Honoré de Balzac.

Scenes of Parisian life (Volume 3) online

. (page 6 of 23)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacScenes of Parisian life (Volume 3) → online text (page 6 of 23)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

which can come only from that demi-god, who is
ever present, though ever absent in the apartment
of a married woman.

The dinner of which the husband, wife and child
partook, and which had been delayed since four
o'clock, would have betrayed the financial crisis
through which the family was passing, for the table
is the most unerring thermometer of income in Paris-
ian households. A soup made of herbs and bean-
water, a bit of veal with potatoes, swimming in
reddened water in the guise of gravy, a plate of
beans and cherries of inferior quality, the whole
served and eaten upon dishes and plates chipped
along the edges, and ware having the non-resonant
sound of German silver. Was that a menu worthy
of that charming creature? The baron would have
wept to witness it. The dingy carafes did not cloak
the shocking color of the wine, bought by the litre
at the corner wine-shop. The napkins had been in
use for a week. In short, everything was eloquent


of poverty without dignity, of the indifference of hus-
band and wife alike, to their home. The most super-
ficial observer would have said, upon seeing these
two beings, that they had reached that deplorable
stage where the necessity of living sets one's wits
at work to invent some successful fraud.

The first remark made by Valerie will explain the
delay inflicted upon the dinner, due in part, proba-
bly, to the selfish assiduity of the cook.

" Samanon will not take your notes except at a
discount of fifty per cent., and he insists upon an
assignment of your salary as security."

Thus we see that poverty, still unsuspected by
the head of the department, and which was screened
behind a salary of twenty-four thousand francs,
without counting perquisites, had reached its last
stage with the clerk.

"You have made my chief," said the husband
with a glance at his wife.

" I think so," she replied, with no sign of alarm at
the word, borrowed from the slang of the green-room.

"What will become of us?" continued Marneffe.
" The landlord will seize our goods to-morrow. And
your father must go and die without making a will!
Upon my word these people of the Empire all think
they're immortal like their Emperor."

" Poor father," said she; "he had no child but
me, and he loved me dearly! The countess must
have burned the will. How could he have forgotten
me, when he used to give us now and again three
or four notes of a thousand francs at one time?"


" We owe for four terms, fifteen hundred francs!
Is our furniture worth it? ' That is the question!' as
Shakespeare says."

"Well, adieu, my boy," said Valerie, who had
swallowed only a few mouthfuls of the veal, from
which the cook had abstracted the gravy for a gal-
lant soldier just returned from Algiers. " For great
ills, heroic remedies!"

" Where are you going, Valerie?" cried Marneffe,
barring his wife's path to the door.

" I am going to see our landlord," she replied, ad-
justing her English curls beneath her dainty hat.
" You must try and get into that old maid's good
graces if she is really your chief's cousin."

The ignorance of the various lodgers in the same
house concerning one another's social standing, is
one of the constantly-recurring phenomena which
best depict the headlong whirl of life in Paris; but
it is easy to understand that a clerk who goes early
every day to his office, returns home to dinner, and
goes out every evening, and a woman addicted to
the diversions of Paris, are not in a way to know
anything of the life of an old maid who lodges on the
third-floor-back of their house, especially when that
old maid has such habits as Mademoiselle Fischer.

Lisbeth was always the first person in the house to
go out for her milk and roll and her hot coals; she
spoke to no one, and retired with the sun; she never
received letters or visits, and was not inclined to
be neighborly. Hers was one of those anonymous
insect-like existences, such as are to be found in


certain houses, where one learns after four or five
years that there is an old gentleman on the fourth
floor who knew Voltaire, Pilatre de Rozier, Beaujon,
Marcel, Mole, Sophie Arnould, Franklin and Robes-
pierre. What M. and Madame Marneffe had said con-
cerning Lisbeth Fischer they had learned on account
of the isolation of the quarter, and the relations which
their pecuniary embarrassment had established be-
tween themselves and the concierges, whose good-will
was too necessary to them not to have been zealously
cultivated. Now the pride, the reticence, the reserve
of the old maid had engendered in the concierges the
exaggerated respect, the aloofness which betokens
the unavowed ill-will of inferiors. The concierges,
furthermore, deemed themselves, in a measure, as
they say at the Palais, the equals of a lodger whose
rent was two hundred and fifty francs. The confi-
dences of Cousin Bette to her second-cousin Hor-
tense being true, every one will understand that it
was quite possible that the concierge, in some confi-
dential gossip with the Marneffes, had slandered
Mademoiselle Fischer when she thought that she
was simply backbiting her.

