The Two Brothers, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter XVII

Lieutenant–Colonel Bridau returned to Paris, taking with him his aunt and the helpless Rouget, whom he escorted, three days after their arrival, to the Treasury, where Jean–Jacques signed the transfer of the income, which henceforth became Philippe’s. The exhausted old man and the Rabouilleuse were now plunged by their nephew into the excessive dissipations of the dangerous and restless society of actresses, journalists, artists, and the equivocal women among whom Philippe had already wasted his youth; where old Rouget found excitements that soon after killed him. Instigated by Giroudeau, Lolotte, one of the handsomest of the Opera ballet-girls, was the amiable assassin of the old man. Rouget died after a splendid supper at Florentine’s, and Lolotte threw the blame of his death upon a slice of pate de foie gras; as the Strasburg masterpiece could make no defence, it was considered settled that the old man died of indigestion.

Madame Rouget was in her element in the midst of this excessively decollete society; but Philippe gave her in charge of Mariette, and that monitress did not allow the widow — whose mourning was diversified with a few amusements — to commit any actual follies.

In October, 1823, Philippe returned to Issoudun, furnished with a power of attorney from his aunt, to liquidate the estate of his uncle; a business that was soon over, for he returned to Paris in March, 1824, with sixteen hundred thousand francs — the net proceeds of old Rouget’s property, not counting the precious pictures, which had never left Monsieur Hochon’s hands. Philippe put the whole property into the hands of Mongenod and Sons, where young Baruch Borniche was employed, and on whose solvency and business probity old Hochon had given him satisfactory assurances. This house took his sixteen hundred thousand francs at six per cent per annum, on condition of three months’ notice in case of the withdrawal of the money.

One fine day, Philippe went to see his mother, and invited her to be present at his marriage, which was witnessed by Giroudeau, Finot, Nathan, and Bixiou. By the terms of the marriage contract, the widow Rouget, whose portion of her late husband’s property amounted to a million of francs, secured to her future husband her whole fortune in case she died without children. No invitations to the wedding were sent out, nor any “billets de faire part”; Philippe had his designs. He lodged his wife in an appartement in the rue Saint–Georges, which he bought ready-furnished from Lolotte. Madame Bridau the younger thought it delightful, and her husband rarely set foot in it. Without her knowledge, Philippe purchased in the rue de Clichy, at a time when no one suspected the value which property in that quarter would one day acquire, a magnificent hotel for two hundred and fifty thousand francs; of which he paid one hundred and fifty thousand down, taking two years to pay the remainder. He spent large sums in altering the interior and furnishing it; in fact, he put his income for two years into this outlay. The pictures, now restored, and estimated at three hundred thousand francs, appeared in such surroundings in all their beauty.

The accession of Charles X. had brought into still greater court favor the family of the Duc de Chaulieu, whose eldest son, the Duc de Rhetore, was in the habit of seeing Philippe at Tullia’s. Under Charles X., the elder branch of the Bourbons, believing itself permanently seated on the throne, followed the advice previously given by Marshal Gouvion–Saint-Cyr to encourage the adherence of the soldiers of the Empire. Philippe, who had no doubt made invaluable revelations as to the conspiracies of 1820 and 1822, was appointed lieutenant-colonel in the regiment of the Duc de Maufrigneuse. That fascinating nobleman thought himself bound to protect the man from whom he had taken Mariette. The corps-deballet went for something, therefore, in the appointment. Moreover, it was decided in the private councils of Charles X., to give a faint tinge of liberalism to the surroundings of Monseigneur the Dauphin. Philippe, now a sort of equerry to the Duc de Maufrigneuse, was presented not only to the Dauphin, but also to the Dauphine, who was not averse to brusque and soldierly characters who had become noted for a past fidelity. Philippe thoroughly understood the part the Dauphin had to play; and he turned the first exhibition of that spurious liberalism to his own profit, by getting himself appointed aide-decamp to a marshal who stood well at court.

In January, 1827, Philippe, who was now promoted to the Royal Guard as lieutenant-colonel in a regiment then commanded by the Duc de Maufrigneuse, solicited the honor of being ennobled. Under the Restoration, nobility became a sort of perquisite to the “roturiers” who served in the Guard. Colonel Bridau had lately bought the estate of Brambourg, and he now asked to be allowed to entail it under the title of count. This favor was accorded through the influence of his many intimacies in the highest rank of society, where he now appeared in all the luxury of horses, carriages, and liveries; in short, with the surroundings of a great lord. As soon as he saw himself gazetted in the Almanack under the title of Comte de Brambourg, he began to frequent the house of a lieutenant-general of artillery, the Comte de Soulanges.

