Produced by John Bickers and Dagny
RISE AND FALL OF CESAR BIROTTEAU
HONORE DE BALZAC
Katharine Prescott Wormeley
CESAR AT HIS APOGEE
During winter nights noise never ceases in the Rue Saint-Honore except
for a short interval. Kitchen-gardeners carrying their produce to
market continue the stir of carriages returning from theatres and
balls. Near the middle of this sustained pause in the grand symphony
of Parisian uproar, which occurs about one o'clock in the morning, the
wife of Monsieur Cesar Birotteau, a perfumer established near the
Place Vendome, was startled from her sleep by a frightful dream. She
had seen her double. She had appeared to herself clothed in rags,
turning with a shrivelled, withered hand the latch of her own
shop-door, seeming to be at the threshold, yet at the same time seated
in her armchair behind the counter. She was asking alms of herself,
and heard herself speaking from the doorway and also from her seat at
She tried to grasp her husband, but her hand fell on a cold place. Her
terror became so intense that she could not move her neck, which
stiffened as if petrified; the membranes of her throat became glued
together, her voice failed her. She remained sitting erect in the same
posture in the middle of the alcove, both panels of which were wide
open, her eyes staring and fixed, her hair quivering, her ears filled
with strange noises, her heart tightened yet palpitating, and her
person bathed in perspiration though chilled to the bone.
Fear is a half-diseased sentiment, which presses so violently upon the
human mechanism that the faculties are suddenly excited to the highest
degree of their power or driven to utter disorganization.
Physiologists have long wondered at this phenomenon, which overturns
their systems and upsets all theories; it is in fact a thunderbolt
working within the being, and, like all electric accidents, capricious
and whimsical in its course. This explanation will become a mere
commonplace in the day when scientific men are brought to recognize
the immense part which electricity plays in human thought.
Madame Birotteau now passed through several of the shocks, in some
sort electrical, which are produced by terrible explosions of the will
forced out, or held under, by some mysterious mechanism. Thus during a
period of time, very short if judged by a watch, but immeasurable when
calculated by the rapidity of her impressions, the poor woman had the
supernatural power of emitting more ideas and bringing to the surface
more recollections than, under any ordinary use of her faculties, she
could put forth in the course of a whole day. The poignant tale of her
monologue may be abridged into a few absurd sentences, as
contradictory and bare of meaning as the monologue itself.
"There is no reason why Birotteau should leave my bed! He has eaten so
much veal that he may be ill. But if he were ill he would have waked
me. For nineteen years that we have slept together in this bed, in
this house, it has never happened that he left his place without
telling me, - poor sheep! He never slept away except to pass the night
in the guard-room. Did he come to bed to-night? Why, of course;
goodness! how stupid I am."
She cast her eyes upon the bed and saw her husband's night-cap, which
still retained the almost conical shape of his head.
"Can he be dead? Has he killed himself? Why?" she went on. "For the
last two years, since they made him deputy-mayor, he is
_all-I-don't-know-how_. To put him into public life! On the word of
an honest woman, isn't it pitiable? His business is doing well, for
he gave me a shawl. But perhaps it isn't doing well? Bah! I should
know of it. Does one ever know what a man has got in his head; or a
woman either? - there is no harm in that. Didn't we sell five thousand
francs' worth to-day? Besides, a deputy mayor couldn't kill himself;
he knows the laws too well. Where is he then?"
She could neither turn her neck, nor stretch out her hand to pull the
bell, which would have put in motion a cook, three clerks, and a
shop-boy. A prey to the nightmare, which still lasted though her mind
was wide awake, she forgot her daughter peacefully asleep in an
adjoining room, the door of which opened at the foot of her bed. At
last she cried "Birotteau!" but got no answer. She thought she had
called the name aloud, though in fact she had only uttered it mentally.
"Has he a mistress? He is too stupid," she added. "Besides, he loves
me too well for that. Didn't he tell Madame Roguin that he had never
been unfaithful to me, even in thought? He is virtue upon earth, that
man. If any one ever deserved paradise he does. What does he accuse
himself of to his confessor, I wonder? He must tell him a lot of
fiddle-faddle. Royalist as he is, though he doesn't know why, he can't
froth up his religion. Poor dear cat! he creeps to Mass at eight
o'clock as slyly as if he were going to a bad house. He fears God for
God's sake; hell is nothing to him. How could he have a mistress? He
is so tied to my petticoat that he bores me. He loves me better than
his own eyes; he would put them out for my sake. For nineteen years he
has never said to me one word louder than another. His daughter is
never considered before me. But Cesarine is here - Cesarine! Cesarine!
