In spite of circumstantial evidence, he reflected that those impassioned letters did not correspond in any way to this woman in the flesh. Never was woman more controlled, more adept in the lies of good breeding. He remembered the Chantelouve at-homes. She seemed attentive, made no contribution to the conversation, played the hostess smiling, without animation. It was a kind of case of dual personality. In one visible phase a society woman, prudent and reserved, in another concealed phase a wild romantic, mad with passion, hysterical of body, nymphomaniac of soul. It hardly seemed probable.
“No,” he said, “I am on the wrong track. It’s merely by chance that Mme. Chantelouve spoke of my books to Des Hermies, and I mustn’t jump to the conclusion that she is smitten with me and that she has been writing me these hot letters. It isn’t she, but who on earth is it?”
He continued to revolve the question, without coming any nearer a solution. Again he called before his eyes the image of this woman, and admitted that she was really potently seductive, with a fresh, girlish body, flexible, and without a lot of repugnant flesh—and mysterious, with her concentrated air, her plaintive eyes, and even her coldness, real or feigned.
He summarized all that he really knew about her: simply that she was a widow when she married Chantelouve, that she had no children, that her first husband, a manufacturer of chasubles, had, for unknown reasons, committed suicide. That was all. On the other hand, too, too much was known about Chantelouve!
Author of a history of Poland and the cabinets of the north; of a history of Boniface VIII and his times; a life of the blessed Jeanne de Valois, founder of the Annonciade; a biography of the Venerable Mother Anne de Xaintonge, teacher of the Company of Saint Ursula; and other books of the same kind, published by Lecoffre, Palme, Poussielgue, in the inevitable shagreen or sheep bindings stamped with dendriform patterns: Chantelouve was preparing his candidacy for the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, and hoped for the support of the party of the Ducs. That was why he received influential hypocrites, provincial Tartufes, and priests every week. He doubtless had to drive himself to do this, because in spite of his slinking slyness he was jovial and enjoyed a joke. On the other hand, he aspired to figure in the literature that counts at Paris, and he expended a good deal of ingenuity inveigling men of letters to his house on another evening every week, to make them his aides, or at least keep them from openly attacking him, so soon as his candidacy—an entirely clerical affair—should be announced. It was probably to attract and placate his adversaries that he had contrived these baroque gatherings to which, out of curiosity as a matter of fact, the most utterly different kinds of people came.
He had other motives. It was said that he had no scruples about exploiting his social acquaintances. Durtal had even noticed that at each of the dinners given by Chantelouve a well-dressed stranger was present, and the rumour went about that this guest was a wealthy provincial to whom men of letters were exhibited like a wax-work collection, and from whom, before or afterward, important sums were borrowed.