Droll Stories— Volume 3

Author: Honore de Balzac

I How Madame Imperia Was Caught by the Very Net She Was Accustomed to Spread for Her Love-Birds

The lovely lady Imperia, who gloriously opens these tales, because she was the glory of her time, was compelled to come into the town of Rome, after the holding of the council, for the cardinal of Ragusa loved her more than his cardinal’s hat, and wished to have her near him. This rascal was so magnificent, that he presented her with the beautiful palace that he had in the Papal capital. About this time she had the misfortune to find herself in an interesting condition by this cardinal. As everyone knows, this pregnancy finished with a fine little daughter, concerning whom the Pope said jokingly that she should be named Theodora, as if to say The Gift Of God. The girl was thus named, and was exquisitely lovely. The cardinal left his inheritance to this Theodora, whom the fair Imperia established in her hotel, for she was flying from Rome as from a pernicious place, where children were begotten, and where she had nearly spoiled her beautiful figure, her celebrated perfections, lines of the body, curves of the back, delicious breasts, and Serpentine charms which placed her as much above the other women of Christendom as the Holy Father was above all other Christians. But all her lovers knew that with the assistance of eleven doctors of Padua, seven master surgeons of Pavia, and five surgeons come from all parts, who assisted at her confinement, she was preserved from all injury. Some go so far as to say that she gained therein superfineness and whiteness of skin. A famous man, of the school of Salerno, wrote a book on the subject, to show the value of a confinement for the freshness, health, preservation, and beauty of women. In this very learned book it was clearly proved to readers that that which was beautiful to see in Imperia, was that which it was permissible for lovers alone to behold; a rare case then, for she did not disarrange her attire for the petty German princes whom she called her margraves, burgraves, electors, and dukes, just as a captain ranks his soldiers.

Everyone knows that when she was eighteen years of age, the lovely Theodora, to atone for her mother’s gay life, wished to retire into the bosom of the Church. With this idea she placed herself in the hands of a cardinal, in order that he might instruct her in the duties of the devout. This wicked shepherd found the lamb so magnificently beautiful that he attempted to debauch her. Theodora instantly stabbed herself with a stiletto, in order not to be contaminated by the evilminded priest. This adventure, which was consigned to the history of the period, made a great commotion in Rome, and was deplored by everyone, so much was the daughter of Imperia beloved.

Then this noble courtesan, much afflicted, returned to Rome, there to weep for her poor daughter. She set out in the thirty-ninth year of her age, which was, according to some authors, the summer of her magnificent beauty, because then she had obtained the acme of perfection, like ripe fruit. Sorrow made her haughty and hard with those who spoke to her of love, in order to dry her tears. The pope himself visited her in her palace, and gave her certain words of admonition. But she refused to be comforted, saying that she would henceforth devote herself to God, because she had never yet been satisfied by any man, although she had ardently desired it; and all of them, even a little priest, whom she had adored like a saint’s shrine, had deceived her. God, she was sure, would not do so.

This resolution disconcerted many, for she was the joy of a vast number of lords. So that people ran about the streets of Rome crying out, "Where is Madame Imperia? Is she going to deprive the world of love?" Some of the ambassadors wrote to their masters on the subject. The Emperor of the Romans was much cut up about it, because he had loved her to distraction for eleven weeks; had left her only to go to the wars, and loved her still as much as his most precious member, which according to his own statement, was his eye, for that alone embraced the whole of his dear Imperia. In this extremity the Pope sent for a Spanish physician, and conducted him to the beautiful creature, to whom he proved, by various arguments, adorned with Latin and Greek quotations, that beauty is impaired by tears and tribulation, and that through sorrow’s door wrinkles step in. This proposition, confirmed by the doctors of the Holy College in controversy, had the effect of opening the doors of the palace that same evening. The young cardinals, the foreign envoys, the wealthy inhabitants, and the principal men of the town of Rome came, crowded the rooms, and held a joyous festival; the common people made grand illuminations, and thus the whole population celebrated the return of the Queen of Pleasure to her occupation, for she was at that time the presiding deity of Love. The experts in all the arts loved her much, because she spent considerable sums of money improving the Church in Rome, which contained poor Theodora’s tomb, which was destroyed during that pillage of Rome in which perished the traitorous constable of Bourbon, for this holy maiden was placed therein in a massive coffin of gold and silver, which the cursed soldiers were anxious to obtain. The basilic cost, it is said, more than the pyramid erected by the Lady Rhodepa, an Egyptian courtesan, eighteen hundred years before the coming of our divine Saviour, which proves the antiquity of this pleasant occupation, the extravagant prices which the wise Egyptians paid for their pleasures, and how things deteriorate, seeing that now for a trifle you can have a chemise full of female loveliness in the Rue du Petit-Heulen, at Paris. Is it not abomination?

