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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Parisians - Book 7 - Chapter 6
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The Parisians - Book 7 - Chapter 6 Post by :edwinc Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :3195

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The Parisians - Book 7 - Chapter 6


Isaura's apartment, on the following Thursday evening, was more filled than usual. Besides her habitual devotees in the artistic or literary world, there were diplomatists and deputies commixed with many fair chiefs of la jeunesse doree; amongst the latter the brilliant Enguerrand de Vandemar, who, deeming the acquaintance of every celebrity essential to his own celebrity in either Carthage, the beau monde, or the demi-monde, had, two Thursdays before, made Louvier attend her soiree and present him. Louvier, though gathering to his own salons authors and artists, very rarely favoured their rooms with his presence; he did not adorn Isaura's party that evening. But Duplessis was there, in compensation. It had chanced that Valerie had met Isaura at some house in the past winter, and conceived an enthusiastic affection for her: since then, Valerie came very often to see her, and made a point of dragging with her to Isaura's Thursday reunions her obedient father. Soirees, musical or literary, were not much in his line; but he had no pleasure like that of pleasing his spoilt child. Our old friend Frederic Lemercier was also one of Isaura's guests that night. He had become more and more intimate with Duplessis, and Duplessis had introduced him to the fair Valerie as "un jeune homme plein de moyens, qui ira loin."

Savarin was there of course, and brought with him an English gentleman of the name of Bevil, as well known at Paris as in London--invited everywhere--popular everywhere,--one of those welcome contributors to the luxuries of civilised society who trade in gossip, sparing no pains to get the pick of it, and exchanging it liberally sometimes for a haunch of venison, sometimes for a cup of tea. His gossip not being adulterated with malice was in high repute for genuine worth.

If Bevil said, "This story is a fact," you no more thought of doubting him than you would doubt Rothschild if he said, "This is Lafitte of '48."

Mr. Bevil was at present on a very short stay at Paris, and, naturally wishing to make the most of his time, he did not tarry beside Savarin, but, after being introduced to Isaura, flitted here and there through the assembly.

"Apis Matinae--
More modoque--
Grata carpentis thyma"--

The bee proffers honey, but bears a sting.

The room was at its fullest when Gustave Rameau entered, accompanied by Monsieur de Mauleon.

Isaura was agreeably surprised by the impression made on her by the Vicomte's appearance and manner. His writings, and such as she had heard of his earlier repute, had prepared her to see a man decidedly old, of withered aspect and sardonic smile--aggressive in demeanour--forward or contemptuous in his very politeness--a Mephistopheles engrafted on the stem of a Don Juan. She was startled by the sight of one who, despite his forty-eight years--and at Paris a man is generally older at forty-eight than he is elsewhere--seemed in the zenith of ripened manhood--startled yet more by the singular modesty of a deportment too thoroughly high-bred not to be quietly simple--startled most by a melancholy expression in eyes that could be at times soft, though always so keen, and in the grave pathetic smile which seemed to disarm censure of past faults in saying, "I have known sorrows."

He did not follow up his introduction to his young hostess by any of the insipid phrases of compliment to which she was accustomed; but, after expressing in grateful terms his thanks for the honour she had permitted Rameau to confer on him, he moved aside, as if he had no right to detain her from other guests more worthy her notice, towards the doorway, taking his place by Enguerrand amidst a group of men of whom Duplessis was the central figure.

At that time--the first week in May, 1870--all who were then in Paris will remember that there were two subjects uppermost in the mouths of men: first, the plebiscite; secondly, the conspiracy to murder the Emperor--which the disaffected considered to be a mere fable, a pretence got up in time to serve the plebiscite and prop the Empire.

Upon this latter subject Duplessis had been expressing himself with unwonted animation. A loyal and earnest Imperialist, it was only with effort that he could repress his scorn of that meanest sort of gossip which is fond of ascribing petty motives to eminent men.

To him nothing could be more clearly evident than the reality of this conspiracy, and he had no tolerance for the malignant absurdity of maintaining that the Emperor or his Ministers could be silly and wicked enough to accuse seventy-two persons of a crime which the police had been instructed to invent.

As De Mauleon approached, the financier brought his speech to an abrupt close. He knew in the Vicomte de Mauleon the writer of articles which had endangered the Government, and aimed no pointless shafts against its Imperial head.

"My cousin," said Enguerrand, gaily, as he exchanged a cordial shake of the hand with Victor, "I congratulate you on the fame of journalist, into which you have vaulted, armed cap-a pie, like a knight of old into his saddle; but I don't sympathise with the means you have taken to arrive at that renown. I am not myself an Imperialist--a Vandemar can be scarcely that. But if I am compelled to be on board a ship, I don't wish to take out its planks and let in an ocean, when all offered to me instead is a crazy tub and a rotten rope."