Insatiable in his wants, and backed by the mistresses of influential men, Philippe now solicited the honor of being one of the Dauphin’s aides-decamp. He had the audacity to say to the Dauphin that “an old soldier, wounded on many a battle-field and who knew real warfare, might, on occasion, be serviceable to Monseigneur.” Philippe, who could take the tone of all varieties of sycophancy, became in the regions of the highest social life exactly what the position required him to be; just as at Issoudun, he had copied the respectability of Mignonnet. He had, moreover, a fine establishment and gave fetes and dinners; admitting none of his old friends to his house if he thought their position in life likely to compromise his future. He was pitiless to the companions of his former debauches, and curtly refused Bixiou when that lively satirist asked him to say a word in favor of Giroudeau, who wanted to re-enter the army after the desertion of Florentine.

“The man has neither manners nor morals,” said Philippe.

“Ha! did he say that of me?” cried Giroudeau, “of me, who helped him to get rid of his uncle!”

“We’ll pay him off yet,” said Bixiou.

Philippe intended to marry Mademoiselle Amelie de Soulanges, and become a general, in command of a regiment of the Royal Guard. He asked so many favors that, to keep him quiet, they made him a Commander of the Legion of honor, and also Commander of the order of Saint Louis. One rainy evening, as Agathe and Joseph were returning home along the muddy streets, they met Philippe in full uniform, bedizened with orders, leaning back in a corner of a handsome coupe lined with yellow silk, whose armorial bearings were surmounted with a count’s coronet. He was on his way to a fete at the Elysee–Bourbon; the wheels splashed his mother and brother as he waved them a patronizing greeting.

“He’s going it, that fellow!” said Joseph to his mother. “Nevertheless, he might send us something better than mud in our faces.”

“He has such a fine position, in such high society, that we ought not to blame him for forgetting us,” said Madame Bridau. “When a man rises to so great a height, he has many obligations to repay, many sacrifices to make; it is natural he should not come to see us, though he may think of us all the same.”

“My dear fellow,” said the Duc de Maufrigneuse one evening, to the new Comte de Brambourg, “I am sure that your addresses will be favorably received; but in order to marry Amelie de Soulanges, you must be free to do so. What have you done with your wife?”

“My wife?” said Philippe, with a gesture, look, and accent which Frederick Lemaitre was inspired to use in one of his most terrible parts. “Alas! I have the melancholy certainty of losing her. She has not a week to live. My dear duke, you don’t know what it is to marry beneath you. A woman who was a cook, and has the tastes of a cook! who dishonors me — ah! I am much to be pitied. I have had the honor to explain my position to Madame la Dauphine. At the time of the marriage, it was a question of saving to the family a million of francs which my uncle had left by will to that person. Happily, my wife took to drinking; at her death, I come into possession of that million, which is now in the hands of Mongenod and Sons. I have thirty thousand francs a year in the five per cents, and my landed property, which is entailed, brings me in forty thousand more. If, as I am led to suppose, Monsieur de Soulanges gets a marshal’s baton, I am on the high-road with my title of Comte de Brambourg, to becoming general and peer of France. That will be the proper end of an aide-decamp of the Dauphin.”

After the Salon of 1823, one of the leading painters of the day, a most excellent man, obtained the management of a lottery-office near the Markets, for the mother of Joseph Bridau. Agathe was fortunately able, soon after, to exchange it on equal terms with the incumbent of another office, situated in the rue de Seine, in a house where Joseph was able to have his atelier. The widow now hired an agent herself, and was no longer an expense to her son. And yet, as late as 1828, though she was the directress of an excellent office which she owed entirely to Joseph’s fame, Madame Bridau still had no belief in that fame, which was hotly contested, as all true glory ever will be. The great painter, struggling with his genius, had enormous wants; he did not earn enough to pay for the luxuries which his relations to society, and his distinguished position in the young School of Art demanded. Though powerfully sustained by his friends of the Cenacle and by Mademoiselle des Touches, he did not please the Bourgeois. That being, from whom comes the money of these days, never unties its purse-strings for genius that is called in question; unfortunately, Joseph had the classics and the Institute, and the critics who cry up those two powers, against him. The brave artist, though backed by Gros and Gerard, by whose influence he was decorated after the Salon of 1827, obtained few orders. If the ministry of the interior and the King’s household were with difficulty induced to buy some of his greatest pictures, the shopkeepers and the rich foreigners noticed them still less. Moreover, Joseph gave way rather too much, as we must all acknowledge, to imaginative fancies, and that produced a certain inequality in his work which his enemies made use of to deny his talent.

“High art is at a low ebb,” said his friend Pierre Grassou, who made daubs to suit the taste of the bourgeoisie, in whose appartements fine paintings were at a discount.

“You ought to have a whole cathedral to decorate; that’s what you want,” declared Schinner; “then you would silence criticism with a master-stroke.”

