The Illustrious Gaudissart, by Honoré de Balzac

Chapter III

Five days later Gaudissart started from the Hotel des Faisans, at which he had put up in Tours, and went to Vouvray, a rich and populous district where the public mind seemed to him susceptible of cultivation. Mounted upon his horse, he trotted along the embankment thinking no more of his phrases than an actor thinks of his part which he has played for a hundred times. It was thus that the illustrious Gaudissart went his cheerful way, admiring the landscape, and little dreaming that in the happy valleys of Vouvray his commercial infallibility was about to perish.

Here a few remarks upon the public mind of Touraine are essential to our story. The subtle, satirical, epigrammatic tale-telling spirit stamped on every page of Rabelais is the faithful expression of the Tourangian mind — a mind polished and refined as it should be in a land where the kings of France long held their court; ardent, artistic, poetic, voluptuous, yet whose first impulses subside quickly. The softness of the atmosphere, the beauty of the climate, a certain ease of life and joviality of manners, smother before long the sentiment of art, narrow the widest heart, and enervate the strongest will. Transplant the Tourangian, and his fine qualities develop and lead to great results, as we may see in many spheres of action: look at Rabelais and Semblancay, Plantin the printer and Descartes, Boucicault, the Napoleon of his day, and Pinaigrier, who painted most of the colored glass in our cathedrals; also Verville and Courier. But the Tourangian, distinguished though he may be in other regions, sits in his own home like an Indian on his mat or a Turk on his divan. He employs his wit in laughing at his neighbor and in making merry all his days; and when at last he reaches the end of his life, he is still a happy man. Touraine is like the Abbaye of Theleme, so vaunted in the history of Gargantua. There we may find the complying sisterhoods of that famous tale, and there the good cheer celebrated by Rabelais reigns in glory.

As to the do-nothingness of that blessed land it is sublime and well expressed in a certain popular legend: “Tourangian, are you hungry, do you want some soup?” “Yes.” “Bring your porringer.” “Then I am not hungry.” Is it to the joys of the vineyard and the harmonious loveliness of this garden land of France, is it to the peace and tranquillity of a region where the step of an invader has never trodden, that we owe the soft compliance of these unconstrained and easy manners? To such questions no answer. Enter this Turkey of sunny France, and you will stay there — lazy, idle, happy. You may be as ambitious as Napoleon, as poetic as Lord Byron, and yet a power unknown, invisible, will compel you to bury your poetry within your soul and turn your projects into dreams.

The illustrious Gaudissart was fated to encounter here in Vouvray one of those indigenous jesters whose jests are not intolerable solely because they have reached the perfection of the mocking art. Right or wrong, the Tourangians are fond of inheriting from their parents. Consequently the doctrines of Saint–Simon were especially hated and villified among them. In Touraine hatred and villification take the form of superb disdain and witty maliciousness worthy of the land of good stories and practical jokes — a spirit which, alas! is yielding, day by day, to that other spirit which Lord Byron has characterized as “English cant.”

For his sins, after getting down at the Soleil d’Or, an inn kept by a former grenadier of the imperial guard named Mitouflet, married to a rich widow, the illustrious traveller, after a brief consultation with the landlord, betook himself to the knave of Vouvray, the jovial merry-maker, the comic man of the neighborhood, compelled by fame and nature to supply the town with merriment. This country Figaro was once a dyer, and now possessed about seven or eight thousand francs a year, a pretty house on the slope of the hill, a plump little wife, and robust health. For ten years he had had nothing to do but take care of his wife and his garden, marry his daughter, play whist in the evenings, keep the run of all the gossip in the neighborhood, meddle with the elections, squabble with the large proprietors, and order good dinners; or else trot along the embankment to find out what was going on in Tours, torment the cure, and finally, by way of dramatic entertainment, assist at the sale of lands in the neighborhood of his vineyards. In short, he led the true Tourangian life — the life of a little country-townsman. He was, moreover, an important member of the bourgeoisie — a leader among the small proprietors, all of them envious, jealous, delighted to catch up and retail gossip and calumnies against the aristocracy; dragging things down to their own level; and at war with all kinds of superiority, which they deposited with the fine composure of ignorance. Monsieur Vernier — such was the name of this great little man — was just finishing his breakfast, with his wife and daughter on either side of him, when Gaudissart entered the room through a window that looked out on the Loire and the Cher, and lighted one of the gayest dining-rooms of that gay land.

