Pierrette, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 7

Domestic Tyranny

For a month past Rogron had ceased to carry the “Constitutionnel” to Gouraud; the colonel came obsequiously to fetch his paper, gossip a little, and take Rogron off to walk if the weather was fine. Sure of seeing the colonel and being able to question him, Sylvie dressed herself as coquettishly as she knew how. The old maid thought she was attractive in a green gown, a yellow shawl with a red border, and a white bonnet with straggling gray feathers. About the hour when the colonel usually came Sylvie stationed herself in the salon with her brother, whom she had compelled to stay in the house in his dressing-gown and slippers.

“It is a fine day, colonel,” said Rogron, when Gouraud with his heavy step entered the room. “But I’m not dressed; my sister wanted to go out, and I was going to keep the house. Wait for me; I’ll be ready soon.”

So saying, Rogron left Sylvie alone with the colonel.

“Where were you going? you are dressed divinely,” said Gouraud, who noticed a certain solemnity on the pock-marked face of the old maid.

“I wanted very much to go out, but my little cousin is ill, and I cannot leave her.”

“What is the matter with her?”

“I don’t know; she had to go to bed.”

Gouraud’s caution, not to say his distrust, was constantly excited by the results of his alliance with Vinet. It certainly appeared that the lawyer had got the lion’s share in their enterprise. Vinet controlled the paper, he reigned as sole master over it, he took the revenues; whereas the colonel, the responsible editor, earned little. Vinet and Cournant had done the Rogrons great services; whereas Gouraud, a colonel on half-pay, could do nothing. Who was to be deputy? Vinet. Who was the chief authority in the party? Vinet. Whom did the liberals all consult? Vinet. Moreover, the colonel knew fully as well as Vinet himself the extent and depth of the passion suddenly aroused in Rogron by the beautiful Bathilde de Chargeboeuf. This passion had now become intense, like all the last passions of men. Bathilde’s voice made him tremble. Absorbed in his desires Rogron hid them; he dared not hope for such a marriage. To sound him, the colonel mentioned that he was thinking himself of asking for Bathilde’s hand. Rogron turned pale at the thought of such a formidable rival, and had since then shown coldness and even hatred to Gouraud.

Thus Vinet reigned supreme in the Rogron household while he, the colonel, had no hold there except by the extremely hypothetical tie of his mendacious affection for Sylvie, which it was not yet clear that Sylvie reciprocated. When the lawyer told him of the priest’s manoeuvre, and advised him to break with Sylvie and marry Pierrette, he certainly flattered Gouraud’s foible; but after analyzing the inner purpose of that advice and examining the ground all about him, the colonel thought he perceived in his ally the intention of separating him from Sylvie, and profiting by her fears to throw the whole Rogron property into the hands of Mademoiselle de Chargeboeuf.

Therefore, when the colonel was left alone with Sylvie his perspicacity possessed itself immediately of certain signs which betrayed her uneasiness. He saw at once that she was under arms and had made this plan for seeing him alone. As he already suspected Vinet of playing him some trick, he attributed the conference to the instigation of the lawyer, and was instantly on his guard, as he would have been in an enemy’s country — with an eye all about him, an ear to the faintest sound, his mind on the qui vive, and his hand on a weapon. The colonel had the defect of never believing a single word said to him by a woman; so that when the old maid brought Pierrette on the scene, and told him she had gone to bed before midday, he concluded that Sylvie had locked her up by way of punishment and out of jealousy.

“She is getting to be quite pretty, that little thing,” he said with an easy air.

“She will be pretty,” replied Mademoiselle Rogron.

“You ought to send her to Paris and put her in a shop,” continued the colonel. “She would make her fortune. The milliners all want pretty girls.”

“Is that really your advice?” asked Sylvie, in a troubled voice.

