The Girl With the Golden Eyes
By Honore de Balzac
Public Domain Books
De Marsay was not impulsive. Any other young man would have obeyed his impulse to obtain at once some information about a girl who realized so fully the most luminous ideas ever expressed upon women in the poetry of the East; but, too experienced to compromise his good fortune, he had told his coachman to continue along the Rue Saint Lazare and carry him back to his house. The next day, his confidential valet, Laurent by name, as cunning a fellow as the Frontin of the old comedy, waited in the vicinity of the house inhabited by the unknown for the hour at which letters were distributed. In order to be able to spy at his ease and hang about the house, he had followed the example of those police officers who seek a good disguise, and bought up cast-off clothes of an Auvergnat, the appearance of whom he sought to imitate. When the postman, who went the round of the Rue Saint Lazare that morning, passed by, Laurent feigned to be a porter unable to remember the name of a person to whom he had to deliver a parcel, and consulted the postman. Deceived at first by appearances, this personage, so picturesque in the midst of Parisian civilization, informed him that the house in which the girl with the golden eyes dwelt belonged to Don Hijos, Marquis de San-Real, grandee of Spain. Naturally, it was not with the Marquis that the Auvergnat was concerned.
“My parcel,” he said, “is for the marquise.”
“She is away,” replied the postman. “Her letters are forwarded to London.”
“Then the marquise is not a young girl who . . . ?”
“Ah!” said the postman, interrupting the valet de chambre and observing him attentively, “you are as much a porter as I’m . . .”
Laurent chinked some pieces of gold before the functionary, who began to smile.
“Come, here’s the name of your quarry,” he said, taking from his leather wallet a letter bearing a London stamp, upon which the address, “To Mademoiselle Paquita Valdes, Rue Saint Lazare, Hotel San-Real, Paris,” was written in long, fine characters, which spoke of a woman’s hand.
“Could you tap a bottle of Chablis, with a few dozen oysters, and a filet saute with mushrooms to follow it?” said Laurent, who wished to win the postman’s valuable friendship.
“At half-past nine, when my round is finished–– Where?”
“At the corner of the Rue de la Chaussee-d’Antin and the Rue Neuve-des-Mathurins, at the Puits sans Vin,” said Laurent.
“Hark ye, my friend,” said the postman, when he rejoined the valet an hour after this encounter, “if your master is in love with the girl, he is in for a famous task. I doubt you’ll not succeed in seeing her. In the ten years that I’ve been postman in Paris, I have seen plenty of different kinds of doors! But I can tell you, and no fear of being called a liar by any of my comrades, there never was a door so mysterious as M. de San-Real’s. No one can get into the house without the Lord knows what counter-word; and, notice, it has been selected on purpose between a courtyard and a garden to avoid any communication with other houses. The porter is an old Spaniard, who never speaks a word of French, but peers at people as Vidocq might, to see if they are not thieves. If a lover, a thief, or you–I make no comparisons –could get the better of this first wicket, well, in the first hall, which is shut by a glazed door, you would run across a butler surrounded by lackeys, an old joker more savage and surly even than the porter. If any one gets past the porter’s lodge, my butler comes out, waits for you at the entrance, and puts you through a cross-examination like a criminal. That has happened to me, a mere postman. He took me for an eavesdropper in disguise, he said, laughing at his nonsense. As for the servants, don’t hope to get aught out of them; I think they are mutes, no one in the neighborhood knows the color of their speech; I don’t know what wages they can pay them to keep them from talk and drink; the fact is, they are not to be got at, whether because they are afraid of being shot, or that they have some enormous sum to lose in the case of an indiscretion. If your master is fond enough of Mademoiselle Paquita Valdes to surmount all these obstacles, he certainly won’t triumph over Dona Concha Marialva, the duenna who accompanies her and would put her under her petticoats sooner than leave her. The two women look as if they were sewn to one another.”
“All that you say, worthy postman,” went on Laurent, after having drunk off his wine, “confirms me in what I have learned before. Upon my word, I thought they were making fun of me! The fruiterer opposite told me that of nights they let loose dogs whose food is hung up on stakes just out of their reach. These cursed animals think, therefore, that any one likely to come in has designs on their victuals, and would tear one to pieces. You will tell me one might throw them down pieces, but it seems they have been trained to touch nothing except from the hand of the porter.”
