A Start in Life, by Honoré de Balzac

CHAPTER VIII

TRICKS AND FARCES OF THE EMBRYO LONG ROBE

Ten days later, Oscar was taken by Monsieur Moreau to Maitre Desroches, solicitor, recently established in the rue de Bethisy, in a vast apartment at the end of a narrow court-yard, for which he was paying a relatively low price.

Desroches, a young man twenty-six years of age, born of poor parents, and brought up with extreme severity by a stern father, had himself known the condition in which Oscar now was. Accordingly, he felt an interest in him, but the sort of interest which alone he could take, checked by the apparent harshness that characterized him. The aspect of this gaunt young man, with a muddy skin and hair cropped like a clothes-brush, who was curt of speech and possessed a piercing eye and a gloomy vivaciousness, terrified the unhappy Oscar.

“We work here day and night,” said the lawyer, from the depths of his armchair, and behind a table on which were papers, piled up like Alps. “Monsieur Moreau, we won’t kill him; but he’ll have to go at our pace. Monsieur Godeschal!” he called out.

Though the day was Sunday, the head-clerk appeared, pen in hand.

“Monsieur Godeschal, here’s the pupil of whom I spoke to you. Monsieur Moreau takes the liveliest interest in him. He will dine with us and sleep in the small attic next to your chamber. You will allot the exact time it takes to go to the law-school and back, so that he does not lose five minutes on the way. You will see that he learns the Code and is proficient in his classes; that is to say, after he has done his work here, you will give him authors to read. In short, he is to be under your immediate direction, and I shall keep an eye on it. They want to make him what you have made yourself, a capable head-clerk, against the time when he can take such a place himself. Go with Monsieur Godeschal, my young friend; he’ll show you your lodging, and you can settle down in it. Did you notice Godeschal?” continued Desroches, speaking to Moreau. “There’s a fellow who, like me, has nothing. His sister Mariette, the famous danseuse, is laying up her money to buy him a practice in ten years. My clerks are young blades who have nothing but their ten fingers to rely upon. So we all, my five clerks and I, work as hard as a dozen ordinary fellows. But in ten years I’ll have the finest practice in Paris. In my office, business and clients are a passion, and that’s beginning to make itself felt. I took Godeschal from Derville, where he was only just made second clerk. He gets a thousand francs a year from me, and food and lodging. But he’s worth it; he is indefatigable. I love him, that fellow! He has managed to live, as I did when a clerk, on six hundred francs a year. What I care for above all is honesty, spotless integrity; and when it is practised in such poverty as that, a man’s a man. For the slightest fault of that kind a clerk leaves my office.”

“The lad is in a good school,” thought Moreau.

For two whole years Oscar lived in the rue de Bethisy, a den of pettifogging; for if ever that superannuated expression was applicable to a lawyer’s office, it was so in this case. Under this supervision, both petty and able, he was kept to his regular hours and to his work with such rigidity that his life in the midst of Paris was that of a monk.

At five in the morning, in all weathers, Godeschal woke up. He went down with Oscar to the office, where they always found their master up and working. Oscar then did the errands of the office and prepared his lessons for the law-school — and prepared them elaborately; for Godeschal, and frequently Desroches himself, pointed out to their pupil authors to be looked through and difficulties to overcome. He was not allowed to leave a single section of the Code until he had thoroughly mastered it to the satisfaction of his chief and Godeschal, who put him through preliminary examinations more searching and longer than those of the law-school. On his return from his classes, where he was kept but a short time, he went to his work in the office; occasionally he was sent to the Palais, but always under the thumb of the rigid Godeschal, till dinner. The dinner was that of his master, — one dish of meat, one of vegetables, and a salad. The dessert consisted of a piece of Gruyere cheese. After dinner, Godeschal and Oscar returned to the office and worked till night. Once a month Oscar went to breakfast with his uncle Cardot, and he spent the Sundays with his mother. From time to time Moreau, when he came to the office about his own affairs, would take Oscar to dine in the Palais–Royal, and to some theatre in the evening. Oscar had been so snubbed by Godeschal and by Desroches for his attempts at elegance that he no longer gave a thought to his clothes.

“A good clerk,” Godeschal told him, “should have two black coats, one new, one old, a pair of black trousers, black stockings, and shoes. Boots cost too much. You can’t have boots till you are called to the bar. A clerk should never spend more than seven hundred francs a year. Good stout shirts of strong linen are what you want. Ha! when a man starts from nothing to reach fortune, he has to keep down to bare necessities. Look at Monsieur Desroches; he did what we are doing, and see where he is now.”

