Pierrette, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 4

Pierrette

After her grandfather and grandmother entered the sort of hospital in which they sadly expected to end their days, Pierrette, being young and proud, suffered so terribly at living there on charity that she was thankful when she heard she had rich relations. When Brigaut, the son of her mother’s friend the major, and the companion of her childhood, who was learning his trade as a cabinet-maker at Nantes, heard of her departure he offered her the money to pay her way to Paris in the diligence — sixty francs, the total of his pour-boires as an apprentice, slowly amassed, and accepted by Pierrette with the sublime indifference of true affection, showing that in a like case she herself would be affronted by thanks.

Brigaut was in the habit of going every Sunday to Saint–Jacques to play with Pierrette and try to console her. The vigorous young workman knew the dear delight of bestowing a complete and devoted protection on an object involuntarily chosen by his heart. More than once he and Pierrette, sitting on Sundays in a corner of the garden, had embroidered the veil of the future with their youthful projects; the apprentice, armed with his plane, scoured the world to make their fortune, while Pierrette waited.

In October, 1824, when the child had completed her eleventh year, she was entrusted by the two old people and by Brigaut, all three sorrowfully sad, to the conductor of the diligence from Nantes to Paris, with an entreaty to put her safely on the diligence from Paris to Provins and to take good care of her. Poor Brigaut! he ran like a dog after the coach looking at his dear Pierrette as long as he was able. In spite of her signs he ran over three miles, and when at last he was exhausted his eyes, wet with tears, still followed her. She, too, was crying when she saw him no longer running by her, and putting her head out of the window she watched him, standing stock-still and looking after her, as the lumbering vehicle disappeared.

The Lorrains and Brigaut knew so little of life that the girl had not a penny when she arrived in Paris. The conductor, to whom she had mentioned her rich friends, paid her expenses at the hotel, and made the conductor of the Provins diligence pay him, telling him to take good care of the girl and to see that the charges were paid by the family, exactly as though she were a case of goods. Four days after her departure from Nantes, about nine o’clock of a Monday night, a kind old conductor of the Messageries-royales, took Pierrette by the hand, and while the porters were discharging in the Grand’Rue the packages and passengers for Provins, he led the little girl, whose only baggage was a bundle containing two dresses, two chemises, and two pairs of stockings, to Mademoiselle Rogron’s house, which was pointed out to him by the director at the coach office.

“Good-evening, mademoiselle and the rest of the company. I’ve brought you a cousin, and here she is; and a nice little girl too, upon my word. You have forty-seven francs to pay me, and sign my book.”

Mademoiselle Sylvie and her brother were dumb with pleasure and amazement.

“Excuse me,” said the conductor, “the coach is waiting. Sign my book and pay me forty-seven francs, sixty centimes, and whatever you please for myself and the conductor from Nantes; we’ve taken care of the little girl as if she were our own; and paid for her beds and her food, also her fare to Provins, and other little things.”

“Forty-seven francs, twelve sous!” said Sylvie.

“You are not going to dispute it?” cried the man.

“Where’s the bill?” said Rogron.

“Bill! look at the book.”

“Stop talking, and pay him,” said Sylvie, “You see there’s nothing else to be done.”

Rogron went to get the money, and gave the man forty-seven francs, twelve sous.

“And nothing for my comrade and me?” said the conductor.

Sylvie took two francs from the depths of the old velvet bag which held her keys.

“Thank you, no,” said the man; “keep ’em yourself. We would rather care for the little one for her own sake.” He picked up his book and departed, saying to the servant-girl: “What a pair! it seems there are crocodiles out of Egypt!”

“Such men are always brutal,” said Sylvie, who overhead the words.

“They took good care of the little girl, anyhow,” said Adele with her hands on her hips.

“We don’t have to live with him,” remarked Rogron.

“Where’s the little one to sleep?” asked Adele.

