A Start in Life, by Honoré de Balzac

CHAPTER V

THE DRAMA BEGINS

Pierrotin’s vehicle was now going down the steep incline of the valley of Saint–Brice to the inn which stands in the middle of the large village of that name, where Pierrotin was in the habit of stopping an hour to breathe his horses, give them their oats, and water them. It was now about half-past one o’clock.

“Ha! here’s Pere Leger,” cried the inn-keeper, when the coach pulled up before the door. “Do you breakfast?”

“Always once a day,” said the fat farmer; “and I’ll break a crust here and now.”

“Give us a good breakfast,” cried Georges, twirling his cane in a cavalier manner which excited the admiration of poor Oscar.

But that admiration was turned to jealousy when he saw the gay adventurer pull out from a side-pocket a small straw case, from which he selected a light-colored cigar, which he proceeded to smoke on the threshold of the inn door while waiting for breakfast.

“Do you smoke?” he asked of Oscar.

“Sometimes,” replied the ex-schoolboy, swelling out his little chest and assuming a jaunty air.

Georges presented the open case to Oscar and Schinner.

“Phew!” said the great painter; “ten-sous cigars!”

“The remains of those I brought back from Spain,” said the adventurer. “Do you breakfast here?”

“No,” said the artist. “I am expected at the chateau. Besides, I took something at the Lion d’Argent just before starting.”

“And you?” said Georges to Oscar.

“I have breakfasted,” replied Oscar.

Oscar would have given ten years of his life for boots and straps to his trousers. He sneezed, he coughed, he spat, and swallowed the smoke with ill-disguised grimaces.

“You don’t know how to smoke,” said Schinner; “look at me!”

With a motionless face Schinner breathed in the smoke of his cigar and let it out through his nose without the slightest contraction of feature. Then he took another whiff, kept the smoke in his throat, removed the cigar from his lips, and allowed the smoke slowly and gracefully to escape them.

“There, young man,” said the great painter.

“Here, young man, here’s another way; watch this,” said Georges, imitating Schinner, but swallowing the smoke and exhaling none.

“And my parents believed they had educated me!” thought Oscar, endeavoring to smoke with better grace.

But his nausea was so strong that he was thankful when Mistigris filched his cigar, remarking, as he smoked it with evident satisfaction, “You haven’t any contagious diseases, I hope.”

Oscar in reply would fain have punched his head.

“How he does spend money!” he said, looking at Colonel Georges. “Eight francs for Alicante and the cheese-cakes; forty sous for cigars; and his breakfast will cost him —”

“Ten francs at least,” replied Mistigris; “but that’s how things are. ‘Sharp stomachs make short purses.’”

“Come, Pere Leger, let us drink a bottle of Bordeaux together,” said Georges to the farmer.

“Twenty francs for his breakfast!” cried Oscar; “in all, more than thirty-odd francs since we started!”

Killed by a sense of his inferiority, Oscar sat down on a stone post, lost in a revery which did not allow him to perceive that his trousers, drawn up by the effect of his position, showed the point of junction between the old top of his stocking and the new “footing,” — his mother’s handiwork.

“We are brothers in socks,” said Mistigris, pulling up his own trousers sufficiently to show an effect of the same kind — ”‘By the footing, Hercules.’”

The count, who overheard this, laughed as he stood with folded arms under the porte-cochere, a little behind the other travellers. However nonsensical these lads might be, the grave statesman envied their very follies; he liked their bragging and enjoyed the fun of their lively chatter.

“Well, are you to have Les Moulineaux? for I know you went to Paris to get the money for the purchase,” said the inn-keeper to Pere Leger, whom he had just taken to the stables to see a horse he wanted to sell to him. “It will be queer if you manage to fleece a peer of France and a minister of State like the Comte de Serizy.”

The person thus alluded to showed no sign upon his face as he turned to look at the farmer.

