The Baroness

“You might see some interesting pieces there,” my friend Boisrené said. “Come with me.” He took me to the first floor of a beautiful house in one of the best streets in Paris. We were received by a very agreeable man, with perfect manners, who led us from room to room, and showed us rare pieces, negligently letting fall the price. Vast sums, ten, twenty, thirty, fifty thousand francs, fell from his lips with so much grace and ease that no one could doubt that millions were locked up in the safe belonging to this man-of-the-world dealer.

I had long known him by repute. Very clever, very subtle-witted, very intelligent, he acted as intermediary in all sorts of transactions. He was in touch with all the richest amateurs in Paris, and even in Europe and America; he knew their tastes and their latest crazes, and he wrote or wired the news to such as lived in distant towns, as soon as ever any piece came into the market which was likely to interest them.

Members of the best families, who found themselves in a temporary embarrassment, had recourse to him, it might be to find money for gambling, it might be to pay a debt, or to sell a picture, an heirloom, a tapestry, or even a house or an estate, in moments of particular stress.

It was said that he never refused his services when he saw a chance of profit.

Boisrené seemed to be on intimate terms with this curious dealer. They had worked together more than once. I looked at the man with sharp interest.

He was tall, thin, bald and vastly elegant. His gentle insinuating voice had a charm of its own, a seductive charm that gave things a special value. When he held a piece in his fingers, he turned it over and over, looking at it so intelligently and subtly, so elegantly and sympathetically that the thing seemed to take on an immediate added beauty, a transformation wrought by his touch and his glance. It became at once much more valuable in the eyes of the beholder just through having passed from the showcase into his grasp.

“And your Christ?” said Boisrené; “the beautiful Renaissance Christ that you showed me last year?”

The man smiled and answered:

“I sold it, and in a very odd way. It’s a real fragment of Parisian life. Would you like to hear it?”

“I should.”

“You know Baroness Samoris?”

“Yes and no. I have seen her once, but I know what she is.”

“You do really know about her?”


“Tell me what you know, so that I can be sure you’re not making a mistake.”

“Certainly. Mme. Samoris is a woman of the world who has a daughter, though no one knows anything about a husband. In any event, if she has not had a husband, she manages her lovers with great discretion, for she is received in a certain section of society, which is either tolerant or blind.

“She goes regularly to church, receives the sacraments with a devout ostentation and never compromised herself in the eyes of the world. She hopes that her daughter will marry well. Have I got her right?”

“Yes, but I’ll add to the stock of your knowledge: she is a kept woman whose lovers have a greater respect for her than if she did not sleep with them. It is a rare quality; and the woman who achieves it can get what she wants from any man. The man whom, all unknown to himself, she has already decided to take, seeks her favour for a long time, desires her and trembles for his audacity, entreats her and is ashamed of entreaty, is amazed when she surrenders, and possesses her with respectful gratitude. He never notices that he is paying her, to such a fine art has she brought the act of taking; she keeps the tone of their relationship so reserved, so dignified, so correct that when he leaves her bed he would assault any man daring to doubt his mistress’s virtue. And that in all good faith.

“I have been of service to this woman on several occasions. And she has no secrets from me.

“Well, early in January, she came to me to borrow thirty thousand francs. I did not lend them to her, of course, but as I wanted to oblige her I begged her to tell me exactly how she was placed so that I might know what I could do for her.

“She described the situation in language so extraordinarily discreet that she could not have phrased it more delicately if she had been talking about her little girl’s first communion. I gathered at last that times were hard and she was penniless.

“Thanks to the crisis in trade, political troubles that the existing government appeared to keep going at will, rumours of war, and the general unrest, money moved reluctantly even through lovers’ hands. And, besides, a woman of her reputation could not give herself to the first comer.

“She needed a man of the world, the most exclusive social world, who would crown her reputation while supplying her daily bread. A wealthy sybarite had compromised her daughter beyond hope and made her marriage very problematic. She could not now afford to resort to a professional go-between or shady intermediaries who could once have extricated her from her difficulties.

“Besides, she had to maintain her establishment, and continue to keep open house, in order not to lose all chance of finding among her many visitors the discreet and distinguished friend for whom she was waiting, whom she would choose.

“I convinced her that there was little prospect of my getting back my thirty thousand francs, since when she had run through them, it would be necessary for her to make at least sixty thousand in one haul before she could repay me my half.

“She listened to me in apparent distress. And I did not know what to suggest, until an idea, a really original idea, flashed across my mind.

“I had just bought the Renaissance Christ I showed you, an admirable piece, quite the most beautiful bit of work in that manner I have ever seen.

“ ‘My dear friend,’ I said to her, ‘I am going to send you home this ivory. You will invent an ingenious story for it, a really moving, romantic story, any story you like, to explain your desire to get rid of it. It is, of course, a family treasure inherited from your father.

“ ‘I will send collectors to you and bring them to you myself. I leave the rest to you. I will let you have all necessary information about them the day before. This Christ is worth fifty thousand francs, but I will let it go for thirty thousand. The difference will be your commission.’

“She reflected a few moments with an air of profound gravity, and answered: ‘Yes, it is possibly a good idea. Thank you very much.’

“I had my Christ taken to her house next day, and the same evening I sent her the Baron de Saint-Hospital.

“For three months I went on sending clients to her, my very best clients, those whose high standing had been amply proved in my business relations with them. But I heard nothing of her.

“Then I had a visit from a foreigner who spoke French very badly, and I decided to take him myself to the Samoris’ house to see what was going on.

“A footman in black livery opened the door and showed me into a pretty drawing room, decorated in subdued colours and furnished in excellent taste. We waited here for some minutes. She appeared, looking charming, shook hands with me, and asked us to sit down; and when I had explained to her the reason of my visit, she rang.

“The footman reappeared.

“ ‘See whether Mlle. Isabella will let us visit her chapel,’ she said.

“The young girl brought her answer herself. She was fifteen years old, radiant with first youth, and wore an air of modest simplicity.

“She would take us herself to her chapel.

“It was a kind of sacred boudoir where a silver lamp was burning before the Christ, my Christ, laid on a bed of black velvet. The whole setting was charming and very clever.

“The child crossed herself, then said to us:

“ ‘Look at it, gentlemen, is it not lovely?’

“I took the thing up, examined it and pronounced it quite remarkable. The foreigner considered it too, but he seemed much more interested in the two women than in the Christ.

“Their house gave one a feeling of well-being; there was a scent of incense, flowers and perfumes. It was happiness to be there. It was so comfortable a place that one longed to stay.

“When we returned to the drawing room I broached, in a reserved and delicate fashion, the question of price. Lowering her glance, Mme. Samoris said fifty thousand francs.

“Then she added: ‘If you would like to see it again, monsieur, I rarely go out before three o’clock, and I am at home every day.’

“When we were in the street, the foreigner demanded to be told more about the Baroness, whom he had found altogether exquisite. But I heard nothing further of either of them.

“Another three months went by.

“One morning, less than a fortnight ago, she arrived here at breakfast time, and laid a pocketbook in my hands: ‘My dear, you’re an angel. I have brought you fifty thousand francs: I am buying your Christ myself, and I am paying twenty thousand francs more than the price agreed, on condition that you go on sending me⁠ ⁠… sending me clients⁠ ⁠… because he is still for sale⁠ ⁠… my Christ⁠ ⁠…’ ”