“Good!” thought the colonel, “I was right. Vinet advised me to marry Pierrette just to spoil my chance with the old harridan. But,” he said aloud, “what else can you do with her? There’s that beautiful girl Bathilde de Chargeboeuf, noble and well-connected, reduced to single-blessedness — nobody will have her. Pierrette has nothing, and she’ll never marry. As for beauty, what is it? To me, for example, youth and beauty are nothing; for haven’t I been a captain of cavalry in the imperial guard, and carried my spurs into all the capitals of Europe, and known all the handsomest women of these capitals? Don’t talk to me; I tell you youth and beauty are devilishly common and silly. At forty-eight,” he went on, adding a few years to his age, to match Sylvie’s, “after surviving the retreat from Moscow and going through that terrible campaign of France, a man is broken down; I’m nothing but an old fellow now. A woman like you would pet me and care for me, and her money, joined to my poor pension, would give me ease in my old days; of course I should prefer such a woman to a little minx who would worry the life out of me, and be thirty years old, with passions, when I should be sixty, with rheumatism. At my age, a man considers and calculates. To tell you the truth between ourselves, I should not wish to have children.”

Sylvie’s face was an open book to the colonel during this tirade, and her next question proved to him Vinet’s perfidy.

“Then you don’t love Pierrette?” she said.

“Heavens! are you out of your mind, my dear Sylvie?” he cried. “Can those who have no teeth crack nuts? Thank God I’ve got some common-sense and know what I’m about.”

Sylvie thus reassured resolved not to show her own hand, and thought herself very shrewd in putting her own ideas into her brother’s mouth.

“Jerome,” she said, “thought of the match.”

“How could your brother take up such an incongruous idea? Why, it is only a few days ago that, in order to find out his secrets, I told him I loved Bathilde. He turned as white as your collar.”

“My brother! does he love Bathilde?” asked Sylvie.

“Madly — and yet Bathilde is only after his money.” (“One for you, Vinet!” thought the colonel.) “I can’t understand why he should have told you that about Pierrette. No, Sylvie,” he said, taking her hand and pressing it in a certain way, “since you have opened this matter” (he drew nearer to her), “well” (he kissed her hand; as a cavalry captain he had already proved his courage), “let me tell you that I desire no wife but you. Though such a marriage may look like one of convenience, I feel, on my side, a sincere affection for you.”

“But if I wish you to marry Pierrette? if I leave her my fortune — eh, colonel?”

“But I don’t want to be miserable in my home, and in less than ten years see a popinjay like Julliard hovering round my wife and addressing verses to her in the newspapers. I’m too much of a man to stand that. No, I will never make a marriage that is disproportionate in age.”

“Well, colonel, we will talk seriously of this another time,” said Sylvie, casting a glance upon him which she supposed to be full of love, though, in point of fact, it was a good deal like that of an ogress. Her cold, blue lips of a violet tinge drew back from the yellow teeth, and she thought she smiled.

“I’m ready,” said Rogron, coming in and carrying off the colonel, who bowed in a lover-like way to the old maid.

Gouraud determined to press on his marriage with Sylvie, and make himself master of the house; resolving to rid himself, through his influence over Sylvie during the honeymoon, of Bathilde and Celeste Habert. So, during their walk, he told Rogron he had been joking the other day; that he had no real intention of aspiring to Bathilde; that he was not rich enough to marry a woman without fortune; and then he confided to him his real wishes, declaring that he had long chosen Sylvie for her good qualities — in short, he aspired to the honor of being Rogron’s brother-inlaw.

“Ah, colonel, my dear baron! if nothing is wanting but my consent you have it with no further delay than the law requires,” cried Rogron, delighted to be rid of his formidable rival.

Sylvie spent the morning in her own room considering how the new household could be arranged. She determined to build a second storey for her brother and to furnish the rest for herself and her husband; but she also resolved, in the true old-maidish spirit, to subject the colonel to certain proofs by which to judge of his heart and his morals before she finally committed herself. She was still suspicious, and wanted to make sure that Pierrette had no private intercourse with the colonel.

Pierrette came down before the dinner-hour to lay the table. Sylvie had been forced to cook the dinner, and had sworn at that “cursed Pierrette” for a spot she had made on her gown — wasn’t it plain that if Pierrette had done her own work Sylvie wouldn’t have got that grease-spot on her silk dress?

“Oh, here you are, peakling? You are like the dog of the marshal who woke up as soon as the saucepans rattled. Ha! you want us to think you are ill, you little liar!”

That idea: “You did not tell the truth about what happened in the square this morning, therefore you lie in everything,” was a hammer with which Sylvie battered the head and also the heart of the poor girl incessantly.

To Pierrette’s great astonishment Sylvie sent her to dress in her best clothes after dinner. The liveliest imagination is never up to the level of the activity which suspicion excites in the mind of an old maid. In this particular case, this particular old maid carried the day against politicians, lawyers, notaries, and all other self-interests. Sylvie determined to consult Vinet, after examining herself into all the suspicious circumstances. She kept Pierrette close to her, so as to find out from the girl’s face whether the colonel had told her the truth.

