A Start in Life, by Honoré de Balzac

CHAPTER X

ANOTHER CATASTROPHE

About eleven the next morning, a terrible sound awoke the unfortunate clerk. Recognizing the voice of his uncle Cardot, he thought it wise to feign sleep, and so turned his face into the yellow velvet cushions on which he had passed the night.

“Really, my little Florentine,” said the old gentleman, “this is neither right nor sensible; you danced last evening in ‘Les Ruines,’ and you have spent the night in an orgy. That’s deliberately going to work to lose your freshness. Besides which, it was ungrateful to inaugurate this beautiful apartment without even letting me know. Who knows what has been going on here?”

“Old monster!” cried Florentine, “haven’t you a key that lets you in at all hours? My ball lasted till five in the morning, and you have the cruelty to come and wake me up at eleven!”

“Half-past eleven, Titine,” observed Cardot, humbly. “I came out early to order a dinner fit for an archbishop at Chevet’s. Just see how the carpets are stained! What sort of people did you have here?”

“You needn’t complain, for Fanny Beaupre told me you were coming to dinner with Camusot, and to please you I’ve invited Tullia, du Bruel, Mariette, the Duc de Maufrigneuse, Florine, and Nathan. So you’ll have the four loveliest creatures ever seen behind the foot-lights; we’ll dance you a ‘pas de Zephire.’”

“It is enough to kill you to lead such a life!” cried old Cardot; “and look at the broken glasses! What pillage! The antechamber actually makes me shudder —”

At this instant the wrathful old gentleman stopped short as if magnetized, like a bird which a snake is charming. He saw the outline of a form in a black coat through the door of the boudoir.

“Ah, Mademoiselle Cabirolle!” he said at last.

“Well, what?” she asked.

The eyes of the danseuse followed those of the little old man; and when she recognized the presence of the clerk she went off into such fits of laughter that not only was the old gentleman nonplussed, but Oscar was compelled to appear; for Florentine took him by the arm, still pealing with laughter at the conscience-stricken faces of the uncle and nephew.

“You here, nephew?”

“Nephew! so he’s your nephew?” cried Florentine, with another burst of laughter. “You never told me about him. Why didn’t Mariette carry you off?” she said to Oscar, who stood there petrified. “What can he do now, poor boy?”

“Whatever he pleases!” said Cardot, sharply, marching to the door as if to go away.

“One moment, papa Cardot. You will be so good as to get your nephew out of a scrape into which I led him; for he played the money of his master and lost it, and I lend him a thousand francs to win it back, and he lost that too.”

“Miserable boy! you lost fifteen hundred francs at play at your age?”

“Oh, uncle, uncle!” cried poor Oscar, plunged by these words into all the horrors of his position, and falling on his knees before his uncle, with clasped hands, “It is twelve o’clock! I am lost, dishonored! Monsieur Desroches will have no pity! He gave me the money for an important affair, in which his pride was concerned. I was to get a paper at the Palais in the case of Vandernesse versus Vandernesse! What will become of me? Oh, save me for the sake of my father and aunt! Come with me to Monsieur Desroches, and explain it to him; make some excuse — anything!”

These sentences were jerked out through sobs and tears that might have moved the sphinx of Luxor.

“Old skinflint!” said the danseuse, who was crying, “will you let your own nephew be dishonored — the son of the man to whom you owe your fortune? — for his name is Oscar Husson. Save him, or Titine will deny you forever!”

“But how did he come here?” asked Cardot.

“Don’t you see that the reason he forgot to go for those papers was because he was drunk and overslept himself. Georges and his cousin Frederic took all the clerks in his office to a feast at the Rocher de Cancale.”

Pere Cardot looked at Florentine and hesitated.

“Come, come,” she said, “you old monkey, shouldn’t I have hid him better if there had been anything else in it?”

“There, take your five hundred francs, you scamp!” said Cardot to his nephew, “and remember, that’s the last penny you’ll ever get from me. Go and make it up with your master if you can. I’ll return the thousand francs which you borrowed of mademoiselle; but I’ll never hear another word about you.”

Oscar disappeared, not wishing to hear more. Once in the street, however, he knew not where to go.

Chance which destroys men and chance which saves them were both making equal efforts for and against Oscar during that fateful morning. But he was doomed to fall before a master who forgave no failure in any affair he had once undertaken. When Mariette reached home that night, she felt alarmed at what might happen to the youth in whom her brother took interest and she wrote a hasty note to Godeschal, telling him what had happened to Oscar and inclosing a bank bill for five hundred francs to repair his loss. The kind-hearted creature went to sleep after charging her maid to carry the little note to Desroches’ office before seven o’clock in the morning. Godeschal, on his side, getting up at six and finding that Oscar had not returned, guessed what had happened. He took the five hundred francs from his own little hoard and rushed to the Palais, where he obtained a copy of the judgment and returned in time to lay it before Desroches by eight o’clock.

