Pierrette, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 10

Verdicts — Legal and Other

Meantime Rogron’s marriage with Mademoiselle de Chargeboeuf took place. Sylvie moved to the second floor of the house, which she shared with Madame de Chargeboeuf, for the first floor was entirely taken up by the new wife. The beautiful Madame Rogron succeeded to the social place of the beautiful Madame Tiphaine. The influence of the marriage was immense. No one now came to visit Sylvie, but Madame Rogron’s salon was always full.

Sustained by the influence of his mother-inlaw and the bankers du Tillet and Nucingen, Monsieur Tiphaine was fortunate enough to do some service to the administration; he became one of its chief orators, was made judge in the civil courts, and obtained the appointment of his nephew Lesourd to his own vacant place as president of the court of Provins. This appointment greatly annoyed Desfondrilles. The Keeper of the Seals sent down one of his own proteges to fill Lesourd’s place. The promotion of Monsieur Tiphaine and his translation to Paris were therefore of no benefit at all to the Vinet party; but Vinet nevertheless made a clever use of the result. He had always told the Provins people that they were being used as a stepping-stone to raise the crafty Madame Tiphaine into grandeur; Tiphaine himself had tricked them; Madame Tiphaine despised both Provins and its people in her heart, and would never return there again. Just at this crisis Monsieur Tiphaine’s father died; his son inherited a fine estate and sold his house in Provins to Monsieur Julliard. The sale proved to the minds of all how little the Tiphaines thought of Provins. Vinet was right; Vinet had been a true prophet. These things had great influence on the question of Pierrette’s guardianship.

Thus the dreadful martyrdom brutally inflicted on the poor child by two imbecile tyrants (which led, through its consequences, to the terrible operation of trepanning, performed by Monsieur Martener under the advice of Doctor Bianchon) — all this horrible drama reduced to judicial form was left to float in the vile mess called in legal parlance the calendar. The case was made to drag through the delays and the interminable labyrinths of the law, by the shufflings of an unprincipled lawyer; and during all this time the calumniated girl languished in the agony of the worst pain known to science.

Monsieur Martener, together with the Auffray family, were soon charmed by the beauty of Pierrette’s nature and the character of her old grandmother, whose feelings, ideas, and ways bore the stamp of Roman antiquity — this matron of the Marais was like a woman in Plutarch.

Doctor Martener struggled bravely with death, which already grasped its prey. From the first, Bianchon and the hospital surgeon had considered Pierrette doomed; and there now took place between the doctor and the disease, the former relying on Pierrette’s youth, one of those struggles which physicians alone comprehend — the reward of which, in case of success, is never found in the venal pay nor in the patients themselves, but in the gentle satisfaction of conscience, in the invisible ideal palm gathered by true artists from the contentment which fills their soul after accomplishing a noble work. The physician strains towards good as an artist towards beauty, each impelled by that grand sentiment which we call virtue. This daily contest wiped out of Doctor Martener’s mind the petty irritations of that other contest of the Tiphaines and the Vinets — as always happens to men when they find themselves face to face with a great and real misery to conquer.

Monsieur Martener had begun his career in Paris; but the cruel activity of the city and its insensibility to its masses of suffering had shocked his gentle soul, fitted only for the quiet life of the provinces. Moreover, he was under the yoke of his beautiful native land. He returned to Provins, where he married and settled, and cared almost lovingly for the people, who were to him like a large family. During the whole of Pierrette’s illness he was careful not to speak of her. His reluctance to answer the questions of those who asked about her was so evident that persons soon ceased to put them. Pierrette was to him, what indeed she truly was, a poem, mysterious, profound, vast in suffering, such as doctors find at times in their terrible experience. He felt an admiration for this delicate young creature which he would not share with any one.

