The Two Brothers, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter XI

Agathe and Joseph arrived at the coach-office of the Messageries–Royales in the place Misere at three o’clock. Though tired with the journey, Madame Bridau felt her youth revive at sight of her native land, where at every step she came upon memories and impressions of her girlish days. In the then condition of public opinion in Issoudun, the arrival of the Parisians was known all over the town in ten minutes. Madame Hochon came out upon her doorstep to welcome her godchild, and kissed her as though she were really a daughter. After seventy-two years of a barren and monotonous existence, exhibiting in their retrospect the graves of her three children, all unhappy in their lives, and all dead, she had come to feel a sort of fictitious motherhood for the young girl whom she had, as she expressed it, carried in her pouch for sixteen years. Through the gloom of provincial life the old woman had cherished this early friendship, this girlish memory, as closely as if Agathe had remained near her, and she had also taken the deepest interest in Bridau. Agathe was led in triumph to the salon where Monsieur Hochon was stationed, chilling as a tepid oven.

“Here is Monsieur Hochon; how does he seem to you?” asked his wife.

“Precisely the same as when I last saw him,” said the Parisian woman.

“Ah! it is easy to see you come from Paris; you are so complimentary,” remarked the old man.

The presentations took place: first, young Baruch Borniche, a tall youth of twenty-two; then Francois Hochon, twenty-four; and lastly little Adolphine, who blushed and did not know what to do with her arms; she was anxious not to seem to be looking at Joseph Bridau, who in his turn was narrowly observed, though from different points of view, by the two young men and by old Hochon. The miser was saying to himself, “He is just out of the hospital; he will be as hungry as a convalescent.” The young men were saying, “What a head! what a brigand! we shall have our hands full!”

“This is my son, the painter; my good Joseph,” said Agathe at last, presenting the artist.

There was an effort in the accent that she put upon the word “good,” which revealed the mother’s heart, whose thoughts were really in the prison of the Luxembourg.

“He looks ill,” said Madame Hochon; “he is not at all like you.”

“No, madame,” said Joseph, with the brusque candor of an artist; “I am like my father, and very ugly at that.”

Madame Hochon pressed Agathe’s hand which she was holding, and glanced at her as much as to say, “Ah! my child; I understand now why you prefer your good-for-nothing Philippe.”

“I never saw your father, my dear boy,” she said aloud; “it is enough to make me love you that you are your mother’s son. Besides, you have talent, so the late Madame Descoings used to write to me; she was the only one of late years who told me much about you.”

“Talent!” exclaimed the artist, “not as yet; but with time and patience I may win fame and fortune.”

“By painting?” said Monsieur Hochon ironically.

“Come, Adolphine,” said Madame Hochon, “go and see about dinner.”

“Mother,” said Joseph, “I will attend to the trunks which they are bringing in.”

“Hochon,” said the grandmother to Francois, “show the rooms to Monsieur Bridau.”

As the dinner was to be served at four o’clock and it was now only half past three, Baruch rushed into the town to tell the news of the Bridau arrival, describe Agathe’s dress, and more particularly to picture Joseph, whose haggard, unhealthy, and determined face was not unlike the ideal of a brigand. That evening Joseph was the topic of conversation in all the households of Issoudun.

“That sister of Rouget must have seen a monkey before her son was born,” said one; “he is the image of a baboon.”

“He has the face of a brigand and the eyes of a basilisk.”

“All artists are like that.”

“They are as wicked as the red ass, and as spiteful as monkeys.”

“It is part of their business.”

“I have just seen Monsieur Beaussier, and he says he would not like to meet him in a dark wood; he saw him in the diligence.”

“He has got hollows over the eyes like a horse, and he laughs like a maniac.”

“The fellow looks as though he were capable of anything; perhaps it’s his fault that his brother, a fine handsome man they tell me, has gone to the bad. Poor Madame Bridau doesn’t seem as if she were very happy with him.”

“Suppose we take advantage of his being here, and have our portraits painted?”

The result of all these observations, scattered through the town was, naturally, to excite curiosity. All those who had the right to visit the Hochons resolved to call that very night and examine the Parisians. The arrival of these two persons in the stagnant town was like the falling of a beam into a community of frogs.

