FÉDER or the Gilded Husbandby Stendhal, translated from the French by Brian Evenson
Each word of this accusation, which had its basis in truth, was interrupted by broken sobs.
It should be said that ever since Féder—whose reputation as a painter of miniatures and as the inconsolable lover of his first wife was making giant strides—had seen a few thousand franc notes, the gift for commerce had awoken in him. In his early childhood, he had learned from his father the art of speculation and of keeping track of clinched deals. Féder had played the Stock Exchange, then speculated in cotton, sugar, liquor, etc.; he had made a lot of money, then he lost all that he had during the American cotton shortage. In a word, all that remained to him, as the entire profit of three years of work, was the memory of the profound emotions that these losses and gains had given him. These ups and downs had matured his soul and taught him to see the truth about himself.
One day, at an exhibition at the Louvre, dressed in the black befitting his serious nature, he mingled with the crowd of admirers that had stopped before his vitrine of miniatures. Thanks to Rosalinde’s know-how, his works had been spoken of with rapture in seventeen articles about the show, and the connoisseurs gathered before his miniatures repeated lines from the feuilletons with great precision, giving the appearance of having invented them. Féder was so little part of his era that this situation filled him with disgust. Taking a few steps away, he arrived at the vitrine of Madame de Mirbel; the painful feeling of disgust was replaced by one of true admiration. Finally, he stopped, as if struck by thunder, before the portrait of a man.
“The fact is,” he exclaimed to himself, “I don’t have any talent; my portraits are vile caricatures of the flaws that the faces of my models present; my colors are always false. If the spectators had the intelligence to simply surrender their feelings, they would say that the women that I paint are of porcelain.”
At the end of the exhibition, Féder received the Cross of Honor in his capacity of painter of the first rank. Yet the discovery that he had made about himself only grew and became embellished, which is to say that he was perfectly persuaded—and more and more each day—of its absolute truth.
“If I have a talent,” he told himself, “it’s instead one for commerce. Because, well, I don’t work at all at random or by impulse, and I find the elements of my reasoning good even after things have turned out badly. Also, for every ten operations to which I devote myself, seven or eight succeed.”
It was through reflections of this sort that our hero succeeded in diminishing the chagrin that had caused the bitterness now accompanying all his thoughts about painting.
He noted with a peculiar feeling that the vogue he was enjoying had doubled since he had received the Cross. During this period, he had frankly renounced the infinite pains he had been taking to imitate the colors of nature; he painted much faster after having given all his women complexions the color of a beautiful porcelain plate onto which a rose petal had been flung. His sorrow in relation to painting had almost been reduced to nothing more than the shame of having been able to fool himself for ten years about the true profession that was proper to him, when Monsieur Delangle, one of the foremost merchants of Bordeaux, whose esteem and friendship he had won in the liquidation of an unfortunate business deal, knocked in a way that shook all the doors of Féder’s magnificent studio on the rue de la Fontaine-Saint-Georges. Delangle, heralded from afar by his thundering voice, finally appeared in the studio, his gray hat tilted more than usual upon the thick curls of his jet-black hair.
“Good Lord!” he cried at the top of his lungs. “I have a sister who is a miracle of beauty; she is barely twenty-two years old, and she is so different from other women that her husband, Monsieur Boissaux, was obliged to use force to get her to come to Paris, where he has come to look after the displays of his factory of … I want to have her miniature. Only you, my friend, are worthy of making such a charming portrait, but only on one condition—that you permit me to pay for it, by God! I know your romantic delicacy, but I myself am just as proud, so, no money, no portrait!”
“I give you my word of honor, my friend,” answered Féder in a simple tone of voice and with an artless gesture, “that if you are keen on having something that presents all that the art of painting can offer at this moment, you must address yourself to Madame de Mirbel.”
Monsieur Delangle protested and paid our hero compliments that were slightly too energetic, but which had the rare quality of being perfectly sincere.
“It’s quite plain, my dear Delangle, that I will have to overcome your stubbornness. But if the person of whom you speak is really as beautiful as you say, I insist that you should have a portrait which really represents her and not a conventional portrait moulded from lilies and roses, having as its only expression nothing but an air of insipid voluptuousness.”
Monsieur Delangle still protested.
“Ah, well, my dear friend, to convince you we will take the painting which pleases you the most among the portraits that I have in my case, and together we will go see one of the most beautiful portraits that Madame de Mirbel exhibited this year; the proprietor, who loves the arts, is willing to let me study in his gallery from time to time. There, by comparing the two works, I will make you feel with hand and eye, though painting is not your habitual profession, that you must address yourself to the great artist I have named.”
