which we are not responsible... It would be unjust to accuse one another.”
Valentine was trying to make excuses; the contrast was striking between the almost official tone of voice that she tried to take and the sound of the tender and abandoned voice which, a moment before, Féder had had the pleasure to witness and be the object.
“You are trying to dim the happiest moment of my life,” he said to her, taking her hand.
She didn’t have the strength to sustain the pretense to the end.
“Ah well, leave, my friend,” she answered, without withdrawing her hand. “Leave me to recover from such great disorder and madness. Don’t ever speak to me of it again; but go, my feelings haven’t changed at all. Goodbye, I don’t want to be a hypocrite with you, but in heaven’s name leave me alone. They told me of your death; don’t make me repent, in the future, having missed you so madly when I believed I would never see you again.”
Féder obeyed, simulating the appearance of the most profound respect. Valentine was very grateful to him in this regard, because from twenty places in the garden they could be seen. However, at bottom it didn’t please her at all; it was in her eyes spoiled by a blend of hypocrisy, and what did she become if hypocrisy was blended with the conduct that Féder showed toward her?
It was quite true that this extreme respect was an affectation. Féder knew that it is just at the moment when a woman has most compromised herself that you must make her forget the remarkable folly she has just committed by considering her vanity and throwing to the immense voraciousness of this habit of the woman’s soul the most exaggerated marks of respect.
One of the softest and most singular effects of the strange sentiment that united Féder to Valentine was, if we can speak thus, to always keep at the same level the happiness of the two souls united by love.
Féder saw quite clearly the touch of disappointment painted in Valentine’s eyes in seeing him make such respectful farewells. “This dissatisfaction,” he thought, “will lead her to a mistrust which will seem to her, perhaps tomorrow, just simple prudence; she will come to deny to me that when she believed me dead she happened to confess that she loved me passionately. I will have extreme difficulty overcoming this prudence; instead of enjoying the divine happiness for which her passionate confessions of only a moment before make me hope, I will be obliged to maneuver.” These reflections rapidly followed one another. “I have to worry her,” thought Féder. “One sees the drawbacks of happiness only insofar as one is certain of it.”
Féder drew closer to Valentine with an assured and apparently rather cold air, especially if it was compared to the rather abandoned transports that had just taken place. Féder took her hand while she looked at him with an uncertain and surprised air, and he said to her in a cold and philosophical tone:
“I am more of an honest man than a lover; I don’t dare tell you I love you passionately, out of fear that one day this will stop being true. In all things, I wouldn’t want to deceive a friend who has such sincere feelings for me. I am perhaps wrong; probably until now fortune didn’t want me to meet souls like Valentine; but finally, in my eyes, until now I saw the character of women as offering so much inconstancy and weakness that I let myself love a woman passionately only when she is completely mine.”
After these words, pronounced in the tone of the most sincere conviction, Féder said goodbye to Valentine with an air of tender friendship. She remained motionless and thoughtful. She already no longer thought to reproach herself bitterly for the moment of folly that had just thrown her into Féder’s arms.
Féder went to rejoin Boissaux and his guests to rid himself of the episode of his death by receiving and giving a few handshakes.
“I really knew,” Boissaux said to him, “That you weren’t a man to let yourself be killed that way.”
The reception Delangle gave him was less friendly. Féder recounted how in fact a madman who claimed Féder had mocked him had attacked him and that it had been necessary to have a little duel with epées; the madman had received a wound in the chest which had calmed his fervor, and following this wound a leech had been administered to him. The laughter that this detail provoked put an end to the disagreeable attention that all these men of money, encouraged by good wines, assigned to Féder’s actions. Soon, he was able to try to see Madame Boissaux. But her husband had given her permission to return to Paris, and she had left a long time before.
The next day, Féder came, with the most beautiful composure, to have news of Madame Boissaux’s indisposition; he found her in her salon, guarded by her chambermaid and two workers; everyone was busily making curtains. At every moment Madame Boissaux got up to measure and cut calico; her looks were as cold as her actions; the conduct of these two beings whom, the night before, in one another’s arms, admitted to each other, weeping, that they loved one another, might have quite astonished a superficial observer. Valentine had sworn to herself never to be alone with Féder again. On the other side, what the latter had said the night before—that is to say, that he could love with a certain abandon only to the degree that he was sure of being loved—was more or less exactly true.
