Susannahand the Elders
On a Wednesday morning, early, toward the middle of spring, in the year 16,—such was his mode of reckoning,—at the moment when the chevalier was putting on his old green-flowered damask dressing-gown, he heard, despite the cotton in his ears, the light step of a young girl who was running up the stairway. Presently three taps were discreetly struck upon the door; then, without waiting for any response, a handsome girl slipped like an eel into the room occupied by the old bachelor.
“Ah! is it you, Suzanne?” said the Chevalier de Valois, without discontinuing his occupation, which was that of stropping his razor. “What have you come for, my dear little jewel of mischief?”
“I have come to tell you something which may perhaps give you as much pleasure as pain?”
“Is it anything about Cesarine?”
“Cesarine! much I care about your Cesarine!” she said with a saucy air, half serious, half indifferent.
This charming Suzanne, whose present comical performance was to exercise a great influence in the principal personages of our history, was a work-girl at Madame Lardot’s. One word here on the topography of the house. The wash-rooms occupied the whole of the ground floor. The little courtyard was used to hang out on wire cords embroidered handkerchiefs, collarets, capes, cuffs, frilled shirts, cravats, laces, embroidered dresses,—in short, all the fine linen of the best families of the town. The chevalier assumed to know from the number of her capes in the wash how the love-affairs of the wife of the prefect were going on. Though he guessed much from observations of this kind, the chevalier was discretion itself; he was never betrayed into an epigram (he had plenty of wit) which might have closed to him an agreeable salon. You are therefore to consider Monsieur de Valois as a man of superior manners, whose talents, like those of many others, were lost in a narrow sphere. Only—for, after all, he was a man—he permitted himself certain penetrating glances which could make some women tremble; although they all loved him heartily as soon as they discovered the depth of his discretion and the sympathy that he felt for their little weaknesses.
The head woman, Madame Lardot’s factotum, an old maid of forty-six, hideous to behold, lived on the opposite side of the passage to the chevalier. Above them were the attics where the linen was dried in winter. Each apartment had two rooms,—one lighted from the street, the other from the courtyard. Beneath the chevalier’s room there lived a paralytic, Madame Lardot’s grandfather, an old buccaneer named Grevin, who had served under Admiral Simeuse in India, and was now stone-deaf. As for Madame Lardot, who occupied the other lodging on the first floor, she had so great a weakness for persons of condition that she may well have been thought blind to the ways of the chevalier. To her, Monsieur de Valois was a despotic monarch who did right in all things. Had any of her workwomen been guilty of a happiness attributed to the chevalier she would have said, “He is so lovable!” Thus, though the house was of glass, like all provincial houses, it was discreet as a robber’s cave.