“Good Lord! you are such a great eccentric of honesty, in the middle of this country of out-and-out charlatans,” cried Delangle with all his Bordelais liveliness. “I want my sister, Madame Boissaux, to revel in all the absurdity of your nature. Yes, by God! I accept this strange visit to the work of the only rival you might have in painting. Let’s set a time for tomorrow.”
The next day Féder said to Rosalinde:
“I must appear this morning before a woman, no doubt rather ridiculous, from the Provinces: arrange for me a very sepulchral outfit, so that if I don’t enjoy myself playing my role of being sad and listening respectfully to her foolish observances, I can at least distract myself a little by playing and exaggerating the role of a hapless Werther. Then if I ever go to Bordeaux, I will have been preceded by the touching idea of my profound melancholy.”
The next day, at two o’clock, as agreed, Féder was presented at one of the most beautiful hotels on the rue de Rivoli, where Monsieur and Madame Boissaux were residing. The lackey, not understanding what Féder was asking, led him to a man who was of great stature but very fat. This being’s ruddy features indicated him to be not more than thirty-six or thirty-eight years of age; he had eyes that were big and very beautiful but that had no expression; the being who had these beautiful eyes and was proud of them was Monsieur Boissaux. Boissaux, a fat good-natured man of thirty-eight, hadn’t slept the first night of his arrival in Paris, so afraid was he of appearing ridiculous. To make a good beginning like that, thirty hours after his arrival, the most fashionable tailor, according to the landlord of his hotel, had saddled his fat exterior with the most exaggerated garb that the thinnest young people of the Jockey Club could wear at the moment.
As Boissaux was being impeded by unforeseen business, Féder was presented to Madame Boissaux by his friend Delangle, who, that day, not holding back in front of his sister and wanting to have wit in Féder’s eyes, added to his disposition the role of a Forty-year-old, impassioned Gascon millionaire. In other words, the audacity that age and business experience give, combined with what comes along with a large fortune and the habit of being all-important in a provincial city, inspired him with such phrases that Féder had to take every pain in the world not to burst out laughing. Instead, he played his role of a hapless Werther with more zest.
“What a shame,” he said to himself, “that Rosalinde can’t see us! She is always reproaching me for being timid toward the fools before whom I display my sadness, but she would see that I am worthy of being a member of the Institute.”
Little Madame Boissaux looked like a child, although her brother repeated at every opportunity that she would be twenty-two next Valentine’s day (February 14th); having come into the world on that day, she had been given its name. She was tall and shapely; her figure, almost English, might have offered the image of perfect beauty if her lips hadn’t been too developed, especially the lower lip. Still, this flaw gave her an air of kindness, and, if one dares to speak the painter’s thoughts, an air of possibility for passion, which did not at all seem disagreeable to the young Werther. In such a beautiful woman, only one thing struck him, which was the line of her forehead and the base of her nose: these indicated a profound piety. In fact, getting down from the carriage before the magnificent hotel of the collector who owned the beautiful portrait by Madame de Mirbel, Féder found a moment to say to Delangle:
“Isn’t it true that she’s devout?”
“Upon my word, my friend, you are as good a guesser as you are a painter! Sister! Sister!” Delangle shouted, “Féder has guessed that you’re devout, and the devil take me if ever I breathed a word about it. At Bordeaux, this prime quality of devotion really has its value, especially when combined with Boissaux’s millions; it obtains for her the advantage of taking up the collection on special occasions. I can assure you, dear friend, that she’s good enough to eat, with her red velvet purse with golden tassels, which she opens up to everyone. I’m the one who gave it to her, upon my return from Paris two years ago; it was my third trip. Her horseman is one of the ultraroyalists of our city, who, to this day, wears a French-style jacket of uncut velvet with a sword. It’s magnificent! You must see this sight in our cathedral of Saint-Andre, which is the most beautiful in France, though built by the English.”
At this passionate speech, Madame Boissaux reddened. There was something naïve in the way she walked and held herself in the splendid salons they were traveling through! Féder was completely bewildered; for over a quarter of an hour, he no longer thought about playing the role of Werther and became pensive on his own account. After Monsieur Boissaux exclaimed in the clumsy manner of provincial wealth, “And if my wife is devout, what then am I?” Féder no longer found the wit to make fun of him and revel in his absurdity; he answered quite simply:
“A very rich businessman, known for his apt speculations.”
“Ah, well, Monsieur Féder, there’s where you’re wrong; I am the owner of magnificent vineyards, son of the rich owner, and you shall taste my wine, made by my father. And that’s not all: I keep myself acquainted with literature, and I have in my library a magnificently bound Victor Hugo.”