“The porter of the Baron de Nucingen, whose garden joins at the top that of the Hotel San-Real, told me the same thing,” replied the postman.
“Good! my master knows him,” said Laurent, to himself. “Do you know," he went on, leering at the postman, “I serve a master who is a rare man, and if he took it into his head to kiss the sole of the foot of an empress, she would have to give in to him. If he had need of you, which is what I wish for you, for he is generous, could one count on you?”
“Lord, Monsieur Laurent, my name is Moinot. My name is written exactly like Moineau, magpie: M-o-i-n-o-t, Moinot.”
“Exactly,” said Laurent.
“I live at No. 11, Rue des Trois Freres, on the fifth floor,” went on Moinot; “I have a wife and four children. If what you want of me doesn’t transgress the limits of my conscience and my official duties, you understand! I am your man.”
“You are an honest fellow,” said Laurent, shaking his hand. . . .
“Paquita Valdes is, no doubt, the mistress of the Marquis de San-Real, the friend of King Ferdinand. Only an old Spanish mummy of eighty years is capable of taking such precautions,” said Henri, when his valet de chambre had related the result of his researches.
“Monsieur,” said Laurent, “unless he takes a balloon no one can get into that hotel.”
“You are a fool! Is it necessary to get into the hotel to have Paquita, when Paquita can get out of it?”
“But, sir, the duenna?”
“We will shut her up for a day or two, your duenna.”
“So, we shall have Paquita!” said Laurent, rubbing his hands.
“Rascal!” answered Henri, “I shall condemn you to the Concha, if you carry your impudence so far as to speak so of a woman before she has become mine. . . . Turn your thoughts to dressing me, I am going out.”
Henri remained for a moment plunged in joyous reflections. Let us say it to the praise of women, he obtained all those whom he deigned to desire. And what could one think of a woman, having no lover, who should have known how to resist a young man armed with beauty which is the intelligence of the body, with intelligence which is a grace of the soul, armed with moral force and fortune, which are the only two real powers? Yet, in triumphing with such ease, De Marsay was bound to grow weary of his triumphs; thus, for about two years he had grown very weary indeed. And diving deep into the sea of pleasures he brought back more grit than pearls. Thus had he come, like potentates, to implore of Chance some obstacle to surmount, some enterprise which should ask the employment of his dormant moral and physical strength. Although Paquita Valdes presented him with a marvelous concentration of perfections which he had only yet enjoyed in detail, the attraction of passion was almost nil with him. Constant satiety had weakened in his heart the sentiment of love. Like old men and people disillusioned, he had no longer anything but extravagant caprices, ruinous tastes, fantasies, which, once satisfied, left no pleasant memory in his heart. Amongst young people love is the finest of the emotions, it makes the life of the soul blossom, it nourishes by its solar power the finest inspirations and their great thoughts; the first fruits in all things have a delicious savor. Amongst men love becomes a passion; strength leads to abuse. Amongst old men it turns to vice; impotence tends to extremes. Henri was at once an old man, a man, and a youth. To afford him the feelings of a real love, he needed like Lovelace, a Clarissa Harlowe. Without the magic lustre of that unattainable pearl he could only have either passions rendered acute by some Parisian vanity, or set determinations with himself to bring such and such a woman to such and such a point of corruption, or else adventures which stimulated his curiosity.
The report of Laurent, his valet de chambre had just given an enormous value to the girl with the golden eyes. It was a question of doing battle with some secret enemy who seemed as dangerous as he was cunning; and to carry off the victory, all the forces which Henri could dispose of would be useful. He was about to play in that eternal old comedy which will be always fresh, and the characters in which are an old man, a young girl, and a lover: Don Hijos, Paquita, De Marsay. If Laurent was the equal of Figaro, the duenna seemed incorruptible. Thus, the living play was supplied by Chance with a stronger plot than it had ever been by dramatic author! But then is not Chance too, a man of genius?
“It must be a cautious game,” said Henri, to himself.
“Well,” said Paul de Manerville, as he entered the room. “How are we getting on? I have come to breakfast with you.”
“So be it,” said Henri. “You won’t be shocked if I make my toilette before you?”
“We take so many things from the English just now that we might well become as great prudes and hypocrites as themselves,” said Henri.
