A Start in Life, by Honoré de Balzac

CHAPTER I

THAT WHICH WAS LACKING TO PIERROTIN’S HAPPINESS

Railroads, in a future not far distant, must force certain industries to disappear forever, and modify several others, more especially those relating to the different modes of transportation in use around Paris. Therefore the persons and things which are the elements of this Scene will soon give to it the character of an archaeological work. Our nephews ought to be enchanted to learn the social material of an epoch which they will call the “olden time.” The picturesque “coucous” which stood on the Place de la Concorde, encumbering the Cours-la-Reine, — coucous which had flourished for a century, and were still numerous in 1830, scarcely exist in 1842, unless on the occasion of some attractive suburban solemnity, like that of the Grandes Eaux of Versailles. In 1820, the various celebrated places called the “Environs of Paris” did not all possess a regular stage-coach service.

Nevertheless, the Touchards, father and son, had acquired a monopoly of travel and transportation to all the populous towns within a radius of forty-five miles; and their enterprise constituted a fine establishment in the rue du Faubourg–Saint-Denis. In spite of their long-standing rights, in spite, too, of their efforts, their capital, and all the advantages of a powerful centralization, the Touchard coaches (“messageries”) found terrible competition in the coucous for all points with a circumference of fifteen or twenty miles. The passion of the Parisian for the country is such that local enterprise could successfully compete with the Lesser Stage company — Petites Messageries, the name given to the Touchard enterprise to distinguish it from that of the Grandes Messageries of the rue Montmartre. At the time of which we write, the Touchard success was stimulating speculators. For every small locality in the neighborhood of Paris there sprang up schemes of beautiful, rapid, and commodious vehicles, departing and arriving in Paris at fixed hours, which produced, naturally, a fierce competition. Beaten on the long distances of twelve to eighteen miles, the coucou came down to shorter trips, and so lived on for several years. At last, however, it succumbed to omnibuses, which demonstrated the possibility of carrying eighteen persons in a vehicle drawn by two horses. To-day the coucous — if by chance any of those birds of ponderous flight still linger in the second-hand carriage-shops — might be made, as to its structure and arrangement, the subject of learned researches comparable to those of Cuvier on the animals discovered in the chalk pits of Montmartre.

These petty enterprises, which had struggled since 1822 against the Touchards, usually found a strong foothold in the good-will and sympathy of the inhabitants of the districts which they served. The person undertaking the business as proprietor and conductor was nearly always an inn-keeper along the route, to whom the beings, things, and interests with which he had to do were all familiar. He could execute commissions intelligently; he never asked as much for his little stages, and therefore obtained more custom than the Touchard coaches. He managed to elude the necessity of a custom-house permit. If need were, he was willing to infringe the law as to the number of passengers he might carry. In short, he possessed the affection of the masses; and thus it happened that whenever a rival came upon the same route, if his days for running were not the same as those of the coucou, travellers would put off their journey to make it with their long-tried coachman, although his vehicle and his horses might be in a far from reassuring condition.

One of the lines which the Touchards, father and son, endeavored to monopolize, and the one most stoutly disputed (as indeed it still is), is that of Paris to Beaumont-sur-Oise — a line extremely profitable, for three rival enterprises worked it in 1822. In vain the Touchards lowered their price; in vain they constructed better coaches and started oftener. Competition still continued, so productive is a line on which are little towns like Saint–Denis and Saint–Brice, and villages like Pierrefitte, Groslay, Ecouen, Poncelles, Moisselles, Monsoult, Maffliers, Franconville, Presles, Nointel, Nerville, etc. The Touchard coaches finally extended their route to Chambly; but competition followed. To-day the Toulouse, a rival enterprise, goes as far as Beauvais.

Along this route, which is that toward England, there lies a road which turns off at a place well-named, in view of its topography, The Cave, and leads through a most delightful valley in the basin of the Oise to the little town of Isle–Adam, doubly celebrated as the cradle of the family, now extinct, of Isle–Adam, and also as the former residence of the Bourbon–Contis. Isle–Adam is a little town flanked by two large villages, Nogent and Parmain, both remarkable for splendid quarries, which have furnished material for many of the finest buildings in modern Paris and in foreign lands — for the base and capital of the columns of the Brussels theatre are of Nogent stone. Though remarkable for its beautiful sites, for the famous chateaux which princes, monks, and designers have built, such as Cassan, Stors, Le Val, Nointel, Persan, etc., this region had escaped competition in 1822, and was reached by two coaches only, working more or less in harmony.