"Tres bien," said Duplessis, in Parliamentary tone and phrase.

"But," said De Mauleon, with his calm smile, "would you like the captain of the ship, when the sky darkened and the sea rose, to ask the common sailors 'whether they approved his conduct on altering his course or shortening his sail'? Better trust to a crazy tub and a rotten rope than to a ship in which the captain consults a plebiscite."

"Monsieur," said Duplessis, "your metaphor is ill chosen no metaphor indeed is needed. The head of the State was chosen by the voice of the people, and, when required to change the form of administration which the people had sanctioned, and inclined to do so from motives the most patriotic and liberal, he is bound again to consult the people from whom he holds his power. It is not, however, of the plebiscite we were conversing, so much as of the atrocious conspiracy of assassins--so happily discovered in time. I presume that Monsieur de Mauleon must share the indignation which true Frenchmen of every party must feel against a combination united by the purpose of murder."

The Vicomte bowed as in assent. "But do you believe," asked a Liberal Depute, "that such a combination existed, except in the visions of the police or the cabinet of a Minister?"

Duplessis looked keenly at De Mauleon while this question was put to him. Belief or disbelief in the conspiracy was with him, and with many, the test by which a sanguinary revolutionist was distinguished from an honest politician.

"Ma foi," answered De Mauleon, shrugging his shoulders, "I have only one belief left; but that is boundless. I believe in the folly of mankind in general, and of Frenchmen in particular. That seventy-two men should plot the assassination of a sovereign on whose life interests so numerous and so watchful depend, and imagine they could keep a secret which any drunkard amongst them would blab out, any tatterdemalion would sell, is a betise so gross that I think it highly probable. But pardon me if I look upon the politics of Paris much as I do upon its mud--one must pass through it when one walks in the street. One changes one's shoes before entering the salon. A word with you, Enguerrand,"--and taking his kinsman's arm he drew him aside from the circle. "What has become of your brother? I see nothing of him now."

"Oh, Raoul," answered Enguerrand, throwing himself on a couch in a recess, and making room for De Mauleon beside him--"Raoul is devoting himself to the distressed ouvriers who have chosen to withdraw from work. When he fails to persuade them to return, he forces food and fuel on their wives and children. My good mother encourages him in this costly undertaking, and no one but you who believe in the infinity of human folly would credit me when I tell you that his eloquence has drawn from me all the argent de poche I get from our shop. As for himself, he has sold his horses, and even grudges a cab-fare, saying, 'That is a meal for a family.' Ah! if he had but gone into the Church, what a saint would have deserved canonisation!"

"Do not lament--he will probably have what is a better claim than mere saintship on Heaven--martyrdom," said De Mauleon, with a smile in which sarcasm disappeared in melancholy. "Poor Raoul!--and what of my other cousin, the beau Marquis? Several months ago his Legitimist faith seemed vacillating--he talked to me very fairly about the duties a Frenchman owed to France, and hinted that he should place his sword at the command of Napoleon III. I have not yet heard of him as a soldat de France--I hear a great deal of him as a viveur de Paris."

"Don't you know why his desire for a military career was frost-bitten?"

"No! why?"

"Alain came from Bretagne profoundly ignorant of most things known to a gamin of Paris. When he conscientiously overcame the scruples natural to one of his name and told the Duchesse de Tarascon that he was ready to fight under the flag of France whatever its colour, he had a vague reminiscence of ancestral Rochebriants earning early laurels at the head of their regiments. At all events he assumed as a matter of course that he, in the first rank as gentilhomme, would enter the army, if as a sous-lieutenant, still as gentilhomme. But when told that, as he had been at no military college, he could only enter the ranks as a private soldier--herd with private soldiers--for at least two years before, passing through the grade of corporal, his birth, education, habits of life could, with great favour, raise him to the station of a sous-lieutenant, you may conceive that the martial ardour of a Rochebriant was somewhat cooled."

"If he knew what the dormitory of French privates is, and how difficult a man well educated well brought up, finds it, first, to endure the coarsest ribaldry and the loudest blasphemy, and then, having endured and been compelled to share them, ever enforce obedience and discipline as a superior among those with whom just before he was an equal, his ardour would not have been merely cooled--it would have been changed into despair for the armies of France, if hereafter they are met by those whose officers have been trained to be officers from the outset and have imbibed from their cradle an education not taught to the boy-pedants from school--the two-fold education how with courtesy to command, how with dignity to obey. To return to Rochebriant, such salons as I frequent are somewhat formal--as befits my grave years and my modest income; I may add, now that you know my vocation, befits me also as a man who seeks rather to be instructed than amused. In those salons I did, last year sometimes, however, meet Rochebriant--as I sometimes still meet you; but of late he has deserted such sober reunions, and I hear with pain that he is drifting among those rocks against which my own youth was shipwrecked. Is the report true?"

