By Honoré de Balzac
Dover Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE FAIR IMPERIA
The Archbishop of Bordeaux had added to his suite when going to the Council at Constance quite a good-looking little priest of Touraine whose ways and manner of speech were so charming that he passed for a son of La Soldée and the Governor. The Archbishop of Tours had willingly given him to his confrère for his journey to that town, because it was usual for archbishops to make each other presents, they well knowing how sharp are the itchings of theological palms. Thus this young priest came to the Council and was lodged in the establishment of his prelate, a man of good morals and great science.
Philippe de Mala, as he was called, resolved to behave well and worthily to serve his protector, but he saw in this mysterious Council many men leading a dissolute life and yet not making less, nay—gaining more indulgences, gold crowns and benefices than all the other virtuous and well-behaved ones. Now during one night—dangerous to his virtue—the devil whispered into his ear that he should live more luxuriously, since every one sucked the breasts of our Holy Mother Church and yet they were not drained, a miracle which proved beyond doubt the existence of God. And the little priest of Touraine did not disappoint the devil. He promised to feast himself, to eat his bellyful of roast meats and other German delicacies, when he could do so without paying for them, as he was poor. As he remained quite continent (in which he followed the example of the poor old archbishop, who sinned no longer because he was unable to, and passed for a saint), he had to suffer from intolerable desires followed by fits of melancholy, since there were so many sweet courtezans, well developed, but cold to the poor people, who inhabited Constance, to enlighten the understanding of the Fathers of the Council. He was savage that he did not know how to make up to these gallant sirens, who snubbed cardinals, abbots, councilors, legates, bishops, princes, and margraves, just as if they had been penniless clerks. And in the evening, after prayers, he would practice speaking to them, teaching himself the breviary of love. He taught himself to answer all possible questions, but on the morrow if by chance he met one of the aforesaid princesses dressed out, seated in a litter and escorted by her proud and well-armed pages, he remained open-mouthed, like a dog in the act of catching flies, at the sight of the sweet countenance that so much inflamed him. The secretary of Monseigneur, a gentleman of Perigord, having clearly explained to him that the Fathers, procureurs, and auditors of the Rota bought by certain presents, not relics or indulgences, but jewels and gold, the favour of being familiar with the best of these pampered cats who lived under the protection of the lords of the Council; the poor Tourainian, all simpleton and innocent as he was, treasured up under his mattress the money given him by the good archbishop for writings and copying—hoping one day to have enough just to see a cardinal's lady-love, and trusting in God for the rest. He was hairless from top to toe and resembled a man about as much as a goat with a night-dress on resembles a young lady, but prompted by his desires he wandered in the evenings through the streets of Constance, careless of his life, and, at the risk of having his body halberded by the soldiers, he peeped at the cardinals entering the houses of their sweethearts. Then he saw the wax-candles lighted in the houses and suddenly the doors and the windows dosed. Then he heard the blessed abbots or others jumping about, drinking, enjoying themselves, love-making, singing the secret Alleluia and applauding the music with which they were being regaled. The kitchen performed miracles, the Offices said were fine rich pots-full, the Matins sweet little hams, the Vespers luscious mouthfuls, and the Laudes delicate sweetmeats, and after their little carouses, these brave priests were silent, their pages diced upon the stairs, their mules stamped restively in the streets; everything went well—but faith and religion were there. That is how it came to pass the good man Huss was burned. And the reason? He put his finger in the pie without being asked. Then why was he a Huguenot before the others?
To return, however, to our sweet little Philippe, not un-frequently did he receive many a thump and hard blow, but the devil sustained him, inciting him to believe that sooner or later it would come to his turn to play the cardinal to some lovely dame. This ardent desire gave him the boldness of a stag in autumn, so much so that one evening he quietly tripped up the steps and into one of the first houses in Constance where often he had seen officers, seneschals, valets, and pages waiting with torches for their masters, dukes, kings, cardinals, and archbishops.
"Ah!" said he, "she must be very beautiful and amiable, this one."
A soldier well armed allowed him to pass, believing him to belong to the suite of the Elector of Bavaria, who had just left, and that he was going to deliver a message on behalf of the above-mentioned nobleman. Philippe de Mala mounted the stairs as lightly as a greyhound in love, and was guided by a delectable odour of perfume to a certain chamber where, surrounded by her handmaidens, the lady of the house was divesting herself of her attire. He stood quite dumbfounded like a thief surprised by sergeants. The lady was without petticoat or headdress. The chamber-maids and the servants, busy taking off her stockings and undressing her, so quickly and dexterously had her stripped, that the priest, overcome, gave vent to a long Ah! which had a flavour of love about it.
