Read For a Night of Love Online
Authors: Émile Zola
‘I accept,’ he said baldly.
Then, he demanded clearer details from Mlle Chuin. What did she want for playing the go-between? She protested she wanted nothing. However, she finally asked for twenty thousand francs, from the marriage portion the young man would be given. And as he declined to haggle, she became expansive.
‘Listen, I was the one who thought of you. The young woman didn’t say no, when I mentioned your name… Oh, it’s a real bargain! you’ll thank me later. I could have found a titled gentleman, I know one who would have kissed my hands. But I preferred to go for someone outside the social circles of this poor girl. It will seem more romantic… What’s more, I like you. You’re nice, you don’t have your head in the clouds. Oh! you’ll go far. Don’t forget me, I am at your service.’
Until then, no name had been mentioned. At a question from Nantas, the old maid stood up and said, introducing herself once more: ‘Mademoiselle Chuin… I have been in Baron Danvilliers’ household since the death of the Baroness, working as a governess. It is I who brought up Mademoiselle Flavie, the daughter of Monsieur le Baron… Mademoiselle Flavie is the young woman in question.’
And she withdrew, after having discreetly laid on the table an envelope containing a five-hundred-franc note. It was an advance made by her, to meet the first expenses. When he was alone, Nantas went over to the window. The night was very dark; only the clump of trees could be made out by their deeper shade; a window was shining in the dark façade of the Baron’s house. So, it was that tall blond girl, who walked with the gait of a queen and who did not deign to notice him. She
or another woman, what did it matter now! Women as such didn’t come into the equation. Then Nantas lifted his gaze, looking over Paris rumbling in the darkness, over the river, the streets, the crossroads of the Left Bank, lit by dancing gas flames; and he addressed Paris in a newly familiar, almost intimate tone of superiority.
‘You’re all mine now!’
Baron Danvilliers was in the salon that he used as a study, a high, austere room, fitted with antique furniture, and with leather-covered walls. For two days, he had been quite
by the story Mlle Chuin had told him of Flavie’s disgrace. However much she tried to break the news gently and tone down the facts, the old man had sustained a heavy blow, and only the thought that the seducer could offer a supreme reparation still kept him going. That morning, he was waiting for the visit of this man he had never met and who was taking his daughter from him in this way. He rang.
‘Joseph, a young man is coming, you are to show him in… I’m not at home for anyone else.’
And he relapsed into bitter reflections, sitting alone at his fireside. The son of a mason, a starveling who had no job worth the name! Mlle Chuin did, it’s true, make him out to be a young man with a future, but how shameful it all was, in a family which had been quite untarnished until then! Flavie had taken all the blame on herself, in a kind of fury of self-accusation, to spare her governess the slightest reproach. Ever since that painful confession, she had kept to her room, the Baron had refused to see her again. He wanted, before forgiving her, to settle this dreadful business himself. He had made all the necessary arrangements. But the rest of his hair
had turned white, his head was shaking with infirmity.
‘Monsieur Nantas,’ announced Joseph.
The Baron did not get up. He simply turned his head and stared at Nantas as he came in. Nantas had had the good sense not to yield to his desire to dress up in brand-new clothes; he had bought a frock-coat and black trousers, all still clean but very threadbare, and this gave him the appearance of a poor, neatly dressed student, with not the slightest hint of a man on the make. He stopped in the middle of the room, and stood waiting, but without any undue humility.
‘So it’s you, monsieur,’ stuttered the old man.
But he was unable to continue, his voice was choked by emotion; he feared he might give way to violence. After a pause, he said simply, ‘Monsieur, you have committed a grave offence.’
And, as Nantas was about to apologise, he repeated with greater vigour: ‘A grave offence… I just don’t want to know anything about it, I beg you not to try and explain it to me. Even if my daughter had flung herself at you, your crime would still be as great… Only thieves manage to break into families like this.’
Nantas had again bowed his head.
‘It’s a dowry won cheaply, it’s an ambush you laid in the certain knowledge that father and daughter would fall into it…’
‘Monsieur, allow me…’ interrupted the young man, his resentment growing.
