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Towards noon, next day, the fair Aquilina bestirred herself. She yawned wearily. She had slept with her head upon a painted velvet footstool, and her cheeks were mottled over by contact with the surface. Her movement awoke Euphrasia, who suddenly sprang up with a hoarse cry; her pretty face, that had been so fresh and fair in the evening, was sallow now and pallid; she looked like a candidate for the hospital. The rest awoke also by degrees, with portentous groanings, to feel themselves over in every stiffened limb, and to experience the infinite varieties of weariness that weighed upon them.
A servant came in to throw back the shutters and open the windows. There they all stood, brought back to consciousness by the warm rays of sunlight that shone upon the sleepers' heads. Their movements during slumber had disordered the elaborately arranged hair and toilettes of the women. They presented a ghastly spectacle in the bright daylight. Their hair fell ungracefully about them; their eyes, lately so brilliant, were heavy and dim; the expression of their faces was entirely changed. The sickly hues, which daylight brings out so strongly, were frightful. An olive tint had crept over the lymphatic faces, so fair and soft when in repose; the dainty red lips were grown pale and dry, and bore tokens of the degradation of excess. Each disowned his mistress of the night before; the women looked wan and discolored, like flowers trampled under foot by a passing procession.
The men who scorned them looked even more horrible. Those human faces would have made you shudder. The hollow eyes with the dark circles round them seemed to see nothing; they were dull with wine and stupefied with heavy slumbers that had been exhausting rather than refreshing. There was an indescribable ferocious and stolid bestiality about these haggard faces, where bare physical appetite appeared shorn of all the poetical illusion with which the intellect invests it. Even these fearless champions, accustomed to measure themselves with excess, were struck with horror at this awakening of vice, stripped of its disguises, at being confronted thus with sin, the skeleton in rags, lifeless and hollow, bereft of the sophistries of the intellect and the enchantments of luxury. Artists and courtesans scrutinized in silence and with haggard glances the surrounding disorder, the rooms where everything had been laid waste, at the havoc wrought by heated passions.
Demoniac laughter broke out when Taillefer, catching the smothered murmurs of his guests, tried to greet them with a grin. His darkly flushed, perspiring countenance loomed upon this pandemonium, like the image of a crime that knows no remorse (see L'Auberge Rouge). The picture was complete. A picture of a foul life in the midst of luxury, a hideous mixture of the pomp and squalor of humanity; an awakening after the frenzy of Debauch has crushed and squeezed all the fruits of life in her strong hands, till nothing but unsightly refuse is left to her, and lies in which she believes no longer. You might have thought of Death gloating over a family stricken with the plague.
The sweet scents and dazzling lights, the mirth and the excitement were all no more; disgust with its nauseous sensations and searching philosophy was there instead. The sun shone in like truth, the pure outer air was like virtue; in contrast with the heated atmosphere, heavy with the fumes of the previous night of revelry.
Accustomed as they were to their life, many of the girls thought of other days and other wakings; pure and innocent days when they looked out and saw the roses and honeysuckle about the casement, and the fresh countryside without enraptured by the glad music of the skylark; while earth lay in mists, lighted by the dawn, and in all the glittering radiance of dew. Others imagined the family breakfast, the father and children round the table, the innocent laughter, the unspeakable charm that pervaded it all, the simple hearts and their meal as simple.
An artist mused upon his quiet studio, on his statue in its severe beauty, and the graceful model who was waiting for him. A young man recollected a lawsuit on which the fortunes of a family hung, and an important transaction that needed his presence. The scholar regretted his study and that noble work that called for him. Emile appeared just then as smiling, blooming, and fresh as the smartest assistant in a fashionable shop.
"You are all as ugly as bailiffs. You won't be fit for anything to-day, so this day is lost, and I vote for breakfast."