- Birotteau has never had a thought which he did not tell me. He was
right enough when he declared to me at the Petit-Matelot that I should
never know him till I tried him. And _not here_! It is extraordinary!"
She turned her head with difficulty and glanced furtively about the
room, then filled with those picturesque effects which are the despair
of language and seem to belong exclusively to the painters of genre.
What words can picture the alarming zig-zags produced by falling
shadows, the fantastic appearance of curtains bulged out by the wind,
the flicker of uncertain light thrown by a night-lamp upon the folds
of red calico, the rays shed from a curtain-holder whose lurid centre
was like the eye of a burglar, the apparition of a kneeling dress, - in
short, all the grotesque effects which terrify the imagination at a
moment when it has no power except to foresee misfortunes and
exaggerate them? Madame Birotteau suddenly saw a strong light in the
room beyond her chamber, and thought of fire; but perceiving a red
foulard which looked like a pool of blood, her mind turned exclusively
to burglars, especially when she thought she saw traces of a struggle
in the way the furniture stood about the room. Recollecting the sum of
money which was in the desk, a generous fear put an end to the chill
ferment of her nightmare. She sprang terrified, and in her night-gown,
into the very centre of the room to help her husband, whom she
supposed to be in the grasp of assassins.
"Birotteau! Birotteau!" she cried at last in a voice full of anguish.
She then saw the perfumer in the middle of the next room, a yard-stick
in his hand measuring the air, and so ill wrapped up in his green
cotton dressing-gown with chocolate-colored spots that the cold had
reddened his legs without his feeling it, preoccupied as he was. When
Cesar turned about to say to his wife, "Well, what do you want,
Constance?" his air and manner, like those of a man absorbed in
calculations, were so prodigiously silly that Madame Birotteau began
"Goodness! Cesar, if you are not an oddity like that!" she said. "Why
did you leave me alone without telling me? I have nearly died of
terror; I did not know what to imagine. What are you doing there,
flying open to all the winds? You'll get as hoarse as a wolf. Do you
hear me, Birotteau?"
"Yes, wife, here I am," answered the perfumer, coming into the
"Come and warm yourself, and tell me what maggot you've got in your
head," replied Madame Birotteau opening the ashes of the fire, which
she hastened to relight. "I am frozen. What a goose I was to get up in
my night-gown! But I really thought they were assassinating you."
The shopkeeper put his candlestick on the chimney-piece, wrapped his
dressing-gown closer about him, and went mechanically to find a
flannel petticoat for his wife.
"Here, Mimi, cover yourself up," he said. "Twenty-two by eighteen," he
resumed, going on with his monologue; "we can get a superb salon."
"Ah, ca! Birotteau, are you on the high road to insanity? Are you
"No, wife, I am calculating."
"You had better wait till daylight for your nonsense," she cried,
fastening the petticoat beneath her short night-gown and going to the
door of the room where her daughter was in bed.
"Cesarine is asleep," she said, "she won't hear us. Come, Birotteau,
speak up. What is it?"
"We can give a ball."
"Give a ball! we? On the word of an honest woman, you are dreaming, my
"I am not dreaming, my beautiful white doe. Listen. People should
always do what their position in life demands. Government has brought
me forward into prominence. I belong to the government; it is my duty
to study its mind, and further its intentions by developing them. The
Duc de Richelieu has just put an end to the occupation of France by
the foreign armies. According to Monsieur de la Billardiere, the
functionaries who represent the city of Paris should make it their
duty, each in his own sphere of influence, to celebrate the liberation
of our territory. Let us show a true patriotism which shall put these
liberals, these damned intriguers, to the blush; hein? Do you think I
don't love my country? I wish to show the liberals, my enemies, that
to love the king is to love France."
"Do you think you have got any enemies, my poor Birotteau?"