Laurent had set before his master such a quantity of utensils, so many different articles of such elegance, that Paul could not refrain from saying:
“But you will take a couple of hours over that?”
“No!” said Henri, “two hours and a half.”
“Well, then, since we are by ourselves, and can say what we like, explain to me why a man as superior as yourself–for you are superior –should affect to exaggerate a foppery which cannot be natural. Why spend two hours and a half in adorning yourself, when it is sufficient to spend a quarter of an hour in your bath, to do your hair in two minutes, and to dress! There, tell me your system.”
“I must be very fond of you, my good dunce, to confide such high thoughts to you,” said the young man, who was at that moment having his feet rubbed with a soft brush lathered with English soap.
“Have I not the most devoted attachment to you,” replied Paul de Manerville, “and do I not like you because I know your superiority? . . .”
“You must have noticed, if you are in the least capable of observing any moral fact, that women love fops,” went on De Marsay, without replying in any way to Paul’s declaration except by a look. “Do you know why women love fops? My friend, fops are the only men who take care of themselves. Now, to take excessive care of oneself, does it not imply that one takes care in oneself of what belongs to another? The man who does not belong to himself is precisely the man on whom women are keen. Love is essentially a thief. I say nothing about that excess of niceness to which they are so devoted. Do you know of any woman who has had a passion for a sloven, even if he were a remarkable man? If such a fact has occurred, we must put it to the account of those morbid affections of the breeding woman, mad fancies which float through the minds of everybody. On the other hand, I have seen most remarkable people left in the lurch because of their carelessness. A fop, who is concerned about his person, is concerned with folly, with petty things. And what is a woman? A petty thing, a bundle of follies. With two words said to the winds, can you not make her busy for four hours? She is sure that the fop will be occupied with her, seeing that he has no mind for great things. She will never be neglected for glory, ambition, politics, art–those prostitutes who for her are rivals. Then fops have the courage to cover themselves with ridicule in order to please a woman, and her heart is full of gratitude towards the man who is ridiculous for love. In fine, a fop can be no fop unless he is right in being one. It is women who bestow that rank. The fop is love’s colonel; he has his victories, his regiment of women at his command. My dear fellow, in Paris everything is known, and a man cannot be a fop there gratis. You, who have only one woman, and who, perhaps, are right to have but one, try to act the fop! . . . You will not even become ridiculous, you will be dead. You will become a foregone conclusion, one of those men condemned inevitably to do one and the same thing. You will come to signify folly as inseparably as M. de La Fayette signifies America; M. de Talleyrand, diplomacy; Desaugiers, song; M. de Segur, romance. If they once forsake their own line people no longer attach any value to what they do. So, foppery, my friend Paul, is the sign of an incontestable power over the female folk. A man who is loved by many women passes for having superior qualities, and then, poor fellow, it is a question who shall have him! But do you think it is nothing to have the right of going into a drawing-room, of looking down at people from over your cravat, or through your eye-glass, and of despising the most superior of men should he wear an old-fashioned waistcoat? . . . Laurent, you are hurting me! After breakfast, Paul, we will go to the Tuileries and see the adorable girl with the golden eyes.”
When, after making an excellent meal, the two young men had traversed the Terrasse de Feuillants and the broad walk of the Tuileries, they nowhere discovered the sublime Paquita Valdes, on whose account some fifty of the most elegant young men in Paris where to be seen, all scented, with their high scarfs, spurred and booted, riding, walking, talking, laughing, and damning themselves mightily.
“It’s a white Mass,” said Henri; “but I have the most excellent idea in the world. This girl receives letters from London. The postman must be bought or made drunk, a letter opened, read of course, and a love-letter slipped in before it is sealed up again. The old tyrant, crudel tirano, is certain to know the person who writes the letters from London, and has ceased to be suspicious of them.”
