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A STROKE OF DIPLOMACY.*
FROM THE FRENCH OF VICTOR CHERBULIEZ.
NE evening, at his return from dining at his club, the Marquis de Miraval found at home a letter from his niece, Madame de Penneville, who wrote to him from Vichy, thus:
"MY DEAR UNCLE: The waters here have done me a great deal of good. Until to-day I had every reason to be entirely satisfied with my cure; but I am afraid the good result which I expected will be undone by a disagreeable bit of news which I have just received, and which causes me more trouble and annoyance than I can well express to you. The physicians insist that the first thing necessary for those who suffer from chronic liver-trouble is to take no care upon themselves. I do not take it upon myself, but others give me enough. My mind is tormented with the thought of a certain Madame Corneuil, for that is the woman's name. I never heard of her, but I detest her without knowing her. You have seen a great deal of the world, and are somewhat inquisitive. I am convinced, my dear uncle, that you know all about her. Write me at once who Madame Corneuil may be. It is a serious question to me. I will explain to you some time why it is so."
The Marquis de Miraval was an old diplomate, who began his career under Louis Philippe, and had likewise filled honorably, under the empire, several second-rate positions, which satisfied his ambition. When thrust aside by the revolution of September 4th, he bore it philosophically.
He had no trouble with his liver, as had his niece. Neither that nor his spleen ever disturbed him in the least. He was in excellent health, his stomach seemed like iron, his gait was still firm, his sight clear, and he had an income of two hundred thousand livres, which is injurious to no one. As he always looked at the bright side of things, he congratulated himself upon having reached the age of sixty-five without losing his hair, which was literally white as snow; but he never thought of dyeing it. As his mind and character were well balanced, he believed that Nature understands the fitness of things, and knows better than we what best becomes us; that, after all, she is a kind mistress, and, at all events, an all-powerful one; that it is useless to oppose her, and absurd to dispute with her, when, after all, every age has its own pleasures, and, having had a fair experience of life, good and bad, it is not disagreeable to pass ten years or so in watching how others live, laughing to one's self at their follies, and thinking, “I am past committing them, but can comprehend them all."
As he bore no grudge to age for whitening his abundant chestnut locks, of which he used to be rather vain, so the Marquis easily forgave the revolutions which so prematurely closed his caOne has a right to rail against his judge for twenty-four hours, so, after relieving his anger by a few well-directed epigrams, Monsieur de Miraval soon consoled himself for those events which condemned to be of no importance affairs of state, but which restored him his independence by way of compensation. Liberty had always seemed to him the most precious of all possessions; he considered that man happy who was
* The original title in the French of this story is "Le responsible only to himself, and could order his Roi Apépi."
life as he chose. For that reason he decided to
remain a widower, after having been married two years. He was urged to marry again in vain, and answered in the words of a celebrated painter, "Would it be so delightful, then, in going home to find a stranger there?" He was always well received by women at their own houses, but never thought of them seriously, being somewhat skeptical in his real opinion of them. The Marquis de Miraval was a wise man; some called him an egotist, a distinction not always easily made.
Whether sage or egotist, the Marquis de Miraval had sincere affection for his niece, the Countess of Penneville, and he considered it his duty to reply to her by return of mail. Those who have diseased livers should not be kept waiting. His answer ran in these words:
"MY DEAR MATHILDE: I regret infinitely that your cure should be retarded by care and worriment. They are the worst of all diseases, although they kill no one. But what is the matter, and what has Madame Corneuil to do with it? What can there be between this woman, whom you do not know, and the Countess of Penneville? I ask for a prompt explanation. In waiting for that, since you desire it, I will tell you, as best I can, who Madame Corneuil is— whom, however, I have never seen; but I know well those who do know her.
