Pierrette, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter 9

The Family Council

At nine o’clock that morning Monsieur Martener went to see Monsieur Tiphaine, and related to him the scene between Pierrette and Sylvie, and the tortures of all kinds, moral and physical, to which the Rogrons had subjected their cousin, and the two alarming forms of illness which their cruelty had developed. Monsieur Tiphaine sent for Auffray the notary, one of Pierrette’s own relations on the maternal side.

At this particular time the war between the Vinet party and the Tiphaine party was at its height. The scandals which the Rogrons and their adherents were disseminating through the town about the liaison of Madame Tiphaine’s mother with the banker du Tillet, and the bankruptcy of her father (a forger, they said), were all the more exasperating to the Tiphaines because these things were malicious truths, not libels. Such wounds cut deep; they go to the quick of feelings and of interests. These speeches, repeated to the partisans of the Tiphaines by the same mouths which told the Rogrons of the sneers of “those women” of the Tiphaine clique, fed the hatreds of both sides, now increased by the political element. The animosities caused at this time in France by the spirit of party, the violences of which were excessive, were everywhere mixed up, as in Provins, with selfish schemes and wounded or vindictive individual interests. Each party eagerly seized on whatever might injure the rival party. Personal hatreds and self-love mingled as much as political animosity in even the smallest matters, and were carried to hitherto unheard-of lengths. A whole town would be roused to excitement over some private struggle, until it took the character of a political debate.

Monsieur Tiphaine at once perceived in the case of Pierrette against the Rogrons a means of humbling, mortifying, and dishonoring the masters of that salon where plans against the monarchy were made and an opposition journal born. The public prosecutor was called in; and together with Monsieur Auffray the notary, Pierrette’s relation, and Monsieur Martener, a cautious consultation was held in the utmost secrecy as to the proper course to follow. Monsieur Martener agreed to advise Pierrette’s grandmother to apply to the courts to have Auffray appointed guardian to his young relation. The guardian could then convene a “Family Council,” and, backed by the testimony of three doctors, demand the girl’s release from the authority of the Rogrons. The affair thus managed would have to go before the courts, and the public prosecutor, Monsieur Lesourd, would see that it was taken to a criminal court by demanding an inquiry.

Towards midday all Provins was roused by the strange news of what had happened during the night at the Rogrons’. Pierrette’s cries had been faintly heard, though they were soon over. No one had risen to inquire what they meant, but every one said the next day, “Did you hear those screams about one in the morning?” Gossip and comments soon magnified the horrible drama, and a crowd collected in front of Frappier’s shop, asking the worthy cabinet-maker for information, and hearing from him how Pierrette was brought to his house with her fingers broken and the hand bloody.

Towards one in the afternoon the post-chaise of Doctor Bianchon, who was accompanied by Brigaut, stopped before the house, and Madame Frappier went at once to summon Monsieur Martener and the surgeon in charge of the hospital. Thus the gossip of the town received confirmation. The Rogrons were declared to have ill-used their cousin deliberately, and to have come near killing her. Vinet heard the news while attending to his business in the law courts; he left everything and hurried to the Rogrons. Rogron and his sister had just finished breakfast. Sylvie was reluctant to tell her brother of her discomfiture of the night before; but he pressed her with questions, to which she would make no answer than, “That’s not your business.” She went and came from the kitchen to the dining-room on pretence of preparing the breakfast, but chiefly to avoid discussion. She was alone when Vinet entered.

“You know what’s happened?” said the lawyer.

“No,” said Sylvie.

“You will be arrested on a criminal charge,” replied Vinet, “from the way things are now going about Pierrette.”

“A criminal charge!” cried Rogron, who had come into the room. “Why? What for?”

“First of all,” said the lawyer, looking at Sylvie, “explain to me without concealment and as if you stood before God, what happened in this house last night — they talk of amputating Pierrette’s hand.”

Sylvie turned livid and shuddered.

“Then there is some truth in it?” said Vinet.

Mademoiselle Rogron related the scene, trying to excuse herself; but, prodded with questions, she acknowledged the facts of the horrible struggle.

“If you have only injured her fingers you will be taken before the police court for a misdemeanor; but if they cut off her hand you may be tried at the Assizes for a worse offence. The Tiphaines will do their best to get you there.”