Such was the arrival of Pierrette Lorrain in the home of her cousins, who gazed at her with stolid eyes; she was tossed to them like a package, with no intermediate state between the wretched chamber at Saint–Jacques and the dining-room of her cousins, which seemed to her a palace. She was shy and speechless. To all other eyes than those of the Rogrons the little Breton girl would have seemed enchanting as she stood there in her petticoat of coarse blue flannel, with a pink cambric apron, thick shoes, blue stockings, and a white kerchief, her hands being covered by red worsted mittens edged with white, bought for her by the conductor. Her dainty Breton cap (which had been washed in Paris, for the journey from Nantes had rumpled it) was like a halo round her happy little face. This national cap, of the finest lawn, trimmed with stiffened lace pleated in flat folds, deserves description, it was so dainty and simple. The light coming through the texture and the lace produced a partial shadow, the soft shadow of a light upon the skin, which gave her the virginal grace that all painters seek and Leopold Robert found for the Raffaelesque face of the woman who holds a child in his picture of “The Gleaners.” Beneath this fluted frame of light sparkled a white and rosy and artless face, glowing with vigorous health. The warmth of the room brought the blood to the cheeks, to the tips of the pretty ears, to the lips and the end of the delicate nose, making the natural white of the complexion whiter still.

“Well, are you not going to say anything? I am your cousin Sylvie, and that is your cousin Rogron.”

“Do you want something to eat?” asked Rogron.

“When did you leave Nantes?” asked Sylvie.

“Is she dumb?” said Rogron.

“Poor little dear, she has hardly any clothes,” cried Adele, who had opened the child’s bundle, tied up in a handkerchief of the old Lorrains.

“Kiss your cousin,” said Sylvie.

Pierrette kissed Rogron.

“Kiss your cousin,” said Rogron.

Pierrette kissed Sylvie.

“She is tired out with her journey, poor little thing; she wants to go to sleep,” said Adele.

Pierrette was overcome with a sudden and invincible aversion for her two relatives — a feeling that no one had ever before excited in her. Sylvie and the maid took her up to bed in the room where Brigaut afterwards noticed the white cotton curtain. In it was a little bed with a pole painted blue, from which hung a calico curtain; a walnut bureau without a marble top, a small table, a looking-glass, a very common night-table without a door, and three chairs completed the furniture of the room. The walls, which sloped in front, were hung with a shabby paper, blue with black flowers. The tiled floor, stained red and polished, was icy to the feet. There was no carpet except for a strip at the bedside. The mantelpiece of common marble was adorned by a mirror, two candelabra in copper-gilt, and a vulgar alabaster cup in which two pigeons, forming handles, were drinking.

“You will be comfortable here, my little girl?” said Sylvie.

“Oh, it’s beautiful!” said the child, in her silvery voice.

“She’s not difficult to please,” muttered the stout servant. “Sha’n’t I warm her bed?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Sylvie, “the sheets may be damp.”

Adele brought one of her own night-caps when she returned with the warming-pan, and Pierrette, who had never slept in anything but the coarsest linen sheets, was amazed at the fineness and softness of the cotton ones. When she was fairly in bed and tucked up, Adele, going downstairs with Sylvie, could not refrain from saying, “All she has isn’t worth three francs, mademoiselle.”

Ever since her economical regime began, Sylvie had compelled the maid to sit in the dining-room so that one fire and one lamp could do for all; except when Colonel Gouraud and Vinet came, on which occasions Adele was sent to the kitchen.

Pierrette’s arrival enlivened the rest of the evening.

“We must get her some clothes tomorrow,” said Sylvie; “she has absolutely nothing.”

“No shoes but those she had on, which weigh a pound,” said Adele.

“That’s always so, in their part of the country,” remarked Rogron.

“How she looked at her room! though it really isn’t handsome enough for a cousin of yours, mademoiselle.”

“It is good enough; hold your tongue,” said Sylvie.

“Gracious, what chemises! coarse enough to scratch her skin off; not a thing can she use here,” said Adele, emptying the bundle.

Master, mistress, and servant were busy till past ten o’clock, deciding what cambric they should buy for the new chemises, how many pairs of stockings, how many under-petticoats, and what material, and in reckoning up the whole cost of Pierrette’s outfit.

“You won’t get off under three hundred francs,” said Rogron, who could remember the different prices, and add them up from his former shop-keeping habit.

