The Illustrious Gaudissart, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter V

The illustrious Gaudissart returned to the Soleil d’Or, where he naturally conversed with the landlord while waiting for dinner. Mitouflet was an old soldier, guilelessly crafty, like the peasantry of the Loire; he never laughed at a jest, but took it with the gravity of a man accustomed to the roar of cannon and to make his own jokes under arms.

“You have some very strong-minded people here,” said Gaudissart, leaning against the door-post and lighting his cigar at Mitouflet’s pipe.

“How do you mean?” asked Mitouflet.

“I mean people who are rough-shod on political and financial ideas.”

“Whom have you seen? if I may ask without indiscretion,” said the landlord innocently, expectorating after the adroit and periodical fashion of smokers.

“A fine, energetic fellow named Margaritis.”

Mitouflet cast two glances in succession at his guest which were expressive of chilling irony.

“May be; the good-man knows a deal. He knows too much for other folks, who can’t always understand him.”

“I can believe it, for he thoroughly comprehends the abstruse principles of finance.”

“Yes,” said the innkeeper, “and for my part, I am sorry he is a lunatic.”

“A lunatic! What do you mean?”

“Well, crazy — cracked, as people are when they are insane,” answered Mitouflet. “But he is not dangerous; his wife takes care of him. Have you been arguing with him?” added the pitiless landlord; “that must have been funny!”

“Funny!” cried Gaudissart. “Funny! Then your Monsieur Vernier has been making fun of me!”

“Did he send you there?”

“Yes.”

“Wife! wife! come here and listen. If Monsieur Vernier didn’t take it into his head to send this gentleman to talk to Margaritis!”

“What in the world did you say to each other, my dear, good Monsieur?” said the wife. “Why, he’s crazy!”

“He sold me two casks of wine.”

“Did you buy them?”

“Yes.”

“But that is his delusion; he thinks he sells his wine, and he hasn’t any.”

“Ha!” snorted the traveller, “then I’ll go straight to Monsieur Vernier and thank him.”

And Gaudissart departed, boiling over with rage, to shake the exdyer, whom he found in his salon, laughing with a company of friends to whom he had already recounted the tale.

“Monsieur,” said the prince of travellers, darting a savage glance at his enemy, “you are a scoundrel and a blackguard; and under pain of being thought a turn-key — a species of being far below a galley-slave — you will give me satisfaction for the insult you dared to offer me in sending me to a man whom you knew to be a lunatic! Do you hear me, Monsieur Vernier, dyer?”

Such was the harangue which Gaudissart prepared as he went along, as a tragedian makes ready for his entrance on the scene.

“What!” cried Vernier, delighted at the presence of an audience, “do you think we have no right to make fun of a man who comes here, bag and baggage, and demands that we hand over our property because, forsooth, he is pleased to call us great men, painters, artists, poets — mixing us up gratuitously with a set of fools who have neither house nor home, nor sous nor sense? Why should we put up with a rascal who comes here and wants us to feather his nest by subscribing to a newspaper which preaches a new religion whose first doctrine is, if you please, that we are not to inherit from our fathers and mothers? On my sacred word of honor, Pere Margaritis said things a great deal more sensible. And now, what are you complaining about? You and Margaritis seemed to understand each other. The gentlemen here present can testify that if you had talked to the whole canton you couldn’t have been as well understood.”

“That’s all very well for you to say; but I have been insulted, Monsieur, and I demand satisfaction!”

“Very good, Monsieur! consider yourself insulted, if you like. I shall not give you satisfaction, because there is neither rhyme nor reason nor satisfaction to be found in the whole business. What an absurd fool he is, to be sure!”

At these words Gaudissart flew at the dyer to give him a slap on the face, but the listening crowd rushed between them, so that the illustrious traveller only contrived to knock off the wig of his enemy, which fell on the head of Mademoiselle Clara Vernier.

“If you are not satisfied, Monsieur,” he said, “I shall be at the Soleil d’Or until tomorrow morning, and you will find me ready to show you what it means to give satisfaction. I fought in July, Monsieur.”

“And you shall fight in Vouvray,” answered the dyer; “and what is more, you shall stay here longer than you imagine.”