Sylvie, more dead than alive, confessed her jealousy, and, what was harder to do, confessed also that her suspicions were unfounded.

“Heavens, what a case this will make!” cried the lawyer. “You and your brother may be ruined by it; you will be abandoned by most people whether you win or lose. If you lose, you will have to leave Provins.”

“Oh, my dear Monsieur Vinet, you who are such a great lawyer,” said Rogron, terrified, “advise us! save us!”

The crafty Vinet worked the terror of the two imbeciles to its utmost, declaring that Madame and Mademoiselle de Chargeboeuf might be unwilling to enter their house again. To be abandoned by women of their rank would be a terrible condemnation. At length, after an hour of adroit manoeuvring, it was agreed that Vinet must have some powerful motive in taking the case, that would impress the minds of all Provins and explain his efforts on behalf of the Rogrons. This motive they determined should be Rogron’s marriage to Mademoiselle de Chargeboeuf; it should be announced that very day and the banns published on Sunday. The contract could be drawn immediately. Mademoiselle Rogron agreed, in consideration of the marriage, to appear in the contract as settling her capital on her brother, retaining only the income of it. Vinet made Rogron and his sister comprehend the necessity of antedating the document by two or three days, so as to commit the mother and daughter in the eyes of the public and give them a reason for continuing their visits.

“Sign that contract and I’ll take upon myself to get you safely out of this affair,” said the lawyer. “There will be a terrible fight; but I will put my whole soul into it — you’ll have to make me a votive offering.”

“Oh, yes, yes,” said Rogron.

By half-past eleven the lawyer had plenary powers to draw the contract and conduct the defence of the Rogrons. At twelve o’clock application was made to Monsieur Tiphaine, as a judge sitting in chambers, against Brigaut and the widow Lorrain for having abducted Pierrette Lorrain, a minor, from the house of her legal guardian. In this way the bold lawyer became the aggressor and made Rogron the injured party. He spoke of the matter from this point of view in the court-house.

The judge postponed the hearing till four o’clock. Needless to describe the excitement in the town. Monsieur Tiphaine knew that by three o’clock the consultation of doctors would be over and their report drawn up; he wished Auffray, as surrogate-guardian, to be at the hearing armed with that report.

The announcement of Rogron’s marriage and the sacrifices made to it by Sylvie in the contract alienated two important supporters from the brother and sister, namely — Mademoiselle Habert and the colonel, whose hopes were thus annihilated. They remained, however, ostensibly on the Rogron side for the purpose of injuring it. Consequently, as soon as Monsieur Martener mentioned the alarming condition of Pierrette’s head, Celeste and the colonel told of the blow she had given herself during the evening when Sylvie had forced her to leave the salon; and they related the old maid’s barbarous and unfeeling comments, with other statements proving her cruelty to her suffering cousin. Vinet had foreseen this storm; but he had secured the entire fortune of the Rogrons for Mademoiselle de Chargeboeuf, and he promised himself that in a few weeks she should be mistress of the Rogron house, and reign with him over Provins, and even bring about a fusion with the Breauteys and the aristocrats in the interests of his ambition.

From midday to four o’clock all the ladies of the Tiphaine clique sent to inquire after Mademoiselle Lorrain. She, poor girl, was wholly ignorant of the commotion she was causing in the little town. In the midst of her sufferings she was ineffably happy in recovering her grandmother and Brigaut, the two objects of her affection. Brigaut’s eyes were constantly full of tears. The old grandmother sat by the bed and caressed her darling. To the three doctors she told every detail she had obtained from Pierrette as to her life in the Rogron house. Horace Bianchon expressed his indignation in vehement language. Shocked at such barbarity he insisted on all the physicians in the town being called in to see the case; the consequence was that Dr. Neraud, the friend of the Rogrons, was present. The report was unanimously signed. It is useless to give a text of it here. If Moliere’s medical terms were barbarous, those of modern science have the advantage of being so clear that the explanation of Pierrette’s malady, though natural and unfortunately common, horrified all ears.