On this particular evening the Chargeboeuf ladies were the first to arrive. Bathilde, by Vinet’s advice, had become more elaborate in her dress. She now wore a charming gown of blue velveteen, with the same transparent fichu, garnet pendants in her ears, her hair in ringlets, the wily jeannette round her throat, black satin slippers, gray silk stockings, and gants de Suede; add to these things the manners of a queen and the coquetry of a young girl determined to capture Rogron. Her mother, calm and dignified, retained, as did her daughter, a certain aristocratic insolence, with which the two women hedged themselves and preserved the spirit of their caste. Bathilde was a woman of intelligence, a fact which Vinet alone had discovered during the two months’ stay the ladies had made at his house. When he had fully fathomed the mind of the girl, wounded and disappointed as it was by the fruitlessness of her beauty and her youth, and enlightened by the contempt she felt for the men of a period in which money was the only idol, Vinet, himself surprised, exclaimed —

“If I could only have married you, Bathilde, I should today be Keeper of the Seals. I should call myself Vinet de Chargeboeuf, and take my seat as deputy of the Right.”

Bathilde had no vulgar idea in her marriage intentions. She did not marry to be a mother, nor to possess a husband; she married for freedom, to gain a responsible position, to be called “madame,” and to act as men act. Rogron was nothing but a name to her; she expected to make something of the fool — a voting deputy, for instance, whose instigator she would be; moreover, she longed to avenge herself on her family, who had taken no notice of a girl without money. Vinet had much enlarged and strengthened her ideas by admiring and approving them.

“My dear Bathilde,” he said, while explaining to her the influence of women, and showing her the sphere of action in which she ought to work, “do you suppose that Tiphaine, a man of the most ordinary capacity, could ever get to be a judge of the Royal court in Paris by himself? No, it is Madame Tiphaine who has got him elected deputy, and it is she who will push him when they get to Paris. Her mother, Madame Roguin, is a shrewd woman, who does what she likes with the famous banker du Tillet, a crony of Nucingen, and both of them allies of the Kellers. The administration is on the best of terms with those lynxes of the bank. There is no reason why Tiphaine should not be judge, through his wife, of a Royal court. Marry Rogron; we’ll have him elected deputy from Provins as soon as I gain another precinct in the Seine-et-Marne. You can then get him a place as receiver-general, where he’ll have nothing to do but sign his name. We shall belong to the opposition if the Liberals triumph, but if the Bourbons remain — ah! then we shall lean gently, gently towards the centre. Besides, you must remember Rogron can’t live forever, and then you can marry a titled man. In short, put yourself in a good position, and the Chargeboeufs will be ready enough to serve us. Your poverty has no doubt taught you, as mine did me, to know what men are worth. We must make use of them as we do of post-horses. A man, or a woman, will take us along to such or such a distance.”

Vinet ended by making Bathilde a small edition of Catherine de Medicis. He left his wife at home, rejoiced to be alone with her two children, while he went every night to the Rogrons’ with Madame and Mademoiselle de Chargeboeuf. He arrived there in all the glory of better circumstances. His spectacles were of gold, his waistcoat silk; a white cravat, black trousers, thin boots, a black coat made in Paris, and a gold watch and chain, made up his apparel. In place of the former Vinet, pale and thin, snarling and gloomy, the present Vinet bore himself with the air and manner of a man of importance; he marched boldly forward, certain of success, with that peculiar show of security which belongs to lawyers who know the hidden places of the law. His sly little head was well-brushed, his chin well-shaved, which gave him a mincing though frigid look, that made him seem agreeable in the style of Robespierre. Certainly he would make a fine attorney-general, endowed with elastic, mischievous, and even murderous eloquence, or an orator of the shrewd type of Benjamin Constant. The bitterness and the hatred which formerly actuated him had now turned into soft-spoken perfidy; the poison was transformed into anodyne.

“Good-evening, my dear; how are you?” said Madame de Chargeboeuf, greeting Sylvie.

Bathilde went straight to the fireplace, took off her bonnet, looked at herself in the glass, and placed her pretty foot on the fender that Rogron might admire it.