After stowing his mother’s things and his own into the two attic chambers, which he examined as he did so, Joseph took note of the silent house, where the walls, the stair-case, the wood-work, were devoid of decoration and humid with frost, and where there was literally nothing beyond the merest necessaries. He felt the brusque transition from his poetic Paris to the dumb and arid province; and when, coming downstairs, he chanced to see Monsieur Hochon cutting slices of bread for each person, he understood, for the first time in his life, Moliere’s Harpagon.

“We should have done better to go to an inn,” he said to himself.

The aspect of the dinner confirmed his apprehensions. After a soup whose watery clearness showed that quantity was more considered than quality, the bouilli was served, ceremoniously garnished with parsley; the vegetables, in a dish by themselves, being counted into the items of the repast. The bouilli held the place of honor in the middle of the table, accompanied with three other dishes: hard-boiled eggs on sorrel opposite to the vegetables; then a salad dressed with nut-oil to face little cups of custard, whose flavoring of burnt oats did service as vanilla, which it resembles much as coffee made of chiccory resembles mocha. Butter and radishes, in two plates, were at each end of the table; pickled gherkins and horse-radish completed the spread, which won Madam Hochon’s approbation. The good old woman gave a contented little nod when she saw that her husband had done things properly, for the first day at least. The old man answered with a glance and a shrug of his shoulders, which it was easy to translate into —

“See the extravagances you force me to commit!”

As soon as Monsieur Hochon had, as it were, slivered the bouilli into slices, about as thick as the sole of a dancing-shoe, that dish was replaced by another, containing three pigeons. The wine was of the country, vintage 1811. On a hint from her grandmother, Adolphine had decorated each end of the table with a bunch of flowers.

“At Rome as the Romans do,” thought the artist, looking at the table, and beginning to eat — like a man who had breakfasted at Vierzon, at six o’clock in the morning, on an execrable cup of coffee. When Joseph had eaten up all his bread and asked for more, Monsieur Hochon rose, slowly searched in the pocket of his surtout for a key, unlocked a cupboard behind him, broke off a section of a twelve-pound loaf, carefully cut a round of it, then divided the round in two, laid the pieces on a plate, and passed the plate across the table to the young painter, with the silence and coolness of an old soldier who says to himself on the eve of battle, “Well, I can meet death.” Joseph took the half-slice, and fully understood that he was not to ask for any more. No member of the family was the least surprised at this extraordinary performance. The conversation went on. Agathe learned that the house in which she was born, her father’s house before he inherited that of the old Descoings, had been bought by the Borniches; she expressed a wish to see it once more.

“No doubt,” said her godmother, “the Borniches will be here this evening; we shall have half the town — who want to examine you,” she added, turning to Joseph, “and they will all invite you to their houses.”

Gritte, who in spite of her sixty years, was the only servant of the house, brought in for dessert the famous ripe cheese of Touraine and Berry, made of goat’s milk, whose mouldy discolorations so distinctly reproduce the pattern of the vine-leaves on which it is served, that Touraine ought to have invented the art of engraving. On either side of these little cheeses Gritte, with a company air, placed nuts and some time-honored biscuits.

“Well, Gritte, the fruit?” said Madame Hochon.

“But, madame, there is none rotten,” answered Gritte.

Joseph went off into roars of laughter, as though he were among his comrades in the atelier; for he suddenly perceived that the parsimony of eating only the fruits which were beginning to rot had degenerated into a settled habit.

“Bah! we can eat them all the same,” he exclaimed, with the heedless gayety of a man who will have his say.

“Monsieur Hochon, pray get some,” said the old lady.

Monsieur Hochon, much incensed at the artist’s speech, fetched some peaches, pears, and Saint Catherine plums.

“Adolphine, go and gather some grapes,” said Madame Hochon to her granddaughter.

Joseph looked at the two young men as much as to say: “Is it to such high living as this that you owe your healthy faces?”

Baruch understood the keen glance and smiled; for he and his cousin Hochon were behaving with much discretion. The home-life was of less importance to youths who supped three times the week at Mere Cognette’s. Moreover, just before dinner, Baruch had received notice that the grand master convoked the whole Order at midnight for a magnificent supper, in the course of which a great enterprise would be arranged. The feast of welcome given by old Hochon to his guests explains how necessary were the nocturnal repasts at the Cognette’s to two young fellows blessed with good appetites, who, we may add, never missed any of them.

