The Fair Imperia
by Honore de Balzac
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 was so charming that he passed for a son of La Soldee and the Governor. The Archbishop of Tours had willingly given him to his confrere 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 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 courtesans, 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, councillors, legates, bishops, princes and margraves just as if they have 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 sweet countenance that so much inflamed him. The secretary of a 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 Touranian, 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 to 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 closed. Then he heard the blessed abbots or others jumping about, drinking, enjoying themselves, love-making, singing 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 mouthful, and the Lauhes 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 was 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 unfrequently 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 delectable odour of perfume to 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 head-dress. The chambermaid and the servants, busy taking off her stockings and undressing her, so quickly and dextrously had her stripped, that the priest, overcome, gave vent to a long Ah! which had the 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 upon 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-crop put out by the window without more ado than her first bishop.
“He has fine eyes, Madame,” said one of her handmaids.
“Where does he comes from?” asked another.
“Poor child!” cried Madame, “his mother must be looking for him. Show him his way home.”
The Touranian, 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 a 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 and returned to the house of the archbishop with his head full of diabolical longings and his entrails sophisticated.
Once in his little room he counted his coins all night long, but could make no more than four of them; and as that was 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 crown to enable me to convert her.”
The archbishop, knitting the circumflex accent that he had above 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 will renounce her, I will present thee with thirty angels 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 that the lady should receive him kindly and mercifully; and the good archbishop, observing the fervour of his servant, cried out 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 angels–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 passers-by 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 he and his angels 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 dazzling and the beautiful, and the one who best understood the art of bamboozling cardinals and softening the hardiest 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 anyone 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 were 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 everyone 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 as 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 shocked the good ladies, to their credit be it said.
Philippe, then thinking over it 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 Touranian, 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 him from the top of the stairs–“Eh M. Imbert, it is Madame’s young fellow,” and poor Philippe, blushing like a wedding night, ran up the stairs, shaking with happiness and delight. The servant took him by the hand and led 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 the hippocras, flasks full of 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 in a manner fit to do 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 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; today, 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 young 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 light 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 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 chorus singer is here to offer that?” said the bishop, insolently turning his great rubicund face towards Philippe.
“Monseigneur, I’m here to confess Madame.”
“Oh, oh, do you not know the canons? To confess 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.”
“Do not move,” cried the blushing Imperia, more lovely with passion than she was with love, because now she was possessed both with passion and love. “Stop, my friend. Here you are in your own house.” Then he knew that he was really loved by her.
“It is it not in the breviary, and an evangelical regulation, that you should be equal with God in the valley of Jehoshaphat?” asked she of the bishop.
“‘Tis is an invention of the devil, who has adulterated the holy book,” replied the great numskull of a bishop in a hurry to fall to.
“Well then, be equal now before me, who am here below your goddess,” replied Imperia, “otherwise one of these days I will have you delicately strangled between the head and shoulders; I swear it by the power of my tonsure which is as good as the pope’s.” And wishing that the trout should be added to the feast as well as the sweets and other dainties, she added, cunningly, “Sit you down and drink with us.” But the artful minx, being up to a trick or two, gave the little one a wink which told him plainly not to mind the German, whom she would soon find a means to be rid of.
The servant-maid seated the Bishop at the table, and tucked him up, while Philippe, wild with rage that closed his mouth, because he saw his plans ending in smoke, gave the archbishop to more devils than ever were monks alive. Thus they got halfway through the repast, which the young priest had not yet touched, hungering only for Imperia, near whom he was already seated, but speaking that sweet language which the ladies so well understand, that has neither stops, commas, accents, letters, figures, characters, notes, nor images. The fat bishop, sensual and careful enough of the sleek, ecclesiastical garment of skin for which he was indebted to his late mother, allowed himself to be plentifully served with hippocras by the delicate hand of Madame, and it was just at his first hiccough that the sound of an approaching cavalcade was heard in the street. The number of horses, the “Ho, ho!” of the pages, showed plainly that some great prince hot with love, was about to arrive. In fact, a moment afterwards the Cardinal of Ragusa, against whom the servants of Imperia had not dared to bar the door, entered the room. At this terrible sight the poor courtesan and her young lover became ashamed and embarrassed, like fresh cured lepers; for it would be tempting the devil to try and oust the cardinal, the more so as at that time it was not known who would be pope, three aspirants having resigned their hoods for the benefit of Christianity. The cardinal, who was a cunning Italian, long bearded, a great sophist, and the life and soul of the Council, guessed, by the feeblest exercise of the faculties of his understanding, the alpha and omega of the adventure. He only had to weigh in his mind one little thought before he knew how to proceed in order to be able to hypothecate his manly vigour. He arrived with the appetite of a hungry monk, and to obtain its satisfaction he was just the man to stab two monks and sell his bit of the true cross, which were wrong.