Such speeches, which alarmed the good Agathe, only corroborated the judgment she had long since formed upon Philippe and Joseph. Facts sustained that judgment in the mind of a woman who had never ceased to be a provincial. Philippe, her favorite child, was he not the great man of the family at last? in his early errors she saw only the ebullitions of youth. Joseph, to the merit of whose productions she was insensible, for she saw them too long in process of gestation to admire them when finished, seemed to her no more advanced in 1828 than he was in 1816. Poor Joseph owed money, and was bowed down by the burden of debt; he had chosen, she felt, a worthless career that made him no return. She could not conceive why they had given him the cross of the Legion of honor. Philippe, on the other hand, rich enough to cease gambling, a guest at the fetes of Madame, the brilliant colonel who at all reviews and in all processions appeared before her eyes in splendid uniforms, with his two crosses on his breast, realized all her maternal dreams. One such day of public ceremony effaced from Agathe’s mind the horrible sight of Philippe’s misery on the Quai de l’Ecole; on that day he passed his mother at the self-same spot, in attendance on the Dauphin, with plumes in his shako, and his pelisse gorgeous with gold and fur. Agathe, who to her artist son was now a sort of devoted gray sister, felt herself the mother of none but the dashing aide-decamp to his Royal Highness, the Dauphin of France. Proud of Philippe, she felt he made the ease and happiness of her life — forgetting that the lottery-office, by which she was enabled to live at all, came through Joseph.

One day Agathe noticed that her poor artist was more worried than usual by the bill of his color-man, and she determined, though cursing his profession in her heart, to free him from his debts. The poor woman kept the house with the proceeds of her office, and took care never to ask Joseph for a farthing. Consequently she had no money of her own; but she relied on Philippe’s good heart and well-filled purse. For three years she had waited in expectation of his coming to see her; she now imagined that if she made an appeal to him he would bring some enormous sum; and her thoughts dwelt on the happiness she should feel in giving it to Joseph, whose judgment of his brother, like that of Madame Descoings, was so unfair.

Saying nothing to Joseph, she wrote the following letter to Philippe:—

To Monsieur le comte de Brambourg:

My dear Philippe — You have not given the least little word of remembrance to your mother for five years. That is not right. You should remember the past, if only for the sake of your excellent brother. Joseph is now in need of money, and you are floating in wealth; he works, while you are flying from fete to fete. You now possess, all to yourself, the property of my brother. Little Borniche tells me you cannot have less than two hundred thousand francs a year. Well, then, come and see Joseph. During your visit, slip into the skull a few thousand-franc notes. Philippe, you owe them to us; nevertheless, your brother will feel grateful to you, not to speak of the happiness you will give

Your mother,

Agathe Bridau, nee Rouget

Two days later the concierge brought to the atelier, where poor Agathe was breakfasting with Joseph, the following terrible letter:—

My dear Mother — A man does not marry a Mademoiselle Amelie de Soulanges without the purse of Fortunatus, if under the name of Comte de Brambourg he hides that of

Your son,

Philippe Bridau

As Agathe fell half-fainting on the sofa, the letter dropped to the floor. The slight noise made by the paper, and the smothered but dreadful exclamation which escaped Agathe startled Joseph, who had forgotten his mother for a moment and was vehemently rubbing in a sketch; he leaned his head round the edge of his canvas to see what had happened. The sight of his mother stretched out on the floor made him drop palette and brushes, and rush to lift what seemed a lifeless body. He took Agathe in his arms and carried her to her own bed, and sent the servant for his friend Horace Bianchon. As soon as he could question his mother she told him of her letter to Philippe, and of the answer she had received from him. The artist went to his atelier and picked up the letter, whose concise brutality had broken the tender heart of the poor mother, and shattered the edifice of trust her maternal preference had erected. When Joseph returned to her bedside he had the good feeling to be silent. He did not speak of his brother in the three weeks during which — we will not say the illness, but — the death agony of the poor woman lasted. Bianchon, who came every day and watched his patient with the devotion of a true friend, told Joseph the truth on the first day of her seizure.

“At her age,” he said, “and under the circumstances which have happened to her, all we can hope to do is to make her death as little painful as possible.”

She herself felt so surely called of God that she asked the next day for the religious help of old Abbe Loraux, who had been her confessor for more than twenty-two years. As soon as she was alone with him, and had poured her griefs into his heart, she said — as she had said to Madame Hochon, and had repeated to herself again and again throughout her life:—

“What have I done to displease God? Have I not loved Him with all my soul? Have I wandered from the path of grace? What is my sin? Can I be guilty of wrong when I know not what it is? Have I the time to repair it?”

“No,” said the old man, in a gentle voice. “Alas! your life seems to have been pure and your soul spotless; but the eye of God, poor afflicted creature, is keener than that of his ministers. I see the truth too late; for you have misled even me.”