“We will take the liqueur in the salon,” said Madame Hochon, rising and motioning to Joseph to give her his arm. As they went out before the others, she whispered to the painter:—

“Eh! my poor boy; this dinner won’t give you an indigestion; but I had hard work to get it for you. It is always Lent here; you will get enough just to keep life in you, and no more. So you must bear it patiently.”

The kind-heartedness of the old woman, who thus drew her own predicament, pleased the artist.

“I have lived fifty years with that man, without ever hearing half-a-dozen gold pieces chink in my purse,” she went on. “Oh! if I did not hope that you might save your property, I would never have brought you and your mother into my prison.”

“But how can you survive it?” cried Joseph naively, with the gayety which a French artist never loses.

“Ah, you may well ask!” she said. “I pray.”

Joseph quivered as he heard the words, which raised the old woman so much in his estimation that he stepped back a little way to look into her face; it was radiant with so tender a serenity that he said to her —

“Let me paint your portrait.”

“No, no,” she answered, “I am too weary of life to wish to remain here on canvas.”

Gayly uttering the sad words, she opened a closet, and brought out a flask containing ratafia, a domestic manufacture of her own, the receipt for which she obtained from the far-famed nuns to whom is also due the celebrated cake of Issoudun — one of the great creations of French confectionery; which no chef, cook, pastry-cook, or confectioner has ever been able to reproduce. Monsieur de Riviere, ambassador at Constantinople, ordered enormous quantities every year for the Seraglio.

Adolphine held a lacquer tray on which were a number of little old glasses with engraved sides and gilt edges; and as her mother filled each of them, she carried it to the company.

“It seems as though my father’s turn were coming round!” exclaimed Agathe, to whom this immutable provincial custom recalled the scenes of her youth.

“Hochon will go to his club presently to read the papers, and we shall have a little time to ourselves,” said the old lady in a low voice.

In fact, ten minutes later, the three women and Joseph were alone in the salon, where the floor was never waxed, only swept, and the worsted-work designs in oaken frames with grooved mouldings, and all the other plain and rather dismal furniture seemed to Madame Bridau to be in exactly the same state as when she had left Issoudun. Monarchy, Revolution, Empire, and Restoration, which respected little, had certainly respected this room where their glories and their disasters had left not the slightest trace.

“Ah! my godmother, in comparison with your life, mine has been cruelly tried,” exclaimed Madame Bridau, surprised to find even a canary which she had known when alive, stuffed, and standing on the mantleshelf between the old clock, the old brass brackets, and the silver candlesticks.

“My child,” said the old lady, “trials are in the heart. The greater and more necessary the resignation, the harder the struggle with our own selves. But don’t speak of me, let us talk of your affairs. You are directly in front of the enemy,” she added, pointing to the windows of the Rouget house.

“They are sitting down to dinner,” said Adolphine.

The young girl, destined for a cloister, was constantly looking out of the window, in hopes of getting some light upon the enormities imputed to Maxence Gilet, the Rabouilleuse, and Jean–Jacques, of which a few words reached her ears whenever she was sent out of the room that others might talk about them. The old lady now told her granddaughter to leave her alone with Madame Bridau and Joseph until the arrival of visitors.

“For,” she said, turning to the Parisians, “I know my Issoudun by heart; we shall have ten or twelve batches of inquisitive folk here to-night.”

In fact Madame Hochon had hardly related the events and the details concerning the astounding influence obtained by Maxence Gilet and the Rabouilleuse over Jean–Jacques Rouget (without, of course, following the synthetical method with which they have been presented here), adding the many comments, descriptions, and hypotheses with which the good and evil tongues of the town embroidered them, before Adolphine announced the approach of the Borniche, Beaussier, Lousteau–Prangin, Fichet, Goddet–Herau families; in all, fourteen persons looming in the distance.

“You now see, my dear child,” said the old lady, concluding her tale, “that it will not be an easy matter to get this property out of the jaws of the wolf —”

“It seems to me so difficult — with a scoundrel such as you represent him, and a daring woman like that crab-girl — as to be actually impossible,” remarked Joseph. “We should have to stay a year in Issoudun to counteract their influence and overthrow their dominion over my uncle. Money isn’t worth such a struggle — not to speak of the meannesses to which we should have to condescend. My mother has only two weeks’ leave of absence; her place is a permanent one, and she must not risk it. As for me, in the month of October I have an important work, which Schinner has just obtained for me from a peer of France; so you see, madame, my future fortune is in my brushes.”