“Hulloa! friend,” said he to Philippe, calling him towards him. The poor Tourainian, more dead than alive, and expecting the devil was about to interfere seriously with his arrangements, rose and said, “What is it?” to the redoubtable cardinal.
He taking him by the arm led him to the staircase, looked him in the white of the eye and said without any nonsense–“Ventredieu! You are a nice little fellow, and I should not like to have to let your master know the weight of your carcass. My revenge might cause me certain pious expenses in my old age, so choose to espouse an abbey for the remainder of your days, or to marry Madame to-night and die tomorrow.”
The poor little Tourainian in despair murmured, “May I come back when your passion is over?”
The cardinal could scarcely keep his countenance, but he said sternly, “Choose the gallows or a mitre.”
“Ah!” said the priest, maliciously; “a good fat abbey.”
Thereupon the cardinal went back into the room, opened an escritoire, and scribbled upon a piece of parchment an order to the envoy of France.
“Monseigneur,” said the Tourainian to him while he was spelling out the order, “you will not get rid of the Bishop of Coire so easily as you have got rid of me, for he has as many abbeys as the soldiers have drinking shops in the town; besides, he is in the favour of his lord. Now I fancy to show you my gratitude for this so fine Abbey I owe you good piece of advice. You know how fatal has been and how rapidly spread this terrible pestilence which has cruelly harassed Paris. Tell him that you have just left the bedside of your old friend the Archbishop of Bordeaux; thus you will make him scutter away like straw before a whirl-wind.
“Oh, oh!” cried the cardinal, “thou meritest more than an abbey. Ah, Ventredieu! my young friend, here are 100 golden crowns for thy journey to the Abbey of Turpenay, which I won yesterday at cards, and of which I make you a free gift.”
Hearing these words, and seeing Philippe de Mala disappear without giving her the amorous glances she expected, the beautiful Imperia, puffing like a dolphin, denounced all the cowardice of the priest. She was not then a sufficiently good Catholic to pardon her lover deceiving her, by not knowing how to die for her pleasure. Thus the death of Philippe was foreshadowed in the viper’s glance she cast at him to insult him, which glance pleased the cardinal much, for the wily Italian saw he would soon get his abbey back again. The Touranian, heeding not the brewing storm avoided it by walking out silently with his ears down, like a wet dog being kicked out of a Church. Madame drew a sigh from her heart. She must have had her own ideas of humanity for the little value she held in it. The fire which possessed her had mounted to her head, and scintillated in rays about her, and there was good reason for it, for this was the first time that she had been humbugged by priest. Then the cardinal smiled, believing it was all to his advantage: was not he a cunning fellow? Yes, he was the possessor of a red hat.
“Ah, ah! my friend,” said he to the Bishop, “I congratulate myself on being in your company, and I am glad to have been able to get rid of that little wretch unworthy of Madame, the more so as if you had gone near him, my lovely and amiable creature, you would have perished miserably through the deed of a simple priest.”
“He is the secretary of the Archbishop of Bordeaux. The good man was seized this morning with the pestilence.”
The bishop opened his mouth wide enough to swallow a Dutch cheese.
“How do you know that?” asked he.
“Ah!” said the cardinal, taking the good German’s hand, “I have just administered to him, and consoled him; at this moment the holy man has a fair wind to waft him to paradise.”
The Bishop of Coire demonstrated immediately how light fat man are; for when men are big-bellied, a merciful providence, in the consideration of their works, often makes their internal tubes as elastic as balloons. The aforesaid bishop sprang backwards with one bound, burst into a perspiration and coughed like a cow who finds feathers mixed with her hay. Then becoming suddenly pale, he rushed down the stairs without even bidding Madame adieu. When the door had closed upon the bishop, and he was fairly in the street, the Cardinal of Ragusa began laughing fit to split his sides.