When the old maid received her candle from the
hands of the respectable Madame Olivier, the con-
cierge, she stepped forward to see if the windows
of the attic above her apartment were lighted. At
that hour, in July, it was so dark at the end of the
court-yard that the old maid could not go to bed
without a light.

"Oh! never fear, M. Steinbock is at home, he


hasn't even been out," said Madame Olivier mali-
ciously to Mademoiselle Fischer.

The old maid vouchsafed no reply. She was still
the peasant in so far that she scorned the "what
they will say" of people far removed from her; and,
just as the peasants see nothing outside their village,
she was mindful only of the opinion of the little
circle in which she lived. So she unhesitatingly
went up, not to her own apartment, but to the attic
in question. And for this reason. At dessert she
had stowed away in her bag divers fruits and sweet-
meats for her lover, and she went to give them to
him, for all the world as an old maid would take a
tidbit to her dog.

She found, working by the light of a little lamp,
of which the brilliancy was increased by its pass-
ing through a globe filled with water, the hero of Hor-
tense's dreams, a pale young man of fair complex-
ion, seated at a sort of bench covered with sculptor's
tools, red wax, moulding-sticks, rough-hewn ped-
estals and models cast in copper; he was dressed in
a blouse and held in his hand a little group in model-
ing wax, at which he was gazing with the absorbed
air of a poet in the throes of composition.

" Here, Wenceslas, see what I have brought
you," said she, placing her handkerchief on a corner
of the bench.

She thereupon carefully extracted from her basket
the sweetmeats and the fruit.

"You are very kind, mademoiselle," replied the
poor exile in a melancholy voice.


"They will refresh you, my poor boy. You heat
your blood working so; you weren't made for such
hard work. "

Wenceslas Steinbock looked at the old maid in

"Eat them, pray," she continued abruptly, "in-
stead of staring at me as at one of your figures
when it pleases you."

Upon receiving this spoken blow the young man's
amazement ceased, for therein he recognized his
female mentor, whose tenderness always surprised
him, so accustomed was he to be scolded by her.
Although Steinbock was twenty-nine years old,
he seemed, as many blondes do, five or six years
younger; and one would have thought, at sight of
that youthful countenance, whose freshness had
vanished by stress of the fatigues and miseries of
exile, beside that other thin, harsh face, that nature
had gone astray in the distribution of sexes. He
rose, threw himself upon an old Louis XV. couch
covered with yellow Utrecht velvet, and seemed
disposed to rest. The old maid thereupon took a
green-gage and gently offered it to her friend.

"Thank you," said he, taking the fruit.

"Are you tired?" she asked, giving him another.

" I am not tired with work, but tired of life," was
the reply.

"What an idea!" said she sharply. "Haven't
you a good genius who looks after you?" she con-
tinued, handing him the sweetmeats, and watch-
ing him eat them all with evident pleasure. " You


see, when I was dining at my cousin's I thought
of you "

"I know," said he, bestowing upon Lisbeth a
glance that was at once caressing and plaintive,
" that but for you, I should have died long ago; but,
my dear girl, artists require distraction "

"Ah! there we are! " she cried, interrupting
him, putting her arms akimbo, and fixing a pair of
flashing eyes upon him. "You would like to go
and ruin your health in the unspeakable dens of
Paris, like so many workmen who end their days in
an alms-house! No, no, make your fortune, and when
you have money in the funds you shall amuse your-
self, my child; then you will have the wherewithal
to pay for your dissipation and your doctor's bills,
rake that you are."

Wenceslas Steinbock, upon receiving this broad-
side, accompanied by glances whose magnetic flame
penetrated his whole being, hung his head. If the
most ill-natured gossip could have witnessed the
opening of this scene, he would have realized at
once the falsity of the slanders set afloat concerning
Mademoiselle Fischer by the Oliviers, husband and
wife. Everything in the tone, the actions, and the
glances of these two beings demonstrated the purity
of their secret life. The old maid exhibited a brutal
but sincere maternal affection. The young man
submitted as an obedient son submits to a mother's
tyranny. This strange alliance seemed to be the
result of a powerful will acting incessantly upon a
weak character, endowed with the inconsistency


peculiar to the Slavs, which, while it leaves them
capable of heroic courage on the battle-field, imparts
an incredible lack of coherence to their acts, and
gives them a moral flabbiness, the causes of which
should give food for thought to the physiologists, for
the physiologists are to politics what the entomolo-
gists are to agriculture.