Never had Madame Imperia appeared so lovely as at this first gala after her mourning. All the princes, cardinals, and others declared that she was worthy the homage of the whole world, which was there represented by a noble from every known land, and thus was it amply demonstrated that beauty was in every place queen of everything.

The envoy of the King of France, who was a cadet of the house of l’Ile Adam, arrived late, although he had never yet seen Imperia, and was most anxious to do so. He was a handsome young knight, much in favour with his sovereign, in whose court he had a mistress, whom he loved with infinite tenderness, and who was the daughter of Monsieur de Montmorency, a lord whose domains bordered upon those of the house of l’Ile Adam. To this penniless cadet the king had given certain missions to the duchy of Milan, of which he had acquitted himself so well that he was sent to Rome to advance the negotiations concerning which historians have written so much in their books. Now if he had nothing of his own, poor little l’Ile Adam relied upon so good a beginning. He was slightly built, but upright as a column, dark, with black, glistening eyes; and a man not easily taken in; but concealing his finesse, he had the air of an innocent child, which made him gentle and amiable as a laughing maiden. Directly this gentleman joined her circle, and her eyes had rested upon him, Madame Imperia felt herself bitten by a strong desire, which stretched the harp strings of her nature, and produced therefrom a sound she had not heard for many a day. She was seized with such a vertigo of true love at the sight of this freshness of youth, that but for her imperial dignity she would have kissed the good cheeks which shone like little apples.

Now take note of this; that so called modest women, and ladies whose skirts bear their armorial bearings, are thoroughly ignorant of the nature of man, because they keep to one alone, like the Queen of France who believed all men had ulcers in the nose because the king had; but a great courtesan, like Madame Imperia, knew man to his core, because she had handled a great many. In her retreat, everyone came out in his true colours, and concealed nothing, thinking to himself that he would not be long with her. Having often deplored this subjection, sometimes she would remark that she suffered from pleasure more than she suffered from pain. There was the dark shadow of her life. You may be sure that a lover was often compelled to part with a nice little heap of crowns in order to pass the night with her, and was reduced to desperation by a refusal. Now for her it was a joyful thing to feel a youthful desire, like that she had for the little priest, whose story commences this collection; but because she was older than in those merry days, love was more fully established in her, and she soon perceived that it was of a fiery nature when it began to make itself felt; indeed, she suffered in her skin like a cat that is being scorched, and so much so that she had an intense longing to spring upon this gentleman, and bear him in triumph to her nest, as a kite does its prey, but with great difficulty she restrained herself. When he came and bowed to her, she threw back her head, and assumed a most dignified attitude, as do those who have a love infatuation in their hearts. The gravity of her demeanour to the young ambassador caused many to think that she had work in store for him; equivocating on the word, after the custom of the time.

L’Ile Adam, knowing himself to be dearly loved by his mistress, troubled himself but little about Madame Imperia, grave or gay, and frisked about like a goat let loose. The courtesan, terribly annoyed at this, changed her tone, from being sulky became gay and lively, came to him, softened her voice, sharpened her glance, gracefully inclined her head, rubbed against him with her sleeve, and called him Monsiegneur, embraced him with the loving words, trifled with his hand, and finished by smiling at him most affably. He, not imagining that so unprofitable a lover would suit her, for he was as poor as a church mouse, and did not know that his beauty was the equal in her eyes to all the treasures of the world, was not taken in her trap, but continued to ride the high horse with his hand on his hips. This disdain of her passion irritated Madame to the heart, which by this spark was set in flame. If you doubt this, it is because you know nothing of the profession of the Madame Imperia, who by reason of it might be compared to a chimney, in which a great number of fires have been lighted, which had filled it with soot; in this state a match was sufficient to burn everything there, where a hundred fagots has smoked comfortably. She burned within from top to toe in a horrible manner, and could not be extinguished save with the water of love. The cadet of l’Ile Adam left the room without noticing this ardour.