“Three hundred francs!” cried Sylvie.

“Yes, three hundred. Add it up.”

The brother and sister went over the calculation once more, and found the cost would be fully three hundred francs, not counting the making.

“Three hundred francs at one stroke!” said Sylvie to herself as she got into bed.

* * * * *

Pierrette was one of those children of love whom love endows with its tenderness, its vivacity, its gaiety, its nobility, its devotion. Nothing had so far disturbed or wounded a heart that was delicate as that of a fawn, but which was now painfully repressed by the cold greeting of her cousins. If Brittany had been full of outward misery, at least it was full of love. The old Lorrains were the most incapable of merchants, but they were also the most loving, frank, caressing, of friends, like all who are incautious and free from calculation. Their little granddaughter had received no other education at Pen–Hoel than that of nature. Pierrette went where she liked, in a boat on the pond, or roaming the village and the fields with Jacques Brigaut, her comrade, exactly as Paul and Virginia might have done. Petted by everybody, free as air, they gaily chased the joys of childhood. In summer they ran to watch the fishing, they caught the many-colored insects, they gathered flowers, they gardened; in winter they made slides, they built snow-men or huts, or pelted each other with snowballs. Welcomed by all, they met with smiles wherever they went.

When the time came to begin their education, disasters came, too. Jacques, left without means at the death of his father, was apprenticed by his relatives to a cabinet-maker, and fed by charity, as Pierrette was soon to be at Saint–Jacques. Until the little girl was taken with her grandparents to that asylum, she had known nothing but fond caresses and protection from every one. Accustomed to confide in so much love, the little darling missed in these rich relatives, so eagerly desired, the kindly looks and ways which all the world, even strangers and the conductors of the coaches, had bestowed upon her. Her bewilderment, already great, was increased by the moral atmosphere she had entered. The heart turns suddenly cold or hot like the body. The poor child wanted to cry, without knowing why; but being very tired she went to sleep.

The next morning, Pierrette being, like all country children, accustomed to get up early, was awake two hours before the cook. She dressed herself, stepping on tiptoe about her room, looked out at the little square, started to go downstairs and was struck with amazement by the beauties of the staircase. She stopped to examine all its details: the painted walls, the brasses, the various ornamentations, the window fixtures. Then she went down to the garden-door, but was unable to open it, and returned to her room to wait until Adele should be stirring. As soon as the woman went to the kitchen Pierrette flew to the garden and took possession of it, ran to the river, was amazed at the kiosk, and sat down in it; truly, she had enough to see and to wonder at until her cousins were up. At breakfast Sylvie said to her:—

“Was it you, little one, who was trotting over my head by daybreak, and making that racket on the stairs? You woke me so that I couldn’t go to sleep again. You must be very good and quiet, and amuse yourself without noise. Your cousin doesn’t like noise.”

“And you must wipe your feet,” said Rogron. “You went into the kiosk with your dirty shoes, and they’ve tracked all over the floor. Your cousin likes cleanliness. A great girl like you ought to be clean. Weren’t you clean in Brittany? But I recollect when I went down there to buy thread it was pitiable to see the folks — they were like savages. At any rate she has a good appetite,” added Rogron, looking at his sister; “one would think she hadn’t eaten anything for days.”

Thus, from the very start Pierrette was hurt by the remarks of her two cousins — hurt, she knew not why. Her straightforward, open nature, hitherto left to itself, was not given to reflection. Incapable of thinking that her cousins were hard, she was fated to find it out slowly through suffering. After breakfast the brother and sister, pleased with Pierrette’s astonishment at the house and anxious to enjoy it, took her to the salon to show her its splendors and teach her not to touch them. Many celibates, driven by loneliness and the moral necessity of caring for something, substitute factitious affections for natural ones; they love dogs, cats, canaries, servants, or their confessor. Rogron and Sylvie had come to the pass of loving immoderately their house and furniture, which had cost them so dear. Sylvie began by helping Adele in the mornings to dust and arrange the furniture, under pretence that she did not know how to keep it looking as good as new. This dusting was soon a desired occupation to her, and the furniture, instead of losing its value in her eyes, became ever more precious. To use things without hurting them or soiling them or scratching the woodwork or clouding the varnish, that was the problem which soon became the mania of the old maid’s life. Sylvie had a closet full of bits of wool, wax, varnish, and brushes, which she had learned to use with the dexterity of a cabinet-maker; she had her feather dusters and her dusting-cloths; and she rubbed away without fear of hurting herself — she was so strong. The glance of her cold blue eyes, hard as steel, was forever roving over the furniture and under it, and you could as soon have found a tender spot in her heart as a bit of fluff under the sofa.