"And what if I die before I get rich?" queried
Wenceslas, dolefully.

" Die?" cried the old maid. " Oh! I won't let
you die. I have life enough for two, and I'll give
you an infusion of my blood, if need be."

As he listened to that frank, impetuous outburst,
tears gathered in Steinbeck's eyes.

"Don't be downhearted, my little Wenceslas,"
continued Lisbeth, deeply moved. " Look you, my
cousin Hortense thought your seal very pretty, I am
sure. Come, I will help you to sell your bronze
group, then you will be out of my debt; you shall
do what you please, you shall be free! Come,
laugh a little!"

"I shall never be out of your debt, mademoi-
selle," replied the poor exile.

" Why not, pray? " demanded the peasant from
the Vosges, taking the Livonian's part against her-

" Because you have not only supported me,
lodged me and taken care of me in poverty, but
more, you have given me strength! You have made
me what I am, you have often been harsh to me,
ytu have made me suffer "


" I?" said the old maid. "Are you going to begin
again your nonsense about poetry and the arts, and
make your fingers crack and twist your arms talking
about the beau ideal and the rest of your Northern
idiocy? The beautiful isn't worth as much as the
substantial, and I am the substantial! You have
ideas in your brain? A fine thing, no doubt! And
I have ideas, too. Of what use is what one has in his
brain, if he gets no good from it?~ Those who have
ideas aren't so far ahead as those who have none, if
they know how to bestir themselves. Instead of
thinking of your dreams, you must work. What
have you done since I went away? "

"What did your pretty cousin say?"

"Who told you she was pretty?" demanded Lis-
beth quickly, in a tone in which roared the jealousy
of a tiger.

"Why, you yourself."

" I did it to see the face you would make! Do
you want to run after the petticoats? You love the
ladies; very well, mould them, express your aspira-
tions in bronze; for you will have to get along for
some time yet without love affairs, and especially
without my cousin Hortense, my dear. She's not
the fish for your hook; that young woman must
have a man with an income of sixty thousand francs,
and he is found. Well, well, the bed's not
made!" she added, looking through into the other
room. "Oh! my poor boy! I forgot you "

The active creature at once removed her gloves,
her cape and her hat, and like any maid, quickly


made up the little cot-bed upon which the artist
slept. This mixture of roughness, harshness even,
and kindness will explain the empire Lisbeth had
acquired over this man, whom she treated as some-
thing belonging to herself. Does not life bind us to
one another by its alternations of good and bad?
If the Livonian had fallen in with Madame Marneffe
instead of Lisbeth Fischer, he would have found in
his protectress a complaisance which would have led
him into some filthy, dishonoring path, where he
would have been ruined. He certainly would have
done no work, the artist would not have broken his
shell. And so, while he deplored the old maid's
fierce cupidity, his reason bade him prefer that arm
of iron to the slothful and perilous existence which
some of his compatriots led.

The alliance between this female energy and this
masculine weakness, a sort of contradiction not
uncommon in Poland, it is said, came about in this

In 1833, Mademoiselle Fischer, who sometimes
worked at night when she had much work on hand,
was conscious, about one o'clock one morning, of a
strong smell of carbonic acid, and heard the groans
of a dying man. The odor of charcoal and the
death-rattle proceeded from an attic above the two
rooms which composed her suite, and she concluded
that a young man who had recently come to the
house and hired the attic, which had been to let for
three years, was taking his own life. She ran
swiftly up-stairs, burst in the door with her Lorraine


muscle with such leverage as she could get, and
found the lodger writhing upon a pallet, in the con-
vulsions of the death-agony. She extinguished the
fire in the brazier, with the opening of the door the
air rushed in and the exile was saved; and when
Lisbeth had put him to bed like a sick man, and he
had gone to sleep, she was able to detect the causes
that led to the suicide in the absolute nudity of the
two attic rooms, where there was nothing but a
wretched table, the pallet, and two chairs.

Upon the table lay this writing, which she read:

" I am Count Wenceslas Steinbock, born at Pre-
lie in Livonia.