This exception to the rule of rivalry was founded on reasons that are easy to understand. From the Cave, the point on the route to England where a paved road (due to the luxury of the Princes of Conti) turned off to Isle–Adam, the distance is six miles. No speculating enterprise would make such a detour, for Isle–Adam was the terminus of the road, which did not go beyond it. Of late years, another road has been made between the valley of Montmorency and the valley of the Oise; but in 1822 the only road which led to Isle–Adam was the paved highway of the Princes of Conti. Pierrotin and his colleague reigned, therefore, from Paris to Isle–Adam, beloved by every one along the way. Pierrotin’s vehicle, together with that of his comrade, and Pierrotin himself, were so well known that even the inhabitants on the main road as far as the Cave were in the habit of using them; for there was always better chance of a seat to be had than in the Beaumont coaches, which were almost always full. Pierrotin and his competitor were on the best of terms. When the former started from Isle–Adam, the latter was returning from Paris, and vice versa.

It is unnecessary to speak of the rival. Pierrotin possessed the sympathies of his region; besides, he is the only one of the two who appears in this veracious narrative. Let it suffice you to know that the two coach proprietors lived under a good understanding, rivalled each other loyally, and obtained customers by honorable proceedings. In Paris they used, for economy’s sake, the same yard, hotel, and stable, the same coach-house, office, and clerk. This detail is alone sufficient to show that Pierrotin and his competitor were, as the popular saying is, “good dough.” The hotel at which they put up in Paris, at the corner of the rue d’Enghien, is still there, and is called the “Lion d’Argent.” The proprietor of the establishment, which from time immemorial had lodged coachmen and coaches, drove himself for the great company of Daumartin, which was so firmly established that its neighbors, the Touchards, whose place of business was directly opposite, never dreamed of starting a rival coach on the Daumartin line.

Though the departures for Isle–Adam professed to take place at a fixed hour, Pierrotin and his co-rival practised an indulgence in that respect which won for them the grateful affection of the country-people, and also violent remonstrances on the part of strangers accustomed to the regularity of the great lines of public conveyances. But the two conductors of these vehicles, which were half diligence, half coucou, were invariably defended by their regular customers. The afternoon departure at four o’clock usually lagged on till half-past, while that of the morning, fixed for eight o’clock, was seldom known to take place before nine. In this respect, however, the system was elastic. In summer, that golden period for the coaching business, the rule of departure, rigorous toward strangers, was often relaxed for country customers. This method not infrequently enabled Pierrotin to pocket two fares for one place, if a countryman came early and wanted a seat already booked and paid for by some “bird of passage” who was, unluckily for himself, a little late. Such elasticity will certainly not commend itself to purists in morality; but Pierrotin and his colleague justified it on the varied grounds of “hard times,” of their losses during the winter months, of the necessity of soon getting better coaches, and of the duty of keeping exactly to the rules written on the tariff, copies of which were, however, never shown, unless some chance traveller was obstinate enough to demand it.

Pierrotin, a man about forty years of age, was already the father of a family. Released from the cavalry on the great disbandment of 1815, the worthy fellow had succeeded his father, who for many years had driven a coucou of capricious flight between Paris and Isle–Adam. Having married the daughter of a small inn-keeper, he enlarged his business, made it a regular service, and became noted for his intelligence and a certain military precision. Active and decided in his ways, Pierrotin (the name seems to have been a sobriquet) contrived to give, by the vivacity of his countenance, an expression of sly shrewdness to his ruddy and weather-stained visage which suggested wit. He was not without that facility of speech which is acquired chiefly through “seeing life” and other countries. His voice, by dint of talking to his horses and shouting “Gare!” was rough; but he managed to tone it down with the bourgeois. His clothing, like that of all coachmen of the second class, consisted of stout boots, heavy with nails, made at Isle–Adam, trousers of bottle-green velveteen, waistcoat of the same, over which he wore, while exercising his functions, a blue blouse, ornamented on the collar, shoulder-straps and cuffs, with many-colored embroidery. A cap with a visor covered his head. His military career had left in Pierrotin’s manners and customs a great respect for all social superiority, and a habit of obedience to persons of the upper classes; and though he never willingly mingled with the lesser bourgeoisie, he always respected women in whatever station of life they belonged. Nevertheless, by dint of “trundling the world,”— one of his own expressions — he had come to look upon those he conveyed as so many walking parcels, who required less care than the inanimate ones — the essential object of a coaching business.