Godeschal preached by example. If he professed the strictest principles of honor, discretion, and honesty, he practised them without assumption, as he walked, as he breathed; such action was the natural play of his soul, as walking and breathing were the natural play of his organs. Eighteen months after Oscar’s installation into the office, the second clerk was, for the second time, slightly wrong in his accounts, which were comparatively unimportant. Godeschal said to him in presence of all the other clerks:

“My dear Gaudet, go away from here of your own free will, that it may not be said that Monsieur Desroches has dismissed you. You have been careless or absent-minded, and neither of those defects can pass here. The master shall know nothing about the matter; that is all that I can do for a comrade.”

At twenty years of age, Oscar became third clerk in the office. Though he earned no salary, he was lodged and fed, for he did the work of the second clerk. Desroches employed two chief clerks, and the work of the second was unremitting toil. By the end of his second year in the law-school Oscar knew more than most licensed graduates; he did the work at the Palais intelligently, and argued some cases in chambers. Godeschal and Desroches were satisfied with him. And yet, though he now seemed a sensible man, he showed, from time to time, a hankering after pleasure and a desire to shine, repressed, though it was, by the stern discipline and continual toil of his life.

Moreau, satisfied with Oscar’s progress, relaxed, in some degree, his watchfulness; and when, in July, 1825, Oscar passed his examinations with a spotless record, the land-agent gave him the money to dress himself elegantly. Madame Clapart, proud and happy in her son, prepared the outfit splendidly for the rising lawyer.

In the month of November, when the courts reopened, Oscar Husson occupied the chamber of the second clerk, whose work he now did wholly. He had a salary of eight hundred francs with board and lodging. Consequently, uncle Cardot, who went privately to Desroches and made inquiries about his nephew, promised Madame Clapart to be on the lookout for a practice for Oscar, if he continued to do as well in the future.

In spite of these virtuous appearances, Oscar Husson was undergoing a great strife in his inmost being. At times he thought of quitting a life so directly against his tastes and his nature. He felt that galley-slaves were happier than he. Galled by the collar of this iron system, wild desires seized him to fly when he compared himself in the street with the well-dressed young men whom he met. Sometimes he was driven by a sort of madness towards women; then, again, he resigned himself, but only to fall into a deeper disgust for life. Impelled by the example of Godeschal, he was forced, rather than led of himself, to remain in that rugged way.

Godeschal, who watched and took note of Oscar, made it a matter of principle not to allow his pupil to be exposed to temptation. Generally the young clerk was without money, or had so little that he could not, if he would, give way to excess. During the last year, the worthy Godeschal had made five or six parties of pleasure with Oscar, defraying the expenses, for he felt that the rope by which he tethered the young kid must be slackened. These “pranks,” as he called them, helped Oscar to endure existence, for there was little amusement in breakfasting with his uncle Cardot, and still less in going to see his mother, who lived even more penuriously than Desroches. Moreau could not make himself familiar with Oscar as Godeschal could; and perhaps that sincere friend to young Husson was behind Godeschal in these efforts to initiate the poor youth safely into the mysteries of life. Oscar, grown prudent, had come, through contact with others, to see the extent and the character of the fault he had committed on that luckless journey; but the volume of his repressed fancies and the follies of youth might still get the better of him. Nevertheless, the more knowledge he could get of the world and its laws, the better his mind would form itself, and, provided Godeschal never lost sight of him, Moreau flattered himself that between them they could bring the son of Madame Clapart through in safety.

“How is he getting on?” asked the land-agent of Godeschal on his return from one of his journeys which had kept him some months out of Paris.

“Always too much vanity,” replied Godeschal. “You give him fine clothes and fine linen, he wears the shirt-fronts of a stockbroker, and so my dainty coxcomb spends his Sundays in the Tuileries, looking out for adventures. What else can you expect? That’s youth. He torments me to present him to my sister, where he would see a pretty sort of society! — actresses, ballet-dancers, elegant young fops, spendthrifts who are wasting their fortunes! His mind, I’m afraid, is not fitted for law. He can talk well, though; and if we could make him a barrister he might plead cases that were carefully prepared for him.”

In the month of November, 1825, soon after Oscar Husson had taken possession of his new clerkship, and at the moment when he was about to pass his examination for the licentiate’s degree, a new clerk arrived to take the place made vacant by Oscar’s promotion.