Hearing these words from lips that had never spoken other than peaceful and pleasant words to her, Agathe rose suddenly in her bed and opened her eyes wide, with terror and distress.

“Tell me! tell me!” she cried.

“Be comforted,” said the priest. “Your punishment is a proof that you will receive pardon. God chastens his elect. Woe to those whose misdeeds meet with fortunate success; they will be kneaded again in humanity until they in their turn are sorely punished for simple errors, and are brought to the maturity of celestial fruits. Your life, my daughter, has been one long error. You have fallen into the pit which you dug for yourself; we fail ever on the side we have ourselves weakened. You gave your heart to an unnatural son, in whom you made your glory, and you have misunderstood the child who is your true glory. You have been so deeply unjust that you never even saw the striking contrast between the brothers. You owe the comfort of your life to Joseph, while your other son has pillaged you repeatedly. The poor son, who loves you with no return of equal tenderness, gives you all the comfort that your life has had; the rich son, who never thinks of you, despises you and desires your death —”

“Oh! no,” she cried.

“Yes,” resumed the priest, “your humble position stands in the way of his proud hopes. Mother, these are your sins! Woman, your sorrows and your anguish foretell that you shall know the peace of God. Your son Joseph is so noble that his tenderness has never been lessened by the injustice your maternal preferences have done him. Love him now; give him all your heart during your remaining days; pray for him, as I shall pray for you.”

The eyes of the mother, opened by so firm a hand, took in with one retrospective glance the whole course of her life. Illumined by this flash of light, she saw her involuntary wrong-doing and burst into tears. The old priest was so deeply moved at the repentance of a being who had sinned solely through ignorance, that he left the room hastily lest she should see his pity.

Joseph returned to his mother’s room about two hours after her confessor had left her. He had been to a friend to borrow the necessary money to pay his most pressing debts, and he came in on tiptoe, thinking that his mother was asleep. He sat down in an armchair without her seeing him; but he sprang up with a cold chill running through him as he heard her say, in a voice broken with sobs —

“Will he forgive me?”

“What is it, mother?” he exclaimed, shocked at the stricken face of the poor woman, and thinking the words must mean the delirium that precedes death.

“Ah, Joseph! can you pardon me, my child?” she cried.

“For what?” he said.

“I have never loved you as you deserved to be loved.”

“Oh, what an accusation!” he cried. “Not loved me? For seven years have we not lived alone together? All these seven years have you not taken care of me and done everything for me? Do I not see you every day — hear your voice? Are you not the gentle and indulgent companion of my miserable life? You don’t understand painting? — Ah! but that’s a gift not always given. I was saying to Grassou only yesterday: ‘What comforts me in the midst of my trials is that I have such a good mother. She is all that an artist’s wife should be; she sees to everything; she takes care of my material wants without ever troubling or worrying me.’”

“No, Joseph, no; you have loved me, but I have not returned you love for love. Ah! would that I could live a little longer — Give me your hand.”

Agathe took her son’s hand, kissed it, held it on her heart, and looked in his face a long time — letting him see the azure of her eyes resplendent with a tenderness she had hitherto bestowed on Philippe only. The painter, well fitted to judge of expression, was so struck by the change, and saw so plainly how the heart of his mother had opened to him, that he took her in his arms, and held her for some moments to his heart, crying out like one beside himself — “My mother! oh, my mother!”

“Ah! I feel that I am forgiven!” she said. “God will confirm the child’s pardon of its mother.”

“You must be calm: don’t torment yourself; hear me. I feel myself loved enough in this one moment for all the past,” he said, as he laid her back upon the pillows.

During the two weeks’ struggle between life and death, there glowed such love in every look and gesture and impulse of the soul of the pious creature, that each effusion of her feelings seemed like the expression of a lifetime. The mother thought only of her son; she herself counted for nothing; sustained by love, she was unaware of her sufferings. D’Arthez, Michel Chrestien, Fulgence Ridal, Pierre Grassou, and Bianchon often kept Joseph company, and she heard them talking art in a low voice in a corner of her room.

“Oh, how I wish I knew what color is!” she exclaimed one evening as she heard them discussing one of Joseph’s pictures.

Joseph, on his side, was sublimely devoted to his mother. He never left her chamber; answered tenderness by tenderness, cherishing her upon his heart. The spectacle was never afterwards forgotten by his friends; and they themselves, a band of brothers in talent and nobility of nature, were to Joseph and his mother all that they should have been — friends who prayed, and truly wept; not saying prayers and shedding tears, but one with their friend in thought and action. Joseph, inspired as much by feeling as by genius, divined in the occasional expression of his mother’s face a desire that was deep hidden in her heart, and he said one day to d’Arthez —

“She has loved that brigand Philippe too well not to want to see him before she dies.”