"Why, yes, wife, we have enemies. Half our friends in the quarter are
our enemies. They all say, 'Birotteau has had luck; Birotteau is a man
who came from nothing: yet here he is deputy-mayor; everything
succeeds with him.' Well, they are going to be finely surprised. You
are the first to be told that I am made a chevalier of the Legion of
honor. The king signed the order yesterday."
"Oh! then," said Madame Birotteau, much moved, "of course we must give
the ball, my good friend. But what have you done to merit the cross?"
"Yesterday, when Monsieur de la Billardiere told me the news," said
Birotteau, modestly, "I asked myself, as you do, what claims I had to
it; but I ended by seeing what they were, and in approving the action
of the government. In the first place, I am a royalist; I was wounded
at Saint-Roch in Vendemiaire: isn't it something to have borne arms in
those days for the good cause? Then, according to the merchants, I
exercised my judicial functions in a way to give general satisfaction.
I am now deputy-mayor. The king grants four crosses to the
municipality of Paris; the prefect, selecting among the deputies
suitable persons to be thus decorated, has placed my name first on the
list. The king moreover knows me: thanks to old Ragon. I furnish him
with the only powder he is willing to use; we alone possess the
receipt of the late queen, - poor, dear, august victim! The mayor
vehemently supported me. So there it is. If the king gives me the
cross without my asking for it, it seems to me that I cannot refuse it
without failing in my duty to him. Did I seek to be deputy-mayor? So,
wife, since we are sailing before the wind, as your uncle Pillerault
says when he is jovial, I have decided to put the household on a
footing in conformity with our high position. If I can become
anything, I'll risk being whatever the good God wills that I shall be,
- sub-prefect, if such be my destiny. My wife, you are much mistaken
if you think a citizen has paid his debt to his country by merely
selling perfumery for twenty years to those who came to buy it. If the
State demands the help of our intelligence, we are as much bound to
give it as we are to pay the tax on personal property, on windows and
doors, _et caetera_. Do you want to stay forever behind your counter?
You have been there, thank God, a long time. This ball shall be our
fete, - yours and mine. Good-by to economy, - for your sake, be it
understood. I burn our sign, 'The Queen of Roses'; I efface the name,
'Cesar Birotteau, Perfumer, Successor to Ragon,' and put simply,
'Perfumery' in big letters of gold. On the _entresol_ I place the
office, the counting-room, and a pretty little sanctum for you. I make
the shop out of the back-shop, the present dining-room, and kitchen. I
hire the first floor of the next house, and open a door into it
through the wall. I turn the staircase so as to pass from house to
house on one floor; and we shall thus get a grand appartement,
furnished like a nest. Yes, I shall refurnish your bedroom, and
contrive a boudoir for you and a pretty chamber for Cesarine. The
shop-girl whom you will hire, our head clerk, and your lady's-maid
(yes, Madame, you are to have one!) will sleep on the second floor. On
the third will be the kitchen and rooms of the cook and the
man-of-all-work. The fourth shall be a general store-house for bottle,
crystals, and porcelains. The workshop for our people, in the attic!
Passers-by shall no longer see them gumming on the labels, making the
bags, sorting the flasks, and corking the phials. Very well for the
Rue Saint-Denis, but for the Rue Saint-Honore - fy! bad style! Our shop
must be as comfortable as a drawing-room. Tell me, are we the only
perfumers who have reached public honors? Are there not vinegar
merchants and mustard men who command in the National Guard and are
very well received at the Palace? Let us imitate them; let us extend
our business, and at the same time press forward into higher society."
"Goodness! Birotteau, do you know what I am thinking of as I listen to
you? You are like the man who looks for knots in a bulrush. Recollect
what I said when it was a question of making you deputy-mayor: 'your
peace of mind before everything!' You are as fit, I told you, 'to be
put forward in public life as my arm is to turn a windmill. Honors
will be your ruin!' You would not listen to me, and now the ruin has
come. To play a part in politics you must have money: have we any?
What! would you burn your sign, which cost six hundred francs, and
renounce 'The Queen of Roses,' your true glory? Leave ambition to
others. He who puts his hand in the fire gets burned, - isn't that
true? Politics burn in these days. We have one hundred good thousand
francs invested outside of our business, our productions, our
merchandise. If you want to increase your fortune, do as they did in
1793. The Funds are at sixty-two: buy into the Funds. You will get ten
thousand francs' income, and the investment won't hamper our property.