Such a remark would not have remained without response on Féder’s part in any other circumstance, but he was busy timidly regarding Madame Boissaux. She, on her part, also looked at him with a timidity that was not without its charms and blushed. The fact is that this charming woman carried timidity to a hardly credible extreme; her brother and her husband had had to make a scene to induce her to come see a few paintings in the company of a painter she didn’t know. If we may say so, she had made in her mind a monster out of this painter, who was a man of the first merit and chevalier of the Legion of Honor. Her imagination fancied a sort of swashbuckler, covered in golden chains, wearing a long black beard, and constantly eying her from head to toe—speaking always and too loudly, and even saying embarrassing things to her.
When she saw a young slender man arrive—very good looking with a quite ordinary beard, dressed in black, wearing a watch fastened to a ribbon of the same color, and in his coat a nearly imperceptible red stripe—her surprise was so great that she squeezed her husband’s arm.
“That’s the famous painter?” she said to him.
And she was starting to feel reassured when her brother happened to speak roughly of the epithet “devout,” which presented her piety in such an unfavorable light. Hardly did she dare to look at the young painter; she feared encountering the most mocking gaze, but what was her joy and astonishment in finding on the young painter a serious and nearly moved expression! Extreme shyness, when joined with the mind, brings one to reflect with all the clairvoyance of passion on the least of circumstances and enlarges the mind. That is what happened to Valentine. Following the cholera epidemic, she had been left an orphan at an early age, and she had been placed in a convent, which she had left only to marry Monsieur Boissaux, who seemed to her as strange as her brother but devoid of the gaiety and wit, which made the latter’s company agreeable when he controlled himself and didn’t think exclusively about being liked. Valentine rapidly made a host of reflections about this great painter, who was a being so different from whom she had imagined. Thus, it was with sorrow that she remembered he didn’t seem to want to paint her portrait. It must be known that to pose for this portrait, to submit himself for so long to the searching look of a stranger, was a terrible task for her. The matter had reached such seriousness that for her to consent to this portrait, she had had to remind herself that she had sworn at the altar to consider her husband as the absolute master of all her important actions. Her brother had repeated to her two or three times, exaggerating a great deal each time, the reasons Féder had given for preferring the great artist of whom it was already a question.
Valentine was agreeably and profoundly surprised when, upon the comparison of the two portraits, she saw all the reasons Féder had given to spare himself the trouble of painting her portrait quickly weaken: he could do no less than to repeat them, since the previous day he had put them forward, speaking with Delangle. Valentine remarked, with the shrewdness natural to an intelligent woman, however little experience chance had yet brought her, that Féder, while comparing the portrait that was his with the masterpiece that they had come to see, became a completely different man. That overly protruding lower lip was surely an offense against beauty, and Féder felt it acutely, but it announced a certain possibility for loving with passion to which, I don’t know why, he found himself at that moment extremely susceptible. He was seized by an uncontrollable desire to paint Valentine’s portrait; it was necessary, for that to happen, to hold forth to Delangle in a language absolutely opposed to that of the previous day. Delangle was not a man to curb his jesting. If he perceived this fluctuation in Féder’s opinion, he was the sort to exclaim: “Upon my word, sister, let’s give thanks to your beautiful eyes; they have just changed the great painter’s resolve.” This phrase, repeated twenty times in a stentorian voice with every possible variation, would have been a horrible torture for Féder. He thus had to let himself be convinced by Delangle’s reasoning, and, if his opinion of the previous day was to be abandoned, to at least execute that maneuver, so very rare in our century, with all the dexterity of a deputy who is master of his words. Above all, he must not allow it to be guessed that in reality, he put an immeasurable value on painting this portrait. Féder immediately needed all his wits to change his opinion quickly and without being ridiculed. In this maneuver, he forgot his role of Werther. Valentine saw this change the moment it took place: she was profoundly surprised. Delangle’s attentive gaze became threatening. What our hero found least insipid was to say that a certain expression of piety and angelic purity with the individual in question for the portrait prevailed over his laziness … It had to be admitted: laziness had been the sole motive for his refusals of the previous day. At that moment, he was weary from the great number of portraits he had had to do after the exhibition, but he was planning to make a gift of a painting portraying the Madonna to a convent of the Visitation to which he had obligations.
“Ah, Monsieur, what convent is it?” responded Valentine.
These were the first words she uttered with some confidence. She knew the names of all the convents of this order from the geographical map, magnificently illuminated, that had been displayed in the refectory of the convent where she had been raised.
At this question, so unexpected, from the timid young girl, our painter was nearly caught off guard. He responded to Madame Boissaux that no doubt, in a few days, he could let her know the name of this convent, but that, at this time, the secret wasn’t his alone. Upon hearing this response, Madame Boissaux was above all aware of the consent to painting her portrait that she saw therein, consent that she had been fearful of not attaining. Because, as disagreeable as it seemed to her to expose herself to the gaze of a man that she didn’t know for her portrait, it now seemed simple to her to have this portrait done by this great painter, so modest and so simple, with whom she was conversing. Such is the advantage of natural dispositions: if they sometimes make us commit dreadful faux pas; if, in high society, they lead to the nearly certain ruin of those beings who possess them, their influence, in another respect, is decisive and rapid on those dispositions that resemble them. Now, nothing was more artless and more natural than the disposition of the young Valentine whenever irrefutable shyness did not keep her silent.