“I’ve done for him,” replied Pere Leger, in a low voice.

“Good! I like to see those nobles fooled. If you should want twenty thousand francs or so, I’ll lend them to you — But Francois, the conductor of Touchard’s six o’clock coach, told me that Monsieur Margueron was invited by the Comte de Serizy to dine with him today at Presles.”

“That was the plan of his Excellency, but we had our own little ways of thwarting it,” said the farmer, laughing.

“The count could appoint Monsieur Margueron’s son, and you haven’t any place to give — remember that,” said the inn-keeper.

“Of course I do; but if the count has the ministry on his side, I have King Louis XVIII.,” said Pere Leger, in a low voice. “Forty thousand of his pictures on coin of the realm given to Moreau will enable me to buy Les Moulineaux for two hundred and sixty thousand, money down, before Monsieur de Serizy can do so. When he finds the sale is made, he’ll be glad enough to buy the farm for three hundred and sixty thousand, instead of letting me cut it up in small lots right in the heart of his property.”

“Well done, bourgeois!” cried the inn-keeper.

“Don’t you think that’s good play?” said Leger.

“Besides,” said the inn-keeper, “the farm is really worth that to him.”

“Yes; Les Moulineaux brings in today six thousand francs in rental. I’ll take another lease of it at seven thousand five hundred for eighteen years. Therefore it is really an investment at more than two and a half per cent. The count can’t complain of that. In order not to involve Moreau, he is himself to propose me as tenant and farmer; it gives him a look of acting for his master’s interests by finding him nearly three per cent for his money, and a tenant who will pay well.”

“How much will Moreau make, in all?”

“Well, if the count gives him ten thousand francs for the transaction the matter will bring him fifty thousand — and well-earned, too.”

“After all, the count, so they tell me, doesn’t like Presles. And then he is so rich, what does it matter what it costs him?” said the inn-keeper. “I have never seen him, myself.”

“Nor I,” said Pere Leger. “But he must be intending to live there, or why should he spend two hundred thousand francs in restoring the chateau? It is as fine now as the King’s own palace.”

“Well, well,” said the inn-keeper, “it was high time for Moreau to feather his nest.”

“Yes, for if the masters come there,” replied Leger, “they won’t keep their eyes in their pockets.”

The count lost not a word of this conversation, which was held in a low voice, but not in a whisper.

“Here I have actually found the proofs I was going down there to seek,” he thought, looking at the fat farmer as he entered the kitchen. “But perhaps,” he added, “it is only a scheme; Moreau may not have listened to it.”

So unwilling was he to believe that his steward could lend himself to such a conspiracy.

Pierrotin here came out to water his horses. The count, thinking that the driver would probably breakfast with the farmer and the inn-keeper, feared some thoughtless indiscretion.

“All these people combine against us,” he thought; “it is allowable to baffle them — Pierrotin,” he said in a low voice as the man passed him, “I promised you ten louis to keep my secret; but if you continue to conceal my name (and remember, I shall know if you pronounce it, or make the slightest sign that reveals it to any one, no matter who, here or at Isle–Adam, before to-night), I will give you tomorrow morning, on your return trip, the thousand francs you need to pay for your new coach. Therefore, by way of precaution,” added the count, striking Pierrotin, who was pale with happiness, on the shoulder, “don’t go in there to breakfast; stay with your horses.”

“Monsieur le comte, I understand you; don’t be afraid! it relates to Pere Leger, of course.”

“It relates to every one,” replied the count.

“Make yourself easy. — Come, hurry,” said Pierrotin, a few moments later, putting his head into the kitchen. “We are late. Pere Leger, you know there’s a hill to climb; I’m not hungry, and I’ll drive on slowly; you can soon overtake me — it will do you good to walk a bit.”

“What a hurry you are in, Pierrotin!” said the inn-keeper. “Can’t you stay and breakfast? The colonel here pays for the wine at fifty sous, and has ordered a bottle of champagne.”