Meantime Desroches, who always rose at four, was in his office by seven. Mariette’s maid, not finding the brother of her mistress in his bedroom, came down to the office and there met Desroches, to whom she very naturally offered the note.

“Is it about business?” he said; “I am Monsieur Desroches.”

“You can see, monsieur,” replied the maid.

Desroches opened the letter and read it. Finding the five-hundred-franc note, he went into his private office furiously angry with his second clerk. About half-past seven he heard Godeschal dictating to the second head-clerk a copy of the document in question, and a few moments later the good fellow entered his master’s office with an air of triumph in his heart.

“Did Oscar Husson fetch the paper this morning from Simon?” inquired Desroches.

“Yes, monsieur.”

“Who gave him the money?”

“Why, you did, Saturday,” replied Godeschal.

“Then it rains five-hundred-franc notes,” cried Desroches. “Look here, Godeschal, you are a fine fellow, but that little Husson does not deserve such generosity. I hate idiots, but I hate still more the men who will go wrong in spite of the fatherly care which watches over them.” He gave Godeschal Mariette’s letter and the five-hundred-franc note which she had sent. “You must excuse my having opened it,” he said, “but your sister’s maid told me it was on business. Dismiss Husson.”

“Poor unhappy boy! what grief he has caused me! “ said Godeschal, “that tall ne’er-do-well of a Georges Marest is his evil genius; he ought to flee him like the plague; if not, he’ll bring him to some third disgrace.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Desroches.

Godeschal then related briefly the affair of the journey to Presles.

“Ah! yes,” said the lawyer, “I remember Joseph Bridau told me that story about the time it happened. It is to that meeting that we owe the favor Monsieur de Serizy has since shown in the matter of Joseph’s brother, Philippe Bridau.”

At this moment Moreau, to whom the case of the Vandernesse estate was of much importance, entered the office. The marquis wished to sell the land in parcels and the count was opposed to such a sale. The land-agent received therefore the first fire of Desroches’ wrath against his ex-second clerk and all the threatening prophecies which he fulminated against him. The result was that this most sincere friend and protector of the unhappy youth came to the conclusion that his vanity was incorrigible.

“Make him a barrister,” said Desroches. “He has only his last examination to pass. In that line, his defects might prove virtues, for self-love and vanity give tongues to half the attorneys.”

At this time Clapart, who was ill, was being nursed by his wife — a painful task, a duty without reward. The sick man tormented the poor creature, who was now doomed to learn what venomous and spiteful teasing a half-imbecile man, whom poverty had rendered craftily savage, could be capable of in the weary tete-a-tete of each endless day. Delighted to turn a sharpened arrow in the sensitive heart of the mother, he had, in a measure, studied the fears that Oscar’s behavior and defects inspired in the poor woman. When a mother receives from her child a shock like that of the affair at Presles, she continues in a state of constant fear, and, by the manner in which his wife boasted of Oscar every time he obtained the slightest success, Clapart knew the extent of her secret uneasiness, and he took pains to rouse it on every occasion.

“Well, Madame,” Clapart would say, “Oscar is doing better than I even hoped. That journey to Presles was only a heedlessness of youth. Where can you find young lads who do not commit just such faults? Poor child! he bears his privations heroically! If his father had lived, he would never have had any. God grant he may know how to control his passions!” etc., etc.

While all these catastrophes were happening in the rue de Vendome and the rue de Bethisy, Clapart, sitting in the chimney corner, wrapped in an old dressing-gown, watched his wife, who was engaged over the fire in their bedroom in simultaneously making the family broth, Clapart’s “tisane,” and her own breakfast.

“Mon Dieu! I wish I knew how the affair of yesterday ended. Oscar was to breakfast at the Rocher de Cancale and spend the evening with a marquise —”

“Don’t trouble yourself! Sooner or later you’ll find out about your swan,” said her husband. “Do you really believe in that marquise? Pooh! A young man who has senses and a taste for extravagance like Oscar can find such ladies as that on every bush — if he pays for them. Some fine morning you’ll find yourself with a load of debt on your back.”

“You are always trying to put me in despair!” cried Madame Clapart. “You complained that my son lived on your salary, and never has he cost you a penny. For two years you haven’t had the slightest cause of complaint against him; here he is second clerk, his uncle and Monsieur Moreau pay all expenses, and he earns, himself, a salary of eight hundred francs. If we have bread to eat in our old age we may owe it all to that dear boy. You are really too unjust —”

“You call my foresight unjust, do you?” replied the invalid, crossly.