At this Taillefer went out to give some orders. The women went languidly up to the mirrors to set their toilettes in order. Each one shook herself. The wilder sort lectured the steadier ones. The courtesans made fun of those who looked unable to continue the boisterous festivity; but these wan forms revived all at once, stood in groups, and talked and smiled. Some servants quickly and adroitly set the furniture and everything else in its place, and a magnificent breakfast was got ready.
The guests hurried into the dining-room. Everything there bore indelible marks of yesterday's excess, it is true, but there were at any rate some traces of ordinary, rational existence, such traces as may be found in a sick man's dying struggles. And so the revelry was laid away and buried, like carnival of a Shrove Tuesday, by masks wearied out with dancing, drunk with drunkenness, and quite ready to be persuaded of the pleasures of lassitude, lest they should be forced to admit their exhaustion.
As soon as these bold spirits surrounded the capitalist's breakfast-table, Cardot appeared. He had left the rest to make a night of it after the dinner, and finished the evening after his own fashion in the retirement of domestic life. Just now a sweet smile wandered over his features. He seemed to have a presentiment that there would be some inheritance to sample and divide, involving inventories and engrossing; an inheritance rich in fees and deeds to draw up, and something as juicy as the trembling fillet of beef in which their host had just plunged his knife.
"Oh, ho! we are to have breakfast in the presence of a notary," cried Cursy.
"You have come here just at the right time," said the banker, indicating the breakfast; "you can jot down the numbers, and initial off all the dishes."
"There is no will to make here, but contracts of marriage there may be, perhaps," said the scholar, who had made a satisfactory arrangement for the first time in twelve months.
"One moment," cried Cardot, fairly deafened by a chorus of wretched jokes. "I came here on serious business. I am bringing six millions for one of you." (Dead silence.) "Monsieur," he went on, turning to Raphael, who at the moment was unceremoniously wiping his eyes on a corner of the table-napkin, "was not your mother a Mlle. O'Flaharty?"
"Yes," said Raphael mechanically enough; "Barbara Marie."
"Have you your certificate of birth about you," Cardot went on, "and Mme. de Valentin's as well?"
"I believe so."
"Very well then, monsieur; you are the sole heir of Major O'Flaharty, who died in August 1828 at Calcutta."
"An incalcuttable fortune," said the critic.
"The Major having bequeathed several amounts to public institutions in his will, the French Government sent in a claim for the remainder to the East India Company," the notary continued. "The estate is clear and ready to be transferred at this moment. I have been looking in vain for the heirs and assigns of Mlle. Barbara Marie O'Flaharty for a fortnight past, when yesterday at dinner----"
Just then Raphael suddenly staggered to his feet; he looked like a man who has just received a blow. Acclamation took the form of silence, for stifled envy had been the first feeling in every breast, and all eyes devoured him like flames. Then a murmur rose, and grew like the voice of a discontented audience, or the first mutterings of a riot, as everybody made some comment on this news of great wealth brought by the notary.
This abrupt subservience of fate brought Raphael thoroughly to his senses. He immediately spread out the table-napkin with which he had lately taken the measure of the piece of shagreen. He heeded nothing as he laid the talisman upon it, and shuddered involuntarily at the sight of a slight difference between the present size of the skin and the outline traced upon the linen.
"Why, what is the matter with him?' Taillefer cried. "He comes by his fortune very cheaply."
"Soutiens-le Chatillon!" said Bixiou to Emile. "The joy will kill him."
A ghastly white hue overspread every line of the wan features of the heir-at-law. His face was drawn, every outline grew haggard; the hollows in his livid countenance grew deeper, and his eyes were fixed and staring. He was facing Death.
The opulent banker, surrounded by faded women, and faces with satiety written on them, the enjoyment that had reached the pitch of agony, was a living illustration of his own life.
Raphael looked thrice at the talisman, which lay passively within the merciless outlines on the table-napkin; he tried not to believe it, but his incredulity vanished utterly before the light of an inner presentiment. The whole world was his; he could have all things, but the will to possess them was utterly extinct. Like a traveler in the midst of the desert, with but a little water left to quench his thirst, he must measure his life by the draughts he took of it. He saw what every desire of his must cost him in the days of his life. He believed in the powers of the Magic Skin at last, he listened to every breath he drew; he felt ill already; he asked himself:
"Am I not consumptive? Did not my mother die of a lung complaint?"