“What is the matter with you?” she said to him, looking directly in his face. “You have not bowed to me. Pray why should we put on our best velvet gowns to please you?”

She pushed past Pierrette to lay down her hat, which the latter took from her hand, and which she let her take exactly as though she were a servant. Men are supposed to be ferocious, and tigers too; but neither tigers, vipers, diplomatists, lawyers, executioners or kings ever approach, in their greatest atrocities, the gentle cruelty, the poisoned sweetness, the savage disdain of one young woman for another, when she thinks herself superior in birth, or fortune, or grace, and some question of marriage, or precedence, or any of the feminine rivalries, is raised. The “Thank you, mademoiselle,” which Bathilde said to Pierrette was a poem in many strophes. She was named Bathilde, and the other Pierrette. She was a Chargeboeuf, the other a Lorrain. Pierrette was small and weak, Bathilde was tall and full of life. Pierrette was living on charity, Bathilde and her mother lived on their means. Pierrette wore a stuff gown with a chemisette, Bathilde made the velvet of hers undulate. Bathilde had the finest shoulders in the department, and the arm of a queen; Pierrette’s shoulder-blades were skin and bone. Pierrette was Cinderella, Bathilde was the fairy. Bathilde was about to marry, Pierrette was to die a maid. Bathilde was adored, Pierrette was loved by none. Bathilde’s hair was ravishingly dressed, she had so much taste; Pierrette’s was hidden beneath her Breton cap, and she knew nothing of the fashions. Moral, Bathilde was everything, Pierrette nothing. The proud little Breton girl understood this tragic poem.

“Good-evening, little girl,” said Madame de Chargeboeuf, from the height of her condescending grandeur, and in the tone of voice which her pinched nose gave her.

Vinet put the last touch to this sort of insult by looking fixedly at Pierrette and saying, in three keys, “Oh! oh! oh! how fine we are to-night, Pierrette!”

“Fine!” said the poor child; “you should say that to Mademoiselle de Chargeboeuf, not to me.”

“Oh! she is always beautifully dressed,” replied the lawyer. “Isn’t she, Rogron?” he added, turning to the master of the house, and grasping his hand.

“Yes,” said Rogron.

“Why do you force him to say what he does not think?” said Bathilde; “nothing about me pleases him. Isn’t that true?” she added, going up to Rogron and standing before him. “Look at me, and say if it isn’t true.”

Rogron looked at her from head to foot, and gently closed his eyes like a cat whose head is being scratched.

“You are too beautiful,” he said; “too dangerous.”

“Why?”

Rogron looked at the fire and was silent. Just then Mademoiselle Habert entered the room, followed by the colonel.

Celeste Habert, who had now become the common enemy, could only reckon Sylvie on her side; nevertheless, everybody present showed her the more civility and amiable attention because each was undermining her. Her brother, though no longer able to be on the scene of action, was well aware of what was going on, and as soon as he perceived that his sister’s hopes were killed he became an implacable and terrible antagonist to the Rogrons.

Every one will immediately picture to themselves Mademoiselle Habert when they know that if she had not kept an institution for young ladies she would still have had the air of a school-mistress. School-mistresses have a way of their own in putting on their caps. Just as old Englishwomen have acquired a monopoly in turbans, school-mistresses have a monopoly of these caps. Flowers nod above the frame-work, flowers that are more than artificial; lying by in closets for years the cap is both new and old, even on the day it is first worn. These spinsters make it a point of honor to resemble the lay figures of a painter; they sit on their hips, never on their chairs. When any one speaks to them they turn their whole busts instead of simply turning their heads; and when their gowns creak one is tempted to believe that the mechanism of these beings is out of order. Mademoiselle Habert, an ideal of her species, had a stern eye, a grim mouth, and beneath her wrinkled chin the strings of her cap, always limp and faded, floated as she moved. Two moles, rather large and brown, adorned that chin, and from them sprouted hairs which she allowed to grow rampant like clematis. And finally, to complete her portrait, she took snuff, and took it ungracefully.

The company went to work at their boston. Mademoiselle Habert sat opposite to Sylvie, with the colonel at her side opposite to Madame de Chargeboeuf. Bathilde was near her mother and Rogron. Sylvie placed Pierrette between herself and the colonel; Rogron had set out a second card-table, in case other company arrived. Two lamps were on the chimney-piece between the candelabra and the clock, and the tables were lighted by candles at forty sous a pound, paid for by the price of the cards.