The visit to the masterpiece of modern miniatures ended very coldly, at least outwardly, between Féder and Valentine. Féder was surprised by what he felt, and moreover contemplated, at every moment, the difficult role, which he had imposed upon himself in unexpectedly accepting, vis-à-vis Delangle, a task which the day before he had refused with such energetic conviction. As for Valentine, she had been plunged into an astonishment that she was far from understanding. At heart, she could not conceive that there might be, in Paris, beings so simple and, apparently, trying so little to “be agreeable” and take up one’s attention as the person who had so entirely taken over her own as of a few moments ago.
If the reader is from Paris, he perhaps does not know that in Provence what one calls “being agreeable” is to take over the conversation entirely, speak quite loudly, and recount a string of anecdotes filled with improbable facts as well as exaggerated feelings, anecdotes in which, for extra ridicule, the narrator always makes himself the hero. Valentine told herself, with all the artlessness of the convent: “But this Monsieur Féder, is he agreeable?” She couldn’t separate this quality of “agreeable” from the circumstance of speaking in a loud voice and in the tone of a man who holds forth. It was a condition for agreeableness at a hundred leagues from Paris, which her husband, Monsieur Boissaux, and her brother, Monsieur Delangle, at that moment fulfilled perfectly. They shouted, both of them, at the top of their voices, and at each moment, both spoke at once; they argued about painting and, since neither one of them possessed the slightest idea about this art, the energy of their lungs largely stood in for what was lacking in the clarity of their ideas.
Féder and Valentine looked at each other without paying the slightest attention to this learned discussion, with this difference perhaps: Valentine, who still believed all that had been said to her in the convent and all she had heard rehearsed in Provincial society, believed it to be sublime, while Féder told himself, “If I had the foolishness to become attached to this woman, here is a sample of the shouts which, evening and morning, would shatter my ears.” As for Boissaux and Delangle, they were so charmed by the deep attention which Féder, a decorated man, seemed to give to their discussion of painting, that, both speaking at once and exhaling a cry from the heart in one formidable voice, they invited him to dine.
Féder, without thinking, letting himself be guided by the hideous pain in his ears, refused the dinner with an energy that would have been offensive to anyone other than two Gascons so sure of their merit. Féder himself was astonished by the brusqueness of his tone and, fearing he might have offended Madame Boissaux, in whom he suspected more tact, hurried to give a throng of good reasons, which Valentine received with utter coldness. Her soul was wholly occupied with examining the question: “Is this Monsieur Feder an agreeable man?” Since he didn’t recount anecdotes of a striking energy, she concluded in a stentorian tone that he was not agreeable and, without being able to explain to herself the reason for it, this conclusion gave her tangible pleasure. Without knowing very well why, her young girl’s instincts feared this young man who had such a pale complexion, such a modest voice, but whose eyes were so eloquent despite their modesty. Her chest was relieved of a great weight when she saw him refuse to accept the invitation to dine. She was only surprised by the force of the refusal but didn’t have time to pause to examine this circumstance. Her whole soul was busy resolving this rather embarrassing question: “If Féder is not an agreeable man, what, then, is he? Must he be classified among the ranks of the tedious?” Yet she had too much intelligence to answer affirmatively to the second question.
She spent all the rest of the day examining it. In the evening, at the theater—because every day the wife of Monsieur Boissaux, vice president of the commercial court, had to be subjected to the theater—she had a moment of pleasure; an amiable actor, who performed the role of the lover in a play by Monsieur Scribe, seemed to her, at a certain moment, to have Féder’s exact tone of voice and manner of being. Valentine, having only at age nineteen left the convent, where so many boring things were said, had gained from this the happy ability to pay not the slightest attention to what was said around her. However, in the car, returning from the theater, when they went, following the laws of decorum, to partake of ices at Tortoni’s, she heard Féder’s name pronounced and started. It was her husband who said:
“This portrait by a famous man from the capital is going to cost me sixty lovely napoleons; it is true that it will do me honor in Bordeaux. You must do something for me, you who are his friend, enlist him to put his name on it, in very visible letters; that damned name, so expensive, must not then be hidden by the frame. Since he is a member of the Legion of Honor, doesn’t he paint a little cross after his name, such as one sees in the Royal Almanac? If he has never done so, be sure to enlist him to put that little cross into our painting. These damned painters have their way of doing things; that little cross might double the value of our portrait, and, moreover, it would prove that it is his.”