The day after, De Marsay came again to walk on the Terrasse des Feuillants, and saw Paquita Valdes; already passion had embellished her for him. Seriously, he was wild for those eyes, whose rays seemed akin to those which the sun emits, and whose ardor set the seal upon that of her perfect body, in which all was delight. De Marsay was on fire to brush the dress of this enchanting girl as they passed one another in their walk; but his attempts were always vain. But at one moment, when he had repassed Paquita and the duenna, in order to find himself on the same side as the girl of the golden eyes, when he returned, Paquita, no less impatient, came forward hurriedly, and De Marsay felt his hand pressed by her in a fashion at once so swift and so passionately significant that it was as though he had received the emotions surged up in his heart. When the two lovers glanced at one another, Paquita seemed ashamed, she dropped her eyes lest she should meet the eyes of Henri, but her gaze sank lower to fasten on the feet and form of him whom women, before the Revolution, called their conqueror.
“I am determined to make this girl my mistress,” said Henri to himself.
As he followed her along the terrace, in the direction of the Place Louis XV., he caught sight of the aged Marquis de San-Real, who was walking on the arm of his valet, stepping with all the precautions due to gout and decrepitude. Dona Concha, who distrusted Henri, made Paquita pass between herself and the old man.
“Oh, for you,” said De Marsay to himself, casting a glance of disdain upon the duenna, “if one cannot make you capitulate, with a little opium one can make you sleep. We know mythology and the fable of Argus.”
Before entering the carriage, the golden-eyed girl exchanged certain glances with her lover, of which the meaning was unmistakable and which enchanted Henri, but one of them was surprised by the duenna; she said a few rapid words to Paquita, who threw herself into the coupe with an air of desperation. For some days Paquita did not appear in the Tuileries. Laurent, who by his master’s orders was on watch by the hotel, learned from the neighbors that neither the two women nor the aged marquis had been abroad since the day upon which the duenna had surprised a glance between the young girl in her charge and Henri. The bond, so flimsy withal, which united the two lovers was already severed.
Some days later, none knew by what means, De Marsay had attained his end; he had a seal and wax, exactly resembling the seal and wax affixed to the letters sent to Mademoiselle Valdes from London; paper similar to that which her correspondent used; moreover, all the implements and stamps necessary to affix the French and English postmarks.
He wrote the following letter, to which he gave all the appearances of a letter sent from London:–
“MY DEAR PAQUITA,–I shall not try to paint to you in words the passion with which you have inspired me. If, to my happiness, you reciprocate it, understand that I have found a means of corresponding with you. My name is Adolphe de Gouges, and I live at No. 54 Rue de l’Universite. If you are too closely watched to be able to write to me, if you have neither pen nor paper, I shall understand it by your silence. If then, to-morrow, you have not, between eight o’clock in the morning and ten o’clock in the evening, thrown a letter over the wall of your garden into that of the Baron de Nucingen, where it will be waited for during the whole of the day, a man, who is entirely devoted to me, will let down two flasks by a string over your wall at ten o’clock the next morning. Be walking there at that hour. One of the two flasks will contain opium to send your Argus to sleep; it will be sufficient to employ six drops; the other will contain ink. The flask of ink is of cut glass; the other is plain. Both are of such a size as can easily be concealed within your bosom. All that I have already done, in order to be able to correspond with you, should tell you how greatly I love you. Should you have any doubt of it, I will confess to you, that to obtain an interview of one hour with you I would give my life.”
“At least they believe that, poor creatures!” said De Marsay; “but they are right. What should we think of a woman who refused to be beguiled by a love-letter accompanied by such convincing accessories?”
This letter was delivered by Master Moinot, postman, on the following day, about eight o’clock in the morning, to the porter of the Hotel San-Real.
In order to be nearer to the field of action, De Marsay went and breakfasted with Paul, who lived in the Rue de la Pepiniere. At two o’clock, just as the two friends were laughingly discussing the discomfiture of a young man who had attempted to lead the life of fashion without a settled income, and were devising an end for him, Henri’s coachman came to seek his master at Paul’s house, and presented to him a mysterious personage who insisted on speaking himself with his master.
This individual was a mulatto, who would assuredly have given Talma a model for the part of Othello, if he had come across him. Never did any African face better express the grand vengefulness, the ready suspicion, the promptitude in the execution of a thought, the strength of the Moor, and his childish lack of reflection. His black eyes had the fixity of the eyes of a bird of prey, and they were framed, like a vulture’s, by a bluish membrane devoid of lashes. His forehead, low and narrow, had something menacing. Evidently, this man was under the yoke of some single and unique thought. His sinewy arm did not belong to him.