Gaudissart marched off, turning over in his mind this prophetic remark, which seemed to him full of sinister portent. For the first time in his life the prince of travellers did not dine jovially. The whole town of Vouvray was put in a ferment about the “affair” between Monsieur Vernier and the apostle of Saint–Simonism. Never before had the tragic event of a duel been so much as heard of in that benign and happy valley.

“Monsieur Mitouflet, I am to fight tomorrow with Monsieur Vernier,” said Gaudissart to his landlord. “I know no one here: will you be my second?”

“Willingly,” said the host.

Gaudissart had scarcely finished his dinner before Madame Fontanieu and the assistant-mayor of Vouvray came to the Soleil d’Or and took Mitouflet aside. They told him it would be a painful and injurious thing to the whole canton if a violent death were the result of this affair; they represented the pitiable distress of Madame Vernier, and conjured him to find some way to arrange matters and save the credit of the district.

“I take it all upon myself,” said the sagacious landlord.

In the evening he went up to the traveller’s room carrying pens, ink, and paper.

“What have you got there?” asked Gaudissart.

“If you are going to fight tomorrow,” answered Mitouflet, “you had better make some settlement of your affairs; and perhaps you have letters to write — we all have beings who are dear to us. Writing doesn’t kill, you know. Are you a good swordsman? Would you like to get your hand in? I have some foils.”

“Yes, gladly.”

Mitouflet returned with foils and masks.

“Now, then, let us see what you can do.”

The pair put themselves on guard. Mitouflet, with his former prowess as grenadier of the guard, made sixty-two passes at Gaudissart, pushed him about right and left, and finally pinned him up against the wall.

“The deuce! you are strong,” said Gaudissart, out of breath.

“Monsieur Vernier is stronger than I am.”

“The devil! Damn it, I shall fight with pistols.”

“I advise you to do so; because, if you take large holster pistols and load them up to their muzzles, you can’t risk anything. They are sure to fire wide of the mark, and both parties can retire from the field with honor. Let me manage all that. Hein! ‘sapristi,’ two brave men would be arrant fools to kill each other for a joke.”

“Are you sure the pistols will carry wide enough? I should be sorry to kill the man, after all,” said Gaudissart.

“Sleep in peace,” answered Mitouflet, departing.

The next morning the two adversaries, more or less pale, met beside the bridge of La Cise. The brave Vernier came near shooting a cow which was peaceably feeding by the roadside.

“Ah, you fired in the air!” cried Gaudissart.

At these words the enemies embraced.

“Monsieur,” said the traveller, “your joke was rather rough, but it was a good one for all that. I am sorry I apostrophized you: I was excited. I regard you as a man of honor.”

“Monsieur, we take twenty subscriptions to the ‘Children’s Journal,’” replied the dyer, still pale.

“That being so,” said Gaudissart, “why shouldn’t we all breakfast together? Men who fight are always the ones to come to a good understanding.”

“Monsieur Mitouflet,” said Gaudissart on his return to the inn, “of course you have got a sheriff’s officer here?”

“What for?”

“I want to send a summons to my good friend Margaritis to deliver the two casks of wine.”

“But he has not got them,” said Vernier.

“No matter for that; the affair can be arranged by the payment of an indemnity. I won’t have it said that Vouvray outwitted the illustrious Gaudissart.”

Madame Margaritis, alarmed at the prospect of a suit in which the plaintiff would certainly win his case, brought thirty francs to the placable traveller, who thereupon considered himself quits with the happiest region of sunny France — a region which is also, we must add, the most recalcitrant to new and progressive ideas.

On returning from his trip through the southern departments, the illustrious Gaudissart occupied the coupe of a diligence, where he met a young man to whom, as they journeyed between Angouleme and Paris, he deigned to explain the enigmas of life, taking him, apparently, for an infant.

As they passed Vouvray the young man exclaimed, “What a fine site!”

“Yes, Monsieur,” said Gaudissart, “but not habitable on account of the people. You get into duels every day. Why, it is not three months since I fought one just there,” pointing to the bridge of La Cise, “with a damned dyer; but I made an end of him — he bit the dust!”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31