Joseph begged Bixiou, who frequented the Bohemian regions where Philippe was still occasionally to be found, to persuade that shameless son to play, if only out of pity, a little comedy of tenderness which might wrap the mother’s heart in a winding-sheet of illusive happiness. Bixiou, in his capacity as an observing and misanthropical scoffer, desired nothing better than to undertake such a mission. When he had made known Madame Bridau’s condition to the Comte de Brambourg, who received him in a bedroom hung with yellow damask, the colonel laughed.

“What the devil do you want me to do there?” he cried. “The only service the poor woman can render me is to die as soon as she can; she would be rather a sorry figure at my marriage with Mademoiselle de Soulanges. The less my family is seen, the better my position. You can easily understand that I should like to bury the name of Bridau under all the monuments in Pere–Lachaise. My brother irritates me by bringing the name into publicity. You are too knowing not to see the situation as I do. Look at it as if it were your own: if you were a deputy, with a tongue like yours, you would be as much feared as Chauvelin; you would be made Comte Bixiou, and director of the Beaux–Arts. Once there, how should you like it if your grandmother Descoings were to turn up? Would you want that worthy woman, who looked like a Madame Saint–Leon, to be hanging on to you? Would you give her an arm in the Tuileries, and present her to the noble family you were trying to enter? Damn it, you’d wish her six feet under ground, in a leaden night-gown. Come, breakfast with me, and let us talk of something else. I am a parvenu, my dear fellow, and I know it. I don’t choose that my swaddling-clothes shall be seen. My son will be more fortunate than I; he will be a great lord. The scamp will wish me dead; I expect it — or he won’t be my son.”

He rang the bell, and ordered the servant to serve breakfast.

“The fashionable world wouldn’t see you in your mother’s bedroom,” said Bixiou. “What would it cost you to seem to love that poor woman for a few hours?”

“Whew!” cried Philippe, winking. “So you come from them, do you? I’m an old camel, who knows all about genuflections. My mother makes the excuse of her last illness to get something out of me for Joseph. No, thank you!”

When Bixiou related this scene to Joseph, the poor painter was chilled to the very soul.

“Does Philippe know I am ill?” asked Agathe in a piteous tone, the day after Bixiou had rendered an account of his fruitless errand.

Joseph left the room, suffocating with emotion. The Abbe Loraux, who was sitting by the bedside of his penitent, took her hand and pressed it, and then he answered, “Alas! my child, you have never had but one son.”

The words, which Agathe understood but too well, conveyed a shock which was the beginning of the end. She died twenty hours later.

In the delirium which preceded death, the words, “Whom does Philippe take after?” escaped her.

Joseph followed his mother to the grave alone. Philippe had gone, on business it was said, to Orleans; in reality, he was driven from Paris by the following letter, which Joseph wrote to him a moment after their mother had breathed her last sigh:—

Monster! my poor mother has died of the shock your letter caused her. Wear mourning, but pretend illness; I will not suffer her assassin to stand at my side before her coffin.

Joseph B.

The painter, who no longer had the heart to paint, though his bitter grief sorely needed the mechanical distraction which labor is wont to give, was surrounded by friends who agreed with one another never to leave him entirely alone. Thus it happened that Bixiou, who loved Joseph as much as a satirist can love any one, was sitting in the atelier with a group of other friends about two weeks after Agathe’s funeral. The servant entered with a letter, brought by an old woman, she said, who was waiting below for the answer.

Monsieur — To you, whom I scarcely dare to call my brother, I am forced to address myself, if only on account of the name I bear. —

Joseph turned the page and read the signature. The name “Comtesse Flore de Brambourg” made him shudder. He foresaw some new atrocity on the part of his brother.

“That brigand,” he cried, “is the devil’s own. And he calls himself a man of honor! And he wears a lot of crosses on his breast! And he struts about at court instead of being bastinadoed! And the scoundrel is called Monsieur le Comte!”

“There are many like him,” said Bixiou.

“After all,” said Joseph, “the Rabouilleuse deserves her fate, whatever it is. She is not worth pitying; she’d have had my neck wrung like a chicken’s without so much as saying, ‘He’s innocent.’”

Joseph flung away the letter, but Bixiou caught it in the air, and read it aloud, as follows:—

Is it decent that the Comtesse Bridau de Brambourg should die in a hospital, no matter what may have been her faults? If such is to be my fate, if such is your determination and that of monsieur le comte, so be it; but if so, will you, who are the friend of Doctor Bianchon, ask him for a permit to let me enter a hospital?

The person who carries this letter has been eleven consecutive days to the hotel de Brambourg, rue de Clichy, without getting any help from my husband. The poverty in which I now am prevents my employing a lawyer to make a legal demand for what is due to me, that I may die with decency. Nothing can save me, I know that. In case you are unwilling to see your unhappy sister-inlaw, send me, at least, the money to end my days. Your brother desires my death; he has always desired it. He warned me that he knew three ways of killing a woman, but I had not the sense to foresee the one he has employed.