He was followed by a man whom the imaginations of all folk, from those who shiver in Greenland to those who sweat in the tropics, would paint in the single phrase: He was an unfortunate man. From this phrase, everybody will conceive him according to the special ideas of each country. But who can best imagine his face–white and wrinkled, red at the extremities, and his long beard. Who will see his lean and yellow scarf, his greasy shirt-collar, his battered hat, his green frock coat, his deplorable trousers, his dilapidated waistcoat, his imitation gold pin, and battered shoes, the strings of which were plastered in mud? Who will see all that but the Parisian? The unfortunate man of Paris is the unfortunate man in toto, for he has still enough mirth to know the extent of his misfortune. The mulatto was like an executioner of Louis XI. leading a man to the gallows.
“Who has hunted us out these two extraordinary creatures?” said Henri.
“Faith! there is one of them who makes me shudder,” replied Paul.
“Who are you–you fellow who look the most like a Christian of the two?” said Henri, looking at the unfortunate man.
The mulatto stood with his eyes fixed upon the two young men, like a man who understood nothing, and who sought no less to divine something from the gestures and movements of the lips.
“I am a public scribe and interpreter; I live at the Palais de Justice, and am named Poincet.”
“Good! . . . and this one?” said Henri to Poincet, looking towards the mulatto.
“I do not know; he only speaks a sort of Spanish patois, and he has brought me here to make himself understood by you.”
The mulatto drew from his pocket the letter which Henri had written to Paquita and handed it to him. Henri threw it in the fire.
“Ah–so–the game is beginning,” said Henri to himself. “Paul, leave us alone for a moment.”
“I translated this letter for him,” went on the interpreter, when they were alone. “When it was translated, he was in some place which I don’t remember. Then he came back to look for me, and promised me two louis to fetch him here.”
“What have you to say to me, nigger?” asked Henri.
“I did not translate nigger,” said the interpreter, waiting for the mulatto’s reply. . . .
“He said, sir,” went on the interpreter, after having listened to the unknown, “that you must be at half-past ten to-morrow night on the boulevard Montmartre, near the cafe. You will see a carriage there, in which you must take your place, saying to the man, who will wait to open the door for you, the word cortejo–a Spanish word, which means lover,” added Poincet, casting a glance of congratulation upon Henri.
The mulatto was about to bestow the two louis, but De Marsay would not permit it, and himself rewarded the interpreter. As he was paying him, the mulatto began to speak.
“What is he saying?”
“He is warning me,” replied the unfortunate, “that if I commit a single indiscretion he will strangle me. He speaks fair and he looks remarkably as if he were capable of carrying out his threat.”
“I am sure of it,” answered Henri; “he would keep his word.”
“He says, as well,” replied the interpreter, “that the person from whom he is sent implores you, for your sake and for hers, to act with the greatest prudence, because the daggers which are raised above your head would strike your heart before any human power could save you from them.”
“He said that? So much the better, it will be more amusing. You can come in now, Paul,” he cried to his friend.
The mulatto, who had not ceased to gaze at the lover of Paquita Valdes with magnetic attention, went away, followed by the interpreter.
“Well, at last I have an adventure which is entirely romantic,” said Henri, when Paul returned. “After having shared in a certain number I have finished by finding in Paris an intrigue accompanied by serious accidents, by grave perils. The deuce! what courage danger gives a woman! To torment a woman, to try and contradict her–doesn’t it give her the right and the courage to scale in one moment obstacles which it would take her years to surmount of herself? Pretty creature, jump then! To die? Poor child! Daggers? Oh, imagination of women! They cannot help trying to find authority for their little jests. Besides, can one think of it, Paquita? Can one think of it, my child? The devil take me, now that I know this beautiful girl, this masterpiece of nature, is mine, the adventure has lost its charm.”
For all his light words, the youth in Henri had reappeared. In order to live until the morrow without too much pain, he had recourse to exorbitant pleasure; he played, dined, supped with his friends; he drank like a fish, ate like a German, and won ten or twelve thousand francs. He left the Rocher de Cancale at two o’clock in the morning, slept like a child, awoke the next morning fresh and rosy, and dressed to go to the Tuileries, with the intention of taking a ride, after having seen Paquita, in order to get himself an appetite and dine the better, and so kill the time.