This speech was received by Madame Hochon with much amazement. Though relatively superior to the town she lived in, the old lady did not believe in painting. She glanced at her goddaughter, and again pressed her hand.

“This Maxence is the second volume of Philippe,” whispered Joseph in his mother’s ear, “— only cleverer and better behaved. Well, madame,” he said, aloud, we won’t trouble Monsieur Hochon by staying very long.”

“Ah! you are young; you know nothing of the world,” said the old lady. “A couple of weeks, if you are judicious, may produce great results; listen to my advice, and act accordingly.”

“Oh! willingly,” said Joseph, “I know I have a perfectly amazing incapacity for domestic statesmanship: for example, I am sure I don’t know what Desroches himself would tell us to do if my uncle declines to see us.”

Mesdames Borniche, Goddet–Herau, Beaussier, Lousteau–Prangin and Fichet, decorated with their husbands, here entered the room.

When the fourteen persons were seated, and the usual compliments were over, Madame Hochon presented her goddaughter Agathe and Joseph. Joseph sat in his armchair all the evening, engaged in slyly studying the sixty faces which, from five o’clock until half past nine, posed for him gratis, as he afterwards told his mother. Such behavior before the aristocracy of Issoudun did not tend to change the opinion of the little town concerning him: every one went home ruffled by his sarcastic glances, uneasy under his smiles, and even frightened at his face, which seemed sinister to a class of people unable to recognize the singularities of genius.

After ten o’clock, when the household was in bed, Madame Hochon kept her goddaughter in her chamber until midnight. Secure from interruption, the two women told each other the sorrows of their lives, and exchanged their sufferings. As Agathe listened to the last echoes of a soul that had missed its destiny, and felt the sufferings of a heart, essentially generous and charitable, whose charity and generosity could never be exercised, she realized the immensity of the desert in which the powers of this noble, unrecognized soul had been wasted, and knew that she herself, with the little joys and interests of her city life relieving the bitter trials sent from God, was not the most unhappy of the two.

“You who are so pious,” she said, “explain to me my shortcomings; tell me what it is that God is punishing in me.”

“He is preparing us, my child,” answered the old woman, “for the striking of the last hour.”

At midnight the Knights of Idleness were collecting, one by one like shadows, under the trees of the boulevard Baron, and speaking together in whispers.

“What are we going to do?” was the first question of each as he arrived.

“I think,” said Francois, “that Max means merely to give us a supper.”

“No; matters are very serious for him, and for the Rabouilleuse: no doubt, he has concocted some scheme against the Parisians.”

“It would be a good joke to drive them away.”

“My grandfather,” said Baruch, “is terribly alarmed at having two extra mouths to feed, and he’d seize on any pretext —”

“Well, comrades!” cried Max softly, now appearing on the scene, “why are you star-gazing? the planets don’t distil kirschwasser. Come, let us go to Mere Cognette’s!”

“To Mere Cognette’s! To Mere Cognette’s!” they all cried.

The cry, uttered as with one voice, produced a clamor which rang through the town like the hurrah of troops rushing to an assault; total silence followed. The next day, more than one inhabitant must have said to his neighbor: “Did you hear those frightful cries last night, about one o’clock? I thought there was surely a fire somewhere.”

A supper worthy of La Cognette brightened the faces of the twenty-two guests; for the whole Order was present. At two in the morning, as they were beginning to “siroter” (a word in the vocabulary of the Knights which admirably expresses the act of sipping and tasting the wine in small quantities), Max rose to speak:—