Can it be possible, dear Mathilde, that you have never heard of Madame de Corneuil before now? I am sorry; it proves you are no literary woman; in fact, you must be a woman who actually never reads not even the Gazette des Tribunaux.' Do not fancy from this sentence that Madame Corneuil is either a poisoner or a receiver of stolen goods, or that she has ever even appeared before the Court of Assizes; but some seven or eight years ago she separated from Monsieur de Corneuil, and the affair created considerable talk. Here is the whole story, as well as I can remember it :
"Monsieur de Corneuil was formerly Consul General from France to Alexandria. He was considered a good agent, whose only fault was that his manner was rather brusque. That is a slight failing. In the country of the 'Courbache,' one must know how to be brusque with both men and things. When an Oriental is not of your opinion, and sets too high a price upon his own, the only way to convince him is to strangle him; but this has nothing to do with my subject. A chance, fortunate for some and unfortunate for others, sent one Monsieur Véretz to land on the quays of Alexandria. He was a small business agent of Paris, who, not succeeding there, and to escape from his creditors, came as fast as his legs could bring him to seek his fortune in the
land of the Pharaohs. He was, it seems, very little of a man, of doubtful morality, and of more than equivocal reputation. Monsieur Véretz had a daughter, eighteen years old, who was bewitchingly pretty. How and where Monsieur Corneuil made her acquaintance, the chronicle does not say; it tells us merely that this bear was very susceptible, and was determined to pursue his own fancies. From the first meeting with this beautiful child he fell desperately in love with her. Fortunately for Mademoiselle Hortense Véretz, her mother was an excellent manager-a most fortunate thing for a daughter. After a few weeks of vain endeavor, Monsieur de Corneuil was determined to overcome all obstacles. The Consul-General, who had a large fortune, persisted in marrying, for the sake of her beautiful eyes, a girl who had nothing, and whose father bore a blemished name; still more, he married her without any contract at all, thereby giving her an equal share in his property. The matter caused great scandal. People flung his father-in-law at him, and openly brought insinuations against himself as well, so that he was at last obliged to give in his resignation, and left Egypt to return to Périgueux, his native town, in which step his beautiful young wife encouraged him, for she longed to break away for ever from a father who so compromised her, and also that she might enjoy her new fortune in France. I remember hearing the whole story at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where they talked of it for a week, and then they talked of something else. But the ex-Consul was not over his trouFour years later, Madame Corneuil demanded a separation. Her mother had accompanied her to Périgueux: when one is fortunate enough to have a manoeuvring mother, it is best never to part with her, and to be governed always by her counsel.
"Why did Madame Corneuil separate from her husband? You must ask the lawyers. They were admirable on either side, and used all the resources of their loquacity. Both pleas, where epigrams alternated with apostrophes, and apostrophes with invectives, were specimens of that elevated taste which delights the malice of the public.
"The details escape me. I have not the 'Gazette des Tribunaux' at hand, but it does not matter-I am sure of my facts. Papin, the lawyer for the plaintiff, one of the first at the bar, protested that Monsieur Corneuil was an ugly fellow, a downright blockhead; that Madame Corneuil was of a most exquisite nature, an angelic character; that this monster at first loved this angel to distraction, but soon tired of her, and abused her in every way-to all of which Virion, the lawyer for the defense, insisted that,
if his client had occasionally been somewhat hasty in his manner toward her, he was no monster, and that in the sweet heart of this angel there was considerable vinegar and a great deal of calculation. He tried to prove to the court that there was every excuse for the behavior of Monsieur Corneuil, but that his wife looked upon his determination to live in Périgueux as a crime, for she could not endure the place; and, since she could not persuade him to change their abode to Paris, which she considered the only spot worthy of her grace and her genius, she had determined to lay a plan to regain her independence, and for that end had applied herself with Machiavellian ingenuity to aggravate him; that she had made his home unbearable by the sharpness of her wit, by every kind of petty persecution, by all those little pin-prickings of which angels alone have the secret, and which drive to distraction even men who are not monsters! Was the unfortunate man to blame for now and then asserting himself? I assure you again that both lawyers did wonderfully well. The great difficulty was to know which was the liar. For myself, I should have dismissed both. However, the court sided with Papin. The separation was granted, and half the fortune adjudged to Madame Corneuil. It seemed, however, that Virion was not entirely wrong, for six months after the verdict Madame Corneuil left for Paris in company with her mother.