But the Baron made a terrible gesture.
‘What? What do you want me to allow you to say?… You have no place to be speaking here. I will say what I have to say to you, and you will have to hear, since you come to me as the guilty party… You have insulted me. You see this house, our
family has lived here for more than three centuries without a blemish; can you not feel an age-old sense of honour, a tradition of dignity and respect? Well, sir, you have given all that a real slap in the face. I have almost died from the shock, and today my hands are trembling, as if I had suddenly aged ten years… Be quiet and hear me out.’
Nantas had become very pale. The role he had taken on was proving a difficult one. However, he attempted to present the blindness of his passion as an excuse.
‘I lost my head,’ he murmured, trying to make up a novelistic story. ‘I could not see Mademoiselle Flavie…’
At his daughter’s name, the Baron rose and cried out in a voice of thunder:
‘Be quiet! I told you I just don’t want to know. Whether my daughter went running after you, or you came running after her, is no business of mine. I have asked her nothing, and I ask nothing from you. You can both keep your confessions to yourselves, that is a cesspool I have no intention of venturing into.’
He sat down, trembling, exhausted. Nantas bowed,
shaken, despite his self-control. After a silence, the old man resumed, in the dry tones of a man doing business: ‘I beg your pardon, monsieur. I had sworn I would keep calm. I have no power over you, but you have power over me, since I am at your mercy. You are here to offer me a deal that has become unavoidable. Let us strike that deal, monsieur.’
And he now affected to speak like a solicitor settling out of court some opprobrious lawsuit, which he is handling only with disgust. He said with composure, ‘Mademoiselle Flavie Danvilliers inherited, on the death of her mother, a sum of two hundred thousand francs, which was not meant to come into her hands until her wedding day. This sum has already yielded
interest. And here, furthermore, are my trusteeship accounts, which I wish you to be apprised of.’
He had opened a dossier, he read out some figures. Nantas tried in vain to stop him. He was now seized with
at the sight of this old man, so upright and simple, who seemed to him quite grand, now that he had calmed down.
‘Finally,’ the latter concluded, ‘I agree to give you, in
with the contract my lawyer drew up this morning, a marriage portion capital of two hundred thousand francs. I know you have nothing. You will pick up the two hundred thousand francs at my banker’s, the day after the wedding.’
‘But monsieur,’ said Nantas, ‘I’m not asking you for your money, I want only your daughter…’
The Baron stopped him in mid-flow.
‘You do not have the right to refuse, and my daughter could not possibly marry a man less wealthy than she is… I am giving you the dowry I was intending for her, that is all. Perhaps you had been expecting more, but people think I am richer than I actually am, monsieur.’
And, as the young man remained speechless at this last cruel remark, the Baron brought the interview to a close by ringing for his servant.
‘Joseph, tell mademoiselle that I am expecting her straight away in my study.’
He had risen to his feet and uttered not a word more, walking slowly up and down. Nantas continued to stand there motionless. He was deceiving this old man, he felt himself to be small and without strength in comparison. At last, Flavie entered.
‘My daughter,’ said the Baron, ‘here is that man. The marriage will take place within the time allotted by law.’
And he went off, leaving them alone, as if, for him, the marriage was all arranged. Once the door had closed behind him, silence reigned. Nantas and Flavie looked at each other. They had not yet seen each other. She struck him as very beautiful, with her pale, haughty face, whose big grey eyes did not flinch. Perhaps she had been crying for the three days she had not left her room; but the coldness of her cheeks must have frozen her tears. She was the first to speak.
‘So, monsieur, this business is settled?’
‘Yes, madame,’ Nantas replied simply.
Involuntarily, she pulled a face, looking him slowly up and down, as if to detect some sign of his infamy.
‘So much the better, then,’ she continued. ‘I was afraid I might not find anyone prepared for such a deal.’
Nantas sensed in her voice all the contempt in which she held him. But he looked up again. If he had trembled before the father, knowing that he was deceiving him, he intended to be firm and forthright with the daughter, who was his accomplice.