“Is this Monsieur Vernier himself?” said the traveller, bending his vertebral column with such grace that it seemed to be elastic.

“Yes, Monsieur,” said the mischievous exdyer, with a scrutinizing look which took in the style of man he had to deal with.

“I come, Monsieur,” resumed Gaudissart, “to solicit the aid of your knowledge and insight to guide my efforts in this district, where Mitouflet tells me you have the greatest influence. Monsieur, I am sent into the provinces on an enterprise of the utmost importance, undertaken by bankers who —”

“Who mean to win our tricks,” said Vernier, long used to the ways of commercial travellers and to their periodical visits.

“Precisely,” replied Gaudissart, with native impudence. “But with your fine tact, Monsieur, you must be aware that we can’t win tricks from people unless it is their interest to play at cards. I beg you not to confound me with the vulgar herd of travellers who succeed by humbug or importunity. I am no longer a commercial traveller. I was one, and I glory in it; but today my mission is of higher importance, and should place me, in the minds of superior people, among those who devote themselves to the enlightenment of their country. The most distinguished bankers in Paris take part in this affair; not fictitiously, as in some shameful speculations which I call rat-traps. No, no, nothing of the kind! I should never condescend — never! — to hawk about such catch-fools. No, Monsieur; the most respectable houses in Paris are concerned in this enterprise; and their interests guarantee —”

Hereupon Gaudissart drew forth his whole string of phrases, and Monsieur Vernier let him go the length of his tether, listening with apparent interest which completely deceived him. But after the word “guarantee” Vernier paid no further attention to our traveller’s rhetoric, and turned over in his mind how to play him some malicious trick and deliver a land, justly considered half-savage by speculators unable to get a bite of it, from the inroads of these Parisian caterpillars.

At the head of an enchanting valley, called the Valley Coquette because of its windings and the curves which return upon each other at every step, and seem more and more lovely as we advance, whether we ascend or descend them, there lived, in a little house surrounded by vineyards, a half-insane man named Margaritis. He was of Italian origin, married, but childless; and his wife took care of him with a courage fully appreciated by the neighborhood. Madame Margaritis was undoubtedly in real danger from a man who, among other fancies, persisted in carrying about with him two long-bladed knives with which he sometimes threatened her. Who has not seen the wonderful self-devotion shown by provincials who consecrate their lives to the care of sufferers, possibly because of the disgrace heaped upon a bourgeoise if she allows her husband or children to be taken to a public hospital? Moreover, who does not know the repugnance which these people feel to the payment of the two or three thousand francs required at Charenton or in the private lunatic asylums? If any one had spoken to Madame Margaritis of Doctors Dubuisson, Esquirol, Blanche, and others, she would have preferred, with noble indignation, to keep her thousands and take care of the “good-man” at home.

As the incomprehensible whims of this lunatic are connected with the current of our story, we are compelled to exhibit the most striking of them. Margaritis went out as soon as it rained, and walked about bare-headed in his vineyard. At home he made incessant inquiries for newspapers; to satisfy him his wife and the maid-servant used to give him an old journal called the “Indre-et-Loire,” and for seven years he had never yet perceived that he was reading the same number over and over again. Perhaps a doctor would have observed with interest the connection that evidently existed between the recurring and spasmodic demands for the newspaper and the atmospheric variations of the weather.

Usually when his wife had company, which happened nearly every evening, for the neighbors, pitying her situation, would frequently come to play at boston in her salon, Margaritis remained silent in a corner and never stirred. But the moment ten o’clock began to strike on a clock which he kept shut up in a large oblong closet, he rose at the stroke with the mechanical precision of the figures which are made to move by springs in the German toys. He would then advance slowly towards the players, give them a glance like the automatic gaze of the Greeks and Turks exhibited on the Boulevard du Temple, and say sternly, “Go away!” There were days when he had lucid intervals and could give his wife excellent advice as to the sale of their wines; but at such times he became extremely annoying, and would ransack her closets and steal her delicacies, which he devoured in secret. Occasionally, when the usual visitors made their appearance he would treat them with civility; but as a general thing his remarks and replies were incoherent. For instance, a lady once asked him, “How do you feel today, Monsieur Margaritis?” “I have grown a beard,” he replied, “have you?” “Are you better?” asked another. “Jerusalem! Jerusalem!” was the answer. But the greater part of the time he gazed stolidly at his guests without uttering a word; and then his wife would say, “The good-man does not hear anything today.”