Take advantage of the occasion to marry our daughter; sell the
business, and let us go and live in your native place. Why! for
fifteen years you have talked of nothing but buying Les Tresorieres,
that pretty little property near Chinon, where there are woods and
fields, and ponds and vineyards, and two dairies, which bring in a
thousand crowns a year, with a house which we both like, - all of which
we can have for sixty thousand francs; and, lo! Monsieur now wants to
become something under government! Recollect what we are, - perfumers.
If sixteen years before you invented the DOUBLE PASTE OF SULTANS and
the CARMINATIVE BALM some one had said, 'You are going to make enough
money to buy Les Tresorieres,' wouldn't you have been half sick with
joy? Well, you can acquire that property which you wanted so much that
you hardly opened your mouth about anything else, and now you talk of
spending on nonsense money earned by the sweat of our brow: I can say
ours, for I've sat behind the desk through all that time, like a poor
dog in his kennel. Isn't it much better to come and visit our daughter
after she is married to a notary of Paris, and live eight months of
the year at Chinon, than to begin here to make five sous six blanks,
and of six blanks nothing? Wait for a rise in the Funds, and you can
give eight thousand francs a year to your daughter and we can keep two
thousand for ourselves, and the proceeds of the business will allow us
to buy Les Tresorieres. There in your native place, my good little
cat, with our furniture, which is worth a great deal, we shall live
like princes; whereas here we want at least a million to make any
figure at all."
"I expected you to say all this, wife," said Cesar Birotteau. "I am
not quite such a fool (though you think me a great fool, you do) as
not to have thought of all that. Now, listen to me. Alexandre Crottat
will fit us like a glove for a son-in-law, and he will succeed Roguin;
but do you suppose he will be satisfied with a hundred thousand francs
_dot_? - supposing that we gave our whole property outside of the
business to establish our daughter, and I am willing; I would gladly
live on dry bread the rest of my days to see her happy as a queen, the
wife of a notary of Paris, as you say. Well, then, a hundred thousand
francs, or even eight thousand francs a year, is nothing at all
towards buying Roguin's practice. Little Xandrot, as we call him,
thinks, like all the rest of the world, that we are richer than we
are. If his father, that big farmer who is as close as a snail, won't
sell a hundred thousand francs worth of land Xandrot can't be a
notary, for Roguin's practice is worth four or five hundred thousand.
If Crottat does not pay half down, how could he negotiate the affair?
Cesarine must have two hundred thousand francs _dot_; and I mean that
you and I shall retire solid bourgeois of Paris, with fifteen thousand
francs a year. Hein! If I could make you see that as plain as day,
wouldn't it shut your mouth?"
"Oh, if you've got the mines of Peru - "
"Yes, I have, my lamb. Yes," he said, taking his wife by the waist and
striking her with little taps, under an emotion of joy which lighted
up his features, "I did not wish to tell you of this matter till it
was all cooked; but to-morrow it will be done, - that is, perhaps it
will. Here it is then: Roguin has proposed a speculation to me, so
safe that he has gone into it with Ragon, with your uncle Pillerault,
and two other of his clients. We are to buy property near the
Madeleine, which, according to Roguin's calculations, we shall get for
a quarter of the value which it will bring three years from now, at
which time, the present leases having expired, we shall manage it for
ourselves. We have all six taken certain shares. I furnish three
hundred thousand francs, - that is, three-eighths of the whole. If any
one of us wants money, Roguin will get it for him by hypothecating his
share. To hold the gridiron and know how the fish are fried, I have
chosen to be nominally proprietor of one half, which is, however, to
be the common property of Pillerault and the worthy Ragon and myself.
Roguin will be, under the name of Monsieur Charles Claparon,
co-proprietor with me, and will give a reversionary deed to his
associates, as I shall to mine. The deeds of purchase are made by
promises of sale under private seal, until we are masters of the whole
property. Roguin will investigate as to which of the contracts should
be paid in money, for he is not sure that we can dispense with
registering and yet turn over the titles to those to whom we sell in
small parcels. But it takes too long to explain all this to you. The
ground once paid for, we have only to cross our arms and in three
years we shall be rich by a million. Cesarine will then be twenty, our
business will be sold, and we shall step, by the grace of God,
modestly to eminence."