In case you will consent to relieve me, and judge for yourself the misery in which I now am, I live in the rue du Houssay, at the corner of the rue Chantereine, on the fifth floor. If I cannot pay my rent tomorrow I shall be put out — and then, where can I go? May I call myself,

Your sister-inlaw,

Comtesse Flore de Brambourg.

“What a pit of infamy!” cried Joseph; “there is something under it all.”

“Let us send for the woman who brought the letter; we may get the preface of the story,” said Bixiou.

The woman presently appeared, looking, as Bixiou observed, like perambulating rags. She was, in fact, a mass of old gowns, one on top of another, fringed with mud on account of the weather, the whole mounted on two thick legs with heavy feet which were ill-covered by ragged stockings and shoes from whose cracks the water oozed upon the floor. Above the mound of rags rose a head like those that Charlet has given to his scavenger-women, caparisoned with a filthy bandanna handkerchief slit in the folds.

“What is your name?” said Joseph, while Bixiou sketched her, leaning on an umbrella belonging to the year II. of the Republic.

“Madame Gruget, at your service. I’ve seen better days, my young gentleman,” she said to Bixiou, whose laugh affronted her. “If my poor girl hadn’t had the ill-luck to love some one too much, you wouldn’t see me what I am. She drowned herself in the river, my poor Ida, — saving your presence! I’ve had the folly to nurse up a quaterne, and that’s why, at seventy-seven years of age, I’m obliged to take care of sick folks for ten sous a day, and go —”

“— without clothes?” said Bixiou. “My grandmother nursed up a trey, but she dressed herself properly.”

“Out of my ten sous I have to pay for a lodging —”

“What’s the matter with the lady you are nursing?”

“In the first place, she hasn’t got any money; and then she has a disease that scares the doctors. She owes me for sixty days’ nursing; that’s why I keep on nursing her. The husband, who is a count — she is really a countess — will no doubt pay me when she is dead; and so I’ve lent her all I had. And now I haven’t anything; all I did have has gone to the pawn-brokers. She owes me forty-seven francs and twelve sous, beside thirty francs for the nursing. She wants to kill herself with charcoal. I tell her it ain’t right; and, indeed, I’ve had to get the concierge to look after her while I’m gone, or she’s likely to jump out of the window.”

“But what’s the matter with her?” said Joseph.

“Ah! monsieur, the doctor from the Sisters’ hospital came; but as to the disease,” said Madame Gruget, assuming a modest air, “he told me she must go to the hospital. The case is hopeless.”

“Let us go and see her,” said Bixiou.

“Here,” said Joseph to the woman, “take these ten francs.”

Plunging his hand into the skull and taking out all his remaining money, the painter called a coach from the rue Mazarin and went to find Bianchon, who was fortunately at home. Meantime Bixiou went off at full speed to the rue de Bussy, after Desroches. The four friends reached Flore’s retreat in the rue du Houssay an hour later.

“That Mephistopheles on horseback, named Philippe Bridau,” said Bixiou, as they mounted the staircase, “has sailed his boat cleverly to get rid of his wife. You know our old friend Lousteau? well, Philippe paid him a thousand francs a month to keep Madame Bridau in the society of Florine, Mariette, Tullia, and the Val–Noble. When Philippe saw his crab-girl so used to pleasure and dress that she couldn’t do without them, he stopped paying the money, and left her to get it as she could — it is easy to know how. By the end of eighteen months, the brute had forced his wife, stage by stage, lower and lower; till at last, by the help of a young officer, he gave her a taste for drinking. As he went up in the world, his wife went down; and the countess is now in the mud. The girl, bred in the country, has a strong constitution. I don’t know what means Philippe has lately taken to get rid of her. I am anxious to study this precious little drama, for I am determined to avenge Joseph here. Alas, friends,” he added, in a tone which left his three companions in doubt whether he was jesting or speaking seriously, “give a man over to a vice and you’ll get rid of him. Didn’t Hugo say: ‘She loved a ball, and died of it’? So it is. My grandmother loved the lottery. Old Rouget loved a loose life, and Lolotte killed him. Madame Bridau, poor woman, loved Philippe, and perished of it. Vice! vice! my dear friends, do you want to know what vice is? It is the Bonneau of death.”

“Then you’ll die of a joke,” said Desroches, laughing.