"I know beforehand, my dear Mathilde, that you will ask me what became of the beautiful Madame Corneuil in Paris. I have been out three times this morning for the sole end of finding out-you need not thank me, for I like it. Madame de Corneuil has not yet satisfied her secret ambition; she can not yet say, 'I have reached it!' but she is fairly on her way thither. The butterfly has not entirely cast aside the chrysalis; but she is patient, and one day will spread her wings and fly in triumph from her sheath. Madame Corneuil gives receptions and dinner-parties, and holds a salon. A beautiful woman, with a manœuvring mother and a good cook, need not fear being left to pine in solitude. Formerly there were to be seen at her house a great many literary men, especially those of the new school-the young men. Great good may it do them! There are among them men of talent with a future before them, but there are also among them those whose novelties are not new, and whose youth is somewhat rank; but that is no business of mine. It does not prevent them from dining at Madame Corneuil's. She is not merely contented with encouraging literature, she also manufactures it, and employs the young men around her to write little scraps for the lesser journals in praise of her. Grateful
stomachs make most excellent heralds, and at all events she is rich enough to pay for her own fame.
Eighteen months after her establishment in Paris she published a romance, which by the merest of all accidents fell into my hands. I confess I did not read it through to the end; every variety of courage can not be looked for in one individual. It began with the description of a mist. At the end of ten pages-Heaven be praised!—the fog lifted, and a woman in a calèche was visible. I remember that the calèche was bought of Binder; I remember also that the woman, whose heart was an abyss, wore six and one-quarter gloves, that she had three freckles on her right temple-just so many, and no more —ʻquivering nostrils, arms inimitably rounded, and breathless silences.' I do not know if we are of the same opinion, but descriptions appall me, and I rush away. Besides, my mind is so poorly constructed that I can not see this woman with whose description the author has taken so great pains. Good Homer, who does not belong to the new school, was satisfied to tell me merely that Achilles was fair, and yet I can see him before me. But what is to be done? It is the fashion of our day; they call it studying—what is the word ?-studying the human documents, and it seems no one ever thought of that till now, not even my old friend Fielding, whom I reread every year. I am not very fond of even serious pedants, but I have a holy horror of pedantry when applied to the merest trifles. As I am no longer young, I agree with Voltaire, who did not like those subjects seriously discussed which were not worth being lightly touched upon. The romance of Madame Corneuil, I regret to say, fell flat. She strove to recover herself by poetry, and published a volume of sonnets, in which there was no allusion whatever to Monsieur Corneuil. The verses were written with rapid pen, but a pen sharpened by an angel, and full of the most exquisitely sweet and refined sentiment. As a general rule, the sonnets of wives separated from their husbands are always sublime. Unfortunately, there is not a great call for the sublime. It was a cruel disappointment to Madame Corneuil, who suddenly broke with her Muse.
"All great artists, Mozart as well as Talleyrand, Raphael as well as Bismarck, have their different phases. Madame Corneuil thought she had better change hers: she reformed the whole style of her house, her cooking, her furniture, and her dress. She turned to serious things, and suddenly assumed a taste for neutral tints and sober conversations, for metaphysics and feuillemorte ribbons. This beautiful blonde discovered that she did not show her right value, except in
being relieved to half-tint against the background of a room full of grave people. She undertook to weed out her company, and gently closed her doors on nearly all those insignificant fellows, at least upon the noisiest ones who hover about the green-rooms and tell coarse stories. She grew disgusted with gossip, and found that respect was more desirable, even at the price of a little ennui. She endeavored, henceforth, to draw around her men of position and women of high character. It was difficult, but, with some pains and a great deal of perseverance, an ambitious woman who can stand being bored can accomplish anything. She wrote no more sonnets nor romances, but rushed at full might into works of charity.