At four o’clock, after the usual rising of the court, president Tiphaine again took his seat, when Madame Lorrain, accompanied by Monsieur Auffray and Brigaut and a crowd of interested persons, entered the court-room. Vinet was alone. This contrast struck the minds of those present. The lawyer, who still wore his robe, turned his cold face to the judge, settled his spectacles on his pallid green eyes, and then in a shrill, persistent voice he stated that two strangers had forced themselves at night into the Rogron domicile and had abducted therefrom the minor Lorrain. The legal rights were with the guardian, who now demanded the restoration of his ward.

Monsieur Auffray rose, as surrogate-guardian, and requested to be heard.

“If the judge,” he said, “will admit the report, which I hold in my hand, signed by one of the most famous physicians in Paris, and by all the physicians in Provins, he will understand not only that the demand of the Sieur Rogron is senseless, but also that the grandmother of the minor had grave cause to instantly remove her from her persecutors. Here are the facts. The report of these physicians attribute the almost dying condition of the said minor to the ill-treatment she has received from the Sieur Rogron and his sister. We shall, as the law directs, convoke a Family Council with the least possible delay, and discuss the question as to whether or not the guardian should be deposed. And we now ask that the minor be not returned to the domicile of the said guardian but that she be confided to some member of her family who shall be designated by the judge.”

Vinet replied, declaring that the physicians’ report ought to have been submitted to him in order that he might have disproved it.

“Not submitted to your side,” said the judge, severely, “but possibly to the procureur du roi. The case is heard.”

The judge then wrote at the bottom of the petition the following order:—

“Whereas it appears, from a deliberate and unanimous report of all the physicians of this town, together with Doctor Bianchon of the medical faculty of Paris, that the minor Lorrain, claimed by Jerome–Denis Rogron, her guardian, is extremely ill in consequence of ill-treatment and personal assault in the house of the said guardian and his sister:

“We, president of the court of Provins, passing upon the said petition, order that until the Family Council is held the minor Lorrain is not to be returned to the household of her said guardian, but shall be kept in that of her surrogate-guardian.

“And further, considering the state in which the said minor now is, and the traces of violence which, according to the report of the physicians, are now upon her person, we commission the attending physician and the surgeon in charge of the hospital of Provins to visit her, and in case the injuries from the said assault become alarming, the matter will be held to await the action of the criminal courts; and this without prejudice to the civil suit undertaken by Auffray the surrogate-guardian.”

This severe judgment was read out by President Tiphaine in a loud and distinct voice.

“Why not send them to the galleys at once?” said Vinet. “And all this fuss about a girl who was carrying on an intrigue with an apprentice to a cabinet-maker! If the case goes on in this way,” he cried, insolently, “we shall demand other judges on the ground of legitimate suspicion.”

Vinet left the court-room, and went among the chief men of his party to explain Rogron’s position, declaring that he had never so much as given a flip to his cousin, and that the judge had viewed him much less as Pierrette’s guardian than as a leading elector in Provins.

To hear Vinet, people might have supposed that the Tiphaines were making a great fuss about nothing; the mounting was bringing forth a mouse. Sylvie, an eminently virtuous and pious woman, had discovered an intrigue between her brother’s ward and a workman, a Breton named Brigaut. The scoundrel knew very well that the girl would have her grandmother’s money, and he wished to seduce her (Vinet to talk of that!). Mademoiselle Rogron, who had discovered letters proving the depravity of the girl, was not as much to blame as the Tiphaines were trying to make out. If she did use some violence to get possession of those letters (which was no wonder, when we consider what Breton obstinacy is), how could Rogron be considered responsible for all that?

The lawyer went on to make the matter a partisan affair, and to give it a political color.

“They who listen to only one bell hear only one sound,” said the wise men. “Have you heard what Vinet says? Vinet explains things clearly.”

Frappier’s house being thought injurious to Pierrette, owing to the noise in the street which increased the sufferings in her head, she was taken to that of her surrogate guardian, the change being as necessary medically as it was judicially. The removal was made with the utmost caution, and was calculated to produce a great public effect. Pierrette was laid on a mattress and carried on a stretcher by two men; a Gray Sister walked beside her with a bottle of sal volatile in her hand, while the grandmother, Brigaut, Madame Auffray, and her maid followed. People were at their windows and doors to see the procession pass. Certainly the state in which they saw Pierrette, pale as death, gave immense advantage to the party against the Rogrons. The Auffrays were determined to prove to the whole town that the judge was right in the decision he had given. Pierrette and her grandmother were installed on the second floor of Monsieur Auffray’s house. The notary and his wife gave her every care with the greatest hospitality, which was not without a little ostentation in it. Pierrette had her grandmother to nurse her; and Monsieur Martener and the head-surgeon of the hospital attended her.