"I fear," said Enguerrand, reluctantly, "that at least the report is not unfounded. And my conscience accuses me of having been to blame in the first instance. You see, when Alain made terms with Louvier by which he obtained a very fair income, if prudently managed, I naturally wished that a man of so many claims to social distinction, and who represents the oldest branch of my family, should take his right place in our world of Paris. I gladly therefore presented him to the houses and the men most a la mode--advised him as to the sort of establishment, in apartments, horses, &c., which it appeared to me that he might reasonably afford--I mean such as, with his means, I should have prescribed to myself--"

"Ah! I understand. But you, dear Enguerrand, are a born Parisian, every inch of you: and a born Parisian is, whatever be thought to the contrary, the best manager in the world. He alone achieves the difficult art of uniting thrift with show. It is your Provincial who comes to Paris in the freshness of undimmed youth, who sows his whole life on its barren streets. I guess the rest: Alain is ruined." Enguerrand, who certainly was so far a born Parisian that with all his shrewdness and savoir faire, he had a wonderfully sympathetic heart, very easily moved, one way or the other--Enguerrand winced at his elder kinsman's words complimentarily reproachful, and said in unwonted tones of humility: "Cousin, you are cruel, but you are in the right. I did not calculate sufficiently on the chances of Alain's head being turned. Hear my excuse. He seemed to me so much more thoughtful than most at our age are, so much more stately and proud; well, also so much more pure, so impressed with the responsibilities of station, so bent on retaining the old lands in Bretagne; by habit and rearing so simple and self-denying,--that I took it for granted he was proof against stronger temptations than those which a light nature like my own puts aside with a laugh. And at first I had no reason to think myself deceived, when, some months ago, I heard that he was getting into debt, losing at play, paying court to female vampires, who drain the life-blood of those on whom they fasten their fatal lips. Oh, then I spoke to him earnestly!"

"And in vain?"

"In vain. A certain Chevalier de Finisterre, whom you may have heard of--"

"Certainly, and met; a friend of Louvier's--"

"The same man--has obtained over him an influence which so far subdues mine, that he almost challenged me when I told him his friend was a scamp. In fine, though Alain and I have not actually quarrelled, we pass each other with, 'Bon jour, mon ami.'"

"Hum! My dear Enguerrand, you have done all you could. Flies will be flies, and spiders, spiders, till the earth is destroyed by a comet. Nay, I met a distinguished naturalist in America who maintained that we shall find flies and spiders in the next world."

"You have been in America? Ah, true--I remember, California!"

"Where have I not been? Tush! music--shall I hear our fair hostess sing?"

"I am afraid not to-night: because Madame S---------- is to favour us, and the Signorina makes it a rule not to sing at her own house when professional artists do. You must hear the Cicogna quietly some day; such a voice, nothing like it."

Madame S---------, who, since she had learned that there was no cause to apprehend that Isaura might become her professional rival, conceived for her a wonderful affection, and willingly contributed her magnificent gifts of song to the charms of Isaura's salon, now began a fragment from I Puritani, which held the audience as silent as the ghosts listening to Sappho, and when it was over, several of the guests slipped away, especially those who disliked music, and feared Madame S--------- might begin again. Enguerrand was not one of such soulless recreants, but he had many other places to go to. Besides, Madame S-------- was no novelty to him.

De Mauleon now approached Isaura, who was seated next to Valerie, and after well-merited encomium on Madame S------'s performance, slid into some critical comparisons between that singer and those of a former generation, which interested Isaura, and evinced to her quick perceptions that kind of love for music which has been refined by more knowledge of the art than is common to mere amateurs.

"You have studied music, Monsieur de Mauleon," she said. "Do you not perform yourself?"

"I? No. But music has always had a fatal attraction for me. I ascribe half the errors of my life to that temperament which makes me too fascinated by harmonies--too revolted by discords."

"I should have thought such a temperament would have led from errors--are not errors discords?"

"To the inner sense, yes; but to the outer sense not always. Virtues are often harsh to the ear--errors very sweet-voiced. The sirens did not sing out of tune. Better to stop one's ears than glide on Scylla or be merged into Charybdis."

"Monsieur," cried Valerie, with a pretty brusquerie which became her well, "you talk like a Vandal."

"It is, I think, by Mademoiselle Duplessis that I have the honour to be rebuked. Is Monsieur your father very susceptible to music?"

"Well, I cannot say that he cares much for it. But then his mind is so practical--"

"And his life so successful. No Scylla, no Charybdis for him. However, Mademoiselle, I am not quite the Vandal you suppose, I do not say that susceptibility to the influence of music may not be safe, nay, healthful, to others it was not so to me in my youth. It can do me no harm now."