Madame, disconsolate at his departure, lost her senses from her head to her feet, and so thoroughly that she sent a messenger to him on the galleries, begging him to pass the night with her. On no other occasion of her life had she had this cowardice, either for king, pope, or emperor, since the high price of her favours came from the bondage in which she held her admirers, whom the more she humbled the more she raised herself. The disdainful hero of this history was informed by the head chamber-women, who was a clever jade, that in all probability a great treat awaited him, for most certainly Madame would regale him with her most delicate inventions of love. L’Ile Adam returned to the salons, delighted at this lucky chance. Directly the envoy of France reappeared, as everyone had seen Imperia turn pale at his departure, the general joy knew no bounds, because everyone was delighted to see her return to her old life of love. An English cardinal, who had drained more than one big-bellied flagon, and wished to taste Imperia, went to l’Ile Adam and whispered to him, "Hold her fast, so that she shall never again escape us."

The story of this remark was told to the pope at his levee, and caused him to remark, /Laetamini, gentes, quoniam surrexit Dominus/. A quotation which the old cardinals abominated as a profanation of sacred texts. Seeing which, the pope reprimanded them severely, and took occasion to lecture them, telling them that if they were good Christians they were bad politicians. Indeed, he relied upon the fair Imperia to reclaim the emperor, and with this idea he syringed her well with flattery.

The lights of the palace being extinguished, the golden flagons on the floor, and the servants drunk and stretched about on the carpets, Madame entered her bedchamber, leading by the hand her dear loverelect; and she was well pleased, and has since confessed that so strongly was she bitten with love, she could hardly restrain herself from rolling at his feet like a beast of the field, begging him to crush her beneath him if he could. L’Ile Adam slipped off his garments, and tumbled into bed as if he were in his own house. Seeing which, Madame hastened her preparations, and sprang into her lover’s arms with a frenzy that astonished her women, who knew her to be ordinarily one of the most modest of women on these occasions. The astonishment became general throughout the country, for the pair remained in bed for nine days, eating, drinking, and embracing in a marvellous and most masterly manner. Madame told her women that at last she had placed her hand on a phoenix of love, since he revived from every attack. Nothing was talked of in Rome and Italy but the victory that had been gained over Imperia, who had boasted that she would yield to no man, and spat upon all of them, even the dukes. As to the aforesaid margraves and burgraves, she gave them the tail of her dress to hold, and said that if she did not tread them under foot, they would trample upon her. Madame confessed to her servants that, differently to all other men she had had to put up with, the more she fondled this child of love, the more she desired to do so, and that she would never be able to part with him; nor his splendid eyes, which blinded her; nor his branch of coral, that she always hungered after. She further declared that if such were his desire, she would let him suck her blood, eat her breasts—which were the most lovely in the world—and cut her tresses, of which she had only given a single one to the Emperor of the Romans, who kept it in his breast, like a precious relic; finally, she confessed that on that night only had life begun for her, because the embrace of Villiers de l’Ile Adam sent the blood to her in three bounds and in a brace of shakes.

These expressions becoming known, made everyone very miserable. Directly she went out, Imperia told the ladies of Rome that she should die it if she were deserted by this gentleman, and would cause herself, like Queen Cleopatra, to be bitten by an asp. She declared openly that she had bidden an eternal adieu her to her former gay life, and would show the whole world what virtue was by abandoning her empire for this Villiers de l’Ile Adam, whose servant she would rather be than reign of Christendom. The English cardinal remonstrated with the pope that this love for one, in the heart of a woman who was the joy of all, was an infamous depravity, and that he ought with a brief /in partibus/, to annul this marriage, which robbed the fashionable world of its principal attraction. But the love of this poor woman, who had confessed the miseries of her life, was so sweet a thing, and so moved the most dissipated heart, that she silenced all clamour, and everyone forgave her her happiness. One day, during Lent, Imperia made her people fast, and ordered them to go and confess, and return to God. She herself went and fell at the pope’s feet, and there showed such penitence, that she obtained from him remission of all her sins, believing that the absolution of the pope would communicate to her soul that virginity which she was grieved at being unable to offer her lover. It is impossible to help thinking that there was some virtue in the ecclesiastical piscina, for the poor cadet was so smothered with love that he fancied himself in Paradise, and left the negotiations of the King of France, left his love for Mademoiselle de Montmorency—in fact, left everything to marry Madame Imperia, in order that he might live and die with her. Such was the effect of the learned ways of this great lady of pleasure directly she turned her science to the root of a virtuous love. Imperia bade adieu to her admirers at a royal feast, given in honour of her wedding, which was a wonderful ceremony, at which all the Italian princes were present. She had, it is said, a million gold crowns; in spite of the vastness of this sum, every one far from blaming L’Ile Adam, paid him many compliments, because it was evident that neither Madame Imperia nor her young husband thought of anything but one. The pope blessed their marriage, and said that it was a fine thing to see the foolish virgin returning to God by the road of marriage.

