By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

4. Lost Illusions, by Honoré de Balzac, pp. 118-148

Part One: The Two Poets, 4. Catastrophic sequels to provincial love
Lucien and Madame de Bargeton are the talk of the town, but notoriety has only emboldened both of them. Madame de Bargeton has begun to use the familiar tu with him, and she is not at all disturbed, as Lucien feared she might be, at the prospect of David's marriage to his sister: "What does your family matter to me, since you are so much above it?" She invites him to stay for dinner and then for the soirée that follows, and thereby causes further gossip:
The next day there was no house in Angoulême in which the degree of intimacy between Monsieur Chardon, alias de Rubempré, and Madame de Bargeton was not a matter for discussion. At most they had exchanged a kiss or two, and society was already accusing them of the most guilty relations. Madame de Bargeton was paying the penalty for her pre-eminence. 
Meanwhile, both Lucien and David have begun banking on expectations: David on the money he will come into on the death of his father, since he has spent lavishly building a second floor onto the house, in preparation for his marriage and the seclusion that Lucien will need to become a great writer, and Lucien "was staking his happiness on the demise of Monsieur de Bargeton." He also assures himself that the thirty francs a month his mother and sister give him will be repaid "when the historical novel at which he had been working for two years -- The Archer of Charles the Ninth, and a volume of verse entitled The Marguerites -- would spread his renown through the world of literature." David, though not without misgivings, joins "in this conspiracy of self-sacrifice."

But Lucien is being spied upon by du Châtelet, who "wanted Madame de Bargeton to declare herself so openly for Lucien as to become what one calls a 'lost woman.'" The problem is, nothing that Lucien and Madame de Bargeton do goes "beyond the bounds of strict propriety." Even so, the gossip doesn't quiet down: "Provincial people are by nature malicious and love to balk nascent passion." Du Châtelet even keeps gossip about the supposed affair stirred up by saying he doesn't believe it's taking place: He claims "that Madame de Bargeton was playing with Lucien, that she was too proud and of too high a rank to condescend to a chemist's son." Stanislas de Chandour, who is married to Amélie, Madame de Bargeton's chief social rival, argues the other side vehemently. The conflict grows so heated that, after de Châtelet tells Stanislas that Madame de Bargeton never closes the door to her boudoir when Lucien is in it, Stanislas decides to spy on them.

But then Lucien and Madame de Bargeton have a quarrel.
Intent on playing the role of Ducinea in Lucien's life for seven or eight years, Madame de Bargeton wished, like so many provincial women, that possession should be paid for by a kind of serfdom, a period of constancy which would enable her to gauge her lover's worth.
Lucien, understandably, is unhappy at this: "'You have never loved me,' he cried."
At this moment, Stanslas arrived unheard, saw Lucien with bowed figure, his eyes for of tears and his head on Louise's lap. Satisfied with this sufficiently compromising tableau, Stanislas backed out towards du Châtelet, who was standing outside the drawing-room door. Madame de Bargeton quickly rushed forward, but failed to reach the two spies who, aware that they were intruding, had beat a hasty retreat.
And soon "everyone knew that Lucien had been discovered on his knees before Naïs." Not everyone agrees that they are lovers, but even they are scandalized by the age difference: "This little versifier is twenty-two at the most, and, between ourselves, Naïs is certainly forty."

Du Châtelet takes it on himself to go to see her and to warn her of the damage done to her reputation. But oddly, she seems happy: "She was sick to death of provincial life. At Châtelet's first word, her thoughts had flown to Paris." And after du Châtelet leaves, she calls in her husband, tells him what has happened, and suggests that he challenge Stanislas de Chandour to a duel. Monsieur de Bargeton goes straight to the du Chandours and does so. Stanislas is terrified, but forces himself to go through with it.

The next morning, Lucien's mother comes in with the news: "This morning, at five o'clock, Monsieur de Bargeton nearly killed Monsieur de Chandour on the duelling ground.... Monsieur de Bargeton, who behaved as if he were out for a stroll, fired twice and lodged a bullet in Monsieur de Chandour's neck.... The hospital surgeon has just now declared that Monsieur de Chandour's neck will never be straight again for the rest of his days." She advises Lucien not to show himself in public for fear that de Chandour's friends might challenge him to a duel. But a letter arrives from Madame de Bargeton asking him "to come and listen to your Beatrice, whose life is completely changed by this event and who has many things to say to you."

Meanwhile, the work has finished on the room that David and Eve will share after their wedding, which is scheduled for the day after tomorrow. It has, of course, cost more than expected, and David has also splurged on the wedding. Lucien's mother and sister have also spent money furnishing David's house.
This little rivalry in love and generosity was to bring the couple into tight circumstances from the very beginning of their marriage, surrounded though they were with all the appearances of middle-class ease which might pass as luxury in so backward a town as Angoulême then was.

Lucien slips away from his family to see Madame de Bargeton, who announces that she is going to Paris and her husband will stay with her father while she's away. She plans to use some influence to find a political position in Paris for Monsieur de Bargeton. "This morning's duel," she explains, "obliges me to shut up my house for some time, for some people will side with the Chandours against us." She wants Lucien to go on ahead of her and wait for her arrival: "I will pick you up in my carriage between Mansle and Ruffec, and we shall soon be in Paris.... Paris, the capital of the intellectual world, is the stage on which you will find success!" She wants him to fit his writing to the political climate: "Therefore you must be both a religious and a royalist poet."

Enraptured by the fantasy of succeeding in Paris and by the notion that "as a result of the journey during which circumstances would make them man and wife, Madame de Bargeton would belong entirely to him," he is ready to say yes to the plan until he remembers: "Good heavens! My sister is getting married the day after tomorrow!" Madame de Bargeton is indignant that he should let such a thing come between them: "'This morning I sent my husband off to fight a duel on your ! Go away, Monsieur, leave me! I have been mistaken in you.' She fell back in a swoon onto her sofa." He gives in.

On the way back, he rationalizes that his mother can move into the room David had prepared for him, and he calculates that he can borrow some money from Postel, who bought his father's apothecary shop, and continue to receive the money his mother and sister have been giving him. But when he tells them of the plan, they reveal how much they have spent on the wedding, and Eve is heartbroken that he won't attend it. She also calculates that he'll need at least two thousand francs, much more money than he has anticipated, just to have a wardrobe suitable for Paris. Madame Chardon goes to see Postel and returns to tell Lucien that he's only willing to lend a thousand and that he would want David to co-sign. David has just arrived, and is upset that Lucien won't be at the wedding. He has also just bought jewelry for Eve to wear at it. But he gives in and agrees not only to sign the note but to see to it that Lucien gets the other thousand he needs. They go to sign the note, and when they return they find mother and daughter "on their knees in prayer."
"If ever you forgot this scene," whispered David to Lucien, "You would be the most despicable of men."
He hires a horse and trap and drives Lucien to the place where Madame de Bargeton's carriage picks him up.
The printer climbed back into his shabby trap, and his heart was heavy as he drove away, for he had horrible presentiments of the fate in store for Lucien in Paris.

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