“My dear fellows! the honor of your grand master was grossly attacked this morning, after our memorable joke with Fario’s cart — attacked by a vile pedler, and what is more, a Spaniard (oh, Cabrera!); and I have resolved to make the scoundrel feel the weight of my vengeance; always, of course, within the limits we have laid down for our fun. After reflecting about it all day, I have found a trick which is worth putting into execution — a famous trick, that will drive him crazy. While avenging the insult offered to the Order in my person, we shall be feeding the sacred animals of the Egyptians — little beasts which are, after all, the creatures of God, and which man unjustly persecutes. Thus we see that good is the child of evil, and evil is the offspring of good; such is the paramount law of the universe! I now order you all, on pain of displeasing your very humble grand master, to procure clandestinely, each one of you, twenty rats, male or female as heaven pleases. Collect your contingent within three days. If you can get more, the surplus will be welcome. Keep the interesting rodents without food; for it is essential that the delightful little beasts be ravenous with hunger. Please observe that I will accept both house-mice and field-mice as rats. If we multiply twenty-two by twenty, we shall have four hundred; four hundred accomplices let loose in the old church of the Capuchins, where Fario has stored all his grain, will consume a not insignificant quantity! But be lively about it! There’s no time to lose. Fario is to deliver most of the grain to his customers in a week or so; and I am determined that that Spaniard shall find a terrible deficit. Gentlemen, I have not the merit of this invention,” continued Max, observing the signs of general admiration. “Render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s. My scheme is only a reproduction of Samson’s foxes, as related in the Bible. But Samson was an incendiary, and therefore no philanthropist; while we, like the Brahmins, are the protectors of a persecuted race. Mademoiselle Flore Brazier has already set all her mouse-traps, and Kouski, my right-arm, is hunting field-mice. I have spoken.”

“I know,” said Goddet, “where to find an animal that’s worth forty rats, himself alone.”

“What’s that?”

“A squirrel.”

“I offer a little monkey,” said one of the younger members, “he’ll make himself drunk on wheat.”

“Bad, very bad!” exclaimed Max, “it would show who put the beasts there.”

“But we might each catch a pigeon some night,” said young Beaussier, “taking them from different farms; if we put them through a hole in the roof, they’ll attract thousands of others.”

“So, then, for the next week, Fario’s storehouse is the order of the night,” cried Max, smiling at Beaussier. “Recollect; people get up early in Saint–Paterne. Mind, too, that none of you go there without turning the soles of your list shoes backward. Knight Beaussier, the inventor of pigeons, is made director. As for me, I shall take care to leave my imprint on the sacks of wheat. Gentlemen, you are, all of you, appointed to the commissariat of the Army of Rats. If you find a watchman sleeping in the church, you must manage to make him drunk, — and do it cleverly — so as to get him far away from the scene of the Rodents’ Orgy.”

“You don’t say anything about the Parisians?” questioned Goddet.

“Oh!” exclaimed Max, “I want time to study them. Meantime, I offer my best shotgun — the one the Emperor gave me, a treasure from the manufactory at Versailles — to whoever finds a way to play the Bridaus a trick which shall get them into difficulties with Madame and Monsieur Hochon, so that those worthy old people shall send them off, or they shall be forced to go of their own accord — without, understand me, injuring the venerable ancestors of my two friends here present, Baruch and Francois.”

“All right! I’ll think of it,” said Goddet, who coveted the gun.

“If the inventor of the trick doesn’t care for the gun, he shall have my horse,” added Max.

After this night twenty brains were tortured to lay a plot against Agathe and her son, on the basis of Max’s programme. But the devil alone, or chance, could really help them to success; for the conditions given made the thing well-nigh impossible.

The next morning Agathe and Joseph came downstairs just before the second breakfast, which took place at ten o’clock. In Monsieur Hochon’s household the name of first breakfast was given to a cup of milk and slice of bread and butter which was taken in bed, or when rising. While waiting for Madame Hochon, who notwithstanding her age went minutely through the ceremonies with which the duchesses of Louis XV.‘s time performed their toilette, Joseph noticed Jean–Jacques Rouget planted squarely on his feet at the door of his house across the street. He naturally pointed him out to his mother, who was unable to recognize her brother, so little did he look like what he was when she left him.

“That is your brother,” said Adolphine, who entered, giving an arm to her grandmother.

“What an idiot he looks like!” exclaimed Joseph.

Agathe clasped her hands, and raised her eyes to heaven.

“What a state they have driven him to! Good God! can that be a man only fifty-seven years old?”

She looked attentively at her brother, and saw Flore Brazier standing directly behind him, with her hair dressed, a pair of snowy shoulders and a dazzling bosom showing through a gauze neckerchief, which was trimmed with lace; she was wearing a dress with a tight-fitting waist, made of grenadine (a silk material then much in fashion), with leg-of-mutton sleeves so-called, fastened at the wrists by handsome bracelets. A gold chain rippled over the crab-girl’s bosom as she leaned forward to give Jean–Jacques his black silk cap lest he should take cold. The scene was evidently studied.