“I can’t. I’ve got a fish I must deliver by three o’clock for a great dinner at Stors; there’s no fooling with customers, or fishes, either.”

“Very good,” said Pere Leger to the inn-keeper. “You can harness that horse you want to sell me into the cabriolet; we’ll breakfast in peace and overtake Pierrotin, and I can judge of the beast as we go along. We can go three in your jolter.”

To the count’s surprise, Pierrotin himself rebridled the horses. Schinner and Mistigris had walked on. Scarcely had Pierrotin overtaken the two artists and was mounting the hill from which Ecouen, the steeple of Mesnil, and the forests that surround that most beautiful region, came in sight, when the gallop of a horse and the jingling of a vehicle announced the coming of Pere Leger and the grandson of Czerni–Georges, who were soon restored to their places in the coucou.

As Pierrotin drove down the narrow road to Moisselles, Georges, who had so far not ceased to talk with the farmer of the beauty of the hostess at Saint–Brice, suddenly exclaimed: “Upon my word, this landscape is not so bad, great painter, is it?”

“Pooh! you who have seen the East and Spain can’t really admire it.”

“I’ve two cigars left! If no one objects, will you help me finish them, Schinner? the little young man there seems to have found a whiff or two enough for him.”

Pere Leger and the count kept silence, which passed for consent.

Oscar, furious at being called a “little young man,” remarked, as the other two were lighting their cigars:

“I am not the aide-decamp of Mina, monsieur, and I have not yet been to the East, but I shall probably go there. The career to which my family destine me will spare me, I trust, the annoyances of travelling in a coucou before I reach your present age. When I once become a personage I shall know how to maintain my station.”

“‘Et caetera punctum!’” crowed Mistigris, imitating the hoarse voice of a young cock; which made Oscar’s deliverance all the more absurd, because he had just reached the age when the beard sprouts and the voice breaks. “‘What a chit for chat!’” added the rapin.

“Your family, young man, destine you to some career, do they?” said Georges. “Might I ask what it is?”

“Diplomacy,” replied Oscar.

Three bursts of laughter came from Mistigris, the great painter, and the farmer. The count himself could not help smiling. Georges was perfectly grave.

“By Allah!” he exclaimed, “I see nothing to laugh at in that. Though it seems to me, young man, that your respectable mother is, at the present moment, not exactly in the social sphere of an ambassadress. She carried a handbag worthy of the utmost respect, and wore shoe-strings which —”

“My mother, monsieur!” exclaimed Oscar, in a tone of indignation. “That was the person in charge of our household.”

“‘Our household’ is a very aristocratic term,” remarked the count.

“Kings have households,” replied Oscar, proudly.

A look from Georges repressed the desire to laugh which took possession of everybody; he contrived to make Mistigris and the painter understand that it was necessary to manage Oscar cleverly in order to work this new mine of amusement.

“Monsieur is right,” said the great Schinner to the count, motioning towards Oscar. “Well-bred people always talk of their ‘households’; it is only common persons like ourselves who say ‘home.’ For a man so covered with decorations —”

“‘Nunc my eye, nunc alii,’” whispered Mistigris.

“— you seem to know little of the language of the courts. I ask your future protection, Excellency,” added Schinner, turning to Oscar.

“I congratulate myself on having travelled with three such distinguished men,” said the count — “a painter already famous, a future general, and a young diplomatist who may some day recover Belgium for France.”

Having committed the odious crime of repudiating his mother, Oscar, furious from a sense that his companions were laughing at him, now resolved, at any cost, to make them pay attention to him.

“‘All is not gold that glitters,’” he began, his eyes flaming.

“That’s not it,” said Mistigris. “‘All is not old that titters.’ You’ll never get on in diplomacy if you don’t know your proverbs better than that.”