"Charity, my dear Mathilde, is at the same time, and according to circumstances, the most beautiful of all the virtues or the most useful occupation. You have your poor, and God alone can tell how much you love them, how you care for them and cherish them; but your left hand knows naught of what your right hand doeth. I do not know if Madame de Corneuil has often seen the poor; but, instead of that, she goes and comes, and agitates and schemes, and preaches. She is on six committees and twelve sub-committees; she is an incomparable beggar, a very expert cashier, an experienced treasurer, and accomplished vice-president. Yes, my dear, they say no one can preside better than she. It is the very best way to push one's self into society. I must add that, although she composes poetry no longer, she has not given up prose. She has written an eloquent treatise on 'The Apostleship of Woman,' which is sold for the benefit of a new hospital, and which has reached its fifth edition. The sonnets were sublime, but the treatise is more than sublime. It is a mixture of the tenderness of Saint François de Sales and the spirituality of Saint Theresa. Never has the sugar-plum been held so high out of the reach of our poor humanity-it is not even in the air which we can breathe, but in pure ether. I am curious to know what Monsieur Corneuil and Périgueux think of it. The young fellow who furnished me with all these details spoke in rather a satirical manner; I asked him why, and he continued: 'That really few knew her well. My opinion,' he said, 'is that she is a cool, calculating woman; that she is determined to have a position, and to satisfy her ambition by fair means or foul. She aspires to become a leader, to have a hand in politics, and her dream is to marry some great name, or else a deputy.' The young fellow said all this with a little bitterness. I learned that for nearly a year he has neither dined nor put his foot in the house of Madame Corneuil. Montesquieu used to say, 'Father Tournemine and I
have quarreled, so you must believe neither when we talk of one another.' So I only believe half of what the young man says.
"This is all the information I can give you, my dear Mathilde; tell me what you want of it? Your old uncle embraces you tenderly.
"P. S.-I open my letter to say that as I was going to put my letter in the box on my way to dinner, by the grace of Heaven I met the lawyer Papin at the corner of the Rue Choiseul. It was his eloquence that gained the case for the amiable lady whom you seem to have taken a grudge against, no one knows why. I asked him for still further information. Madame de Corneuil has changed her style again, and I begin to think she changes too often. I am afraid she has not that concentrated mind or that persistence which is necessary for great enterprises. I have my doubts of those impulsive creatures who go by fits and starts. At my very first words, Papin bridled up and straightened himself, after the manner of lawyers, as if he bore the weight of the universe on his shoulders, and broadened them lest it should fall. As if he were apostrophizing a judge, he exclaimed: Monsieur le Marquis, that woman is simply a marvel of Christian virtue. She heard eighteen months ago that her husband had a dangerous attack of the lungs. What did she do? Forgetting her own wrongs and her justifiable resentment, she rushed to him in Périgueux, and has become reconciled to him. Monsieur Corneuil was advised to go to Egypt; she left everything to accompany him, to become the nurse of a brute whose harshness had endangered her own life. Was I not right in affirming to the court that Madame de Corneuil was an angel?' 'There is no need of getting excited,' said I to him; 'I admire her fine character as well as you, but might it not be that after having obtained, thanks to you, half of the fortune, this angel proposes to secure the other half as her inheritance ?'
"He made a gesture of indignation, straightened himself again—'Ah! Monsieur le Marquis,' answered he, ‘you never believed in women; you are a horrible skeptic.' I looked at him, he looked at me; I laughed, and he began to laugh. I think we must have resembled the augurs of Cicero.
"The good of it all, my dear Mathilde, is that you have no further need of explaining yourself to me. Listen to me. This is just what has happened: Your son Horace, an Egyptologist of great promise, who does me the honor of being my great-nephew, has been in Egypt for two years. There he has met a lovely blonde, and for the first time his heart has spoken; he could not keep from writing you about it, hence his