Warned by the general movement which, since the Peace, was revolutionizing his calling, Pierrotin would not allow himself to be outdone by the progress of new lights. Since the beginning of the summer season he had talked much of a certain large coach, ordered from Farry, Breilmann, and Company, the best makers of diligences — a purchase necessitated by an increasing influx of travellers. Pierrotin’s present establishment consisted of two vehicles. One, which served in winter, and the only one he reported to the tax-gatherer, was the coucou which he inherited from his father. The rounded flanks of this vehicle allowed him to put six travellers on two seats, of metallic hardness in spite of the yellow Utrecht velvet with which they were covered. These seats were separated by a wooden bar inserted in the sides of the carriage at the height of the travellers’ shoulders, which could be placed or removed at will. This bar, specially covered with velvet (Pierrotin called it “a back”), was the despair of the passengers, from the great difficulty they found in placing and removing it. If the “back” was difficult and even painful to handle, that was nothing to the suffering caused to the omoplates when the bar was in place. But when it was left to lie loose across the coach, it made both ingress and egress extremely perilous, especially to women.

Though each seat of this vehicle, with rounded sides like those of a pregnant woman, could rightfully carry only three passengers, it was not uncommon to see eight persons on the two seats jammed together like herrings in a barrel. Pierrotin declared that the travellers were far more comfortable in a solid, immovable mass; whereas when only three were on a seat they banged each other perpetually, and ran much risk of injuring their hats against the roof by the violent jolting of the roads. In front of the vehicle was a wooden bench where Pierrotin sat, on which three travellers could perch; when there, they went, as everybody knows, by the name of “rabbits.” On certain trips Pierrotin placed four rabbits on the bench, and sat himself at the side, on a sort of box placed below the body of the coach as a foot-rest for the rabbits, which was always full of straw, or of packages that feared no damage. The body of this particular coucou was painted yellow, embellished along the top with a band of barber’s blue, on which could be read, on the sides, in silvery white letters, “Isle–Adam, Paris,” and across the back, “Line to Isle–Adam.”

Our descendants will be mightily mistaken if they fancy that thirteen persons including Pierrotin were all that this vehicle could carry. On great occasions it could take three more in a square compartment covered with an awning, where the trunks, cases, and packages were piled; but the prudent Pierrotin only allowed his regular customers to sit there, and even they were not allowed to get in until at some distance beyond the “barriere.” The occupants of the “hen-roost” (the name given by conductors to this section of their vehicles) were made to get down outside of every village or town where there was a post of gendarmerie; the overloading forbidden by law, “for the safety of passengers,” being too obvious to allow the gendarme on duty — always a friend to Pierrotin — to avoid the necessity of reporting this flagrant violation of the ordinances. Thus on certain Saturday nights and Monday mornings, Pierrotin’s coucou “trundled” fifteen travellers; but on such occasions, in order to drag it along, he gave his stout old horse, called Rougeot, a mate in the person of a little beast no bigger than a pony, about whose merits he had much to say. This little horse was a mare named Bichette; she ate little, she was spirited, she was indefatigable, she was worth her weight in gold.

“My wife wouldn’t give her for that fat lazybones of a Rougeot!” cried Pierrotin, when some traveller would joke him about his epitome of a horse.

The difference between this vehicle and the other consisted chiefly in the fact that the other was on four wheels. This coach, of comical construction, called the “four-wheel-coach,” held seventeen travellers, though it was bound not to carry more than fourteen. It rumbled so noisily that the inhabitants of Isle–Adam frequently said, “Here comes Pierrotin!” when he was scarcely out of the forest which crowns the slope of the valley. It was divided into two lobes, so to speak: one, called the “interior,” contained six passengers on two seats; the other, a sort of cabriolet constructed in front, was called the “coupe.” This coupe was closed in with very inconvenient and fantastic glass sashes, a description of which would take too much space to allow of its being given here. The four-wheeled coach was surmounted by a hooded “imperial,” into which Pierrotin managed to poke six passengers; this space was inclosed by leather curtains. Pierrotin himself sat on an almost invisible seat perched just below the sashes of the coupe.