Above the fourth floor, the young men were forced to climb one of the steep, straight stairways that are almost ladders, by which the attics of Parisian houses are often reached. Though Joseph, who remembered Flore in all her beauty, expected to see some frightful change, he was not prepared for the hideous spectacle which now smote his artist’s eye. In a room with bare, unpapered walls, under the sharp pitch of an attic roof, on a cot whose scanty mattress was filled, perhaps, with refuse cotton, a woman lay, green as a body that has been drowned two days, thin as a consumptive an hour before death. This putrid skeleton had a miserable checked handkerchief bound about her head, which had lost its hair. The circle round the hollow eyes was red, and the eyelids were like the pellicle of an egg. Nothing remained of the body, once so captivating, but an ignoble, bony structure. As Flore caught sight of the visitors, she drew across her breast a bit of muslin which might have been a fragment of a window-curtain, for it was edged with rust as from a rod. The young men saw two chairs, a broken bureau on which was a tallow-candle stuck into a potato, a few dishes on the floor, and an earthen fire-pot in a corner of the chimney, in which there was no fire; this was all the furniture of the room. Bixiou noticed the remaining sheets of writing-paper, brought from some neighboring grocery for the letter which the two women had doubtless concocted together. The word “disgusting” is a positive to which no superlative exists, and we must therefore use it to convey the impression caused by this sight. When the dying woman saw Joseph approaching her, two great tears rolled down her cheeks.

“She can still weep!” whispered Bixiou. “A strange sight — tears from dominos! It is like the miracle of Moses.”

“How burnt up!” cried Joseph.

“In the fires of repentance,” said Flore. “I cannot get a priest; I have nothing, not even a crucifix, to help me see God. Ah, monsieur!” she cried, raising her arms, that were like two pieces of carved wood, “I am a guilty woman; but God never punished any one as he has punished me! Philippe killed Max, who advised me to do dreadful things, and now he has killed me. God uses him as a scourge!”

“Leave me alone with her,” said Bianchon, “and let me find out if the disease is curable.”

“If you cure her, Philippe Bridau will die of rage,” said Desroches. “I am going to draw up a statement of the condition in which we have found his wife. He has not brought her before the courts as an adulteress, and therefore her rights as a wife are intact: he shall have the shame of a suit. But first, we must remove the Comtesse de Brambourg to the private hospital of Doctor Dubois, in the rue du Faubourg–Saint-Denis. She will be well cared for there. Then I will summon the count for the restoration of the conjugal home.”

“Bravo, Desroches!” cried Bixiou. “What a pleasure to do so much good that will make some people feel so badly!”

Ten minutes later, Bianchon came down and joined them.

“I am going straight to Despleins,” he said. “He can save the woman by an operation. Ah! he will take good care of the case, for her abuse of liquor has developed a magnificent disease which was thought to be lost.”

“Wag of a mangler! Isn’t there but one disease in life?” cried Bixiou.

But Bianchon was already out of sight, so great was his haste to tell Despleins the wonderful news. Two hours later, Joseph’s miserable sister-inlaw was removed to the decent hospital established by Doctor Dubois, which was afterward bought of him by the city of Paris. Three weeks later, the “Hospital Gazette” published an account of one of the boldest operations of modern surgery, on a case designated by the initials “F. B.” The patient died — more from the exhaustion produced by misery and starvation than from the effects of the treatment.

No sooner did this occur, than the Comte de Brambourg went, in deep mourning, to call on the Comte de Soulanges, and inform him of the sad loss he had just sustained. Soon after, it was whispered about in the fashionable world that the Comte de Soulanges would shortly marry his daughter to a parvenu of great merit, who was about to be appointed brigadier-general and receive command of a regiment of the Royal Guard. De Marsay told this news to Eugene de Rastignac, as they were supping together at the Rocher de Cancale, where Bixiou happened to be.

“It shall not take place!” said the witty artist to himself.

Among the many old friends whom Philippe now refused to recognize, there were some, like Giroudeau, who were unable to revenge themselves; but it happened that he had wounded Bixiou, who, thanks to his brilliant qualities, was everywhere received, and who never forgave an insult. One day at the Rocher de Cancale, before a number of well-bred persons who were supping there, Philippe had replied to Bixiou, who spoke of visiting him at the hotel de Brambourg: “You can come and see me when you are made a minister.”

“Am I to turn Protestant before I can visit you?” said Bixiou, pretending to misunderstand the speech; but he said to himself, “You may be Goliath, but I have got my sling, and plenty of stones.”

The next day he went to an actor, who was one of his friends, and metamorphosed himself, by the all-powerful aid of dress, into a secularized priest with green spectacles; then he took a carriage and drove to the hotel de Soulanges. Received by the count, on sending in a message that he wanted to speak with him on a matter of serious importance, he related in a feigned voice the whole story of the dead countess, the secret particulars of whose horrible death had been confided to him by Bianchon; the history of Agathe’s death; the history of old Rouget’s death, of which the Comte de Brambourg had openly boasted; the history of Madame Descoings’s death; the history of the theft from the newspaper; and the history of Philippe’s private morals during his early days.