“Hey!” cried Joseph, “there’s a fine woman, and a rare one! She is made, as they say, to paint. What flesh-tints! Oh, the lovely tones! what surface! what curves! Ah, those shoulders! She’s a magnificent caryatide. What a model she would have been for one of Titians’ Venuses!”

Adolphine and Madame Hochon thought he was talking Greek; but Agathe signed to them behind his back, as if to say that she was accustomed to such jargon.

“So you think a creature who is depriving you of your property handsome?” said Madame Hochon.

“That doesn’t prevent her from being a splendid model! — just plump enough not to spoil the hips and the general contour —”

“My son, you are not in your studio,” said Agathe. “Adolphine is here.”

“Ah, true! I did wrong. But you must remember that ever since leaving Paris I have seen nothing but ugly women —”

“My dear godmother,” said Agathe hastily, “how shall I be able to meet my brother, if that creature is always with him?”

“Bah!” said Joseph. “I’ll go and see him myself. I don’t think him such an idiot, now I find he has the sense to rejoice his eyes with a Titian’s Venus.”

“If he were not an idiot,” said Monsieur Hochon, who had come in, “he would have married long ago and had children; and then you would have no chance at the property. It is an ill wind that blows no good.”

“Your son’s idea is very good,” said Madame Hochon; “he ought to pay the first visit. He can make his uncle understand that if you call there he must be alone.”

“That will affront Mademoiselle Brazier,” said old Hochon. “No, no, madame; swallow the pill. If you can’t get the whole property, secure a small legacy.”

The Hochons were not clever enough to match Max. In the middle of breakfast Kouski brought over a letter from Monsieur Rouget, addressed to his sister, Madame Bridau. Madame Hochon made her husband read it aloud, as follows:—

My dear Sister — I learn from strangers of your arrival in Issoudun. I can guess the reason which made you prefer the house of Monsieur and Madame Hochon to mine; but if you will come to see me you shall be received as you ought to be. I should certainly pay you the first visit if my health did not compel me just now to keep the house; for which I offer my affectionate regrets. I shall be delighted to see my nephew, whom I invite to dine with me tomorrow — young men are less sensitive than women about the company. It will give me pleasure if Messrs. Baruch Borniche and Francois Hochon will accompany him.

Your affectionate brother,

J.-J. Rouget.

“Say that we are at breakfast, but that Madame Bridau will send an answer presently, and the invitations are all accepted,” said Monsieur Hochon to the servant.

The old man laid a finger on his lips, to require silence from everybody. When the street-door was shut, Monsieur Hochon, little suspecting the intimacy between his grandsons and Max, threw one of his slyest looks at his wife and Agathe, remarking —

“He is just as capable of writing that note as I am of giving away twenty-five louis; it is the soldier who is corresponding with us!”

“What does that portend?” asked Madame Hochon. “Well, never mind; we will answer him. As for you, monsieur,” she added, turning to Joseph, “you must dine there; but if —”

The old lady was stopped short by a look from her husband. Knowing how warm a friendship she felt for Agathe, old Hochon was in dread lest she should leave some legacy to her goddaughter in case the latter lost the Rouget property. Though fifteen years older than his wife, the miser hoped to inherit her fortune, and to become eventually the sole master of their whole property. That hope was a fixed idea with him. Madame Hochon knew that the best means of obtaining a few concessions from her husband was to threaten him with her will. Monsieur Hochon now took sides with his guests. An enormous fortune was at stake; with a sense of social justice, he wished it to go to the natural heirs, instead of being pillaged by unworthy outsiders. Moreover, the sooner the matter was decided, the sooner he should get rid of his guests. Now that the struggle between the interlopers and the heirs, hitherto existing only in his wife’s mind, had become an actual fact, Monsieur Hochon’s keen intelligence, lulled to sleep by the monotony of provincial life, was fully roused. Madame Hochon had been agreeably surprised that morning to perceive, from a few affectionate words which the old man had said to her about Agathe, that so able and subtle an auxiliary was on the Bridau side.