The master of the establishment paid the tax which was levied upon all public conveyances on his coucou only, which was rated to carry six persons; and he took out a special permit each time that he drove the four-wheeler. This may seem extraordinary in these days, but when the tax on vehicles was first imposed, it was done very timidly, and such deceptions were easily practised by the coach proprietors, always pleased to “faire la queue” (cheat of their dues) the government officials, to use the argot of their vocabulary. Gradually the greedy Treasury became severe; it forced all public conveyances not to roll unless they carried two certificates — one showing that they had been weighed, the other that their taxes were duly paid. All things have their salad days, even the Treasury; and in 1822 those days still lasted. Often in summer, the “four-wheel-coach,” and the coucou journeyed together, carrying between them thirty-two passengers, though Pierrotin was only paying a tax on six. On these specially lucky days the convoy started from the faubourg Saint–Denis at half-past four o’clock in the afternoon, and arrived gallantly at Isle–Adam by ten at night. Proud of this service, which necessitated the hire of an extra horse, Pierrotin was wont to say:—

“We went at a fine pace!”

But in order to do the twenty-seven miles in five hours with his caravan, he was forced to omit certain stoppages along the road — at Saint–Brice, Moisselles, and La Cave.

The hotel du Lion d’Argent occupies a piece of land which is very deep for its width. Though its frontage has only three or four windows on the faubourg Saint–Denis, the building extends back through a long court-yard, at the end of which are the stables, forming a large house standing close against the division wall of the adjoining property. The entrance is through a sort of passage-way beneath the floor of the second story, in which two or three coaches had room to stand. In 1822 the offices of all the lines of coaches which started from the Lion d’Argent were kept by the wife of the inn-keeper, who had as many books as there were lines. She received the fares, booked the passengers, and stowed away, good-naturedly, in her vast kitchen the various packages and parcels to be transported. Travellers were satisfied with this easy-going, patriarchal system. If they arrived too soon, they seated themselves beneath the hood of the huge kitchen chimney, or stood within the passage-way, or crossed to the Cafe de l’Echiquier, which forms the corner of the street so named.

In the early days of the autumn of 1822, on a Saturday morning, Pierrotin was standing, with his hands thrust into his pockets through the apertures of his blouse, beneath the porte-cochere of the Lion d’Argent, whence he could see, diagonally, the kitchen of the inn, and through the long court-yard to the stables, which were defined in black at the end of it. Daumartin’s diligence had just started, plunging heavily after those of the Touchards. It was past eight o’clock. Under the enormous porch or passage, above which could be read on a long sign, “Hotel du Lion d’Argent,” stood the stablemen and porters of the coaching-lines watching the lively start of the vehicles which deceives so many travellers, making them believe that the horses will be kept to that vigorous gait.

“Shall I harness up, master?” asked Pierrotin’s hostler, when there was nothing more to be seen along the road.

“It is a quarter-past eight, and I don’t see any travellers,” replied Pierrotin. “Where have they poked themselves? Yes, harness up all the same. And there are no parcels either! Twenty good Gods! a fine day like this, and I’ve only four booked! A pretty state of things for a Saturday! It is always the same when you want money! A dog’s life, and a dog’s business!”

“If you had more, where would you put them? There’s nothing left but the cabriolet,” said the hostler, intending to soothe Pierrotin.

“You forget the new coach!” cried Pierrotin.

“Have you really got it?” asked the man, laughing, and showing a set of teeth as white and broad as almonds.

“You old good-for-nothing! It starts tomorrow, I tell you; and I want at least eighteen passengers for it.”

“Ha, ha! a fine affair; it’ll warm up the road,” said the hostler.

“A coach like that which runs to Beaumont, hey? Flaming! painted red and gold to make Touchard burst with envy! It takes three horses! I have bought a mate for Rougeot, and Bichette will go finely in unicorn. Come, harness up!” added Pierrotin, glancing out towards the street, and stuffing the tobacco into his clay pipe. “I see a lady and lad over there with packages under their arms; they are coming to the Lion d’Argent, for they’ve turned a deaf ear to the coucous. Tiens, tiens! seems to me I know that lady for an old customer.”

