He came in showing a torpid face lighted now by a speciously amiable expression. The carpets had dulled his steps and the preoccupation of the two sisters had kept them from noticing the noise of his carriage-wheels on entering the court-yard. The countess, in whom the habits of social life and the freedom in which her husband had left her had developed both wit and shrewdness,—qualities repressed in her sister by marital despotism, which simply continued that of their mother,—saw that Eugenie’s terror was on the point of betraying them, and she evaded that danger by a frank answer.
“I thought my sister richer than she is,” she replied, looking straight at her brother-in-law. “Women are sometimes embarrassed for money, and do not wish to tell their husbands, like Josephine with Napoleon. I came here to ask Eugenie to do me a service.”
“She can easily do that, madame. Eugenie is very rich,” replied du Tillet, with concealed sarcasm.
“Is she?” replied the countess, smiling bitterly.
“How much do you want?” asked du Tillet, who was not sorry to get his sister-in-law into his meshes.
“Ah, monsieur! but I have told you already we do not wish to let our husbands into this affair,” said Madame de Vandenesse, cautiously, —aware that if she took his money, she would put herself at the mercy of the man whose portrait Eugenie had fortunately drawn for her not ten minutes earlier. “I will come to-morrow and talk with Eugenie.”
“To-morrow?” said the banker. “No; Madame du Tillet dines to-morrow with a future peer of France, the Baron de Nucingen, who is to leave me his place in the Chamber of Deputies.”
“Then permit her to join me in my box at the Opera,” said the countess, without even glancing at her sister, so much did she fear that Eugenie’s candor would betray them.
“She has her own box, madame,” said du Tillet, nettled.
“Very good; then I will go to hers,” replied the countess.
“It will be the first time you have done us that honor,” said du Tillet.
The countess felt the sting of that reproach, and began to laugh.
“Well, never mind; you shall not be made to pay anything this time. Adieu, my darling.”
“She is an insolent woman,” said du Tillet, picking up the flowers that had fallen on the carpet. “You ought,” he said to his wife, “to study Madame de Vandenesse. I’d like to see you before the world as insolent and overbearing as your sister has just been here. You have a silly, bourgeois air which I detest.”
Eugenie raised her eyes to heaven as her only answer.
“Ah ca, madame! what have you both been talking of?” said the banker, after a pause, pointing to the flowers. “What has happened to make your sister so anxious all of a sudden to go to your opera-box?”
The poor helot endeavored to escape questioning on the score of sleepiness, and turned to go into her dressing-room to prepare for the night; but du Tillet took her by the arm and brought her back under the full light of the wax-candles which were burning in two silver-gilt sconces between fragrant nosegays. He plunged his light eyes into hers and said, coldly:—