On two or three occasions in the course of five years, and usually about the time of the equinox, this remark had driven him to frenzy; he flourished his knives and shouted, “That joke dishonors me!”

As for his daily life, he ate, drank, and walked about like other men in sound health; and so it happened that he was treated with about the same respect and attention that we give to a heavy piece of furniture. Among his many absurdities was one of which no man had as yet discovered the object, although by long practice the wiseheads of the community had learned to unravel the meaning of most of his vagaries. He insisted on keeping a sack of flour and two puncheons of wine in the cellar of his house, and he would allow no one to lay hands on them. But then the month of June came round he grew uneasy with the restless anxiety of a madman about the sale of the sack and the puncheons. Madame Margaritis could nearly always persuade him that the wine had been sold at an enormous price, which she paid over to him, and which he hid so cautiously that neither his wife nor the servant who watched him had ever been able to discover its hiding-place.

The evening before Gaudissart reached Vouvray Madame Margaritis had had more difficulty than usual in deceiving her husband, whose mind happened to be uncommonly lucid.

“I really don’t know how I shall get through tomorrow,” she had said to Madame Vernier. “Would you believe it, the good-man insists on watching his two casks of wine. He has worried me so this whole day, that I had to show him two full puncheons. Our neighbor, Pierre Champlain, fortunately had two which he had not sold. I asked him to kindly let me have them rolled into our cellar; and oh, dear! now that the good-man has seen them he insists on bottling them off himself!”

Madame Vernier had related the poor woman’s trouble to her husband just before the entrance of Gaudissart, and at the first words of the famous traveller Vernier determined that he should be made to grapple with Margaritis.

“Monsieur,” said the exdyer, as soon as the illustrious Gaudissart had fired his first broadside, “I will not hide from you the great difficulties which my native place offers to your enterprise. This part of the country goes along, as it were, in the rough — ‘suo modo.’ It is a country where new ideas don’t take hold. We live as our fathers lived, we amuse ourselves with four meals a day, and we cultivate our vineyards and sell our wines to the best advantage. Our business principle is to sell things for more than they cost us; we shall stick in that rut, and neither God nor the devil can get us out of it. I will, however, give you some advice, and good advice is an egg in the hand. There is in this town a retired banker in whose wisdom I have — I, particularly — the greatest confidence. If you can obtain his support, I will add mine. If your proposals have real merit, if we are convinced of the advantage of your enterprise, the approval of Monsieur Margaritis (which carries with it mine) will open to you at least twenty rich houses in Vouvray who will be glad to try your specifics.”

When Madame Vernier heard the name of the lunatic she raised her head and looked at her husband.

“Ah, precisely; my wife intends to call on Madame Margaritis with one of our neighbors. Wait a moment, and you can accompany these ladies — You can pick up Madame Fontanieu on your way,” said the wily dyer, winking at his wife.

To pick out the greatest gossip, the sharpest tongue, the most inveterate cackler of the neighborhood! It meant that Madame Vernier was to take a witness to the scene between the traveller and the lunatic which should keep the town in laughter for a month. Monsieur and Madame Vernier played their part so well that Gaudissart had no suspicions, and straightway fell into the trap. He gallantly offered his arm to Madame Vernier, and believed that he made, as they went along, the conquest of both ladies, for those benefit he sparkled with wit and humor and undetected puns.

The house of the pretended banker stood at the entrance to the Valley Coquette. The place, called La Fuye, had nothing remarkable about it. On the ground floor was a large wainscoted salon, on either side of which opened the bedroom of the good-man and that of his wife. The salon was entered from an ante-chamber, which served as the dining-room and communicated with the kitchen. This lower door, which was wholly without the external charm usually seen even in the humblest dwellings in Touraine, was covered by a mansard story, reached by a stairway built on the outside of the house against the gable end and protected by a shed-roof. A little garden, full of marigolds, syringas, and elder-bushes, separated the house from the fields; and all around the courtyard were detached buildings which were used in the vintage season for the various processes of making wine.

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