Just then the bell rang loudly. Madame Clapart ran to open the door, and remained in the outer room with Moreau, who had come to soften the blow which Oscar’s new folly would deal to the heart of his poor mother.

“What! he gambled with the money of the office?” she cried, bursting into tears.

“Didn’t I tell you so, hey?” said Clapart, appearing like a spectre at the door of the salon whither his curiosity had brought him.

“Oh! what shall we do with him?” said Madame Clapart, whose grief made her impervious to Clapart’s taunt.

“If he bore my name,” replied Moreau, “I should wait composedly till he draws for the conscription, and if he gets a fatal number I should not provide him with a substitute. This is the second time your son has committed a folly out of sheer vanity. Well, vanity may inspire fine deeds in war and may advance him in the career of a soldier. Besides, six years of military service will put some lead into his head; and as he has only his last legal examination to pass, it won’t be much ill-luck for him if he doesn’t become a lawyer till he is twenty-six; that is, if he wants to continue in the law after paying, as they say, his tax of blood. By that time, at any rate, he will have been severely punished, he will have learned experience, and contracted habits of subordination. Before making his probation at the bar he will have gone through his probations in life.”

“If that is your decision for a son,” said Madame Clapart, “I see that the heart of a father is not like that of a mother. My poor Oscar a common soldier! —”

“Would you rather he flung himself headforemost into the Seine after committing a dishonorable action? He cannot now become a solicitor; do you think him steady and wise enough to be a barrister? No. While his reason is maturing, what will he become? A dissipated fellow. The discipline of the army will, at least, preserve him from that.”

“Could he not go into some other office? His uncle Cardot has promised to pay for his substitute; Oscar is to dedicate his graduating thesis to him.”

At this moment carriage-wheels were heard, and a hackney-coach containing Oscar and all his worldly belongings stopped before the door. The luckless young man came up at once.

“Ah! here you are, Monsieur Joli–Coeur!” cried Clapart.

Oscar kissed his mother, and held out to Moreau a hand which the latter refused to take. To this rebuff Oscar replied by a reproachful look, the boldness of which he had never shown before. Then he turned on Clapart.

“Listen to me, monsieur,” said the youth, transformed into a man. “You worry my poor mother devilishly, and that’s your right, for she is, unfortunately, your wife. But as for me, it is another thing. I shall be of age in a few months; and you have no rights over me even as a minor. I have never asked anything of you. Thanks to Monsieur Moreau, I have never cost you one penny, and I owe you no gratitude. Therefore, I say, let me alone!”

Clapart, hearing this apostrophe, slunk back to his sofa in the chimney corner. The reasoning and the inward fury of the young man, who had just received a lecture from his friend Godeschal, silenced the imbecile mind of the sick man.

“A momentary temptation, such as you yourself would have yielded to at my age,” said Oscar to Moreau, “has made me commit a fault which Desroches thinks serious, though it is only a peccadillo. I am more provoked with myself for taking Florentine of the Gaiete for a marquise than I am for losing fifteen hundred francs after a little debauch in which everybody, even Godeschal, was half-seas over. This time, at any rate, I’ve hurt no one by myself. I’m cured of such things forever. If you are willing to help me, Monsieur Moreau, I swear to you that the six years I must still stay a clerk before I can get a practice shall be spent without —”

“Stop there!” said Moreau. “I have three children, and I can make no promises.”

“Never mind, never mind,” said Madame Clapart to her son, casting a reproachful glance at Moreau. “Your uncle Cardot —”

“I have no longer an uncle Cardot,” replied Oscar, who related the scene at the rue de Vendome.

Madame Clapart, feeling her legs give way under the weight of her body, staggered to a chair in the dining-room, where she fell as if struck by lightning.

“All the miseries together!” she said, as she fainted.

Moreau took the poor mother in his arms, and carried her to the bed in her chamber. Oscar remained motionless, as if crushed.

“There is nothing left for you,” said Moreau, coming back to him, “but to make yourself a soldier. That idiot of a Clapart looks to me as though he couldn’t live three months, and then your mother will be without a penny. Ought I not, therefore, to reserve for her the little money I am able to give? It was impossible to tell you this before her. As a soldier, you’ll eat plain bread and reflect on life such as it is to those who are born into it without fortune.”

“I may get a lucky number,” said Oscar.

“Suppose you do, what then? Your mother has well fulfilled her duty towards you. She gave you an education; she placed you on the right road, and secured you a career. You have left it. Now, what can you do? Without money, nothing; as you know by this time. You are not a man who can begin a new career by taking off your coat and going to work in your shirt-sleeves with the tools of an artisan. Besides, your mother loves you, and she would die to see you come to that.”

Oscar sat down and no longer restrained his tears, which flowed copiously. At last he understood this language, so completely unintelligible to him ever since his first fault.