This feeling of the physician for his patient was, however, unconsciously communicated (like all true feelings) to Monsieur and Madame Auffray, whose house became, so long as Pierrette was in it, quiet and silent. The children, who had formerly played so joyously with her, agreed among themselves with the loving grace of childhood to be neither noisy nor troublesome. They made it a point of honor to be good because Pierrette was ill. Monsieur Auffray’s house was in the Upper town, beneath the ruins of the Chateau, and it was built upon a sort of terrace formed by the overthrow of the old ramparts. The occupants could have a view of the valley from the little fruit-garden enclosed by walls which overlooked the town. The roofs of the other houses came to about the level of the lower wall of this garden. Along the terrace ran a path, by which Monsieur Auffray’s study could be entered through a glass door; at the other end of the path was an arbor of grape vines and a fig-tree, beneath which stood a round table, a bench and some chairs, painted green. Pierrette’s bedroom was above the study of her new guardian. Madame Lorrain slept in a cot beside her grandchild. From her window Pierrette could see the whole of the glorious valley of Provins, which she hardly knew, so seldom had she left that dreadful house of the Rogrons. When the weather was fine she loved to drag herself, resting on her grandmother’s arm, to the vine-clad arbor. Brigaut, unable to work, came three times a day to see his little friend; he was gnawed by a grief which made him indifferent to life. He lay in wait like a dog for Monsieur Martener, and followed him when he left the house. The old grandmother, drunk with grief, had the courage to conceal her despair; she showed her darling the smiling face she formerly wore at Pen–Hoel. In her desire to produce that illusion in the girl’s mind, she made her a little Breton cap like the one Pierrette had worn on her first arrival in Provins; it made the darling seem more like her childlike self; in it she was delightful to look upon, her sweet face circled with a halo of cambric and fluted lace. Her skin, white with the whiteness of unglazed porcelain, her forehead, where suffering had printed the semblance of deep thought, the purity of the lines refined by illness, the slowness of the glances, and the occasional fixity of the eyes, made Pierrette an almost perfect embodiment of melancholy. She was served by all with a sort of fanaticism; she was felt to be so gentle, so tender, so loving. Madame Martener sent her piano to her sister Madame Auffray, thinking to amuse Pierrette who was passionately fond of music. It was a poem to watch her listening to a theme of Weber, or Beethoven, or Herold — her eyes raised, her lips silent, regretting no doubt the life escaping her. The cure Peroux and Monsieur Habert, her two religious comforters, admired her saintly resignation. Surely the seraphic perfection of young girls and young men marked with the hectic of death, is a wonderful fact worthy of the attention alike of philosophers and of heedless minds. He who has ever seen one of these sublime departures from this life can never remain, or become, an unbeliever. Such beings exhale, as it were, a celestial fragrance; their glances speak of God; the voices are eloquent in the simplest words; often they ring like some seraphic instrument revealing the secrets of the future. When Monsieur Martener praised her for having faithfully followed a harsh prescription the little angel replied, and with what a glance! —

“I want to live, dear Monsieur Martener; but less for myself than for my grandmother, for my Brigaut, for all of you who will grieve at my death.”

The first time she went into the garden on a beautiful sunny day in November attended by all the household, Madame Auffray asked her if she was tired.

“No, now that I have no sufferings but those God sends I can bear all,” she said. “The joy of being loved gives me strength to suffer.”

That was the only time (and then vaguely) that she ever alluded to her horrible martyrdom at the Rogrons, whom she never mentioned, and of whom no one reminded her, knowing well how painful the memory must be.

“Dear Madame Auffray,” she said one day at noon on the terrace, as she gazed at the valley, warmed by a glorious sun and colored with the glowing tints of autumn, “my death in your house gives me more happiness than I have had since I left Brittany.”

Madame Auffray whispered in her sister Martener’s ear:—

“How she would have loved!”

In truth, her tones, her looks gave to her words a priceless value.