After the remarks made at Madame Tiphaine’s, Sylvie dared not flinch from the three hundred francs for Pierrette’s clothes. During the first week her time was wholly taken up, and Pierrette’s too, by frocks to order and try on, chemises and petticoats to cut out and have made by a seamstress who went out by the day. Pierrette did not know how to sew.

“That’s pretty bringing up!” said Rogron. “Don’t you know how to do anything, little girl?”

Pierrette, who knew nothing but how to love, made a pretty, childish gesture.

“What did you do in Brittany?” asked Rogron.

“I played,” she answered, naively. “Everybody played with me. Grandmamma and grandpapa they told me stories. Ah! they all loved me!”

“Hey!” said Rogron; “didn’t you take it easy!”

Pierrette opened her eyes wide, not comprehending.

“She is as stupid as an owl,” said Sylvie to Mademoiselle Borain, the best seamstress in Provins.

“She’s so young,” said the workwoman, looking kindly at Pierrette, whose delicate little muzzle was turned up to her with a coaxing look.

Pierrette preferred the sewing-women to her relations. She was endearing in her ways with them, she watched their work, and made them those pretty speeches that seem like the flowers of childhood, and which her cousin had already silenced, for that gaunt woman loved to impress those under her with salutary awe. The sewing-women were delighted with Pierrette. Their work, however, was not carried on without many and loud grumblings.

“That child will make us pay through the nose!” cried Sylvie to her brother.

“Stand still, my dear, and don’t plague us; it is all for you and not for me,” she would say to Pierrette when the child was being measured. Sometimes it was, when Pierrette would ask the seamstress some question, “Let Mademoiselle Borain do her work, and don’t talk to her; it is not you who are paying for her time.”

“Mademoiselle,” said Mademoiselle Borain, “am I to back-stitch this?”

“Yes, do it firmly; I don’t want to be making such an outfit as this every day.”

Sylvie put the same spirit of emulation into Pierrette’s outfit that she had formerly put into the house. She was determined that her cousin should be as well dressed as Madame Garceland’s little girl. She bought the child fashionable boots of bronzed kid like those the little Tiphaines wore, very fine cotton stockings, a corset by the best maker, a dress of blue reps, a pretty cape lined with white silk, — all this that she, Sylvie, might hold her own against the children of the women who had rejected her. The underclothes were quite in keeping with the visible articles of dress, for Sylvie feared the examining eyes of the various mothers. Pierrette’s chemises were of fine Madapolam calico. Mademoiselle Borain had mentioned that the sub-prefect’s little girls wore cambric drawers, embroidered and trimmed in the latest style. Pierrette had the same. Sylvie ordered for her a charming little drawn bonnet of blue velvet lined with white satin, precisely like the one worn by Dr. Martener’s little daughter.

Thus attired, Pierrette was the most enchanting little girl in all Provins. On Sunday, after church, all the ladies kissed her; Mesdames Tiphaine, Garceland, Galardon, Julliard, and the rest fell in love with the sweet little Breton girl. This enthusiasm was deeply flattering to old Sylvie’s self-love; she regarded it as less due to Pierrette than to her own benevolence. She ended, however, in being affronted by her cousin’s success. Pierrette was constantly invited out, and Sylvie allowed her to go, always for the purpose of triumphing over “those ladies.” Pierrette was much in demand for games or little parties and dinners with their own little girls. She had succeeded where the Rogrons had failed; and Mademoiselle Sylvie soon grew indignant that Pierrette was asked to other children’s houses when those children never came to hers. The artless little thing did not conceal the pleasure she found in her visits to these ladies, whose affectionate manners contrasted strangely with the harshness of her two cousins. A mother would have rejoiced in the happiness of her little one, but the Rogrons had taken Pierrette for their own sakes, not for hers; their feelings, far from being parental, were dyed in selfishness and a sort of commercial calculation.