This recommendation wasn’t limited to these few words: it extended itself further in two or three sentences, which gave Delangle a keen pleasure. He told himself: “How these Provincials act! Here’s one who enjoys a nice fortune. Down there, he is honored, highly esteemed, and here he flails about. A little cross following the painter’s name! Good God! What would Charivari say?”
For several years Delangle had spent half his time in Paris; suddenly, he exclaimed:
“But in the middle of all this nice discussion about overcoming Féder’s reluctance and engaging him to see to our portrait, we have forgotten the essential thing: Valentine, with her convent notions, will experience reluctance, I am convinced, in going to his studio on rue Fontaine-Saint-Georges.”
“What! Will it be necessary to go to Monsieur Féder’s house?” cried Valentine, already troubled.
“First of all, it isn’t his house, and the place where your husband will take you is a quarter of a league from the apartment where he lives; it is an adorable studio; you will have seen nothing like it in all your life. But Boissaux and I have business, I want to make him earn the cost of his trip to Paris, and these long sessions in the painter’s studio are wasted time.”
“What!” exclaimed Boissaux, “with my outlay of sixty lovely napoleons, will it still be necessary for me, Jean-Thomas Boissaux, vice president of the commercial court, to go waste my time at that little painter’s?”
Valentine was greatly shocked at this way of speaking about Monsieur Féder. Delangle responded to his brother-in-law harshly:
“Where the hell are you from? He refused to go to the house of Princess N… and it was a matter of a large complicated portrait which would have paid perhaps four-thousand francs; all the most elite ladies go to his studio; he even has a covered shed at the back of his courtyard to shelter the prize horses that are waiting. No matter, like all men of genius, he’s an eccentric, and he has friendship for me; I can risk asking the question. But be careful, my dear brother-in-law, not to address to him one of your thoughtless conments which can seem severe, or else to make a joke; if he escapes us, we keep nothing.”
“What, by God! A man like me, Jean-Thomas Boissaux, am I to be forced to watch myself while speaking to a dauber!”
“Well, here come your hard and scornful words already! Perhaps that’s appropriate in Bordeaux, where everyone, down to the last street urchin, knows about your three million; but you should realize that in Paris, where nobody knows anybody, people are judged only by their dress, and permit me to say his has an ornament that yours still doesn’t have, Monsieur Vice President of the Commercial Court.”
“Go on, let me have it, say unpleasant things to me, dear brother-in-law! As for me, I don’t imagine that the cross of honor is given to tramps. If that’s how the government wants to found an aristocracy, they’re making an utter mistake; first it’s necessary to inspire the people with an innate respect for the possessors of the land … And besides, you are a weathervane; yesterday, not any earlier than that, yesterday you were as shocked as I over the insolence of the Parisian workers.”
This tedious discussion was only a bland and coarse repetition of what was happening every day in the most distinguished salons of Paris; people who bore the most esteemed names were seen giving their small personal vanity the mask of high legislative wisdom. This display of hypocrisy might have lasted quite a while longer but fortunately the carriage stopped in front of Tortoni’s. Madame Boissaux, given over entirely to her thoughts, didn’t want to get out.
“And why is that?” cried the Vice President of the Commercial Court with irritation.
Valentine searched for a pretext:
“My hat isn’t fashionable.”
“Oh! by God! Throw your hat out the window and buy two others. What does it matter to me if I spend 20,200 francs or 20,400 francs on this trip? I have a pretty wife, and I want to do justice to her; it’s a necessary luxury for a man like me.”
Valentine got out of the carriage and took her brother’s arm.
Féder had made out the appearance of the Provincial man, adorned with his three million, who wanted to display his wife and the products of his factories in Paris. He was mingling with his friends, people with money, who, in the evening as at midday, blocked the entrance to Tortoni’s. Once out of Valentine’s presence, he had found that the loud voice of her husband and his abominable discussion with Delangle were compensated for by the quite naïve looks of the young wife and that air of such lively interest that she had when she was enjoying herself. Féder, who had refused dinner with so much resolution, was saying to himself two hours later: “I have to figure that little woman out; it would only take me three days! After which I will flee her dreadful husband and his brother like the plague; the satisfaction of this curiosity will divert me a little from the simpering graces of my studio and from those eternally young girls, supposedly nice, with whom I dance on Sundays in my public prosecutor’s clerk outfit.”