Towards midday the brains of Monsieur and Madame Hochon, of Agathe, and Joseph (the latter much amazed at the scrupulous care of the old people in the choice of words), were delivered of the following answer, concocted solely for the benefit of Max and Flore:—

My dear Brother — If I have stayed away from Issoudun, and kept up no intercourse with any one, not even with you, the fault lies not merely with the strange and false ideas my father conceived about me, but with the joys and sorrows of my life in Paris; for if God made me a happy wife, he has also deeply afflicted me as a mother. You are aware that my son, your nephew Philippe, lies under accusation of a capital offence in consequence of his devotion to the Emperor. Therefore you can hardly be surprised if a widow, compelled to take a humble situation in a lottery-office for a living, should come to seek consolation from those among whom she was born.

The profession adopted by the son who accompanies me is one that requires great talent, many sacrifices, and prolonged studies before any results can be obtained. Glory for an artist precedes fortune; is not that to say that Joseph, though he may bring honor to the family, will still be poor? Your sister, my dear Jean–Jacques, would have borne in silence the penalties of paternal injustice, but you will pardon a mother for reminding you that you have two nephews; one of whom carried the Emperor’s orders at the battle of Montereau and served in the Guard at Waterloo, and is now in prison for his devotion to Napoleon; the other, from his thirteenth year, has been impelled by natural gifts to enter a difficult though glorious career.

I thank you for your letter, my dear brother, with heart-felt warmth, for my own sake, and also for Joseph’s, who will certainly accept your invitation. Illness excuses everything, my dear Jean–Jacques, and I shall therefore go to see you in your own house. A sister is always at home with a brother, no matter what may be the life he has adopted.

I embrace you tenderly.

Agathe Rouget

“There’s the matter started. Now, when you see him,” said Monsieur Hochon to Agathe, “you must speak plainly to him about his nephews.”

The letter was carried over by Gritte, who returned ten minutes later to render an account to her masters of all that she had seen and heard, according to a settled provincial custom.

“Since yesterday Madame has had the whole house cleaned up, which she left —”

“Whom do you mean by Madame?” asked old Hochon.

“That’s what they call the Rabouilleuse over there,” answered Gritte. “She left the salon and all Monsieur Rouget’s part of the house in a pitiable state; but since yesterday the rooms have been made to look like what they were before Monsieur Maxence went to live there. You can see your face on the floors. La Vedie told me that Kouski went off on horseback at five o’clock this morning, and came back at nine, bringing provisions. It is going to be a grand dinner! — a dinner fit for the archbishop of Bourges! There’s a fine bustle in the kitchen, and they are as busy as bees. The old man says, ‘I want to do honor to my nephew,’ and he pokes his nose into everything. It appears the Rougets are highly flattered by the letter. Madame came and told me so. Oh! she had on such a dress! I never saw anything so handsome in my life. Two diamonds in her ears! — two diamonds that cost, Vedie told me, three thousand francs apiece; and such lace! rings on her fingers, and bracelets! you’d think she was a shrine; and a silk dress as fine as an altar-cloth. So then she said to me, ‘Monsieur is delighted to find his sister so amiable, and I hope she will permit us to pay her all the attention she deserves. We shall count on her good opinion after the welcome we mean to give her son. Monsieur is very impatient to see his nephew.’ Madame had little black satin slippers; and her stockings! my! they were marvels — flowers in silk and openwork, just like lace, and you could see her rosy little feet through them. Oh! she’s in high feather, and she had a lovely little apron in front of her which, Vedie says, cost more than two years of our wages put together.”

“Well done! We shall have to dress up,” said the artist laughing.

“What do you think of all this, Monsieur Hochon?” said the old lady when Gritte had departed.

Madame Hochon made Agathe observe her husband, who was sitting with his head in his hands, his elbows on the arms of his chair, plunged in thought.

“You have to do with a Maitre Bonin!” said the old man at last. “With your ideas, young man,” he added, looking at Joseph, “you haven’t force enough to struggle with a practised scoundrel like Maxence Gilet. No matter what I say to you, you will commit some folly. But, at any rate, tell me everything you see, and hear, and do to-night. Go, and God be with you! Try to get alone with your uncle. If, in spite of all your genius, you can’t manage it, that in itself will throw some light upon their scheme. But if you do get a moment alone with him, out of ear-shot, damn it, you must pull the wool from his eyes as to the situation those two have put him in, and plead your mother’s cause.”

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