The handsome outfit, the fine Sunday dresses, and the every-day frocks were the beginning of Pierrette’s troubles. Like all children free to amuse themselves, who are accustomed to follow the dictates of their own lively fancies, she was very hard on her clothes, her shoes, and above all on those embroidered drawers. A mother when she reproves her child thinks only of the child; her voice is gentle; she does not raise it unless driven to extremities, or when the child is much in fault. But here, in this great matter of Pierrette’s clothes, the cousins’ money was the first consideration; their interests were to be thought of, not the child’s. Children have the perceptions of the canine race for the sentiments of those who rule them; they know instinctively whether they are loved or only tolerated. Pure and innocent hearts are more distressed by shades of difference than by contrasts; a child does not understand evil, but it knows when the instinct of the good and the beautiful which nature has implanted in it is shocked. The lectures which Pierrette now drew upon herself on propriety of behavior, modesty, and economy were merely the corollary of the one theme, “Pierrette will ruin us.”

These perpetual fault-findings, which were destined to have a fatal result for the poor child, brought the two celibates back to the old beaten track of their shop-keeping habits, from which their removal to Provins had parted them, and in which their natures were now to expand and flourish. Accustomed in the old days to rule and to make inquisitions, to order about and reprove their clerks sharply, Rogron and his sister had actually suffered for want of victims. Little minds need to practise despotism to relieve their nerves, just as great souls thirst for equality in friendship to exercise their hearts. Narrow natures expand by persecuting as much as others through beneficence; they prove their power over their fellows by cruel tyranny as others do by loving kindness; they simply go the way their temperaments drive them. Add to this the propulsion of self-interest and you may read the enigma of most social matters.

Thenceforth Pierrette became a necessity to the lives of her cousins. From the day of her coming their minds were occupied — first, with her outfit, and then with the novelty of a third presence. But every new thing, a sentiment and even a tyranny, is moulded as time goes on into fresh shapes. Sylvie began by calling Pierrette “my dear,” or “little one.” Then she abandoned the gentler terms for “Pierrette” only. Her reprimands, at first only cross, became sharp and angry; and no sooner were their feet on the path of fault-finding than the brother and sister made rapid strides. They were no longer bored to death! It was not their deliberate intention to be wicked and cruel; it was simply the blind instinct of an imbecile tyranny. The pair believed they were doing Pierrette a service, just as they had thought their harshness a benefit to their apprentices.

Pierrette, whose true and noble and extreme sensibility was the antipodes of the Rogrons’ hardness, had a dread of being scolded; it wounded her so sharply that the tears would instantly start in her beautiful, pure eyes. She had a great struggle with herself before she could repress the enchanting sprightliness which made her so great a favorite elsewhere. After a time she displayed it only in the homes of her little friends. By the end of the first month she had learned to be passive in her cousins’ house — so much so that Rogron one day asked her if she was ill. At that sudden question, she ran to the end of the garden, and stood crying beside the river, into which her tears may have fallen as she herself was about to fall into the social torrent.

One day, in spite of all her care, she tore her best reps frock at Madame Tiphaine’s, where she was spending a happy day. The poor child burst into tears, foreseeing the cruel things which would be said to her at home. Questioned by her friends, she let fall a few words about her terrible cousin. Madame Tiphaine happened to have some reps exactly like that of the frock, and she put in a new breadth herself. Mademoiselle Rogron found out the trick, as she expressed it, which the little devil had played her. From that day forth she refused to let Pierrette go to any of “those women’s” houses.

The life the poor girl led in Provins was divided into three distinct phases. The first, already shown, in which she had some joy mingled with the cold kindness of her cousins and their sharp reproaches, lasted three months. Sylvie’s refusal to let her go to her little friends, backed by the necessity of beginning her education, ended the first phase of her life at Provins, the only period when that life was bearable to her.