Though he was barely twenty-five, he didn’t believe, in any way, in the displays of women; the most gracious avowal of the most tender passion inspired in him no other thought than this one: “She is trying to persuade me that she loves me passionately.” He was afraid for his soul; he remembered all the strange follies that he had committed for his wife and in truth he didn’t see a reason for them. The memory that had remained for him was nothing but that of a little girl with a quite happy nature who loved clothes from Paris. Moreover, no distinct and detailed memory remained to him of the feelings that had irritated him during all the time he had been in love. He only saw himself committing strange follies; he no longer remembered the reasons he had given to himself for doing them.
Thus love inspired in him a feeling of quite pronounced terror, and if he had foreseen that he would fall in love with Valentine no doubt he would have gone on a journey. He had let himself be trained to see her every day; first, because she was remarkably beautiful—there were certain features of her face that he didn’t tire of looking at as a painter. For example, that contour of her lips, a little too full and susceptible to expressing the most ardent passion, and which made a strange contrast with the completely ideal line of the nose and the chaste and sublime expression of her eyes, whose quite keen gaze seemed to belong to some saint from paradise, far beyond all the passions.
In the second place, Féder had allowed himself to come near to Valentine every day, because she was a distraction for him. Near her, he didn’t think of the sorrow painting had given him ever since, in a fit of strict good sense, he had happened to discover that he had no talent for making miniatures. He felt that there was a decision to make; he had an indestructible repugnance for living by knowingly making bad things. In this soul was a foundation of passionate and Southern honesty that really might make a true Parisian laugh. In the year that had preceded the portrait of Madame Boissaux, Féder’s studio had taken in eighteen thousand francs. While living publicly with an actress, he passed for a young man of good taste. It was quite well known that Rosalinde didn’t spend a cent on him, but, thanks to the know-how of this same Rosalinde, the public did not limit its kindness toward Féder to this. He was always seen suffering passionately over the wife that he had lost seven years before, which made him pass for a quite honest man, and this renown of impassioned honesty started to reach all the way to women who have a name and horses.
Furthermore, it was discovered that he was very well born. If his father, a little crazy, had thrown himself into trade, on the other hand his grandfather was a good gentleman from Nuremburg, and furthermore Féder had sentiments worthy of his birth. He never spoke of politics, but it was known, without a doubt, that he never read any journal but the Gazette de France, and this young painter of miniatures had in his office all the Holy Fathers, of which pious zeal has just published new editions.
Escorted by such a lovely reputation, Féder could claim one of the first places that would become vacant at the Institute; it depended only upon him marrying a woman, still quite attractive, who would bring him a fortune of more than eighty thousand pounds annually, and whom he could reproach with no other fault than proving herself to be more passionate every day. By the greatest accident in the world, Féder had just discovered something that really displeased him: at the time of the last exhibition, Rosalinde had spent nearly four thousand francs on newspaper articles to assure the success of his case of miniatures. Ever since, Féder had admitted to himself that he had no talent, his successes had increased: nothing easier to explain. He was sought out above all for portraits of women, and since he had given up killing himself in an effort to capture the colors of nature, he flattered his models with an impudence that he hadn’t had in the past, when he had put everything to work to find the true shades of nature.
To prove that Féder was at heart only what in Paris is called a nitwit, it will be enough to point out that he needed distraction from all the advantages we have just enumerated at length. The bottom line in all this is that he found it hardly honest to continue to make portraits knowing that he did them badly; and yet about this word badly there were many things to say: three quarters of the people who live in Paris by doing miniatures were well below Féder in terms of talent. What augmented his ridiculous scruples was that, though faithful in telling Rosalinde all his ideas, he hadn’t shared the fatal discovery that he owed to the examination of Madame de Mirbel’s portraits.