“Ah! my fair one, am I not worthy to be Pope, and better than that, thy lover this evening?”
But seeing Imperia thoughtful he approached her to take her in his arms, and pet her after the usual fashion of cardinals, men who embrace better than all others, even the soldiers, because they are lazy, and do not spare their essential properties.
“Ha!” said she, drawing back, “you wish to cause my death, you ecclesiastical idiot. The principal thing for you is to enjoy yourself; my sweet carcass, a thing accessory. Your pleasure will be my death, and then you’ll canonise me perhaps? Ah, you have the plague, and you would give it to me. Go somewhere else, you brainless priest. Ah! touch me not,” said she, seeing him about to advance, “or I will stab you with this dagger.”
And the clever hussy drew from her armoire a little dagger, which she knew how to use with great skill when necessary.
“But my little paradise, my sweet one,” said the other, laughing, “don’t you see the trick? Wasn’t it necessary to be get rid of that old bullock of Coire?”
“Well then, if you love me, show it” replied she. “I desire that you leave me instantly. If you are touched with the disease my death will not worry you. I know you well enough to know at what price you will put a moment of pleasure at your last hour. You would drown the earth. Ah, ah! you have boasted of it when drunk. I love only myself, my treasures, and my health. Go, and if tomorrow your veins are not frozen by the disease, you can come again. Today, I hate you, good cardinal,” said she, smiling.
“Imperia!” cried the cardinal on his knees, “my blessed Imperia, do not play with me thus.”
“No,” said she, “I never play with blessed and sacred things.”
“Ah! ribald woman, I will excommunicate thee tomorrow.”
“And now you are out of your cardinal sense.”
“Imperia, cursed daughter of Satan! Oh, my little beauty–my love–!”
“Respect yourself more. Don’t kneel to me, fie for shame!”
“Wilt thou have a dispensation in articulo mortis? Wilt thou have my fortune–or better still, a bit of the veritable true Cross?–Wilt thou?”
“This evening, all the wealth of heaven above and earth beneath would not buy my heart,” said she, laughing. “I should be the blackest of sinners, unworthy to receive the Blessed Sacrament if I had not my little caprices.”
“I’ll burn the house down. Sorceress, you have bewitched me. You shall perish at the stake. Listen to me, my love,–my gentle Dove–I promise you the best place in heaven. Eh? No. Death to you then–death to the sorceress.”
“Oh, oh! I will kill you, Monseigneur.”
And the cardinal foamed with rage.
“You are making a fool of yourself,” said she. “Go away, you’ll tire yourself.”
“I shall be pope, and you shall pay for this!”
“Then you are no longer disposed to obey me?”
“What can I do this evening to please you?”
And she sprang lightly like a wagtail into her room, and locked herself in, leaving the cardinal to storm that he was obliged to go. When the fair Imperia found herself alone, seated before the fire, and without her little priest, she exclaimed, snapping angrily the gold links of her chain, “By the double triple horn on the devil, if the little one has made me have this row with the Cardinal, and exposed me to the danger of being poisoned tomorrow, unless I pay him over to my heart’s content, I will not die till I have seen him burned alive before my eyes. Ah!” said she, weeping, this time real tears, “I lead a most unhappy life, and the little pleasure I have costs me the life of a dog, let alone my salvation.”
As she finished this jeremiad, wailing like a calf that is being slaughtered, she beheld the blushing face of the young priest, who had hidden himself, peeping at her from behind her large Venetian mirror.
“Ah!” said she, “Thou art the most perfect monk that ever dwelt in this blessed and amorous town of Constance. Ah, ah! Come my gentle cavalier, my dear boy, my little charm, my paradise of delectation, let me drink thine eyes, eat thee, kill thee with my love. Oh! my ever-flourishing, ever-green, sempiternal god; from a little monk I would make a king, emperor, pope, and happier than either. There, thou canst put anything to fire and sword, I am thine, and thou shalt see it well; for thou shalt be all a cardinal, even when to redden thy hood I shed all my heart’s blood.” And with her trembling hands all joyously she filled with Greek wine the golden cup, brought by the Bishop of Coire, and presented it to her sweetheart, whom she served upon her knee, she whose slipper princes found more to their taste than that of the pope.
But he gazed at her in silence, with his eye so lustrous with love, that she said to him, trembling with joy ” Ah! be quiet, little one. Let us have supper.”