These events, produced at the Rogrons by Pierrette’s presence, were studied by Vinet and the colonel with the caution of foxes preparing to enter a poultry-yard and disturbed by seeing a strange fowl. They both called from time to time — but seldom, so as not to alarm the old maid; they talked with Rogron under various pretexts, and made themselves masters of his mind with an affectation of reserve and modesty which the great Tartuffe himself would have respected. The colonel and the lawyer were spending the evening with Rogron on the very day when Sylvie had refused in bitter language to let Pierrette go again to Madame Tiphaine’s, or elsewhere. Being told of this refusal the colonel and the lawyer looked at each other with an air which seemed to say that they at least knew Provins well.

“Madame Tiphaine intended to insult you,” said the lawyer. “We have long been warning Rogron of what would happen. There’s no good to be got from those people.”

“What can you expect from the anti-national party!” cried the colonel, twirling his moustache and interrupting the lawyer. “But, mademoiselle, if we had tried to warn you from those people you might have supposed we had some malicious motive in what we said. If you like a game of cards in the evening, why don’t you have it at home; why not play your boston here, in your own house? Is it impossible to fill the places of those idiots, the Julliards and all the rest of them? Vinet and I know how to play boston, and we can easily find a fourth. Vinet might present his wife to you; she is charming, and, what is more, a Chargeboeuf. You will not be so exacting as those apes of the Upper town; you won’t require a good little housewife, who is compelled by the meanness of her family to do her own work, to dress like a duchess. Poor woman, she has the courage of a lion and the meekness of a lamb.”

Sylvie Rogron showed her long yellow teeth as she smiled on the colonel, who bore the sight heroically and assumed a flattered air.

“If we are only four we can’t play boston every night,” said Sylvie.

“Why not? What do you suppose an old soldier of the Empire like me does with himself? And as for Vinet, his evenings are always free. Besides, you’ll have plenty of other visitors; I warrant you that,” he added, with a rather mysterious air.

“What you ought to do,” said Vinet, “is to take an open stand against the ministerialists of Provins and form an opposition to them. You would soon see how popular that would make you; you would have a society about you at once. The Tiphaines would be furious at an opposition salon. Well, well, why not laugh at others, if others laugh at you? — and they do; the clique doesn’t mince matters in talking about you.”

“How’s that?” demanded Sylvie.

In the provinces there is always a valve or a faucet through which gossip leaks from one social set to another. Vinet knew all the slurs cast upon the Rogrons in the salons from which they were now excluded. The deputy-judge and archaeologist Desfondrilles belonged to neither party. With other independents like him, he repeated what he heard on both sides and Vinet made the most of it. The lawyer’s spiteful tongue put venom into Madame Tiphaine’s speeches, and by showing Rogron and Sylvie the ridicule they had brought upon themselves he roused an undying spirit of hatred in those bitter natures, which needed an object for their petty passions.

A few days later Vinet brought his wife, a well-bred woman, neither pretty nor plain, timid, very gentle, and deeply conscious of her false position. Madame Vinet was fair-complexioned, faded by the cares of her poor household, and very simply dressed. No woman could have pleased Sylvie more. Madame Vinet endured her airs, and bent before them like one accustomed to subjection. On the poor woman’s rounded brow and delicately timid cheek and in her slow and gentle glance, were the traces of deep reflection, of those perceptive thoughts which women who are accustomed to suffer bury in total silence.

The influence of the colonel (who now displayed to Sylvie the graces of a courtier, in marked contradiction to his usual military brusqueness), together with that of the astute Vinet, was soon to harm the Breton child. Shut up in the house, no longer allowed to go out except in company with her old cousin, Pierrette, that pretty little squirrel, was at the mercy of the incessant cry, “Don’t touch that, child, let that alone!” She was perpetually being lectured on her carriage and behavior; if she stooped or rounded her shoulders her cousin would call to her to be as erect as herself (Sylvie was rigid as a soldier presenting arms to his colonel); sometimes indeed the ill-natured old maid enforced the order by slaps on the back to make the girl straighten up.

Thus the free and joyous little child of the Marais learned by degrees to repress all liveliness and to make herself, as best she could, an automaton.

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