This fourth clerk, named Frederic Marest, intended to enter the magistracy, and was now in his third year at the law school. He was a fine young man of twenty-three, enriched to the amount of some twelve thousand francs a year by the death of a bachelor uncle, and the son of Madame Marest, widow of the wealthy wood-merchant. This future magistrate, actuated by a laudable desire to understand his vocation in its smallest details, had put himself in Desroches’ office for the purpose of studying legal procedure, and of training himself to take a place as head-clerk in two years. He hoped to do his “stage” (the period between the admission as licentiate and the call to the bar) in Paris, in order to be fully prepared for the functions of a post which would surely not be refused to a rich young man. To see himself, by the time he was thirty, “procureur du roi” in any court, no matter where, was his sole ambition. Though Frederic Marest was cousin-german to Georges Marest, the latter not having told his surname in Pierrotin’s coucou, Oscar Husson did not connect the present Marest with the grandson of Czerni–Georges.

“Messieurs,” said Godeschal at breakfast time, addressing all the clerks, “I announce to you the arrival of a new jurisconsult; and as he is rich, rishissime, we will make him, I hope, pay a glorious entrance-fee.”

“Forward, the book!” cried Oscar, nodding to the youngest clerk, “and pray let us be serious.”

The youngest clerk climbed like a squirrel along the shelves which lined the room, until he could reach a register placed on the top shelf, where a thick layer of dust had settled on it.

“It is getting colored,” said the little clerk, exhibiting the volume.

We must explain the perennial joke of this book, then much in vogue in legal offices. In a clerical life where work is the rule, amusement is all the more treasured because it is rare; but, above all, a hoax or a practical joke is enjoyed with delight. This fancy or custom does, to a certain extent, explain Georges Marest’s behavior in the coucou. The gravest and most gloomy clerk is possessed, at times, with a craving for fun and quizzing. The instinct with which a set of young clerks will seize and develop a hoax or a practical joke is really marvellous. The denizens of a studio and of a lawyer’s office are, in this line, superior to comedians.

In buying a practice without clients, Desroches began, as it were, a new dynasty. This circumstance made a break in the usages relative to the reception of new-comers. Moreover, Desroches having taken an office where legal documents had never yet been scribbled, had bought new tables, and white boxes edged with blue, also new. His staff was made up of clerks coming from other officers, without mutual ties, and surprised, as one may say, to find themselves together. Godeschal, who had served his apprenticeship under Maitre Derville, was not the sort of clerk to allow the precious tradition of the “welcome” to be lost. This “welcome” is a breakfast which every neophyte must give to the “ancients” of the office into which he enters.

Now, about the time when Oscar came to the office, during the first six months of Desroches’ installation, on a winter evening when the work had been got through more quickly than usual, and the clerks were warming themselves before the fire preparatory to departure, it came into Godeschal’s head to construct and compose a Register “architriclino-basochien,” of the utmost antiquity, saved from the fires of the Revolution, and derived through the procureur of the Chatelet–Bordin, the immediate predecessor of Sauvaguest, the attorney, from whom Desroches had bought his practice. The work, which was highly approved by the other clerks, was begun by a search through all the dealers in old paper for a register, made of paper with the mark of the eighteenth century, duly bound in parchment, on which should be the stamp of an order in council. Having found such a volume it was left about in the dust, on the stove, on the ground, in the kitchen, and even in what the clerks called the “chamber of deliberations”; and thus it obtained a mouldiness to delight an antiquary, cracks of aged dilapidation, and broken corners that looked as though the rats had gnawed them; also, the gilt edges were tarnished with surprising perfection. As soon as the book was duly prepared, the entries were made. The following extracts will show to the most obtuse mind the purpose to which the office of Maitre Desroches devoted this register, the first sixty pages of which were filled with reports of fictitious cases. On the first page appeared as follows, in the legal spelling of the eighteenth century:—

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, so be it. This day, the feast of our lady Saincte–Geneviesve, patron saint of Paris, under whose protection have existed, since the year 1525 the clerks of this Practice, we the under-signed, clerks and sub-clerks of Maistre Jerosme–Sebastien Bordin, successor to the late Guerbet, in his lifetime procureur at the Chastelet, do hereby recognize the obligation under which we lie to renew and continue the register and the archives of installation of the clerks of this noble Practice, a glorious member of the Kingdom of Basoche, the which register, being now full in consequence of the many acts and deeds of our well-beloved predecessors, we have consigned to the Keeper of the Archives of the Palais for safe-keeping, with the registers of other ancient Practices; and we have ourselves gone, each and all, to hear mass at the parish church of Saint–Severin to solemnize the inauguration of this our new register.