‘Excuse me, madame,’ he said quietly, with great politeness, ‘I believe you misapprehend the situation that involves us both in what you have just called, quite correctly, a deal. I intend that, as from today, we should treat each other as equals…’
‘Oh really!’ interrupted Flavie with a disdainful smile.
‘Yes, as complete equals… You need a name so as to conceal a wrongdoing that I will not presume to judge, and I am giving you mine. On my side, I need an initial capital, a certain social position, to realise the great plans I have, and you are providing me with that capital. From today we are two partners whose business contributions balance out; all that remains is for us to thank each other for the service we are mutually rendering one another.’
She had stopped smiling. There was a furrow of angered pride on her brow. But she did not reply. After a silence, she continued: ‘Do you know my conditions?’
‘No, madame,’ said Nantas, remaining perfectly calm. ‘Please be so good as to dictate them to me, and I will comply in advance.’
Then she expressed her wishes clearly, without hesitation or blush.
‘You will never be my husband in more than name. Our lives will remain completely distinct and separate. You will abandon every right over me, and I will have no duty towards you.’
At every sentence, Nantas nodded his acceptance. That was exactly what he wanted. He added, ‘If I felt obliged to be gallant, I would tell you that such harsh conditions reduce me to despair. But we are above such insipid compliments. I am very happy to see you are brave enough to face up to our respective situations. We are starting out on life by a path that is not strewn with flowers… I ask only one thing of you, madame: not to make use of the freedom I am granting you in such a way as to make it necessary for me to intervene.’
‘Monsieur!’ said Flavie heatedly, with mutinous pride.
But he bowed respectfully, begging her not to take offence. Their position was delicate, they both had to tolerate certain allusions, without which any proper understanding would become impossible. He avoided insisting any further. Mlle Chuin, in a second interview, had told him the story of Flavie’s wrongdoing. Her seducer was a certain M. des Fondettes, the husband of one of her friends from convent school. While spending a month at their country home, she had found herself one evening in this man’s arms, without quite knowing how it had happened and to what extent she
was a consenting party. Mlle Chuin almost went so far as to call it rape.
Suddenly, Nantas felt more friendly towards her. Like all those aware of their own strength, he liked to be good-natured.
‘Look here, madame,’ he exclaimed, ‘we don’t know each other; but it would be quite wrong of us to hate each other like this, at first sight. Perhaps we are made to get along with one another… I can see clearly that you despise me; that’s because you don’t know the story of my life.’
And he spoke feverishly, working himself up, recounting his life consumed by ambition, in Marseilles, telling her of the rage of his two months of useless exertions in Paris. Then, he showed his disdain for what he called the social conventions, in which ordinary mortals are bogged down. What did the judgement of the mob count for, when you could trample it underfoot! The important thing was to be superior. Supreme power excused everything. And he painted a vivid picture of the splendid life he would be able to make for himself. He no longer feared any obstacle, nothing could prevail against strength. He would be strong, he would be happy.
‘Don’t think I am motivated by vulgar self-interest,’ he added. ‘I’m not selling myself for your fortune. I am taking your money simply as a means of getting well ahead in life… Oh, if only you knew everything that’s brewing within me, if only you knew the fervid nights I’ve spent mulling over the same dream, which was swept away by the reality of each new morning, you would understand me, you would perhaps be proud to lean on my arm, telling yourself that you are finally providing me with the means of being someone!’
She stood listening to him bolt upright, not a muscle in her face stirred. And he kept asking himself a question he had been turning over in his mind for the past three days, without
being able to find the answer: had she noticed him at his window, since she had accepted so readily Mlle Chuin’s plan, when the latter had named him? The strange idea occurred to him that she would perhaps have started to fall romantically in love with him if he had indignantly turned down the deal the governess had come to propose to him.
He fell silent, and Flavie remained icy. Then, as if he had not made his confession to her, she repeated drily, ‘So: my husband in name only, our lives completely distinct, absolute freedom.’
Nantas immediately reassumed his ceremonious attitude, the curt tones of a man discussing a treaty.