At the hour mentioned Henri was on the boulevard, saw the carriage, and gave the counter-word to a man who looked to him like the mulatto. Hearing the word, the man opened the door and quickly let down the step. Henri was so rapidly carried through Paris, and his thoughts left him so little capacity to pay attention to the streets through which he passed, that he did not know where the carriage stopped. The mulatto let him into a house, the staircase of which was quite close to the entrance. This staircase was dark, as was also the landing upon which Henri was obliged to wait while the mulatto was opening the door of a damp apartment, fetid and unlit, the chambers of which, barely illuminated by the candle which his guide found in the ante-chamber, seemed to him empty and ill furnished, like those of a house the inhabitants of which are away. He recognized the sensation which he had experienced from the perusal of one of those romances of Anne Radcliffe, in which the hero traverses the cold, sombre, and uninhabited saloons of some sad and desert spot.
At last the mulatto opened the door of a salon. The condition of the old furniture and the dilapidated curtains with which the room was adorned gave it the air of the reception-room of a house of ill fame. There was the same pretension to elegance, and the same collection of things in bad taste, of dust and dirt. Upon a sofa covered with red Utrecht velvet, by the side of a smoking hearth, the fire of which was buried in ashes, sat an old, poorly dressed woman, her head capped by one of those turbans which English women of a certain age have invented and which would have a mighty success in China, where the artist’s ideal is the monstrous.
The room, the old woman, the cold hearth, all would have chilled love to death had not Paquita been there, upon an ottoman, in a loose voluptuous wrapper, free to scatter her gaze of gold and flame, free to show her arched foot, free of her luminous movements. This first interview was what every rendezvous must be between persons of passionate disposition, who have stepped over a wide distance quickly, who desire each other ardently, and who, nevertheless, do not know each other. It is impossible that at first there should not occur certain discordant notes in the situation, which is embarrassing until the moment when two souls find themselves in unison.
If desire gives a man boldness and disposes him to lay restraint aside, the mistress, under pain of ceasing to be woman, however great may be her love, is afraid of arriving at the end so promptly, and face to face with the necessity of giving herself, which to many women is equivalent to a fall into an abyss, at the bottom of which they know not what they shall find. The involuntary coldness of the woman contrasts with her confessed passion, and necessarily reacts upon the most passionate lover. Thus ideas, which often float around souls like vapors, determine in them a sort of temporary malady. In the sweet journey which two beings undertake through the fair domains of love, this moment is like a waste land to be traversed, a land without a tree, alternatively damp and warm, full of scorching sand, traversed by marshes, which leads to smiling groves clad with roses, where Love and his retinue of pleasures disport themselves on carpets of soft verdure. Often the witty man finds himself afflicted with a foolish laugh which is his only answer to everything; his wit is, as it were, suffocated beneath the icy pressure of his desires. It would not be impossible for two beings of equal beauty, intelligence, and passion to utter at first nothing but the most silly commonplaces, until chance, a word, the tremor of a certain glance, the communication of a spark, should have brought them to the happy transition which leads to that flowery way in which one does not walk, but where one sways and at the same time does not lapse.
Such a state of mind is always in proportion with the violence of the feeling. Two creatures who love one another weakly feel nothing similar. The effect of this crisis can even be compared with that which is produced by the glow of a clear sky. Nature, at the first view, appears to be covered with a gauze veil, the azure of the firmament seems black, the intensity of light is like darkness. With Henri, as with the Spanish girl, there was an equal intensity of feeling; and that law of statics, in virtue of which two identical forces cancel each other, might have been true also in the moral order. And the embarrassment of the moment was singularly increased by the presence of the old hag. Love takes pleasure or fright at all, all has meaning for it, everything is an omen of happiness or sorrow for it.
This decrepit woman was there like a suggestion of catastrophe, and represented the horrid fish’s tail with which the allegorical geniuses of Greece have terminated their chimeras and sirens, whose figures, like all passions, are so seductive, so deceptive.
Although Henri was not a free-thinker–the phrase is always a mockery –but a man of extraordinary power, a man as great as a man can be without faith, the conjunction struck him. Moreover, the strongest men are naturally the most impressionable, and consequently the most superstitious, if, indeed, one may call superstition the prejudice of the first thoughts, which, without doubt, is the appreciation of the result in causes hidden to other eyes but perceptible to their own.