In witness whereof we have hereunto signed our names: Malin, head-clerk; Grevin, second-clerk; Athanase Feret, clerk; Jacques Heret, clerk; Regnault de Saint–Jean-d’Angely, clerk; Bedeau, youngest clerk and gutter-jumper.

In the year of our Lord 1787.

After the mass aforesaid was heard, we conveyed ourselves to Courtille, where, at the common charge, we ordered a fine breakfast; which did not end till seven o’clock the next morning.

This was marvellously well engrossed. An expert would have said that it was written in the eighteenth century. Twenty-seven reports of receptions of neophytes followed, the last in the fatal year of 1792. Then came a blank of fourteen years; after which the register began again, in 1806, with the appointment of Bordin as attorney before the first Court of the Seine. And here follows the deed which proclaimed the reconstitution of the kingdom of Basoche:—

God in his mercy willed that, in spite of the fearful storms which have cruelly ravaged the land of France, now become a great Empire, the archives of the very celebrated Practice of Maitre Bordin should be preserved; and we, the undersigned, clerks of the very virtuous and very worthy Maitre Bordin, do not hesitate to attribute this unheard-of preservation, when all titles, privileges, and charters were lost, to the protection of Sainte–Genevieve, patron Saint of this office, and also to the reverence which the last of the procureurs of noble race had for all that belonged to ancient usages and customs. In the uncertainty of knowing the exact part of Sainte–Genevieve and Maitre Bordin in this miracle, we have resolved, each of us, to go to Saint–Etienne du Mont and there hear mass, which will be said before the altar of that Holy–Shepherdess who sends us sheep to shear, and also to offer a breakfast to our master Bordin, hoping that he will pay the costs.

Signed: Oignard, first clerk; Poidevin, second clerk; Proust, clerk; Augustin Coret, sub-clerk.

At the office.

November, 1806.

At three in the afternoon, the above-named clerks hereby return their grateful thanks to their excellent master, who regaled them at the establishment of the Sieur Rolland restaurateur, rue du Hasard, with exquisite wines of three regions, to wit: Bordeaux, Champagne, and Burgundy, also with dishes most carefully chosen, between the hours of four in the afternoon to half-past seven in the evening. Coffee, ices, and liqueurs were in abundance. But the presence of the master himself forbade the chanting of hymns of praise in clerical stanzas. No clerk exceeded the bounds of amiable gayety, for the worthy, respectable, and generous patron had promised to take his clerks to see Talma in “Brittanicus,” at the Theatre–Francais. Long life to Maitre Bordin! May God shed favors on his venerable pow! May he sell dear so glorious a practice! May the rich clients for whom he prays arrive! May his bills of costs and charges be paid in a trice! May our masters to come be like him! May he ever be loved by clerks in other worlds than this!

Here followed thirty-three reports of various receptions of new clerks, distinguished from one another by different writing and different inks, also by quotations, signatures, and praises of good cheer and wines, which seemed to show that each report was written and signed on the spot, “inter pocula.”

Finally, under date of the month of June, 1822, the period when Desroches took the oath, appears this constitutional declaration:—

I, the undersigned, Francois–Claude-Marie Godeschal, called by Maitre Desroches to perform the difficult functions of head-clerk in a Practice where the clients have to be created, having learned through Maitre Derville, from whose office I come, of the existence of the famous archives architriclino-basochien, so celebrated at the Palais, have implored our gracious master to obtain them from his predecessor; for it has become of the highest importance to recover a document bearing date of the year 1786, which is connected with other documents deposited for safe-keeping at the Palais, the existence of which has been certified to by Messrs. Terrasse and Duclos, keepers of records, by the help of which we may go back to the year 1525, and find historical indications of the utmost value on the manners, customs, and cookery of the clerical race.

Having received a favorable answer to this request, the present office has this day been put in possession of these proofs of the worship in which our predecessors held the Goddess Bottle and good living.

In consequence thereof, for the edification of our successors, and to renew the chain of years and goblets, I, the said Godeschal, have invited Messieurs Doublet, second clerk; Vassal, third clerk; Herisson and Grandemain, clerks; and Dumets, sub-clerk, to breakfast, Sunday next, at the “Cheval Rouge,” on the Quai Saint–Bernard, where we will celebrate the victory of obtaining this volume which contains the Charter of our gullets.