Two hours later, Valentine inspired in Féder a sort of terror, which in truth he didn’t yet acknowledge to himself. “Certainly,” he reflected, “I won’t become attached to this little boarder, barely free of the convent. As soon as we have exchanged first politenesses, she will overwhelm me with all the sillinesses, often malicious at core, which the nuns stuff into the heads of their students. Of course, I won’t amuse myself by clearing the ground and uprooting all her foolishness; that would be to work on behalf of my successor, some brilliant Bordeaux wine broker. Besides, there’s that husband, with his appalling bass voice that breaks my eardrums and troubles my nerves. In spite of myself, during the conversation I wait for the return of this detestable voice. With my little Sunday girls, I don’t have to suffer the voices of husbands at all; their feelings are common, it’s true; those poor little ones think a lot about the price of hats or the composition of a lunch. That annoys me, but I’m not repulsed by it, whereas I want to get angry when I see the coarse pride and the imperious vanity of these two newly rich Provincials appear. I should count how many times during the first meeting the husband will repeat emphatically: ‘I, Jean-Thomas Boissaux, vice president of the commercial court.’ It would be a curious thing to overhear this person in the midst of his office clerks! At least the newly rich of Paris hide their vanity a little and take it upon themselves to restrain their raised voices … Yes, with such a husband it does the beautiful Valentine no good to have a charming face; she is unassailable. Her husband’s ‘agreeableness’ stands in extremely well for those eunuchs, altered in their childhood, to whom Turks entrust their harems. In the end, the foolishnesses that the little woman will produce for me when she arrives in my studio will immediately blow away all those castles in Spain that my imagination builds from her face. In fact, there are only two remarkable things about her, and the first can’t even be depicted in painting: It’s the movement of her eyes which, sometimes, have real depth, and which give her words a completely different implication than what you first see; it’s a Morzartian harmony hidden under an ordinary song. The other sort of beauty of this lovely woman is the tranquil and even severe beauty of the lines of her face and especially the lines of her forehead, with the deep voluptuousness of the contours of her mouth and especially her bottom lip. Not only will I make a copy of this portrait for myself, but also I will throw myself at Eugène Delacroix’s feet, so that he’ll take up a position behind a screen, in the corner of my studio, and do a study of that head for me: he could use it for a Cleopatra, cast in a different way than what he just gave us at the last exhibition. Good Lord, I was a great fool to be afraid; I am not in the least becoming attached to this little woman so well defended by her husband’s charms. I will do justice to a remarkable model that chance has thrown into my studio.”
Absorbed in these noble thoughts, Féder had not noticed the hired cab stopped in front of Tortoni’s; his painter’s eye was attracted by the admirable waist of a young woman who lightly climbed the front steps of this café; then his gaze reached the hat, his heart pounded and his face changed; his hungry eyes fell upon the man giving her his arm. It really was that enormous being, five feet six inches tall and disproportionately fat, who had the honor of being vice-president of the commercial court. Then, with delight, his gaze returned to the young woman who moved forward into the café and climbed the stairs at the back to go to the salons on the first floor. He found in her gait and waist ravishing charms, which he had not noticed when he looked at her without recognizing her. He felt full of joy.
“That Provincial rejuvenates me.” This word already had great significance for our painter, and he still wasn’t yet twenty-six years old. This is the price at which one buys amazing successes in the arts and in literature. Those performances of all sorts that he had played with distinction under the clever Rosalinde’s guidance had aged his character and even faded his features a little. Never did the poor man give himself up to the least gesture; never did he rise from his chair on the boulevard to take the arm of a friend who was passing without wondering—through sudden calculation, it is true, but which in the end became habitual—“Is this fitting?” For perhaps the first time since Rosalinde had reworked his nature, he didn’t ask himself this question while climbing the steps of the Tortoni staircase to run after that charming waist he had just glimpsed. Valentine had gone to sit at a remote table in the corner of the salon. “Why undergo the voice of the men?” said Féder, seizing a spot from which he saw the young Provincial perfectly, while he himself was almost completely hidden by the hats of two women sitting near to him. He was plunged into a deep reverie; he smiled melancholically at his thoughts. He told himself, “This is how I felt eight years ago, when I was pursuing the Little Sailor!” And then he was awakened by a powerful voice, exclaiming very close to his ear:
“Well, our friend!”
At the same time, a fat hand fell upon his shoulder.
These resonant words made a movement run through all the hats of the women who were in the salon. It was Monsieur Boissaux who wanted to pay a compliment to friend Féder, as he called him. Féder approached, laughing, the table where Valentine was sitting, but soon, the laughing expression was replaced without his knowing by that of serious and profound attention. He examined Valentine’s face, which he had left only a few hours before; he seemed almost not to recognize it anymore, so much had he drawn chance conclusions from each one of the lines which composed her. He was busy destroying or approving these conclusions while Delangle addressed to him an enormous quantity of friendly remarks, which obviously formed the preface for some unusual proposition. “There will be time to deal with it,” thought Féder, “once he explains himself clearly.” While waiting, watching Valentine’s facial appearance with the trained eye of a portrait painter, he took fright; her forehead, especially, had a certain line that one found sometimes in ancient statues, and which is nearly always a certain sign of inflexibility in any matter once an opinion is adopted.