We will have finished painting the situation and Féder’s character if we add that the habit he had taken of going each day to Madame Boissaux’s had seemingly suspended all the other feelings that troubled his life. Before knowing her, sometimes he said to himself: “But will I be crazy enough to fall in love?” Ordinarily, on those days, he took it upon himself not to go to Valentine’s; but the hour in which he might have seen her passed slowly. Sometimes, he couldn’t resist the temptation; he ran to her house and did not keep his promise to himself but was completely happy with this result. The last time that he had seriously feared being in love he mounted his horse, and, at the hour when he should have been able to see Valentine, he was in Triel, on the banks of the Seine, ten leagues from Paris.
The scene at Viroflay changed everything; he could not admit the suspicion of feigning into the violent state in which he had seen Madame Boissaux: obviously she had believed him dead.
During the night that followed this scene, Féder fell madly in love. “If I commit,” he thought, “follies comparable to those which my first love caused, I will find myself in a pretty state upon awakening... this time it will not be my fortune which will be compromised; to make me miserable, love will need only itself. I will do so well that Valentine’s piety will awaken, and she will end up forbidding me to see her. Now I know my weakness; it is enough for me to desire passionately to become an imbecile; she is devout and superstitious. I will never have the courage to force her and run the risk of displeasing her. In this position, I will have no strength except toward myself, and to put myself back in possession of the courage which a man must have, I have no other resources than to tear from my heart the passion that dominates it.”
Deeply terrified by these reflections, Féder ended up making the most energetic resolutions against Valentine. “In a soul as sincere and as young,” he thought, “the passionate feeling which she showed to me won’t be extinguished in a few days, and above all I have no need to fear that I will make it disappear by making her suffer. Fortunately, in that strange scene in the greenhouse, I didn’t give, technically speaking, any indication of passionate love. A charming woman in all the flower of early youth, cheeks covered with tears, throws herself into my arms and asks if I love her! What young man in my place wouldn’t have responded with kisses? Yet, an instant later, good sense came back to me, and I made to her this excellent declaration: ‘I let myself love a woman passionately only when she is all mine.’ It is only a question of persevering. If my imprudence gave in and shook her hand, if I carried to my lips that charming hand, all would be lost for me, and I would have to have recourse to the most dreadful remedies: for example, absence.”
Féder needed to remind himself incessantly of his reasoning during that first visit he made to Valentine, who was surrounded by workers and exclusively occupied, seemingly, with measuring and cutting cotton cloth for the drapes. He found her adorable in the midst of these domestic cares. She was a good German, completely attached to her duties as mistress of the house. But in what action wouldn’t he have found her adorable and have given himself new reasons to love her passionately?
“Silence is a sign of love,” Féder told himself. Consequently, he started speaking upon his entrance into the dining room, where Madame Boissaux was found, and never stopped; he chattered about subjects a hundred leagues away from love and tender feelings. At first, this strange flow of words was happiness for Valentine; her ardent imagination had imagined with horror that Féder would want to continue the conversation more or less where it had been left after the scene in the greenhouse. That was why she was surrounded by workers. In a few moments, Valentine was reassured; soon she was too assured. She sighed profoundly in seeing Féder’s imagination completely occupied by things so different from those which should have filled it. She was especially shocked by his cheerfulness; she looked at him with tender and naïve astonishment. Féder would have given his life to be able to reassure her by throwing himself into her arms. The temptation was so strong that he had recourse to this banal last resort: he looked at his watch swiftly and disappeared under the pretext of a business meeting, for which he was late. It is true that he was obliged to stop on the stairs, so violent were his emotions. “I will betray myself one day, it is certain,” he thought, hanging on with all his strength to the banister, without which he would have fallen. Her astonished, and one might say very unhappy, look at not finding love where she was afraid of meeting with too much of it, did perhaps more for our hero’s happiness than the passionate caresses of the night before.
It was the hour for riding in the Bois de Boulogne. Féder mounted his horse; but, at the entrance to the woods, he drove headlong into the horses of a carriage, and, further along, he was on the verge of running over a philosopher who, before being seen, had chosen this place to meditate, and was walking while reading.
“I am too distracted to ride,” thought Féder, coming back to a jog-trot and forcing himself to keep his eyes fixed constantly in front of him.
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.