“I may not know proverbs, but I know my way —”

“It must be far,” said Georges, “for I saw that person in charge of your household give you provisions enough for an ocean voyage: rolls, chocolate —”

“A special kind of bread and chocolate, yes, monsieur,” returned Oscar; “my stomach is much too delicate to digest the victuals of a tavern.”

“‘Victuals’ is a word as delicate and refined as your stomach,” said Georges.

“Ah! I like that word ‘victuals,’” cried the great painter.

“The word is all the fashion in the best society,” said Mistigris. “I use it myself at the cafe of the Black Hen.”

“Your tutor is, doubtless, some celebrated professor, isn’t he? — Monsieur Andrieux of the Academie Francaise, or Monsieur Royer–Collard?” asked Schinner.

“My tutor is or was the Abbe Loraux, now vicar of Saint–Sulpice,” replied Oscar, recollecting the name of the confessor at his school.

“Well, you were right to take a private tutor,” said Mistigris. “‘Tuto, tutor, celeritus, and jocund.’ Of course, you will reward him well, your abbe?”

“Undoubtedly he will be made a bishop some day,” said Oscar.

“By your family influence?” inquired Georges gravely.

“We shall probably contribute to his rise, for the Abbe Frayssinous is constantly at our house.”

“Ah! you know the Abbe Frayssinous?” asked the count.

“He is under obligations to my father,” answered Oscar.

“Are you on your way to your estate?” asked Georges.

“No, monsieur; but I am able to say where I am going, if others are not. I am going to the Chateau de Presles, to the Comte de Serizy.”

“The devil! are you going to Presles?” cried Schinner, turning as red as a cherry.

“So you know his Excellency the Comte de Serizy?” said Georges.

Pere Leger turned round to look at Oscar with a stupefied air.

“Is Monsieur de Serizy at Presles?” he said.

“Apparently, as I am going there,” replied Oscar.

“Do you often see the count,” asked Monsieur de Serizy.

“Often,” replied Oscar. “I am a comrade of his son, who is about my age, nineteen; we ride together on horseback nearly every day.”

“‘Aut Caesar, aut Serizy,’” said Mistigris, sententiously.

Pierrotin and Pere Leger exchanged winks on hearing this statement.

“Really,” said the count to Oscar, “I am delighted to meet with a young man who can tell me about that personage. I want his influence on a rather serious matter, although it would cost him nothing to oblige me. It concerns a claim I wish to press on the American government. I should be glad to obtain information about Monsieur de Serizy.”

“Oh! if you want to succeed,” replied Oscar, with a knowing look, “don’t go to him, but go to his wife; he is madly in love with her; no one knows more than I do about that; but she can’t endure him.”

“Why not?” said Georges.

“The count has a skin disease which makes him hideous. Doctor Albert has tried in vain to cure it. The count would give half his fortune if he had a chest like mine,” said Oscar, swelling himself out. “He lives a lonely life in his own house; gets up very early in the morning and works from three to eight o’clock; after eight he takes his remedies, — sulphur-baths, steam-baths, and such things. His valet bakes him in a sort of iron box — for he is always in hopes of getting cured.”

“If he is such a friend of the King as they say he is, why doesn’t he get his Majesty to touch him?” asked Georges.

“The count has lately promised thirty thousand francs to a celebrated Scotch doctor who is coming over to treat him,” continued Oscar.

“Then his wife can’t be blamed if she finds better —” said Schinner, but he did not finish his sentence.

“I should say so!” resumed Oscar. “The poor man is so shrivelled and old you would take him for eighty! He’s as dry as parchment, and, unluckily for him, he feels his position.”

“Most men would,” said Pere Leger.

“He adores his wife and dares not find fault with her,” pursued Oscar, rejoicing to have found a topic to which they listened. “He plays scenes with her which would make you die of laughing — exactly like Arnolphe in Moliere’s comedy.”

The count, horror-stricken, looked at Pierrotin, who, finding that the count said nothing, concluded that Madame Clapart’s son was telling falsehoods.