But during that last night in which it would be permissible for all to behold the Queen of Beauty, who was about to become a simple chatelaine of the kingdom of France, there were a great number of men who mourned for the merry nights, the suppers, the masked balls, the joyous games, and the melting hours, when each one emptied his heart to her. Everyone regretted the ease and freedom which had always been found in the residence of this lovely creature, who now appeared more tempting than she had ever done in her life, for the fervid heat of her great love made her glisten like a summer sun. Much did they lament the fact that she had had the sad fantasy to become a respectable woman. To these Madame de l’Ile Adam answered jestingly, that after twenty-four years passed in the service of the public, she had a right to retire. Others said to her, that however distant the sun was, people could warm themselves in it, while she would show herself no more. To these she replied that she would still have smiles to bestow upon those lords who would come and see how she played the role of a virtuous woman. To this the English envoy answered, he believed her capable of pushing virtue to its extreme point. She gave a present to each of her friends, and large sums to the poor and suffering of Rome; besides this, she left to the convent where her daughter was to have been, and to the church she had built, the wealth she had inherited from Theodora, which came from the cardinal of Ragusa.

When the two spouses set out they were accompanied a long way by knights in mourning, and even by the common people, who wished them every happiness, because Madame Imperia had been hard on the rich only, and had always been kind and gentle with the poor. This lovely queen of love was hailed with acclamations throughout the journey in all the towns of Italy where the report of her conversion had spread, and where everyone was curious to see pass, a case so rare as two such spouses. Several princes received this handsome couple at their courts, saying it was but right to show honour to this woman who had the courage to renounce her empire over the world of fashion, to become a virtuous woman. But there was an evil-minded fellow, one my lord Duke of Ferrara, who said to l’Ile Adam that his great fortune had not cost him much. At this first offence Madame Imperia showed what a good heart she had, for she gave up all the money she had received from her lovers, to ornament the dome of St. Maria del Fiore, in the town of Florence, which turned the laugh against the Sire d’Este, who boasted that he had built a church in spite of the empty condition of his purse. You may be sure he was reprimanded for this joke by his brother the cardinal.

The fair Imperia only kept her own wealth and that which the Emperor had bestowed upon her out of pure friendship since his departure, the amount of which was however, considerable. The cadet of l’Ile Adam had a duel with the duke, in which he wounded him. Thus neither Madame de l’Ile Adam, nor her husband could be in any way reproached. This piece of chivalry caused her to be gloriously received in all places she passed through, especially in Piedmont, where the fetes were splendid. Verses which the poet then composed, such as sonnets, epithalamias, and odes, have been given in certain collections; but all poetry was weak in comparison with her, who was, according to an expression of Monsieur Boccaccio, poetry herself.

The prize in this tourney of fetes and gallantry must be awarded to the good Emperor of the Romans, who, knowing of the misbehaviour of the Duke of Ferrara, dispatched an envoy to his old flame, charged with Latin manuscripts, in which he told her that he loved her so much for herself, that he was delighted to know that she was happy, but grieved to know that all her happiness was not derived from him; that he had lost his right to make her presents, but that, if the king of France received her coldly, he would think it an honour to acquire a Villiers to the holy empire, and would give him such principalities as he might choose from his domains. The fair Imperia replied that she was extremely obliged to the Emperor, but that had she to suffer contumely upon contumely in France, she still intended there to finish her days.


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Honoré de Balzac

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Chicago: Honore de Balzac, "I How Madame Imperia Was Caught by the Very Net She Was Accustomed to Spread for Her Love-Birds," Droll Stories— Volume 3, trans. Marriage, Ellen in Droll Stories—Volume 3 Original Sources, accessed March 2, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4T5NFAUI5VMQ48Q.

MLA: de Balzac, Honore. "I How Madame Imperia Was Caught by the Very Net She Was Accustomed to Spread for Her Love-Birds." Droll Stories— Volume 3, translted by Marriage, Ellen, in Droll Stories—Volume 3, Original Sources. 2 Mar. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4T5NFAUI5VMQ48Q.

Harvard: de Balzac, H, 'I How Madame Imperia Was Caught by the Very Net She Was Accustomed to Spread for Her Love-Birds' in Droll Stories— Volume 3, trans. . cited in , Droll Stories—Volume 3. Original Sources, retrieved 2 March 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=4T5NFAUI5VMQ48Q.