“Her brother told me she is devout; if I let her guess that I find her pretty, she is capable of forbidding me her presence and then of holding fast to this decision.” This reverie, although tending to inspire fear, was lovely and above all quite new to Féder; he was pulled out of it by the clear and precise proposal to come and do Valentine’s portrait (that was the phrasing Delangle used) in the hotel de la Terrasse where she lived. This intimate way of speaking had such charm for Féder that at first he consented, but an instant later, he was careful to make a thousand difficulties arise. His goal was to make Valentine speak, but she for her part was examining him quite attentively, and he could only draw monosyllables from her. Féder was so absorbed by certain of her features, about which he could not speak, that he happened in defending himself against going to do the portrait outside of his studio to say two or three absurdities, a fact which did not escape Delangle; he leaned toward his sister and said to her:
“He is obviously preoccupied; in this salon is one of his sweethearts.”
Immediately, the curious eye of the young Provincial analyzed the faces of each of the women who were present. One of them, who had prominent features and a quite attractive waist, followed every movement of our hero with a peculiar expression. This was quite simply a German Princess, whose portrait Féder had done and who was shocked by the habit he had of never greeting his models, even those who had deigned to have the most intimate conversations with him.
After a defense of more than three quarters of an hour, which the loud voices of the two Provincials shared with everyone at Tortini’s, making this conversation a sort of advertisement for Féder, it was agreed that Monsieurs Boissaux and Delangle would respond to all the people who spoke to them about this portrait that it was the result of a bet. This would sufficiently explain the remarkable determination taken by Féder to work outside of his studio.
“But I forgot,” exclaimed Féder, who suddenly remembered his plans based on the indulgence of the kind Eugène Delacroix: “I have a young painter who is perhaps possessed of genius but whom, in compensation for it, chance has charged with the task of supporting a mother and four sisters. I swore to myself to give him free lessons on certain days of the week, designated in advance; on those days, he comes to work modestly in a corner of the studio and every fifteen minutes I glance at what he is doing. He is quite silent, quite discreet, and I ask you to place him in a corner of the salon where I will have the honor of painting Madame.”
The first sitting took place the next day; neither the painter nor the model felt like speaking. They had a pretext for looking at each other and exercised it fully. Féder again refused the dinner of the rich Provincial, but that evening there was a new play at the Opéra, and he accepted a place in Madame Boissaux’s box.
In the second act of the play, when they were bored in the way one gets bored at the Opéra (which is to say beyond all human patience, especially for beings who have some wit and some delicacy of the imagination), little by little Féder and Valentine started to talk to each other, and soon their conversation had all the volubility and naturalness of an old acquaintance. They cut each other off and contradicted each other in a way very little disguised by the conventions of conversation. Fortunately, the husband and Delangle were not the sort to sense that if the two interlocutors really were so informal with each other, it was because they were sure of one another. No doubt, if Valentine had had the slightest experience, she wouldn’t have allowed an acquaintance of three days to take on such an intimate tone, but all her sense of life was confined to the visits that she had made to her husband’s parents and to what she had been able to acquire in doing the honors at a dozen large dinners and two grand balls which Monsieur Boissaux had thrown since his marriage.
In the second sitting, the conversation was quite animated and filled with the most perfect naturalness. Delangle and Boissaux constantly entered and left Valentine’s bedroom, which had been chosen to function as a studio, since it was the only room in the apartment whose window faced North and, consequently, the light was always the same.
“But, incidentally,” said Valentine to the painter, “what made you change your mind about your studio and consent to come to my house to paint my portrait?”
“It’s because, suddenly, I realized that I was in love with you.”
It was only in arriving at the second half of his strange reply that Féder realized all that he was risking.
“Well, so be it!” he thought. “She will call her husband who will no longer leave us alone, and the agreeableness of that person will heal me of a ridiculous fancy which is preparing me for the sadness of the quickly approaching time of her departure from Paris.”
In hearing this strange statement, said in a true and tender tone and in a voice that was full and free as if Féder had been answering the question, “Are you going to the country tomorrow?”, Valentine’s first response was one of emotion and extreme happiness. She looked at Féder with her eyes very wide, not letting a single detail of the expression of his physiognomy escape her. Then her eyes fell suddenly and betrayed a surge of anger. “What a tone he uses,” she told herself, “to speak to me of a feeling which, on his part, is insolence! My conduct must have been quite frivolous in his eyes for him to be able to form a plan to make such a confession! To form a plan! No,” she thought, but she rapidly passed from these grounds for an excuse to considering the response that had to be given.