“So, monsieur,” continued Oscar, “if you want the count’s influence, I advise you to apply to the Marquis d’Aiglemont. If you get that former adorer of Madame de Serizy on your side, you will win husband and wife at one stroke.”

“Look here!” said the painter, “you seem to have seen the count without his clothes; are you his valet?”

“His valet!” cried Oscar.

“Hang it! people don’t tell such things about their friends in public conveyances,” exclaimed Mistigris. “As for me, I’m not listening to you; I’m deaf: ‘discretion plays the better part of adder.’”

“‘A poet is nasty and not fit,’ and so is a tale-bearer,” cried Schinner.

“Great painter,” said Georges, sententiously, “learn this: you can’t say harm of people you don’t know. Now the little one here has proved, indubitably, that he knows his Serizy by heart. If he had told us about the countess, perhaps —?”

“Stop! not a word about the Comtesse de Serizy, young men,” cried the count. “I am a friend of her brother, the Marquis de Ronquerolles, and whoever attempts to speak disparagingly of the countess must answer to me.”

“Monsieur is right,” cried the painter; “no man should blaguer women.”

“God, Honor, and the Ladies! I believe in that melodrama,” said Mistigris.

“I don’t know the guerrilla chieftain, Mina, but I know the Keeper of the Seals,” continued the count, looking at Georges; “and though I don’t wear my decorations,” he added, looking at the painter, “I prevent those who do not deserve them from obtaining any. And finally, let me say that I know so many persons that I even know Monsieur Grindot, the architect of Presles. Pierrotin, stop at the next inn; I want to get out a moment.”

Pierrotin hurried his horses through the village street of Moisselles, at the end of which was the inn where all travellers stopped. This short distance was done in silence.

“Where is that young fool going?” asked the count, drawing Pierrotin into the inn-yard.

“To your steward. He is the son of a poor lady who lives in the rue de la Cerisaie, to whom I often carry fruit, and game, and poultry from Presles. She is a Madame Husson.”

“Who is that man?” inquired Pere Leger of Pierrotin when the count had left him.

“Faith, I don’t know,” replied Pierrotin; “this is the first time I have driven him. I shouldn’t be surprised if he was that prince who owns Maffliers. He has just told me to leave him on the road near there; he doesn’t want to go on to Isle–Adam.”

“Pierrotin thinks he is the master of Maffliers,” said Pere Leger, addressing Georges when he got back into the coach.

The three young fellows were now as dull as thieves caught in the act; they dared not look at each other, and were evidently considering the consequences of their fibs.

“This is what is called ‘suffering for license sake,’” said Mistigris.

“You see I did know the count,” said Oscar.

“Possibly. But you’ll never be an ambassador,” replied Georges. “When people want to talk in public conveyances, they ought to be careful, like me, to talk without saying anything.”

“That’s what speech is for,” remarked Mistigris, by way of conclusion.

The count returned to his seat and the coucou rolled on amid the deepest silence.

“Well, my friends,” said the count, when they reached the Carreau woods, “here we all are, as silent as if we were going to the scaffold.”

“‘Silence gives content,’” muttered Mistigris.

“The weather is fine,” said Georges.

“What place is that?” said Oscar, pointing to the chateau de Franconville, which produces a fine effect at that particular spot, backed, as it is, by the noble forest of Saint–Martin.

“How is it,” cried the count, “that you, who say you go so often to Presles, do not know Franconville?”

“Monsieur knows men, not castles,” said Mistigris.

“Budding diplomatists have so much else to take their minds,” remarked Georges.

“Be so good as to remember my name,” replied Oscar, furious. “I am Oscar Husson, and ten years hence I shall be famous.”

After that speech, uttered with bombastic assumption, Oscar flung himself back in his corner.

“Husson of what, of where?” asked Mistigris.