Monsieur Martener corresponded with Doctor Bianchon, and did nothing of importance without his advice. He hoped in the first place to regular the functions of nature and to draw away the abscess in the head through the ear. The more Pierrette suffered, the more he hoped. He gained some slight success at times, and that was a great triumph. For several days Pierrette’s appetite returned and enabled her to take nourishing food for which her illness had given her a repugnance; the color of her skin changed; but the condition of her head was terrible. Monsieur Martener entreated the great physician his adviser to come down. Bianchon came, stayed two days, and resolved to undertake an operation. To spare the feelings of poor Martener he went to Paris and brought back with him the celebrated Desplein. Thus the operation was performed by the greatest surgeon of ancient or modern times; but that terrible diviner said to Martener as he departed with Bianchon, his best-loved pupil:—

“Nothing but a miracle can save her. As Horace told you, caries of the bone has begun. At her age the bones are so tender.”

The operation was performed at the beginning of March, 1828. During all that month, distressed by Pierrette’s horrible sufferings, Monsieur Martener made several journeys to Paris; there he consulted Desplein and Bianchon, and even went so far as to propose to them an operation of the nature of lithotrity, which consists in passing into the head a hollow instrument by the help of which an heroic remedy can be applied to the diseased bone, to arrest the progress of the caries. Even the bold Desplein dared not attempt that high-handed surgical measure, which despair alone had suggested to Martener. When he returned home from Paris he seemed to his friends morose and gloomy. He was forced to announce on that fatal evening to the Auffrays and Madame Lorrain and to the two priests and Brigaut that science could do no more for Pierrette, whose recovery was now in God’s hands only. The consternation among them was terrible. The grandmother made a vow, and requested the priests to say a mass every morning at daybreak before Pierrette rose — a mass at which she and Brigaut might be present.

The trial came on. While the victim lay dying, Vinet was calumniating her in court. The judge approved and accepted the report of the Family Council, and Vinet instantly appealed. The newly appointed procureur du roi made a requisition which necessitated fresh evidence. Rogron and his sister were forced to give bail to avoid going to prison. The order for fresh evidence included that of Pierrette herself. When Monsieur Desfondrilles came to the Auffrays’ to receive it, Pierrette was dying, her confessor was at her bedside about to administer extreme unction. At that moment she entreated all present to forgive her cousins as she herself forgave them, saying with her simple good sense that the judgment of these things belonged to God alone.

“Grandmother,” she said, “leave all you have to Brigaut” (Brigaut burst into tears); “and,” continued Pierrette, “give a thousand francs to that kind Adele who warmed my bed. If Adele had remained with my cousins I should not now be dying.”

It was at three o’clock on the Tuesday of Easter week, on a beautiful, bright day, that the angel ceased to suffer. Her heroic grandmother wished to watch all that night with the priests, and to sew with her stiff old fingers her darling’s shroud. Towards evening Brigaut left the Auffray’s house and went to Frappier’s.

“I need not ask you, my poor boy, for news,” said the cabinet-maker.

“Pere Frappier, yes, it is ended for her — but not for me.”

He cast a look upon the different woods piled up around the shop — a look of painful meaning.

“I understand you, Brigaut,” said his worthy master. “Take all you want.” And he showed him the oaken planks of two-inch thickness.

“Don’t help me, Monsieur Frappier,” said the Breton, “I wish to do it alone.”

He passed the night in planing and fitting Pierrette’s coffin, and more than once his plane took off at a single pass a ribbon of wood which was wet with tears. The good man Frappier smoked his pipe and watched him silently, saying only, when the four pieces were joined together —

“Make the cover to slide; her poor grandmother will not hear the nails.”

At daybreak Brigaut went out to fetch the lead to line the coffin. By a strange chance, the sheets of lead cost just the sum he had given Pierrette for her journey from Nantes to Provins. The brave Breton, who was able to resist the awful pain of himself making the coffin of his dear one and lining with his memories those burial planks, could not bear up against this strange reminder. His strength gave way; he was not able to lift the lead, and the plumber, seeing this, came with him, and offered to accompany him to the house and solder the last sheet when the body had been laid in the coffin.

The Breton burned the plane and all the tools he had used. Then he settled his accounts with Frappier and bade him farewell. The heroism with which the poor lad personally performed, like the grandmother, the last offices for Pierrette made him a sharer in the awful scene which crowned the tyranny of the Rogrons.

Brigaut and the plumber reached the house of Monsieur Auffray just in time to decide by their own main force an infamous and shocking judicial question. The room where the dead girl lay was full of people, and presented to the eyes of the two men a singular sight. The Rogron emissaries were standing beside the body of their victim, to torture her even after death. The corpse of the child, solemn in its beauty, lay on the cot-bed of her grandmother. Pierrette’s eyes were closed, the brown hair smoothed upon her brow, the body swathed in a coarse cotton sheet.

Before the bed, on her knees, her hair in disorder, her hands stretched out, her face on fire, the old Lorrain was crying out, “No, no, it shall not be done!”

At the foot of the bed stood Monsieur Auffray and the two priests. The tapers were still burning.

Opposite to the grandmother was the surgeon of the hospital, with an assistant, and near him stood Doctor Neraud and Vinet. The surgeon wore his dissecting apron; the assistant had opened a case of instruments and was handing him a knife.

This scene was interrupted by the noise of the coffin which Brigaut and the plumber set down upon the floor. Then Brigaut, advancing, was horrified at the sight of Madame Lorrain, who was now weeping.

“What is the matter?” he asked, standing beside her and grasping the chisel convulsively in his hand.

“This,” said the old woman, “this, Brigaut: they want to open the body of my child and cut into her head, and stab her heart after her death as they did when she was living.”

“Who?” said Brigaut, in a voice that might have deafened the men of law.

“The Rogrons.”

“In the sacred name of God! —”

“Stop, Brigaut,” said Monsieur Auffray, seeing the lad brandish his chisel.

“Monsieur Auffray,” said Brigaut, as white as his dead companion, “I hear you because you are Monsieur Auffray, but at this moment I will not listen to —”

“The law!” said Auffray.

“Is there law? is there justice?” cried the Breton. “Justice, this is it!” and he advanced to the lawyer and the doctors, threatening them with his chisel.

“My friend,” said the curate, “the law has been invoked by the lawyer of Monsieur Rogron, who is under the weight of a serious accusation; and it is impossible for us to refuse him the means of justification. The lawyer of Monsieur Rogron claims that if the poor child died of an abscess in her head her former guardian cannot be blamed, for it is proved that Pierrette concealed the effects of the blow which she gave to herself —”

“Enough!” said Brigaut.

“My client —” began Vinet.

“Your client,” cried the Breton, “shall go to hell and I to the scaffold; for if one of you dares to touch her whom your client has killed, I will kill him if my weapon does its duty.”

“This is interference with the law,” said Vinet. “I shall instantly inform the court.”

The five men left the room.

“Oh, my son!” cried the old woman, rising from her knees and falling on Brigaut’s neck, “let us bury her quick — they will come back.”

“If we solder the lead,” said the plumber, “they may not dare to open it.”

Monsieur Auffray hastened to his brother-inlaw, Monsieur Lesourd, to try and settle the matter. Vinet was not unwilling. Pierrette being dead the suit about the guardianship fell, of course, to the ground. All the astute lawyer wanted was the effect produced by his request.

At midday Monsieur Desfondrilles made his report on the case, and the court rendered a decision that there was no ground for further action.

Rogron dared not go to Pierrette’s funeral, at which the whole town was present. Vinet wished to force him there, but the miserable man was afraid of exciting universal horror.

Brigaut left Provins after watching the filling up of the grave where Pierrette lay, and went on foot to Paris. He wrote a petition to the Dauphiness asking, in the name of his father, that he might enter the Royal guard, to which he was at once admitted. When the expedition to Algiers was undertaken he wrote to her again, to obtain employment in it. He was then a sergeant; Marshal Bourmont gave him an appointment as sub-lieutenant in a line regiment. The major’s son behaved like a man who wished to die. Death has, however, respected Jacques Brigaut up to the present time; although he has distinguished himself in all the recent expeditions he has never yet been wounded. He is now major in a regiment of infantry. No officer is more taciturn or more trustworthy. Outside of his duty he is almost mute; he walks alone and lives mechanically. Every one divines and respects a hidden sorrow. He possesses forty-six thousand francs, which old Madame Lorrain, who died in Paris in 1829, bequeathed to him.

At the elections of 1830 Vinet was made a deputy. The services he rendered the new government have now earned him the position of procureur-general. His influence is such that he will always remain a deputy. Rogron is receiver-general in the same town where Vinet fulfils his legal functions; and by one of those curious tricks of chance which do so often occur, Monsieur Tiphaine is president of the Royal court in the same town — for the worthy man gave in his adhesion to the dynasty of July without the slightest hesitation. The exbeautiful Madame Tiphaine lives on excellent terms with the beautiful Madame Rogron. Vinet is hand in glove with Madame Tiphaine.

As to the imbecile Rogron, he makes such remarks as, “Louis–Philippe will never be really king till he is able to make nobles.”

The speech is evidently not his own. His health is failing, which allows Madame Rogron to hope she may soon marry the General Marquis de Montriveau, peer of France, who commands the department, and is paying her attentions. Vinet is in his element, seeking victims; he never believes in the innocence of an accused person. This thoroughbred prosecutor is held to be one of the most amiable men on the circuit; and he is no less liked in Paris and in the Chamber; at court he is a charming courtier.

According to a certain promise made by Vinet, General Baron Gouraud, that noble relic of our glorious armies, married a Mademoiselle Matifat, twenty-five years old, daughter of a druggist in the rue des Lombards, whose dowry was a hundred thousand francs. He commands (as Vinet prophesied) a department in the neighborhood of Paris. He was named peer of France for his conduct in the riots which occurred during the ministry of Casimir Perier. Baron Gouraud was one of the generals who took the church of Saint–Merry, delighted to rap those rascally civilians who had vexed him for years over the knuckles; for which service he was rewarded with the grand cordon of the Legion of honor.

None of the personages connected with Pierrette’s death ever felt the slightest remorse about it. Monsieur Desfondrilles is still archaeological, but, in order to compass his own election, the procureur general Vinet took pains to have him appointed president of the Provins court. Sylvie has a little circle, and manages her brother’s property; she lends her own money at high interest, and does not spend more than twelve hundred francs a year.

From time to time, when some former son or daughter of Provins returns from Paris to settle down, you may hear them ask, as they leave Mademoiselle Rogron’s house, “Wasn’t there a painful story against the Rogrons — something about a ward?”

“Mere prejudice,” replies Monsieur Desfondrilles. “Certain persons tried to make us believe falsehoods. Out of kindness of heart the Rogrons took in a girl named Pierrette, quite pretty but with no money. Just as she was growing up she had an intrigue with a young man, and stood at her window barefooted talking to him. The lovers passed notes to each other by a string. She took cold in this way and died, having no constitution. The Rogrons behaved admirably. They made no claim on certain property which was to come to her — they gave it all up to the grandmother. The moral of it was, my good friend, that the devil punishes those who try to benefit others.”

“Ah! that is quite another story from the one old Frappier told me.”

“Frappier consults his wine-cellar more than he does his memory,” remarked another of Mademoiselle Rogron’s visitors.

“But that old priest, Monsieur Habert says —”

“Oh, he! don’t you know why?”

“No.”

“He wanted to marry his sister to Monsieur Rogron, the receiver-general.”

* * * * *

Two men think of Pierrette daily: Doctor Martener and Major Brigaut; they alone know the hideous truth.

To give that truth its true proportions we must transport the scene to the Rome of the middle ages, where a sublime young girl, Beatrice Cenci, was brought to the scaffold by motives and intrigues that were almost identical with those which laid our Pierrette in her grave. Beatrice Cenci had but one defender — an artist, a painter. In our day history, and living men, on the faith of Guido Reni’s portrait, condemn the Pope, and know that Beatrice was a most tender victim of infamous passions and base feuds.

We must all agree that legality would be a fine thing for social scoundrelism IF THERE WERE NO GOD.

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