"Aha, Raphael! what fun you will have! What will you give me?" asked Aquilina.
"Here's to the death of his uncle, Major O'Flaharty! There is a man for you."
"He will be a peer of France."
"Pooh! what is a peer of France since July?" said the amateur critic.
"Are you going to take a box at the Bouffons?"
"You are going to treat us all, I hope?" put in Bixiou.
"A man of his sort will be sure to do things in style," said Emile.
The hurrah set up by the jovial assembly rang in Valentin's ears, but he could not grasp the sense of a single word. Vague thoughts crossed him of the Breton peasant's life of mechanical labor, without a wish of any kind; he pictured him burdened with a family, tilling the soil, living on buckwheat meal, drinking cider out of a pitcher, believing in the Virgin and the King, taking the sacrament at Easter, dancing of a Sunday on the green sward, and understanding never a word of the rector's sermon. The actual scene that lay before him, the gilded furniture, the courtesans, the feast itself, and the surrounding splendors, seemed to catch him by the throat and made him cough.
"Do you wish for some asparagus?" the banker cried.
"I WISH FOR NOTHING!" thundered Raphael.
"Bravo!" Taillefer exclaimed; "you understand your position; a fortune confers the privilege of being impertinent. You are one of us. Gentlemen, let us drink to the might of gold! M. Valentin here, six times a millionaire, has become a power. He is a king, like all the rich; everything is at his disposal, everything lies under his feet. From this time forth the axiom that 'all Frenchmen are alike in the eyes of the law,' is for him a fib at the head of the Constitutional Charter. He is not going to obey the law--the law is going to obey him. There are neither scaffolds nor executioners for millionaires."
"Yes, there are," said Raphael; "they are their own executioners."
"Here is another victim of prejudices!" cried the banker.
"Let us drink!" Raphael said, putting the talisman into his pocket.
"What are you doing?" said Emile, checking his movement. "Gentlemen," he added, addressing the company, who were rather taken aback by Raphael's behavior, "you must know that our friend Valentin here--what am I saying?--I mean my Lord Marquis de Valentin--is in the possession of a secret for obtaining wealth. His wishes are fulfilled as soon as he knows them. He will make us all rich together, or he is a flunkey, and devoid of all decent feeling."
"Oh, Raphael dear, I should like a set of pearl ornaments!" Euphrasia exclaimed.
"If he has any gratitude in him, he will give me a couple of carriages with fast steppers," said Aquilina.
"Wish for a hundred thousand a year for me!"
"Pay my debts!"
"Send an apoplexy to my uncle, the old stick!"
"Ten thousand a year in the funds, and I'll cry quits with you, Raphael!"
"Deeds of gift and no mistake," was the notary's comment.
"He ought, at least, to rid me of the gout!"
"Lower the funds!" shouted the banker.
These phrases flew about like the last discharge of rockets at the end of a display of fireworks; and were uttered, perhaps, more in earnest than in jest.
"My good friend," Emile said solemnly, "I shall be quite satisfied with an income of two hundred thousand livres. Please to set about it at once."
"Do you not know the cost, Emile?" asked Raphael.
"A nice excuse!" the poet cried; "ought we not to sacrifice ourselves for our friends?"
"I have almost a mind to wish that you all were dead," Valentin made answer, with a dark, inscrutable look at his boon companions.
"Dying people are frightfully cruel," said Emile, laughing. "You are rich now," he went on gravely; "very well, I will give you two months at most before you grow vilely selfish. You are so dense already that you cannot understand a joke. You have only to go a little further to believe in your Magic Skin."
Raphael kept silent, fearing the banter of the company; but he drank immoderately, trying to drown in intoxication the recollection of his fatal power.
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The Magic Skin -by- Honore de Balzac