On the evening of this day exaggerations began on both sides. The Rogron salon was crowded. Vinet had stirred up the whole Liberal party on the subject. The Chargeboeuf ladies dined with the Rogrons, for the contract was to be signed that evening. Vinet had had the banns posted at the mayor’s office in the afternoon. He made light of the Pierrette affair. If the Provins court was prejudiced, the Royal courts would appreciate the facts, he said, and the Auffrays would think twice before they flung themselves into such a suit. The alliance of the Rogrons with the Chargeboeufs was an immense consideration in the minds of a certain class of people. To them it made the Rogrons as white as snow and Pierrette an evilly disposed little girl, a serpent warmed in their bosom.

In Madame Tiphaine’s salon vengeance was had for all the mischievous scandals that the Vinet party had disseminated for the past two years. The Rogrons were monsters, and the guardian should undergo a criminal trial. In the Lower town, Pierrette was quite well; in the Upper town she was dying; at the Rogrons’ she scratched her wrist; at Madame Tiphaine’s her fingers were fractured and one was to be cut off. The next day the “Courrier de Provins,” had a plausible article, extremely well-written, a masterpiece of insinuations mixed with legal points, which showed that there was no case whatever against Rogron. The “Bee-hive,” which did not appear till two days later, could not answer without becoming defamatory; it replied, however, that in an affair like this it was best to wait until the law took its course.

The Family Council was selected by the juge de paix of the canton of Provins, and consisted of Rogron and the two Messieurs Auffray, the nearest relatives, and Monsieur Ciprey, nephew of Pierrette’s maternal grandmother. To these were joined Monsieur Habert, Pierrette’s confessor, and Colonel Gouraud, who had always professed himself a comrade and friend of her father, Colonel Lorrain. The impartiality of the judge in these selections was much applauded — Monsieur Habert and Colonel Gouraud being considered the firm friends of the Rogrons.

The serious situation in which Rogron found himself made him ask for the assistance of a lawyer (and he named Vinet) at the Family Council. By this manoeuvre, evidently advised by Vinet himself, Rogron succeeded in postponing the meeting of the council till the end of December. At that time Monsieur Tiphaine and his wife would be settled in Paris for the opening of the Chambers; and the ministerial party would be left without its head. Vinet had already worked upon Desfondrilles, the deputy-judge, in case the matter should go, after the hearing before the council, to the criminal courts.

Vinet spoke for three hours before the Family Council; he proved the existence of an intrigue between Pierrette and Brigaut, which justified all Mademoiselle Rogron’s severity. He showed how natural it was that the guardian should have left the management of his ward to a woman; he dwelt on the fact that Rogron had not interfered with Pierrette’s education as planned by his sister Sylvie. But in spite of Vinet’s efforts the Council were unanimous in removing Rogron from the guardianship. Monsieur Auffray was appointed in his place, and Monsieur Ciprey was made surrogate. The Council summoned before it and examined Adele, the servant-woman, who testified against her late masters; also Mademoiselle Habert, who related the cruel remarks made by Mademoiselle Rogron on the evening when Pierrette had given herself a frightful blow, heard by all the company, and the speech of Madame de Chargeboeuf about the girl’s health. Brigaut produced the letter he had received from Pierrette, which proved their innocence and stated her ill-treatment. Proof was given that the condition of the minor was the result of neglect on the part of the guardian, who was responsible for all that concerned his ward. Pierrette’s illness had been apparent to every one, even to persons in the town who were strangers to the family, yet the guardian had done nothing for her. The charge of ill-treatment was therefore sustained against Rogron; and the case would now go before the public.

Rogron, advised by Vinet, opposed the acceptance of the report of the Council by the court. The authorities then intervened in consequence of Pierrette’s state, which was daily growing worse. The trial of the case, though placed at once upon the docket, was postponed until the month of March, 1828, to wait events.

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