“It is a great family,” replied the count. “Husson de la Cerisaie; monsieur was born beneath the steps of the Imperial throne.”

Oscar colored crimson to the roots of his hair, and was penetrated through and through with a dreadful foreboding.

They were now about to descend the steep hill of La Cave, at the foot of which, in a narrow valley, flanked by the forest of Saint–Martin, stands the magnificent chateau of Presles.

“Messieurs,” said the count, “I wish you every good fortune in your various careers. Monsieur le colonel, make your peace with the King of France; the Czerni–Georges ought not to snub the Bourbons. I have nothing to wish for you, my dear Monsieur Schinner; your fame is already won, and nobly won by splendid work. But you are much to be feared in domestic life, and I, being a married man, dare not invite you to my house. As for Monsieur Husson, he needs no protection; he possesses the secrets of statesmen and can make them tremble. Monsieur Leger is about to pluck the Comte de Serizy, and I can only exhort him to do it with a firm hand. Pierrotin, put me out here, and pick me up at the same place tomorrow,” added the count, who then left the coach and took a path through the woods, leaving his late companions confused and bewildered.

“He must be that count who has hired Franconville; that’s the path to it,” said Leger.

“If ever again,” said the false Schinner, “I am caught blagueing in a public coach, I’ll fight a duel with myself. It was your fault, Mistigris,” giving his rapin a tap on the head.

“All I did was to help you out, and follow you to Venice,” said Mistigris; “but that’s always the way, ‘Fortune belabors the slave.’”

“Let me tell you,” said Georges to his neighbor Oscar, “that if, by chance, that was the Comte de Serizy, I wouldn’t be in your skin for a good deal, healthy as you think it.”

Oscar, remembering his mother’s injunctions, which these words recalled to his mind, turned pale and came to his senses.

“Here you are, messieurs!” cried Pierrotin, pulling up at a fine iron gate.

“Here we are — where?” said the painter, and Georges, and Oscar all at once.

“Well, well!” exclaimed Pierrotin, “if that doesn’t beat all! Ah ca, monsieurs, have none of you been here before? Why, this is the chateau de Presles.”

“Oh, yes; all right, friend,” said Georges, recovering his audacity. “But I happen to be going on to Les Moulineaux,” he added, not wishing his companions to know that he was really going to the chateau.

“You don’t say so? Then you are coming to me,” said Pere Leger.

“How so?”

“Why, I’m the farmer at Moulineaux. Hey, colonel, what brings you there?”

“To taste your butter,” said Georges, pulling out his portfolio.

“Pierrotin,” said Oscar, “leave my things at the steward’s. I am going straight to the chateau.”

Whereupon Oscar plunged into a narrow path, not knowing, in the least, where he was going.

“Hi! Monsieur l’ambassadeur,” cried Pere Leger, “that’s the way to the forest; if you really want to get to the chateau, go through the little gate.”

Thus compelled to enter, Oscar disappeared into the grand court-yard. While Pere Leger stood watching Oscar, Georges, utterly confounded by the discovery that the farmer was the present occupant of Les Moulineaux, has slipped away so adroitly that when the fat countryman looked round for his colonel there was no sign of him.

The iron gates opened at Pierrotin’s demand, and he proudly drove in to deposit with the concierge the thousand and one utensils belonging to the great Schinner. Oscar was thunderstruck when he became aware that Mistigris and his master, the witnesses of his bravado, were to be installed in the chateau itself. In ten minutes Pierrotin had discharged the various packages of the painter, the bundles of Oscar Husson, and the pretty little leather portmanteau, which he took from its nest of hay and confided mysteriously to the wife of the concierge. Then he drove out of the courtyard, cracking his whip, and took the road that led through the forest to Isle–Adam, his face beaming with the sly expression of a peasant who calculates his profits. Nothing was lacking now to his happiness; on the morrow he would have his thousand francs, and, as a consequence, his magnificent new coach.

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