This day, Sunday, June 27th, were imbibed twelve bottles of twelve different wines, regarded as exquisite; also were devoured melons, “pates au jus romanum,” and a fillet of beef with mushroom sauce. Mademoiselle Mariette, the illustrious sister of our head-clerk and leading lady of the Royal Academy of music and dancing, having obligingly put at the disposition of this Practice orchestra seats for the performance of this evening, it is proper to make this record of her generosity. Moreover, it is hereby decreed that the aforesaid clerks shall convey themselves in a body to that noble demoiselle to thank her in person, and declare to her that on the occasion of her first lawsuit, if the devil sends her one, she shall pay the money laid out upon it, and no more.

And our head-clerk Godeschal has been and is hereby proclaimed a flower of Basoche, and, more especially, a good fellow. May a man who treats so well be soon in treaty for a Practice of his own!

On this record were stains of wine, pates, and candle-grease. To exhibit the stamp of truth that the writers had managed to put upon these records, we may here give the report of Oscar’s own pretended reception:—

This day, Monday, November 25th, 1822, after a session held yesterday at the rue de la Cerisaie, Arsenal quarter, at the house of Madame Clapart, mother of the candidate-basochien Oscar Husson, we, the undersigned, declare that the repast of admission surpassed our expectations. It was composed of radishes, pink and black, gherkins, anchovies, butter and olives for hors-d’oeuvre; a succulent soup of rice, bearing testimony to maternal solicitude, for we recognized therein a delicious taste of poultry; indeed, by acknowledgment of the new member, we learned that the gibbets of a fine stew prepared by the hands of Madame Clapart herself had been judiciously inserted into the family soup-pot with a care that is never taken except in such households.

Item: the said gibbets inclosed in a sea of jelly.

Item: a tongue of beef with tomatoes, which rendered us all tongue-tied automatoes.

Item: a compote of pigeons with caused us to think the angels had had a finger in it.

Item: a timbale of macaroni surrounded by chocolate custards.

Item: a dessert composed of eleven delicate dishes, among which we remarked (in spite of the tipsiness caused by sixteen bottles of the choicest wines) a compote of peaches of august and mirobolant delicacy.

The wines of Roussillon and those of the banks of the Rhone completely effaced those of Champagne and Burgundy. A bottle of maraschino and another of kirsch did, in spite of the exquisite coffee, plunge us into so marked an oenological ecstasy that we found ourselves at a late hour in the Bois de Boulogne instead of our domicile, where we thought we were.

In the statutes of our Order there is one rule which is rigidly enforced; namely, to allow all candidates for the privilege of Basoche to limit the magnificence of their feast of welcome to the length of their purse; for it is publicly notorious that no one delivers himself up to Themis if he has a fortune, and every clerk is, alas, sternly curtailed by his parents. Consequently, we hereby record with the highest praise the liberal conduct of Madame Clapart, widow, by her first marriage, of Monsieur Husson, father of the candidate, who is worthy of the hurrahs which we gave for her at dessert.

To all of which we hereby set our hands.

[Signed by all the clerks.]

Three clerks had already been deceived by the Book, and three real “receptions of welcome,” were recorded on this imposing register.

The day after the arrival of each neophyte, the little sub-clerk (the errand-boy and “gutter-jumper”) laid upon the new-comer’s desk the “Archives Architriclino–Basochiennes,” and the clerks enjoyed the sight of his countenance as he studied its facetious pages. Inter pocula each candidate had learned the secret of the farce, and the revelation inspired him with the desire to hoax his successor.

We see now why Oscar, become in his turn participator in the hoax, called out to the little clerk, “Forward, the book!”

Ten minutes later a handsome young man, with a fine figure and pleasant face, presented himself, asked for Monsieur Desroches, and gave his name without hesitation to Godeschal.

“I am Frederic Marest,” he said, “and I come to take the place of third clerk.”

“Monsieur Husson,” said Godeschal to Oscar, “show monsieur his seat and tell him about the customs of the office.”

The next day the new clerk found the register lying on his desk. He took it up, but after reading a few pages he began to laugh, said nothing to the assembled clerks, and laid the book down again.

“Messieurs,” he said, when the hour of departure came at five o’clock, “I have a cousin who is head clerk of the notary Maitre Leopold Hannequin; I will ask his advice as to what I ought to do for my welcome.”

“That looks ill,” cried Godeschal, when Frederic had gone, “he hasn’t the cut of a novice, that fellow!”

“We’ll get some fun out of him yet,” said Oscar.

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