"Where will you get your three hundred thousand francs?" said Madame
"You don't understand business, my beloved little cat. I shall take
the hundred thousand francs which are now with Roguin; I shall borrow
forty thousand on the buildings and gardens where we now have our
manufactory in the Faubourg du Temple; we have twenty thousand francs
here in hand, - in all, one hundred and sixty thousand. There remain
one hundred and forty thousand more, for which I shall sign notes to
the order of Monsieur Charles Claparon, banker. He will pay the value,
less the discount. So there are the three hundred thousand francs
provided for. He who owns rents owes nothing. When the notes fall due
we can pay them off with our profits. If we cannot pay them in cash,
Roguin will give the money at five per cent, hypothecated on my share
of the property. But such loans will be unnecessary. I have discovered
an essence which will make the hair grow - an Oil Comagene, from Syria!
Livingston has just set up for me a hydraulic press to manufacture the
oil from nuts, which yield it readily under strong pressure. In a
year, according to my calculations, I shall have made a hundred
thousand francs at least. I meditate an advertisement which shall
begin, 'Down with wigs!' - the effect will be prodigious. You have
never found out my wakefulness, Madame! For three months the success
of Macassar Oil has kept me from sleeping. I am resolved to take the
shine out of Macassar!"
"So these are the fine projects you've been rolling in your noddle for
two months without choosing to tell me? I have just seen myself
begging at my own door, - a warning from heaven! Before long we shall
have nothing left but our eyes to weep with. Never while I live shall
you do it; do you hear me, Cesar? Underneath all this there is some
plot which you don't perceive; you are too upright and loyal to
suspect the trickery of others. Why should they come and offer you
millions? You are giving up your property, you are going beyond your
means; and if your oil doesn't succeed, if you don't make the money,
if the value of the land can't be realized, how will you pay your
notes? With the shells of your nuts? To rise in society you are going
to hide your name, take down your sign, 'The Queen of Roses,' and yet
you mean to salaam and bow and scrape in advertisements and
prospectuses, which will placard Cesar Birotteau at every corner, and
on all the boards, wherever they are building."
"Oh! you are not up to it all. I shall have a branch establishment,
under the name of Popinot, in some house near the Rue des Lombards,
where I shall put little Anselme. I shall pay my debt of gratitude to
Monsieur and Madame Ragon by setting up their nephew, who can make his
fortune. The poor Ragonines look to me half-starved of late."
"Bah! all those people want your money."
"But what people, my treasure? Is it your uncle Pillerault, who loves
us like the apple of his eye, and dines with us every Sunday? Is it
good old Ragon, our predecessor, who has forty upright years in
business to boast of, and with whom we play our game of boston? Is it
Roguin, a notary, a man fifty-seven years old, twenty-five of which he
has been in office? A notary of Paris! he would be the flower of the
lot, if honest folk were not all worth the same price. If necessary,
my associates will help me. Where is the plot, my white doe? Look
here, I must tell you your defect. On the word of an honest man it
lies on my heart. You are as suspicious as a cat. As soon as we had
two sous worth in the shop you thought the customers were all thieves.
I had to go down on my knees to you to let me make you rich. For a
Parisian girl you have no ambition! If it hadn't been for your
perpetual fears, no man could have been happier than I. If I had
listened to you I should never have invented the Paste of Sultans nor
the Carminative Balm. Our shop has given us a living, but these two
discoveries have made the hundred and sixty thousand francs which we
possess, net and clear! Without my genius, for I certainly have talent
as a perfumer, we should now be petty retail shopkeepers, pulling the
devil's tail to make both ends meet. I shouldn't be a distinguished
merchant, competing in the election of judges for the department of
commerce; I should be neither a judge nor a deputy-mayor. Do you know
what I should be? A shopkeeper like Pere Ragon, - be it said without
offence, for I respect shopkeeping; the best of our kidney are in it.
After selling perfumery like him for forty years, we should be worth
three thousand francs a year; and at the price things are now, for
they have doubled in value, we should, like them, have barely enough
to live on. (Day after day that poor household wrings my heart more
and more. I must know more about it, and I'll get the truth from