“Men without means ought to be perfect,” added Moreau, not suspecting the profundity of that cruel sentence.

“My fate will soon be decided,” said Oscar. “I draw my number the day after tomorrow. Between now and then I will decide upon my future.”

Moreau, deeply distressed in spite of his stern bearing, left the household in the rue de la Cerisaie to its despair.

Three days later Oscar drew the number twenty-seven. In the interests of the poor lad the former steward of Presles had the courage to go to the Comte de Serizy and ask for his influence to get Oscar into the cavalry. It happened that the count’s son, having left the Ecole Polytechnique rather low in his class, was appointed, as a favor, sub-lieutenant in a regiment of cavalry commanded by the Duc de Maufrigneuse. Oscar had, therefore, in his great misfortune, the small luck of being, at the Comte de Serizy’s instigation, drafted into that noble regiment, with the promise of promotion to quartermaster within a year. Chance had thus placed the ex-clerk under the command of the son of the Comte de Serizy.

Madame Clapart, after languishing for some days, so keenly was she affected by these catastrophes, became a victim to the remorse which seizes upon many a mother whose conduct has been frail in her youth, and who, in her old age, turns to repentance. She now considered herself under a curse. She attributed the sorrows of her second marriage and the misfortunes of her son to a just retribution by which God was compelling her to expiate the errors and pleasures of her youth. This opinion soon became a certainty in her mind. The poor woman went, for the first time in forty years, to confess herself to the Abbe Gaudron, vicar of Saint–Paul’s, who led her into the practice of devotion. But so ill-used and loving a soul as that of Madame Clapart’s could never be anything but simply pious. The Aspasia of the Directory wanted to expiate her sins in order to draw down the blessing of God on the head of her poor Oscar, and she henceforth vowed herself to works and deeds of the purest piety. She believed she had won the attention of heaven when she saved the life of Monsieur Clapart, who, thanks to her devotion, lived on to torture her; but she chose to see, in the tyranny of that imbecile mind, a trial inflicted by the hand of one who loveth while he chasteneth.

Oscar, meantime, behaved so well that in 1830 he was first sergeant of the company of the Vicomte de Serizy, which gave him the rank of sub-lieutenant of the line. Oscar Husson was by that time twenty-five years old. As the Royal Guard, to which his regiment was attached, was always in garrison in Paris, or within a circumference of thirty miles around the capital, he came to see his mother from time to time, and tell her his griefs; for he had the sense to see that he could never become an officer as matters then were. At that time the cavalry grades were all being taken up by the younger sons of noble families, and men without the article to their names found promotion difficult. Oscar’s sole ambition was to leave the Guards and be appointed sub-lieutenant in a regiment of the cavalry of the line. In the month of February, 1830, Madame Clapart obtained this promotion for her son through the influence of Madame la Dauphine, granted to the Abbe Gaudron, now rector of Saint–Pauls.

Although Oscar outwardly professed to be devoted to the Bourbons, in the depths of his heart he was a liberal. Therefore, in the struggle of 1830, he went over to the side of the people. This desertion, which had an importance due to the crisis in which it took place, brought him before the eyes of the public. During the excitement of triumph in the month of August he was promoted lieutenant, received the cross of the Legion of honor, and was attached as aide-decamp to La Fayette, who gave him the rank of captain in 1832. When the amateur of the best of all possible republics was removed from the command of the National guard, Oscar Husson, whose devotion to the new dynasty amounted to fanaticism, was appointed major of a regiment sent to Africa at the time of the first expedition undertaken by the Prince-royal. The Vicomte de Serizy chanced to be the lieutenant-colonel of this regiment. At the affair of the Makta, where the field had to be abandoned to the Arabs, Monsieur de Serizy was left wounded under a dead horse. Oscar, discovering this, called out to the squadron:

“Messieurs, it is going to death, but we cannot abandon our colonel.”

He dashed upon the enemy, and his electrified soldiers followed him. The Arabs, in their first astonishment at this furious and unlooked-for return, allowed Oscar to seize the viscount, whom he flung across his horse, and carried off at full gallop — receiving, as he did so, two slashes from yataghans on his left arm.

Oscar’s conduct on this occasion was rewarded with the officer’s cross of the Legion of honor, and by his promotion to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He took the most affectionate care of the Vicomte de Serizy, whose mother came to meet him on the arrival of the regiment at Toulon, where, as we know, the young man died of his wounds.

The Comtesse de Serizy had not separated her son from the man who had shown him such devotion. Oscar himself was so seriously wounded that the surgeons whom the countess had brought with her from Paris thought best to amputate his left arm.

Thus the Comte de Serizy was led not only to forgive Oscar for his painful remarks on the journey to Presles, but to feel himself his debtor on behalf of his son, now buried in the chapel of the chateau de Serizy.

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