“Such a remark must never be repeated, Monsieur, or I will be seized by a sudden illness, which your insolence, furthermore, is quite capable of giving me, and I will never see you again; the portrait will remain as it is. From now on, do me the honor of speaking to me only about absolutely indispensable matters.”
Upon pronouncing these last words, Valentine stood and approached the mantel to ring her chambermaid, whom she would have charged with calling Monsieur Boissaux or her brother Delangle, with whom she would have spoken about some little trip to be made into the surroundings of Paris. Her hand had already grasped the bell’s ribbon. “But no,” she thought, “they would see something in my eyes.” She was already shrinking away from her plan for a definitive break with Féder.
The latter, on his part, was quite tempted to take the bull by the horns. “What an excellent way,” he thought, “to break with this young woman! It is not impossible that I might be the first man to launch an attack; then, all her life she will remember this portrait, left unfinished.” Like all ardent souls, Féder thought quickly: he was severely tempted to continue to speak of love and have himself dismissed. He was already looking for a sentence that might leave a striking memory in the heart of this young woman and become grounds there for endless consequences; he watched whether she would dare ring, all the while looking for a phrase with a sublime emphasis. She turned a little, and he saw her in profile: he was accustomed to her face only seen head on or from three-quarters view.
“What a remarkable and fine line to that nose!” thought his painter’s mind. “But what an astonishing soul, capable of loving endlessly, is heralded by that physiognomy!” added quickly his lover’s heart. “Certainly my sentence will leave her a lasting memory, but I will lose the opportunity of seeing her, and who can tell me that the day after tomorrow I won’t be very angry? In that case, he thought, I must throw myself at the feet of her vanity, which may find that I have treated her quite frivolously, as if playing heads or tails with the danger of being made to close the door.”
“I am in despair, Madame, and I ask for your pardon, from the bottom of my soul and as humbly as possible, for that indiscretion.”
At these words, Valentine turned fully toward him, and her face expressed little by little the liveliest joy; she was freed from the dreadful idea of being obliged to drive Féder away or at least of no longer speaking to him except in the presence of Monsieur Boissaux or a chambermaid. “With what promptness,” thought Féder, “does her physiognomy take on the color of all the feelings of her heart! It is certainly not the provincial foolishness that I expected. My apologies, addressed to her vanity, are succeeding: let’s double the dosage.”
“Madame,” he exclaimed in the most repentant tone, “If I didn’t fear that my gesture would be misinterpreted and would look like a boldness, which is so far from my trembling heart, I would throw myself at your feet to ask for your forgiveness for the abominable words that escaped me; my attention was entirely absorbed in my work, and, in making conversation with you, I thought aloud; without thinking, I allowed a feeling whose expression is forbidden me to reach my lips. Please, pray, forget the words, which never should have been pronounced and for which I ask you, again very humbly, for your pardon.”
We said that Valentine had no experience of life; she had in addition that misfortune which makes a woman so attractive: her eyes and the contours of her mouth instantly expressed all her soul came to feel. At this moment, for example, her features expressed all the joy of a reconciliation. This quite remarkable fact didn’t escape Féder’s connoisseur’s gaze; his joy was intense. “Not only is my avowal made,” he told himself, “but she still loves me, or at least as a friend I am necessary for her happiness and in comforting her for the coarseness of her husband. Therefore, she notices that coarseness; that was an enormous thing to discover. Thus,” he added with the liveliest joy, “I must not scorn her for the abominable and silly coarseness which shocks me in that provincial colossus. She doesn’t share in the ridiculousness that is inspired in him by the consciousness of his wealth and the superiority that he claims over others. My joy is intense; I must,” thought Féder, “take advantage of it.”
“I would be beyond myself with joy,” he said to Valentine, “if for but one instant I might hope that you would desire to forget the enormous foolishness that made me think aloud.”
In deploying this last remark, Féder counted a little too much on the provincial simplicity of his model, but he was mistaken. Valentine had feeling; she frowned, and said to him with sufficient firmness:
“Let’s put an end to it, I beg you, Monsieur.”
Check in every month for another installment of, Feder (or the Gilded Husband), this fantastic and unfinished novella that we will be serializing throughout the winter, spring and summer of ’11.
About the Author
MARIE-HENRI BEYLE (23 January 1783 - 23 March 1842), known by his nom de plume STENDHAL, was a master at acutely analyzing his characters' psychology. He is considered one of the earliest and foremost practitioners of realism. Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black, 1830) and La Chartreuse de Parme (The Chartreuse of Parma, 1839) are the two novels for which he is best known.
BRIAN EVENSON is the author of ten books of fiction, most recently the limited edition novella Baby Leg. He has translated work by Christian Gailly, Jean Fremon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, and others. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship.