Pierrette, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 3

Pathology of Retired Mercers

When the petty shopkeeper who has come to Paris from the provinces returns to the provinces from Paris he brings with him a few ideas; then he loses them in the habits and ways of provincial life into which he plunges, and his reforming notions leave him. From this there do result, however, certain trifling, slow, successive changes by which Paris scratches the surface of the provincial towns. This process marks the transition of the exshopkeeper into the substantial bourgeois, but it acts like an illness upon him. No retail shopkeeper can pass with impunity from his perpetual chatter into dead silence, from his Parisian activity to the stillness of provincial life. When these worthy persons have laid by property they spend a portion of it on some desire over which they have long brooded and into which they now turn their remaining impulses, no longer restrained by force of will. Those who have not been nursing a fixed idea either travel or rush into the political interests of their municipality. Others take to hunting or fishing and torment their farmers or tenants; others again become usurers or stock-jobbers. As for the scheme of the Rogrons, brother and sister, we know what that was; they had to satisfy an imperious desire to handle the trowel and remodel their old house into a charming new one.

This fixed idea produced upon the square of Lower Provins the front of the building which Brigaut had been examining; also the interior arrangements of the house and its handsome furniture. The contractor did not drive a nail without consulting the owners, without requiring them to sign the plans and specifications, without explaining to them at full length and in every detail the nature of each article under discussion, where it was manufactured, and what were its various prices. As to the choicer things, each, they were told, had been used by Monsieur Tiphaine, or Madame Julliard, or Monsieur the mayor, the notables of the place. The idea of having things done as the rich bourgeois of Provins did them carried the day for the contractor.

“Oh, if Monsieur Garceland has it in his house, put it in,” said Mademoiselle Rogron. “It must be all right; his taste is good.”

“Sylvie, see, he wants us to have ovolos in the cornice of the corridor.”

“Do you call those ovolos?”

“Yes, mademoiselle.”

“What an odd name! I never heard it before.”

“But you have seen the thing?”

“Yes.”

“Do you understand Latin?”

“No.”

“Well, it means eggs — from the Latin ovum.”

“What queer fellows you are, you architects!” cried Rogron. “It is stepping on egg-shells to deal with you.”

“Shall we paint the corridor?” asked the builder.

“Good heavens, no!” cried Sylvie. “That would be five hundred francs more!”

“Oh, but the salon and the staircase are too pretty not to have the corridor decorated too,” said the man. “That little Madame Lesourd had hers painted last year.”

“And now, her husband, as king’s attorney, is obliged to leave Provins.”

“Ah, he’ll be chief justice some of these days,” said the builder.

“How about Monsieur Tiphaine?”

“Monsieur Tiphaine? he’s got a pretty wife and is sure to get on. He’ll go to Paris. Shall we paint the corridor?”

“Yes, yes,” said Rogron. “The Lesourds must be made to see that we are as good as they.”

The first year after the Rogrons returned to Provins was entirely taken up by such discussions, by the pleasure of watching the workmen, by the surprise occasioned to the townspeople and the replies to questions of all kinds which resulted therefrom, and also by the attempts made by Sylvie and her brother to be socially intimate with the principal families of Provins.

The Rogrons had never gone into any society; they had never left their shop, knowing absolutely no one in Paris, and now they were athirst for the pleasures of social life. On their arrival in Provins they found their former masters in Paris (long since returned to the provinces), Monsieur and Madame Julliard, lately of the “Chinese Worm,” their children and grandchildren; the Guepin family, or rather the Guepin clan, the youngest scion of which now kept the “Three Distaffs”; and thirdly, Madame Guenee from whom they had purchased the “Family Sister,” and whose three daughters were married and settled in Provins. These three races, Julliard, Guepin, and Guenee, had spread through the town like dog-grass through a lawn. The mayor, Monsieur Garceland, was the son-inlaw of Monsieur Guepin; the curate, Abbe Peroux, was own brother to Madame Julliard; the judge, Monsieur Tiphaine junior, was brother to Madame Guenee, who signed herself “nee Tiphaine.”

The queen of the town was the beautiful Madame Tiphaine junior, only daughter of Madame Roguin, the rich wife of a former notary in Paris, whose name was never mentioned. Clever, delicate, and pretty, married in the provinces to please her mother, who for special reasons did not want her with her, and took her from a convent only a few days before the wedding, Melanie Tiphaine considered herself an exile in Provins, where she behaved to admiration. Handsomely dowered, she still had hopes. As for Monsieur Tiphaine, his old father had made to his eldest daughter Madame Guenee such advances on her inheritance that an estate worth eight thousand francs a year, situated within fifteen miles of Provins, was to come wholly to him. Consequently the Tiphaines would possess, sooner or later, some forty thousand francs a year, and were not “badly off,” as they say. The one overwhelming desire of the beautiful Madame Tiphaine was to get Monsieur Tiphaine elected deputy. As deputy he would become a judge in Paris; and she was firmly resolved to push him up into the Royal courts. For these reasons she tickled all vanities and strove to please all parties; and — what is far more difficult — she succeeded. Twice a week she received the bourgeoisie of Provins at her house in the Upper town. This intelligent young woman of twenty had not as yet made a single blunder or misstep on the slippery path she had taken. She gratified everybody’s self-love, and petted their hobbies; serious with the serious, a girl with girls, instinctively a mother with mothers, gay with young wives and disposed to help them, gracious to all — in short, a pearl, a treasure, the pride of Provins. She had never yet said a word of her intentions and wishes, but all the electors of Provins were awaiting the time when their dear Monsieur Tiphaine had reached the required age for nomination. Every man in the place, certain of his own talents, regarded the future deputy as his particular friend, his protector. Of course, Monsieur Tiphaine would attain to honors; he would be Keeper of the Seals, and then, what wouldn’t he do for Provins!

Such were the pleasant means by which Madame Tiphaine had come to rule over the little town. Madame Guenee, Monsieur Tiphaine’s sister, after having married her eldest daughter to Monsieur Lesourd, prosecuting attorney, her second to Monsieur Martener, the doctor, and the third to Monsieur Auffray, the notary, had herself married Monsieur Galardon, the collector. Mother and daughters all considered Monsieur Tiphaine as the richest and ablest man in the family. The prosecuting attorney had the strongest interest in sending his uncle to Paris, expecting to step into his shoes as judge of the local court of Provins. The four ladies formed a sort of court round Madame Tiphaine, whose ideas and advice they followed on all occasions. Monsieur Julliard, the eldest son of the old merchant, who had married the only daughter of a rich farmer, set up a sudden, secret, and disinterested passion for Madame Tiphaine, that angel descended from the Parisian skies. The clever Melanie, too clever to involve herself with Julliard, but quite capable of keeping him in the condition of Amadis and making the most of his folly, advised him to start a journal, intending herself to play the part of Egeria. For the last two years, therefore, Julliard, possessed by his romantic passion, had published the said newspaper, called the “Bee-hive,” which contained articles literary, archaeological, and medical, written in the family. The advertisements paid expenses. The subscriptions, two hundred in all, made the profits. Every now and then melancholy verses, totally incomprehensible in La Brie, appeared, addressed, “TO HER!!!” with three exclamation marks. The clan Julliard was thus united to the other clans, and the salon of Madame Tiphaine became, naturally, the first in the town. The few aristocrats who lived in Provins were, of course, apart, and formed a single salon in the Upper town, at the house of the old Comtesse de Breautey.

During the first six months of their transplantation, the Rogrons, favored by their former acquaintance with several of these people, were received, first by Madame Julliard the elder, and by the former Madame Guenee, now Madame Galardon (from whom they had bought their business), and next, after a good deal of difficulty, by Madame Tiphaine. All parties wished to study the Rogrons before admitting them. It was difficult, of course, to keep out merchants of the rue Saint–Denis, originally from Provins, who had returned to the town to spend their fortunes. Still, the object of all society is to amalgamate persons of equal wealth, education, manners, customs, accomplishments, and character. Now the Guepins, Guenees, and Julliards had a better position among the bourgeoisie than the Rogrons, whose father had been held in contempt on account of his private life, and his conduct in the matter of the Auffray property, — the facts of which were known to the notary Auffray, Madame Galardon’s son-inlaw.

In the social life of these people, to which Madame Tiphaine had given a certain tone of elegance, all was homogeneous; the component parts understood each other, knew each other’s characters, and behaved and conversed in a manner that was agreeable to all. The Rogrons flattered themselves that being received by Monsieur Garceland, the mayor, they would soon be on good terms with all the best families in the town. Sylvie applied herself to learn boston. Rogron, incapable of playing a game, twirled his thumbs and had nothing to say except to discourse on his new house. Words seemed to choke him; he would get up, try to speak, become frightened, and sit down again, with comical distortion of the lips. Sylvie naively betrayed her natural self at cards. Sharp, irritable, whining when she lost, insolent when she won, nagging and quarrelsome, she annoyed her partners as much as her adversaries, and became the scourge of society. And yet, possessed by a silly, unconcealed ambition, Rogron and his sister were bent on playing a part in the society of a little town already in possession of a close corporation of twelve allied families. Allowing that the restoration of their house had cost them thirty thousand francs, the brother and sister possessed between them at least ten thousand francs a year. This they considered wealth, and with it they endeavored to impress society, which immediately took the measure of their vulgarity, crass ignorance, and foolish envy. On the evening when they were presented to the beautiful Madame Tiphaine, who had already eyed them at Madame Garceland’s and at Madame Julliard the elder’s, the queen of the town remarked to Julliard junior, who stayed a few moments after the rest of the company to talk with her and her husband:—

“You all seem to be taken with those Rogrons.”

“No, no,” said Amadis, “they bore my mother and annoy my wife. When Mademoiselle Sylvie was apprenticed, thirty years ago, to my father, none of them could endure her.”

“I have a great mind,” said Madame Tiphaine, putting her pretty foot on the bar of the fender, “to make it understood that my salon is not an inn.”

Julliard raised his eyes to the ceiling, as if to say, “Good heavens? what wit, what intellect!”

“I wish my society to be select; and it certainly will not be if I admit those Rogrons.”

“They have neither heart, nor mind, nor manners”; said Monsieur Tiphaine. “If, after selling thread for twenty years, as my sister did for example —”

“Your sister, my dear,” said his wife in a parenthesis, “cannot be out of place in any salon.”

“— if,” he continued, “people are stupid enough not to throw off the shop and polish their manners, if they don’t know any better than to mistake the Counts of Champagne for the accounts of a wine-shop, as Rogron did this evening, they had better, in my opinion, stay at home.”

“They are simply impudent,” said Julliard. “To hear them talk you would suppose there was no other handsome house in Provins but theirs. They want to crush us; and after all, they have hardly enough to live on.”

“If it was only the brother,” said Madame Tiphaine, “one might put up with him; he is not so aggressive. Give him a Chinese puzzle and he will stay in a corner quietly enough; it would take him a whole winter to find it out. But Mademoiselle Sylvie, with that voice like a hoarse hyena and those lobster-claws of hands! Don’t repeat all this, Julliard.”

When Julliard had departed the little woman said to her husband:—

“I have aborigines enough whom I am forced to receive; these two will fairly kill me. With your permission, I shall deprive myself of their society.”

“You are mistress in your own house,” replied he; “but that will make enemies. The Rogrons will fling themselves into the opposition, which hitherto has had no real strength in Provins. That Rogron is already intimate with Baron Gouraud and the lawyer Vinet.”

“Then,” said Melanie, laughing, “they will do you some service. Where there are no opponents, there is no triumph. A liberal conspiracy, an illegal cabal, a struggle of any kind, will bring you into the foreground.”

The justice looked at his young wife with a sort of alarmed admiration.

The next day it was whispered about that the Rogrons had not altogether succeeded in Madame Tiphaine’s salon. That lady’s speech about an inn was immensely admired. It was a whole month before she returned Mademoiselle Sylvie’s visit. Insolence of this kind is very much noticed in the provinces.

During the evening which Sylvie had spent at Madame Tiphaine’s a disagreeable scene occurred between herself and old Madame Julliard while playing boston, apropos of a trick which Sylvie declared the old lady had made her lose on purpose; for the old maid, who liked to trip others, could never endure the same game on herself. The next time she was invited out the mistress took care to make up the card-tables before she arrived; so that Sylvie was reduced to wandering from table to table as an onlooker, the players glancing at her with scornful eyes. At Madame Julliard senior’s house, they played whist, a game Sylvie did not know.

The old maid at last understood that she was under a ban; but she had no conception of the reason of it. She fancied herself an object of jealousy to all these persons. After a time she and her brother received no invitations, but they still persisted in paying evening visits. Satirical persons made fun of them — not spitefully, but amusingly; inveigling them to talk absurdly about the eggs in their cornice, and their wonderful cellar of wine, the like of which was not in Provins.

Before long the Rogron house was completely finished, and the brother and sister then resolved to give several sumptuous dinners, as much to return the civilities they had received as to exhibit their luxury. The invited guests accepted from curiosity only. The first dinner was given to the leading personages of the town; to Monsieur and Madame Tiphaine, with whom, however the Rogrons had never dined; to Monsieur and Madame Julliard, senior and junior; to Monsieur Lesourd, Monsieur le cure, and Monsieur and Madame Galardon. It was one of those interminable provincial dinners, where you sit at table from five to nine o’clock. Madame Tiphaine had introduced into Provins the Parisian custom of taking leave as soon as coffee had been served. On this occasion she had company at home and was anxious to get away. The Rogrons accompanied her husband and herself to the street door, and when they returned to the salon, disconcerted at not being able to keep their chief guests, the rest of the party were preparing to imitate Madame Tiphaine’s fashion with cruel provincial promptness.

“They won’t see our salon lighted up,” said Sylvie, “and that’s the show of the house.”

The Rogrons had counted on surprising their guests. It was the first time any one had been admitted to the now celebrated house, and the company assembled at Madame Tiphaine’s was eagerly awaiting her opinion of the marvels of the “Rogron palace.”

“Well!” cried little Madame Martener, “you’ve seen the Louvre; tell us all about it.”

“All? Well, it would be like the dinner — not much.”

“But do describe it.”

“Well, to begin with, that front door, the gilded grating of which we have all admired,” said Madame Tiphaine, “opens upon a long corridor which divides the house unequally; on the right side there is one window, on the other, two. At the garden end, the corridor opens with a glass door upon a portico with steps to the lawn, where there’s a sun dial and a plaster statue of Spartacus, painted to imitate bronze. Behind the kitchen, the builder has put the staircase, and a sort of larder which we are spared the sight of. The staircase, painted to imitate black marble with yellow veins, turns upon itself like those you see in cafes leading from the ground-floor to the entresol. The balustrade, of walnut with brass ornaments and dangerously slight, was pointed out to us as one of the seven wonders of the world. The cellar stairs run under it. On the other side of the corridor is the dining-room, which communicates by folding-doors with a salon of equal size, the windows of which look on the garden.”

“Dear me, is there no ante-chamber?” asked Madame Auffray.

“The corridor, full of draughts, answers for an ante-chamber,” replied Madame Tiphaine. “Our friends have had, they assured us, the eminently national, liberal, constitutional, and patriotic feeling to use none but French woods in the house; so the floor in the dining-room is chestnut, the sideboards, tables, and chairs, of the same. White calico window-curtains, with red borders, are held back by vulgar red straps; these magnificent draperies run on wooden curtain rods ending in brass lion’s-paws. Above one of the sideboards hangs a dial suspended by a sort of napkin in gilded bronze — an idea that seemed to please the Rogrons hugely. They tried to make me admire the invention; all I could manage to say was that if it was ever proper to wrap a napkin round a dial it was certainly in a dining-room. On the sideboard were two huge lamps like those on the counter of a restaurant. Above the other sideboard hung a barometer, excessively ornate, which seems to play a great part in their existence; Rogron gazed at it as he might at his future wife. Between the two windows is a white porcelain stove in a niche overloaded with ornament. The walls glow with a magnificent paper, crimson and gold, such as you see in the same restaurants, where, no doubt, the Rogrons chose it. Dinner was served on white and gold china, with a dessert service of light blue with green flowers, but they showed us another service in earthenware for everyday use. Opposite to each sideboard was a large cupboard containing linen. All was clean, new, and horribly sharp in tone. However, I admit the dining-room; it has some character, though disagreeable; it represents that of the masters of the house. But there is no enduring the five engravings that hang on the walls; the Minister of the Interior ought really to frame a law against them. One was Poniatowski jumping into the Elster; the others, Napoleon pointing a cannon, the defence at Clichy, and the two Mazepas, all in gilt frames of the vulgarest description — fit to carry off the prize of disgust. Oh! how much I prefer Madame Julliard’s pastels of fruit, those excellent Louis XV. pastels, which are in keeping with the old dining-room and its gray panels — defaced by age, it is true, but they possess the true provincial characteristics that go well with old family silver, precious china, and our simple habits. The provinces are provinces; they are only ridiculous when they mimic Paris. I prefer this old salon of my husband’s forefathers, with its heavy curtains of green and white damask, the Louis XV. mantelpiece, the twisted pier-glasses, the old mirrors with their beaded mouldings, and the venerable card tables. Yes, I prefer my old Sevres vases in royal blue, mounted on copper, my clock with those impossible flowers, that rococco chandelier, and the tapestried furniture, to all the finery of the Rogron salon.”

“What is the salon like?” said Monsieur Martener, delighted with the praise the handsome Parisian bestowed so adroitly on the provinces.

“As for the salon, it is all red — the red Mademoiselle Sylvie turns when she loses at cards.”

“Sylvan-red,” said Monsieur Tiphaine, whose sparkling saying long remained in the vocabulary of Provins.

“Window-curtains, red; furniture, red; mantelpiece, red, veined yellow, candelabra and clock ditto mounted on bronze, common and heavy in design — Roman standards with Greek foliage! Above the clock is that inevitable good-natured lion which looks at you with a simper, the lion of ornamentation, with a big ball under his feet, symbol of the decorative lion, who passes his life holding a black ball, — exactly like a deputy of the Left. Perhaps it is meant as a constitutional myth. The face of the clock is curious. The glass over the chimney is framed in that new fashion of applied mouldings which is so trumpery and vulgar. From the ceiling hangs a chandelier carefully wrapped in green muslin, and rightly too, for it is in the worst taste, the sharpest tint of bronze with hideous ornaments. The walls are covered with a red flock paper to imitate velvet enclosed in panels, each panel decorated with a chromo-lithograph in one of those frames festooned with stucco flowers to represent wood-carving. The furniture, in cashmere and elm-wood, consists, with classic uniformity, of two sofas, two easy-chairs, two armchairs, and six common chairs. A vase in alabaster, called a la Medicis, kept under glass stands on a table between the windows; before the windows, which are draped with magnificent red silk curtains and lace curtains under them, are card-tables. The carpet is Aubusson, and you may be sure the Rogrons did not fail to lay hands on that most vulgar of patterns, large flowers on a red ground. The room looks as if no one ever lived there; there are no books, no engravings, none of those little knick-knacks we all have lying about,” added Madame Tiphaine, glancing at her own table covered with fashionable trifles, albums, and little presents given to her by friends; “and there are no flowers — it is all cold and barren, like Mademoiselle Sylvie herself. Buffon says the style is the man, and certainly salons have styles of their own.”

From this sketch everybody can see the sort of house the brother and sister lived in, though they can never imagine the absurdities into which a clever builder dragged the ignorant pair — new inventions, fantastic ornaments, a system for preventing smoky chimneys, another for preventing damp walls; painted marquetry panels on the staircase, colored glass, superfine locks — in short, all those vulgarities which make a house expensive and gratify the bourgeois taste.

No one chose to visit the Rogrons, whose social plans thus came to nothing. Their invitations were refused under various excuses — the evenings were already engaged to Madame Garceland and the other ladies of the Provins world. The Rogrons had supposed that all that was required to gain a position in society was to give a few dinners. But no one any longer accepted them, except a few young men who went to make fun of their host and hostess, and certain diners-out who went everywhere.

Frightened at the loss of forty thousand francs swallowed up without profit in what she called her “dear house,” Sylvie now set to work to recover it by economy. She gave no more dinners, which had cost her forty or fifty francs without the wines, and did not fulfil her social hopes, hopes that are as hard to realize in the provinces as in Paris. She sent away her cook, took a country-girl to do the menial work, and did her own cooking, as she said, “for pleasure.”

Fourteen months after their return to Provins, the brother and sister had fallen into a solitary and wholly unoccupied condition. Their banishment from society roused in Sylvie’s heart a dreadful hatred against the Tiphaines, Julliards and all the other members of the social world of Provins, which she called “the clique,” and with whom her personal relations became extremely cold. She would gladly have set up a rival clique, but the lesser bourgeoisie was made up of either small shopkeepers who were only free on Sundays and fete-days, or smirched individuals like the lawyer Vinet and Doctor Neraud, and wholly inadmissible Bonapartists like Baron Gouraud, with whom, however, Rogron thoughtlessly allied himself, though the upper bourgeoisie had warned him against them.

The brother and sister were, therefore, forced to sit by the fire of the stove in the dining-room, talking over their former business, trying to recall the faces of their customers and other matters they had intended to forget. By the end of the second winter ennui weighed heavily on them. They did not know how to get through each day; sometimes as they went to bed the words escaped them, “There’s another over!” They dragged out the morning by staying in bed, and dressing slowly. Rogron shaved himself every day, examined his face, consulted his sister on any changes he thought he saw there, argued with the servant about the temperature of his hot water, wandered into the garden, looked to see if the shrubs were budding, sat at the edge of the water where he had built himself a kiosk, examined the joinery of his house — had it sprung? had the walls settled, the panels cracked? or he would come in fretting about a sick hen, and complaining to his sister, who was nagging the servant as she set the table, of the dampness which was coming out in spots upon the plaster. The barometer was Rogron’s most useful bit of property. He consulted it at all hours, tapped it familiarly like a friend, saying: “Vile weather!” to which his sister would reply, “Pooh! it is only seasonable.” If any one called to see him the excellence of that instrument was his chief topic of conversation.

Breakfast took up some little time; with what deliberation those two human beings masticated their food! Their digestions were perfect; cancer of the stomach was not to be dreaded by them. They managed to get along till twelve o’clock by reading the “Bee-hive” and the “Constitutionnel.” The cost of subscribing to the Parisian paper was shared by Vinet the lawyer, and Baron Gouraud. Rogron himself carried the paper to Gouraud, who had been a colonel and lived on the square, and whose long yarns were Rogron’s delight; the latter sometimes puzzled over the warnings he had received, and asked himself how such a lively companion could be dangerous. He was fool enough to tell the colonel he had been warned against him, and to repeat all the “clique” had said. God knows how the colonel, who feared no one, and was equally to be dreaded with pistols or a sword, gave tongue about Madame Tiphaine and her Amadis, and the ministerialists of the Upper town, persons capable of any villany to get places, and who counted the votes at elections to suit themselves, etc.

About two o’clock Rogron started for a little walk. He was quite happy if some shopkeeper standing on the threshold of his door would stop him and say, “Well, pere Rogron, how goes it with you?” Then he would talk, and ask for news, and gather all the gossip of the town. He usually went as far as the Upper town, sometimes to the ravines, according to the weather. Occasionally he would meet old men taking their walks abroad like himself. Such meetings were joyful events to him. There happened to be in Provins a few men weary of Parisian life, quiet scholars who lived with their books. Fancy the bewilderment of the ignorant Rogron when he heard a deputy-judge named Desfondrilles, more of an archaeologist than a magistrate, saying to old Monsieur Martener, a really learned man, as he pointed to the valley:—

“Explain to me why the idlers of Europe go to Spa instead of coming to Provins, when the springs here have a superior curative value recognized by the French faculty — a potential worthy of the medicinal properties of our roses.”

“That is one of the caprices of caprice,” said the old gentleman. “Bordeaux wine was unknown a hundred years ago. Marechal de Richelieu, one of the noted men of the last century, the French Alcibiades, was appointed governor of Guyenne. His lungs were diseased, and, heaven knows why! the wine of the country did him good and he recovered. Bordeaux instantly made a hundred millions; the marshal widened its territory to Angouleme, to Cahors — in short, to over a hundred miles of circumference! it is hard to tell where the Bordeaux vineyards end. And yet they haven’t erected an equestrian statue to the marshal in Bordeaux!”

“Ah! if anything of that kind happens to Provins,” said Monsieur Desfondrilles, “let us hope that somewhere in the Upper or Lower town they will set up a bas-relief of the head of Monsieur Opoix, the re-discoverer of the mineral waters of Provins.”

“My dear friend, the revival of Provins is impossible,” replied Monsieur Martener; “the town was made bankrupt long ago.”

“What!” cried Rogron, opening his eyes very wide.

“It was once a capital, holding its own against Paris in the twelfth century, when the Comtes de Champagne held their court here, just as King Rene held his in Provence,” replied the man of learning; “for in those days civilization, gaiety, poesy, elegance, and women, in short all social splendors, were not found exclusively in Paris. It is as difficult for towns and cities as it is for commercial houses to recover from ruin. Nothing is left to us of the old Provins but the fragrance of our historical glory and that of our roses — and a sub-prefecture!”

“Ah! what mightn’t France be if she had only preserved her feudal capitals!” said Desfondrilles. “Can sub-prefects replace the poetic, gallant, warlike race of the Thibaults who made Provins what Ferrara was to Italy, Weimar to Germany — what Munich is trying to be today.”

“Was Provins ever a capital?” asked Rogron.

“Why! where do you come from?” exclaimed the archaeologist. “Don’t you know,” he added, striking the ground of the Upper town where they stood with his cane, “don’t you know that the whole of this part of Provins is built on catacombs?”

“Catacombs?”

“Yes, catacombs, the extent and height of which are yet undiscovered. They are like the naves of cathedrals, and there are pillars in them.”

“Monsieur is writing a great archaeological work to explain these strange constructions,” interposed Monsieur Martener, seeing that the deputy-judge was about to mount his hobby.

Rogron came home much comforted to know that his house was in the valley. The crypts of Provins kept him occupied for a week in explorations, and gave a topic of conversation to the unhappy celibates for many evenings.

In the course of these ramblings Rogron picked up various bits of information about Provins, its inhabitants, their marriages, together with stale political news; all of which he narrated to his sister. Scores of times in his walks he would stop and say — often to the same person on the same day — “Well, what’s the news?” When he reached home he would fling himself on the sofa like a man exhausted with labor, whereas he was only worn out with the burden of his own dulness. Dinner came at last, after he had gone twenty times to the kitchen and back, compared the clocks, and opened and shut all the doors of the house. So long as the brother and sister could spend their evenings in paying visits they managed to get along till bedtime; but after they were compelled to stay at home those evenings became like a parching desert. Sometimes persons passing through the quiet little square would hear unearthly noises as though the brother were throttling the sister; a moment’s listening would show that they were only yawning. These two human mechanisms, having nothing to grind between their rusty wheels, were creaking and grating at each other. The brother talked of marrying, but only in despair. He felt old and weary; the thought of a woman frightened him. Sylvie, who began to see the necessity of having a third person in the home, suddenly remembered the little cousin, about whom no one in Provins had yet inquired, the friends of Madame Lorrain probably supposing that mother and child were both dead.

Sylvie Rogron never lost anything; she was too thoroughly an old maid even to mislay the smallest article; but she pretended to have suddenly found the Lorrains’ letter, so as to mention Pierrette naturally to her brother, who was greatly pleased at the possibility of having a little girl in the house. Sylvie replied to Madame Lorrain’s letter half affectionately, half commercially, as one may say, explaining the delay by their change of abode and the settlement of their affairs. She seemed desirous of receiving her little cousin, and hinted that Pierrette would perhaps inherit twelve thousand francs a year if her brother Jerome did not marry.

Perhaps it is necessary to have been, like Nebuchadnezzar, something of a wild beast, and shut up in a cage at the Jardin des Plantes without other prey than the butcher’s meat doled out by the keeper, or a retired merchant deprived of the joys of tormenting his clerks, to understand the impatience with which the brother and sister awaited the arrival of their cousin Lorrain. Three days after the letter had gone, the pair were already asking themselves when she would get there.

Sylvie perceived in her spurious benevolence towards her poor cousin a means of recovering her position in the social world of Provins. She accordingly went to call on Madame Tiphaine, of whose reprobation she was conscious, in order to impart the fact of Pierrette’s approaching arrival — deploring the girl’s unfortunate position, and posing herself as being only too happy to succor her and give her a position as daughter and future heiress.

“You have been rather long in discovering her,” said Madame Tiphaine, with a touch of sarcasm.

A few words said in a low voice by Madame Garceland, while the cards were being dealt, recalled to the minds of those who heard her the shameful conduct of old Rogron about the Auffray property; the notary explained the iniquity.

“Where is the little girl now?” asked Monsieur Tiphaine, politely.

“In Brittany,” said Rogron.

“Brittany is a large place,” remarked Monsieur Lesourd.

“Her grandfather and grandmother Lorrain wrote to us — when was that, my dear?” said Rogron addressing his sister.

Sylvie, who was just then asking Madame Garceland where she had bought the stuff for her gown, answered hastily, without thinking of the effect of her words:—

“Before we sold the business.”

“And have you only just answered the letter, mademoiselle?” asked the notary.

Sylvie turned as red as a live coal.

“We wrote to the Institution of Saint–Jacques,” remarked Rogron.

“That is a sort of hospital or almshouse for old people,” said Monsieur Desfondrilles, who knew Nantes. “She can’t be there; they receive no one under sixty.”

“She is there, with her grandmother Lorrain,” said Rogron.

“Her mother had a little fortune, the eight thousand francs which your father — no, I mean of course your grandfather — left to her,” said the notary, making the blunder intentionally.

“Ah!” said Rogron, stupidly, not understanding the notary’s sarcasm.

“Then you know nothing about your cousin’s position or means?” asked Monsieur Tiphaine.

“If Monsieur Rogron had known it,” said the deputy-judge, “he would never have left her all this time in an establishment of that kind. I remember now that a house in Nantes belonging to Monsieur and Madame Lorrain was sold under an order of the court, and that Mademoiselle Lorrain’s claim was swallowed up. I know this, for I was commissioner at the time.”

The notary spoke of Colonel Lorrain, who, had he lived, would have been much amazed to know that his daughter was in such an institution. The Rogrons beat a retreat, saying to each other that the world was very malicious. Sylvie perceived that the news of her benevolence had missed its effect — in fact, she had lost ground in all minds; and she felt that henceforth she was forbidden to attempt an intimacy with the upper class of Provins. After this evening the Rogrons no longer concealed their hatred of that class and all its adherents. The brother told the sister the scandals that Colonel Gouraud and the lawyer Vinet had put into his head about the Tiphaines, the Guenees, the Garcelands, the Julliards, and others:—

“I declare, Sylvie, I don’t see why Madame Tiphaine should turn up her nose at shopkeeping in the rue Saint–Denis; it is more honest than what she comes from. Madame Roguin, her mother, is cousin to those Guillaumes of the ‘Cat-playing-ball’ who gave up the business to Joseph Lebas, their son-inlaw. Her father is that Roguin who failed in 1819, and ruined the house of Cesar Birotteau. Madame Tiphaine’s fortune was stolen — for what else are you to call it when a notary’s wife who is very rich lets her husband make a fraudulent bankruptcy? Fine doings! and she marries her daughter in Provins to get her out of the way — all on account of her own relations with du Tillet. And such people set up to be proud! Well, well, that’s the world!”

On the day when Jerome Rogron and his sister began to declaim against “the clique” they were, without being aware of it, on the road to having a society of their own; their house was to become a rendezvous for other interests seeking a centre — those of the hitherto floating elements of the liberal party in Provins. And this is how it came about: The launch of the Rogrons in society had been watched with great curiosity by Colonel Gouraud and the lawyer Vinet, two men drawn together, first by their ostracism, next by their opinions. They both professed patriotism and for the same reason — they wished to become of consequence. The Liberals in Provins were, so far, confined to one old soldier who kept a cafe, an innkeeper, Monsieur Cournant a notary, Doctor Neraud, and a few stray persons, mostly farmers or those who had bought lands of the public domain.

The colonel and the lawyer, delighted to lay hands on a fool whose money would be useful to their schemes, and who might himself, in certain cases, be made to bell the cat, while his house would serve as a meeting-ground for the scattered elements of the party, made the most of the Rogrons’ ill-will against the upper classes of the place. The three had already a slight tie in their united subscription to the “Constitutionnel”; it would certainly not be difficult for the colonel to make a Liberal of the exmercer, though Rogron knew so little of politics that he was capable of regarding the exploits of Sergeant Mercier as those of a brother shopkeeper.

The expected arrival of Pierrette brought to sudden fruition the selfish ideas of the two men, inspired as they were by the folly and ignorance of the celibates. Seeing that Sylvie had lost all chance of establishing herself in the good society of the place, an afterthought came to the colonel. Old soldiers have seen so many horrors in all lands, so many grinning corpses on battle-fields, that no physiognomies repel them; and Gouraud began to cast his eyes on the old maid’s fortune. This imperial colonel, a short, fat man, wore enormous rings in ears that were bushy with tufts of hair. His sparse and grizzled whiskers were called in 1799 “fins.” His jolly red face was rather discolored, like those of all who had lived to tell of the Beresina. The lower half of his big, pointed stomach marked the straight line which characterizes a cavalry officer. Gouraud had commanded the Second Hussars. His gray moustache hid a huge blustering mouth — if we may use a term which alone describes that gulf. He did not eat his food, he engulfed it. A sabre cut had slit his nose, by which his speech was made thick and very nasal, like that attributed to Capuchins. His hands, which were short and broad, were of the kind that make women say: “You have the hands of a rascal.” His legs seemed slender for his torso. In that fat and active body an absolutely lawless spirit disported itself, and a thorough experience of the things of life, together with a profound contempt for social convention, lay hidden beneath the apparent indifference of a soldier. Colonel Gouraud wore the cross of an officer of the Legion of honor, and his emoluments from that, together with his salary as a retired officer, gave him in all about three thousand francs a year.

The lawyer, tall and thin, had liberal opinions in place of talent, and his only revenue was the meagre profits of his office. In Provins lawyers plead their own cases. The court was unfavorable to Vinet on account of his opinions; consequently, even the farmers who were Liberals, when it came to lawsuits preferred to employ some lawyer who was more congenial to the judges. Vinet was regarded with disfavor in other ways. He was said to have seduced a rich girl in the neighborhood of Coulommiers, and thus have forced her parents to marry her to him. Madame Vinet was a Chargeboeuf, an old and noble family of La Brie, whose name comes from the exploit of a squire during the expedition of Saint Louis to Egypt. She incurred the displeasure of her father and mother, who arranged, unknown to Vinet, to leave their entire fortune to their son, doubtless charging him privately, to pay over a portion of it to his sister’s children.

Thus the first bold effort of the ambitious man was a failure. Pursued by poverty, and ashamed not to give his wife the means of making a suitable appearance, he had made desperate efforts to enter public life, but the Chargeboeuf family refused him their influence. These Royalists disapproved, on moral grounds, of his forced marriage; besides, he was named Vinet, and how could they be expected to protect a plebian? Thus he was driven from branch to branch when he tried to get some good out of his marriage. Repulsed by every one, filled with hatred for the family of his wife, for the government which denied him a place, for the social world of Provins, which refused to admit him, Vinet submitted to his fate; but his gall increased. He became a Liberal in the belief that his fortune might yet be made by the triumph of the opposition, and he lived in a miserable little house in the Upper town from which his wife seldom issued. Madame Vinet had found no one to defend her since her marriage except an old Madame de Chargeboeuf, a widow with one daughter, who lived at Troyes. The unfortunate young woman, destined for better things, was absolutely alone in her home with a single child.

There are some kinds of poverty which may be nobly accepted and gaily borne; but Vinet, devoured by ambition, and feeling himself guilty towards his wife, was full of darkling rage; his conscience grew elastic; and he finally came to think any means of success permissible. His young face changed. Persons about the courts were sometimes frightened as they looked at his viperish, flat head, his slit mouth, his eyes gleaming through glasses, and heard his sharp, persistent voice which rasped their nerves. His muddy skin, with its sickly tones of green and yellow, expressed the jaundice of his balked ambition, his perpetual disappointments and his hidden wretchedness. He could talk and argue; he was well-informed and shrewd, and was not without smartness and metaphor. Accustomed to look at everything from the standpoint of his own success, he was well fitted for a politician. A man who shrinks from nothing so long as it is legal, is strong; and Vinet’s strength lay there.

This future athlete of parliamentary debate, who was destined to share in proclaiming the dynasty of the house of Orleans had a terrible influence on Pierrette’s fate. At the present moment he was bent on making for himself a weapon by founding a newspaper at Provins. After studying the Rogrons at a distance (the colonel aiding him) he had come to the conclusion that the brother might be made useful. This time he was not mistaken; his days of poverty were over, after seven wretched years, when even his daily bread was sometimes lacking. The day when Gouraud told him in the little square that the Rogrons had finally quarrelled with the bourgeois aristocracy of the Upper town, he nudged the colonel in the ribs significantly, and said, with a knowing look:—

“One woman or another — handsome or ugly — you don’t care; marry Mademoiselle Rogron and we can organize something at once.”

“I have been thinking of it,” replied Gouraud, “but the fact is they have sent for the daughter of Colonel Lorrain, and she’s their next of kin.”

“You can get them to make a will in your favor. Ha! you would get a very comfortable house.”

“As for the little girl — well, well, let’s see her,” said the colonel, with a leering and thoroughly wicked look, which proved to a man of Vinet’s quality how little respect the old trooper could feel for any girl.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/balzac/pierrette/chapter3.html

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