"What want you, little one?" said the lady to him.
"To yield my soul to you," said he, flashing his eyes upon her.
"You can come again to-morrow," said she, in order to be rid of him.
To which Philippe replied, blushing, "I will not fail."
Then she burst out laughing. Philippe, struck motionless, stood quite at his ease, letting wander over her his eyes that glowed and sparkled with the flame of love. What lovely thick hair hung over her ivory white back, showing sweet white places, fair and shining between the many tresses! She had upon her snow-white brow a ruby circlet, less fertile in rays of fire than her black eyes, still moist with tears from her hearty laugh. She even threw her slipper at a statue gilded like a shrine, twisting herself about from very ribaldry, and allowed her bare foot, smaller than a swan's bill, to be seen. This evening she was in a good humour, otherwise she would have had the little shaven-crown put out by the window without more ado than her first bishop.
"He has fine eyes, Madame," said one of the handmaids.
"Where does he come from?" asked another.
"Poor child!" cried Madame, "his mother must be looking for him. Show him his way home."
The Tourainian, still sensible, gave a movement of delight at the sight of the brocaded bed where the sweet form was about to repose. This glance, full of amorous intelligence, awoke the lady's fantasy, who, half laughing and half smitten, repeated "To-morrow," and dismissed him with a gesture which the pope Jehan himself would have obeyed, especially as he was like a snail without a shell, since the Council had just deprived him of the holy keys.
"Ah, Madame, there is another vow of chastity changed into an amorous desire," said one of her women; and the chuckles commenced again thick as hail.
Philippe went his way, bumping his head against the wall like a hooded rook as he was. So giddy had he become at the sight of this creature, even more enticing than a siren rising from the water. He noticed the animals carved over the door but could make no more than four of them: and as that was full of diabolical longings and his entrails sophisticated. Once in his little room he counted his coins all night long, and returned to the house of the archbishop with his head all his treasure, he counted upon satisfying the fair one by giving her all he had in the world.
"What is it ails you?" said the good archbishop, uneasy at the groans and "oh! oh's!" of his clerk.
"Ah! my lord," answered the poor priest, "I am wondering how it is that so light and sweet a woman can weigh so heavily upon my heart."
"Which one?" said the archbishop, putting down his breviary which he was reading for others—the good man.
"Oh! Mother of God! you will scold me, I know, my good master, my protector, because I have seen the lady of a cardinal at the least, and I am weeping because I lack more than one little crown to enable me to convert her."
The archbishop, knitting the circumflex accent that he had about his nose, said not a word. Then the very humble priest trembled in his skin to have confessed so much to his superior. But the holy man directly said to him, "She must be very dear then——"
"Ah!" said he, "she has swallowed many a mitre and stolen many a cross."
"Well, Philippe, if thou wilt renounce her, I will pre-sent thee with thirty crowns from the poor-box."
"Ah! my lord. I should be losing too much," replied the lad, emboldened by the treat he promised himself.
"Ah! Philippe," said the good prelate, "thou wilt then go to the devil and displease God, like all our cardinals," and the master, with sorrow, began to pray St. Gatien, the patron saint of Innocents, to save his servant. He made him kneel down beside him, telling him to recommend himself also to St. Philippe, but the wretched priest implored the saint beneath his breath to prevent him from failing if on the morrow the lady should receive him kindly and mercifully; and the good archbishop, observing the fervour of his servant, cried out to him, "Courage, little one, and Heaven will exorcise thee."
On the morrow, while Monsieur was declaiming at the Council against the shameless behaviour of the apostles of Christianity, Philippe de Mala spent his crowns—acquired with so much labour—in perfumes, baths, fomentations, and other fooleries. He played the fop so well, one would have thought him the fancy cavalier of a gay lady. He wandered about the town in order to find the residence of his heart's queen; and when he asked the passersby to whom belonged the aforesaid house, they laughed in his face, saying—
"Whence comes this precious fellow that has not heard of La Belle Imperia?"
He was very much afraid that he and his money were gone to the devil when he heard the name, and knew into what a nice mess he had voluntarily fallen.
Imperia was the most precious, the most fantastic girl in the world, although she passed for the most dazzlingly beautiful, and the one who best understood the art of bamboozling the cardinals and softening the hardest soldiers and oppressors of the people. She had brave captains, archers, and nobles, ready to serve her at every turn. She had only to breathe a word, and the business of any one who had offended her was settled. A free fight only brought a smile to her lips, and often the Sire de Baudricourt—one of the King's Captains—would ask her if there was any one he could kill for her that day—a little joke at the expense of the abbots. With the exception of the potentates among the high clergy with whom Madame Imperia managed to accommodate her little tempers, she ruled every one with a high hand in virtue of her pretty babble and enchanting ways, which enthralled the most virtuous and the most unimpressionable. Thus she lived beloved and respected, quite ns much as the real ladies and princesses, and was called Madame, concerning which the good Emperor Sigismund replied to a lady who complained of it to him, "That they, the good ladies, might keep to their own proper way and holy virtues, and Madame Imperia to the sweet naughtiness of the goddess Venus"—Christian words which very wrongly shocked the good ladies.