Here Duplessis came up and whispered his daughter "it was time to leave; they had promised the Duchesse de Tarascon to assist at the soiree she gave that night." Valerie took her father's arm with a brightening smile and a heightened colour. Alain de Rochebriant might probably be at the Duchesse's.

"Are you not going also to the Hotel de Tarascon, M. de Mauleon?" asked Duplessis.

"No; I was never there but once. The Duchesse is an Imperialist, at once devoted and acute, and no doubt very soon divined my lack of faith in her idols."

Duplessis frowned, and hastily led Valerie away.

In a few minutes the room was comparatively deserted. De Mauleon, however, lingered by the side of Isaura till all the other guests were gone. Even then he lingered still, and renewed the interrupted conversation with her, the Venosta joining therein; and so agreeable did he make himself to her Italian tastes by a sort of bitter-sweet wisdom like that of her native proverbs--comprising much knowledge of mankind on the unflattering side of humanity in that form of pleasantry which has a latent sentiment of pathos--that the Venosta exclaimed, "Surely you must have been brought up in Florence!"

There was that in De Mauleon's talk hostile to all which we call romance that excited the imagination of Isaura, and compelled her instinctive love for whatever is more sweet, more beautiful, more ennobling on the many sides of human life, to oppose what she deemed the paradoxes of a man who had taught himself to belie even his own nature. She became eloquent, and her countenance, which in ordinary moments owed much of its beauty to an expression of meditative gentleness, was now lighted up by the energy of earnest conviction--the enthusiasm of an impassioned zeal.

Gradually De Mauleon relaxed his share in the dialogue, and listened to her, rapt and dreamily as in his fiery youth he had listened to the songs of the sirens. No siren Isaura! She was defending her own cause, though unconsciously--defending the vocation of art as the embellisher of external nature, and more than embellisher of the nature which dwells crude, but plastic in the soul of man: indeed therein the creator of a new nature, strengthened, expanded, and brightened in proportion as it accumulates the ideas that tend beyond the boundaries of the visible and material nature, which is finite; for ever seeking in the unseen and the spiritual the goals in the infinite which it is their instinct to divine. "That which you contemptuously call romance," said Isaura, "is not essential only to poets and artists. The most real side of every life, from the earliest dawn of mind in the infant, is the romantic."

"When the child is weaving flower-chains, chasing butterflies, or sitting apart and dreaming what it will do in the future, is not that the child's real life, and yet is it not also the romantic?"

"But there comes a time when we weave no flower-chains, and chase no butterflies."

"Is it so?--still on one side of life, flowers and butterflies may be found to the last; and at least to the last are there no dreams of the future? Have you no such dreams at this moment? and without the romance of such dreams, would there be any reality to human life which could distinguish it from the life of the weed that rots on Lethe?"

"Alas, Mademoiselle," said De Mauleon, rising to take leave, "your argument must rest without answer. I would not, if I could, confute the beautiful belief that belongs to youth, fusing into one rainbow all the tints that can colour the world. But the Signora Venosta will acknowledge the truth of an old saying expressed in every civilised language, but best, perhaps in that of the Florentine--'You might as well physic the dead as instruct the old.'"

"But you are not old!" said the Venosta, with Florentine politeness,-- "you! not a grey hair."

"'Tis not by the grey of the hair that one knows the age of the heart," answered De Mauleon, in another paraphrase of Italian proverb, and he was gone.

As he walked homeward, through deserted streets, Victor de Mauleon thought to himself, "Poor girl, how I pity her! married to a Gustave Rameau--married to any man--nothing in the nature of man, be he the best and the cleverest, can ever realise the dream of a girl who is pure and has genius. Ah, is not the converse true? What girl, the best and the cleverest, comes up to the ideal of even a commonplace man--if he ever dreamed of an ideal!"

Then he paused, and in a moment or so afterwards his thought knew such questionings no more. It turned upon personalities, on stratagems and plots, on ambition. The man had more than his share of that peculiar susceptibility which is one of the characteristics of his countrymen--susceptibility to immediate impulse--susceptibility to fleeting impressions. It was a key to many mysteries in his character when he owned his subjection to the influence of music, and in music recognised not the seraph's harp, but the siren's song. If you could have permanently fixed Victor de Mauleon in one of the good moments of his life--even now--some moment of exquisite kindness--of superb generosity--of dauntless courage--you would have secured a very rare specimen of noble humanity. But so to fix him was impossible.

That impulse of the moment vanished the moment after; swept aside by the force of his very talents--talents concentrated by his intense sense of individuality--sense of wrongs or of rights--interests or objects personal to himself. He extended the royal saying, "L'etat, c'est moi," to words far more grandiloquent. "The universe, 'tis I." The Venosta would have understood him and smiled approvingly, if he had said with good-humoured laugh, "I dead, the world is dead!" That is an Italian proverb, and means much the same thing.

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