“You’ve often started empty, and arrived full,” said his porter, still by way of consolation.

“But no parcels! Twenty good Gods! What a fate!”

And Pierrotin sat down on one of the huge stone posts which protected the walls of the building from the wheels of the coaches; but he did so with an anxious, reflective air that was not habitual with him.

This conversation, apparently insignificant, had stirred up cruel anxieties which were slumbering in his breast. What could there be to trouble the heart of Pierrotin in a fine new coach? To shine upon “the road,” to rival the Touchards, to magnify his own line, to carry passengers who would compliment him on the conveniences due to the progress of coach-building, instead of having to listen to perpetual complaints of his “sabots” (tires of enormous width) — such was Pierrotin’s laudable ambition; but, carried away with the desire to outstrip his comrade on the line, hoping that the latter might some day retire and leave to him alone the transportation to Isle–Adam, he had gone too far. The coach was indeed ordered from Barry, Breilmann, and Company, coach-builders, who had just substituted square English springs for those called “swan-necks,” and other old-fashioned French contrivances. But these hard and distrustful manufacturers would only deliver over the diligence in return for coin. Not particularly pleased to build a vehicle which would be difficult to sell if it remained upon their hands, these long-headed dealers declined to undertake it at all until Pierrotin had made a preliminary payment of two thousand francs. To satisfy this precautionary demand, Pierrotin had exhausted all his resources and all his credit. His wife, his father-inlaw, and his friends had bled. This superb diligence he had been to see the evening before at the painter’s; all it needed now was to be set a-rolling, but to make it roll, payment in full must, alas! be made.

Now, a thousand francs were lacking to Pierrotin, and where to get them he did not know. He was in debt to the master of the Lion d’Argent; he was in danger of his losing his two thousand francs already paid to the coach-builder, not counting five hundred for the mate to Rougeot, and three hundred for new harnesses, on which he had a three-months’ credit. Driven by the fury of despair and the madness of vanity, he had just openly declared that the new coach was to start on the morrow. By offering fifteen hundred francs, instead of the two thousand five hundred still due, he was in hopes that the softened carriage-builders would give him his coach. But after a few moments’ meditation, his feelings led him to cry out aloud:—

“No! they’re dogs! harpies! Suppose I appeal to Monsieur Moreau, the steward at Presles? he is such a kind man,” thought Pierrotin, struck with a new idea. “Perhaps he would take my note for six months.”

At this moment a footman in livery, carrying a leather portmanteau and coming from the Touchard establishment, where he had gone too late to secure places as far as Chambly, came up and said:—

“Are you Pierrotin?”

“Say on,” replied Pierrotin.

“If you would wait a quarter of an hour, you could take my master. If not, I’ll carry back the portmanteau and try to find some other conveyance.”

“I’ll wait two, three quarters, and throw a little in besides, my lad,” said Pierrotin, eyeing the pretty leather trunk, well buckled, and bearing a brass plate with a coat of arms.

“Very good; then take this,” said the valet, ridding his shoulder of the trunk, which Pierrotin lifted, weighed, and examined.

“Here,” he said to his porter, “wrap it up carefully in soft hay and put it in the boot. There’s no name upon it,” he added.

“Monseigneur’s arms are there,” replied the valet.

“Monseigneur! Come and take a glass,” said Pierrotin, nodding toward the Cafe de l’Echiquier, whither he conducted the valet. “Waiter, two absinthes!” he said, as he entered. “Who is your master? and where is he going? I have never seen you before,” said Pierrotin to the valet as they touched glasses.

“There’s a good reason for that,” said the footman. “My master only goes into your parts about once a year, and then in his own carriage. He prefers the valley d’Orge, where he has the most beautiful park in the neighborhood of Paris, a perfect Versailles, a family estate of which he bears the name. Don’t you know Monsieur Moreau?”

“The steward of Presles?”

“Yes. Monsieur le Comte is going down to spend a couple of days with him.”

“Ha! then I’m to carry Monsieur le Comte de Serizy!” cried the coach-proprietor.