Philippe, then thinking over in his mind that which on the preceding evening he had seen with his eyes, doubted if more did not remain behind. Then was he sad, and without taking bite or sup, strolled about the town waiting the appointed hour, although he was well-favoured and gallant enough to find others less difficult to overcome than was Madame Imperia.
The night came; the little Tourainian, exalted with pride, caparisoned with desire, and spurred by his "alacks" and "alases" which nearly choked him, glided like an eel into the domicile of the veritable Queen of the Council—for before her bowed humbly all the authority, science, and wisdom of Christianity. The major domo did not know him, and was going to bundle him out again, when one of the chamber-women called out from the top of the stairs—"Eh, M. Imbert, it is Madame's young fellow," and poor Philippe, blushing like on a wedding night, ran up the stairs, shaking with happiness and delight. The servant took him by the hand and led him into the chamber where sat Madame, lightly attired, like a brave woman who awaits her conqueror.
The dazzling Imperia was seated near a table covered with a shaggy cloth ornamented with gold, and with all the requisites for a dainty carouse. Flagons of wine, various drinking glasses, bottles of hippocras, flasks full of the good wine of Cyprus, pretty boxes full of spices, roast peacocks, green sauces, little salt hams—all that would gladden the eyes of the gallant if he had not so madly loved Madame Imperia. She saw well that the eyes of the young priest were all for her. Although accustomed to the curl-paper devotion of the churchmen, she was well satisfied that she had made a conquest of the young priest who all day long had been in her head.
The windows had been closed; Madame was decked out and in a manner fit to do the honours to a prince of the Empire. Then the rogue, beatified by the holy beauty of Imperia, knew that emperor, burgraf, nay, even a cardinal about to be elected pope, would willingly for that night have changed places with him, a little priest who, beneath his gown, had only the devil and love.
He put on a lordly air, and saluted her with a courtesy by no means ungraceful; and then the sweet lady said to him, regaling him with a piercing glance—
"Come and sit close to me, that I may see if you have altered since yesterday."
"Oh, yes," said he.
"And how?" said she.
"Yesterday," replied the artful fellow, "I loved you: to-day, we love each other, and from a poor sinner I have become richer than a king."
"Oh, little one, little one!" cried she, merrily; "yes, you are indeed changed, for from a poor priest I see well you have turned into an old devil." And side by side they sat down before a large fire, which helped to spread their ecstasy around. They remained always ready to begin eating, seeing that they only thought of gazing into each other's eyes, and never touched a dish. Just as they were beginning to feel comfortable and at their ease, there came a great noise at Madame's door, as if people were beating against it, and crying out.
"Madame," cried the little servant, hastily, "here's another of them."
"Who is it?" cried she in a haughty manner, like a tyrant, savage at being interrupted.
"The Bishop of Coire wishes to speak with you."
"May the devil take him!" said she, looking at Philippe gently.
"Madame, he has seen the lights through the chinks, and is making a great noise."
"Tell him I have the fever, and you will be telling him no lie, for I am ill of this little priest who is torturing my brain."
But just as she had finished speaking, and was pressing with devotion the hand of Philippe who trembled in his skin, appeared the fat Bishop of Coire, indignant and angry. The officers followed him, bearing a trout canonically dressed, fresh drawn from the Rhine, and shining in a golden platter, and spices contained in little ornamental boxes, and a thousand dainties, such as liqueurs and jams, made by the holy nuns at his Abbey.
"Ah, ah," said he, with his deep voice, "I haven't time to go to the devil, but you must give me a touch of him in advance, eh! my little one."
"Your belly will one day make a nice sheath for a sword," replied she, knitting her brows above her eyes, which from being soft and gentle had become mischievous enough to make one tremble.
"And this little choir-boy? Has he already made his sacrifice?" said the bishop, insolently turning his great rubicund face towards Philippe.
"Monseigneur, I am here to confess Madame."
"Oh, oh, do you not know the canons? To confess to the ladies at this time of night is a right reserved to bishops, so take yourself off; go and herd with simple monks, and never come back here again under pain of excommunication." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Droll Stories by Honoré de Balzac. Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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