“Monsieur le comte, don’t give him your daughter until you have made every inquiry; interrogate his former comrades — Bixiou, Giroudeau, and others.”

Three months later, the Comte de Brambourg gave a supper to du Tillet, Nucingen, Eugene de Rastignac, Maxime de Trailles, and Henri de Marsay. The amphitryon accepted with much nonchalance the half-consolatory condolences they made to him as to his rupture with the house of Soulanges.

“You can do better,” said Maxime de Trailles.

“How much money must a man have to marry a demoiselle de Grandlieu?” asked Philippe of de Marsay.

“You? They wouldn’t give you the ugliest of the six for less than ten millions,” answered de Marsay insolently.

“Bah!” said Rastignac. “With an income of two hundred thousand francs you can have Mademoiselle de Langeais, the daughter of the marquis; she is thirty years old, and ugly, and she hasn’t a sou; that ought to suit you.”

“I shall have ten millions two years from now,” said Philippe Bridau.

“It is now the 16th of January, 1829,” cried du Tillet, laughing. “I have been hard at work for ten years and I have not made as much as that yet.”

“We’ll take counsel of each other,” said Bridau; “you shall see how well I understand finance.”

“How much do you really own?” asked Nucingen.

“Three millions, excluding my house and my estate, which I shall not sell; in fact, I cannot, for the property is now entailed and goes with the title.”

Nucingen and du Tillet looked at each other; after that sly glance du Tillet said to Philippe, “My dear count, I shall be delighted to do business with you.”

De Marsay intercepted the look du Tillet had exchanged with Nucingen, and which meant, “We will have those millions.” The two bank magnates were at the centre of political affairs, and could, at a given time, manipulate matters at the Bourse, so as to play a sure game against Philippe, when the probabilities might all seem for him and yet be secretly against him.

The occasion came. In July, 1830, du Tillet and Nucingen had helped the Comte de Brambourg to make fifteen hundred thousand francs; he could therefore feel no distrust of those who had given him such good advice. Philippe, who owed his rise to the Restoration, was misled by his profound contempt for “civilians”; he believed in the triumph of the Ordonnances, and was bent on playing for a rise; du Tillet and Nucingen, who were sure of a revolution, played against him for a fall. The crafty pair confirmed the judgment of the Comte de Brambourg and seemed to share his convictions; they encouraged his hopes of doubling his millions, and apparently took steps to help him. Philippe fought like a man who had four millions depending on the issue of the struggle. His devotion was so noticeable, that he received orders to go to Saint–Cloud with the Duc de Maufrigneuse and attend a council. This mark of favor probably saved Philippe’s life; for when the order came, on the 25th of July, he was intending to make a charge and sweep the boulevards, when he would undoubtedly have been shot down by his friend Giroudeau, who commanded a division of the assailants.

A month later, nothing was left of Colonel Bridau’s immense fortune but his house and furniture, his estates, and the pictures which had come from Issoudun. He committed the still further folly, as he said himself, of believing in the restoration of the elder branch, to which he remained faithful until 1834. The not imcomprehensible jealousy Philippe felt on seeing Giroudeau a colonel drove him to re-enter the service. Unluckily for himself, he obtained, in 1835, the command of a regiment in Algiers, where he remained three years in a post of danger, always hoping for the epaulets of a general. But some malignant influence — that, in fact, of General Giroudeau — continually balked him. Grown hard and brutal, Philippe exceeded the ordinary severity of the service, and was hated, in spite of his bravery a la Murat.

At the beginning of the fatal year 1839, while making a sudden dash upon the Arabs during a retreat before superior forces, he flung himself against the enemy, followed by only a single company, and fell in, unfortunately, with the main body of the enemy. The battle was bloody and terrible, man to man, and only a few horsemen escaped alive. Seeing that their colonel was surrounded, these men, who were at some distance, were unwilling to perish uselessly in attempting to rescue him. They heard his cry: “Your colonel! to me! a colonel of the Empire!” but they rejoined the regiment. Philippe met with a horrible death, for the Arabs, after hacking him to pieces with their scimitars, cut off his head.

Joseph, who was married about this time, through the good offices of the Comte de Serizy, to the daughter of a millionaire farmer, inherited his brother’s house in Paris and the estate of Brambourg, in consequence of the entail, which Philippe, had he foreseen this result, would certainly have broken. The chief pleasure the painter derived from his inheritance was in the fine collection of paintings from Issoudun. He now possesses an income of sixty thousand francs, and his father-inlaw, the farmer, continues to pile up the five-franc pieces. Though Joseph Bridau paints magnificent pictures, and renders important services to artists, he is not yet a member of the Institute. As the result of a clause in the deed of entail, he is now Comte de Brambourg, a fact which often makes him roar with laughter among his friends in the atelier.

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