“Yes, my land, neither more nor less. But listen! here’s a special order. If you have any of the country neighbors in your coach you are not to call him Monsieur le comte; he wants to travel ‘en cognito,’ and told me to be sure to say he would pay a handsome pourboire if he was not recognized.”

“So! Has this secret journey anything to do with the affair which Pere Leger, the farmer at the Moulineaux, came to Paris the other day to settle?”

“I don’t know,” replied the valet, “but the fat’s in the fire. Last night I was sent to the stable to order the Daumont carriage to be ready to go to Presles at seven this morning. But when seven o’clock came, Monsieur le comte countermanded it. Augustin, his valet de chambre, attributes the change to the visit of a lady who called last night, and again this morning — he thought she came from the country.”

“Could she have told him anything against Monsieur Moreau? — the best of men, the most honest of men, a king of men, hey! He might have made a deal more than he has out of his position, if he’d chosen; I can tell you that.”

“Then he was foolish,” answered the valet, sententiously.

“Is Monsieur le Serizy going to live at Presles at last?” asked Pierrotin; “for you know they have just repaired and refurnished the chateau. Do you think it is true he has already spent two hundred thousand francs upon it?”

“If you or I had half what he has spent upon it, you and I would be rich bourgeois. If Madame la comtesse goes there — ha! I tell you what! no more ease and comfort for the Moreaus,” said the valet, with an air of mystery.

“He’s a worthy man, Monsieur Moreau,” remarked Pierrotin, thinking of the thousand francs he wanted to get from the steward. “He is a man who makes others work, but he doesn’t cheapen what they do; and he gets all he can out of the land — for his master. Honest man! He often comes to Paris and gives me a good fee: he has lots of errands for me to do in Paris; sometimes three or four packages a day — either from monsieur or madame. My bill for cartage alone comes to fifty francs a month, more or less. If madame does set up to be somebody, she’s fond of her children; and it is I who fetch them from school and take them back; and each time she gives me five francs — a real great lady couldn’t do better than that. And every time I have any one in the coach belonging to them or going to see them, I’m allowed to drive up to the chateau — that’s all right, isn’t it?”

“They say Monsieur Moreau wasn’t worth three thousand francs when Monsieur le comte made him steward of Presles,” said the valet.

“Well, since 1806, there’s seventeen years, and the man ought to have made something at any rate.”

“True,” said the valet, nodding. “Anyway, masters are very annoying; and I hope, for Moreau’s sake, that he has made butter for his bread.”

“I have often been to your house in the rue de la Chaussee d’Antin to carry baskets of game,” said Pierrotin, “but I’ve never had the advantage, so far of seeing either monsieur or madame.”

“Monsieur le comte is a good man,” said the footman, confidentially. “But if he insists on your helping to keep up his cognito there’s something in the wind. At any rate, so we think at the house; or else, why should he countermand the Daumont — why travel in a coucou? A peer of France might afford to hire a cabriolet to himself, one would think.”

“A cabriolet would cost him forty francs to go there and back; for let me tell you, if you don’t know it, that road was only made for squirrels — up-hill and down, down-hill and up!” said Pierrotin. “Peer of France or bourgeois, they are all looking after the main chance, and saving their money. If this journey concerns Monsieur Moreau, faith, I’d be sorry any harm should come to him! Twenty good Gods! hadn’t I better find some way of warning him? — for he’s a truly good man, a kind man, a king of men, hey!”

“Pooh! Monsieur le comte thinks everything of Monsieur Moreau,” replied the valet. “But let me give you a bit of good advice. Every man for himself in this world. We have enough to do to take care of ourselves. Do what Monsieur le comte asks you to do, and all the more because there’s no trifling with him. Besides, to tell the truth, the count is generous. If you oblige him so far,” said the valet, pointing half-way down his little finger, “he’ll send you on as far as that,” stretching out his arm to its full length.

This wise reflection, and the action that enforced it, had the effect, coming from a man who stood as high as second valet to the Comte de Serizy, of cooling the ardor of Pierrotin for the steward of Presles.

“Well, adieu, Monsieur Pierrotin,” said the valet.

A glance rapidly cast on the life of the Comte de Serizy, and on that of his steward, is here necessary in order to fully understand the little drama now about to take place in Pierrotin’s vehicle.

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