“Come, Pierrette, take your work, my dear,” said Sylvie, with treacherous softness, noticing that the girl was watching the colonel’s game.

She usually affected to treat Pierrette well before company. This deception irritated the honest Breton girl, and made her despise her cousin. She took her embroidery, but as she drew her stitches she still watched Gouraud’s play. Gouraud behaved as if he did not know the girl was near him. Sylvie noticed this apparent indifference and thought it extremely suspicious. Presently she undertook a grande misere in hearts, the pool being full of counters, besides containing twenty-seven sous. The rest of the company had now arrived; among them the deputy-judge Desfondrilles, who for the last two months had abandoned the Tiphaine party and connected himself more or less with the Vinets. He was standing before the chimney-piece, with his back to the fire and the tails of his coat over his arms, looking round the fine salon of which Mademoiselle de Chargeboeuf was the shining ornament; for it really seemed as if all the reds of its decoration had been made expressly to enhance her style of beauty. Silence reigned; Pierrette was watching the game, Sylvie’s attention was distracted from her by the interest of the grande misere.

“Play that,” said Pierrette to the colonel, pointing to a heart in his hand.

The colonel began a sequence in hearts; the hearts all lay between himself and Sylvie; the colonel won her ace, though it was protected by five small hearts.

“That’s not fair!” she cried. “Pierrette saw my hand, and the colonel took her advice.”

“But, mademoiselle,” said Celeste, “it was the colonel’s game to play hearts after you began them.”

The scene made Monsieur Desfondrilles smile; his was a keen mind, which found much amusement in watching the play of all the self-interests in Provins.

“Yes, it was certainly the colonel’s game,” said Cournant the notary, not knowing what the question was.

Sylvie threw a look at Mademoiselle Habert — one of those glances which pass from old maid to old maid, feline and cruel.

“Pierrette, you did see my hand,” said Sylvie fixing her eyes on the girl.

“No, cousin.”

“I was looking at you all,” said the deputy-judge, “and I can swear that Pierrette saw no one’s hand but the colonel’s.”

“Pooh!” said Gouraud, alarmed, “little girls know how to slide their eyes into everything.”

“Ah!” exclaimed Sylvie.

“Yes,” continued Gouraud. “I dare say she looked into your hand to play you a trick. Didn’t you, little one?”

“No,” said the truthful Breton, “I wouldn’t do such a thing; if I had, it would have been in my cousin’s interests.”

“You know you are a story-teller and a little fool,” cried Sylvie. “After what happened this morning do you suppose I can believe a word you say? You are a —”

Pierrette did not wait for Sylvie to finish her sentence; foreseeing a torrent of insults, she rushed away without a light and ran to her room. Sylvie turned white with anger and muttered between her teeth, “She shall pay for this!”

“Shall you pay for the misere?” said Madame de Chargeboeuf.

As she spoke Pierrette struck her head against the door of the passage which some one had left open.

“Good! I’m glad of it,” cried Sylvie, as they heard the blow.

“She must be hurt,” said Desfondrilles.

“She deserves it,” replied Sylvie.

“It was a bad blow,” said Mademoiselle Habert.

Sylvie thought she might escape paying her misere if she went to see after Pierrette, but Madame de Chargeboeuf stopped her.

“Pay us first,” she said, laughing; “you will forget it when you come back.”

The remark, based on the old maid’s trickery and her bad faith in paying her debts at cards was approved by the others. Sylvie sat down and thought no more of Pierrette — an indifference which surprised no one. When the game was over, about half past nine o’clock, she flung herself into an easy chair at the corner of the fireplace and did not even rise as her guests departed. The colonel was torturing her; she did not know what to think of him.

“Men are so false!” she cried, as she went to bed.

Pierrette had given herself a frightful blow on the head, just above the ear, at the spot where young girls part their hair when they put their “front hair” in curlpapers. The next day there was a large swelling.

“God has punished you,” said Sylvie at the breakfast table. “You disobeyed me; you treated me with disrespect in leaving the room before I had finished my sentence; you got what you deserved.”

“Nevertheless,” said Rogron, “she ought to put on a compress of salt and water.”

“Oh, it is nothing at all, cousin,” said Pierrette.

The poor child had reached a point where even such a remark seemed to her a proof of kindness.

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