"Let no person be accused of my death; the
reasons for my suicide are to be found in these
words of Kosciusko: ' Finis Polonias!'

" The great-nephew of one of Charles the
Twelfth's gallant generals did not choose to beg.
My weak constitution debarred me from military
service, and yesterday I saw the last of the
hundred thalers with which 1 came from Dres-
den to Paris. 1 leave twenty-five francs in the
drawer of this table to pay the rent I owe the land-

" Having no relations, my death concerns no one.
I beg my compatriots not to blame the French gov-
ernment. I have not made myself known as a
refugee, I have asked for nothing, I have not made
the acquaintance of any exile, and no one in Paris
knows of my existence.


" I shall die in the faith of Christ. May God for-
give the last of the Steinbocks!


Mademoiselle Fischer, profoundly touched by the
dying man's honesty in paying his rent, opened the
drawer, and found therein five pieces of one hundred

" Poor young man!" she cried. "And no one on
earth to take an interest in him!"

She went down to her room, took her work, and
returned to the attic, where she watched the Livo-
nian nobleman as she worked. When the exile
awoke, his astonishment at finding a woman at his
bedside can be imagined; he thought that he was
still dreaming. As she sat making gold shoulder-
knots for a uniform, the old maid had made a vow
to look after the poor child, whom she gazed upon
in admiration while he lay asleep. When the young
count was fully awake, Lisbeth spoke encouragingly
to him, and questioned him in order to ascertain
how he could earn his living. Wenceslas, having
told her his story, added that he owed his present
condition to his pronounced vocation for art; he had
always felt an inclination for the sculptor's profes-
sion; but the time necessarily devoted to study
seemed to him too long for a penniless man, and at
that moment he felt much too weak to follow a
manual trade, or to undertake to learn sculpture.
This was all Greek to Lisbeth Fischer. She


answered the poor fellow by saying that Paris
offered so many opportunities, that any man who
really wished to do so ought to be able to make a
living. Stout-hearted people need not die there if
they possessed a good stock of patience.

" I am only a poor girl myself, a peasant, and yet
I have succeeded in making myself independent,"
she added in conclusion. " Listen' to what I say.
If you choose to go to work in good earnest, I have
some small savings, and I will loan you from
month to month such money as you need to live,
but to live simply, not to go about drinking and
running after women! One can dine at Paris
for twenty-five sous a day, and I will get your
breakfast with mine every morning. Then I
will furnish your rooms, and pay such appren-
ticeship fees as you think necessary. You will
give me an acknowledgment in proper form for the
money I lay out for you; and when you are rich
you can pay it all back. But if you don't work I
shall consider myself pledged to nothing, and I shall
give you up."

"Ah!" cried the unfortunate youth, who still felt
the bitterness of his first contact with death, "the
exiles of all countries are very wise to look toward
France as the souls in purgatory look to Paradise.
What a country is that where one finds help and
noble hearts everywhere, even in an attic like this!
You will be everything to me, my dear benefactress,
and I will be your slave! Be my mistress," he
added, with one of those caressing demonstrations


so characteristic of the Poles, and which cause them
to be most unjustly accused of servility.

"Oh! no, I am too jealous, I should make you
wretched; but I will gladly be a sort of comrade to
you," Lisbeth replied.

"Oh! if you but knew how fervently I prayed for
some human being, even a tyrant, to care about me
when I was struggling in the wilderness of Paris!"
said Wenceslas. " I sighed for Siberia, where the
Emperor would send me if I should return! Be my
Providence I will work, I will be better than I
am, although I'm not a bad sort of fellow."

' ' Will you do whatever I tell you to do ? " she asked.


"Very well; then I take you for my child," she
said, gayly. " Here I am with a boy just out of his
coffin. Come! let us begin. I will go down and
make things ready; do you dress, and come and
share my breakfast when I knock on the ceiling
with my broom-handle."

The next day Mademoiselle Fischer made inquiries
as to the sculptor's trade from the dealers to whom
she carried her work. By dint of much questioning
she succeeded in discovering the workshop of Florent
and Chanor, a concern specially engaged in casting
; and in fine chased work in bronze and silver-plate.
She introduced Steinbock there as a would-be
apprentice in sculpture, a proposition which seemed
peculiar, for their business consisted in casting the
models of the most celebrated artists, and they did
not give instruction in sculpture. The old maid's


obstinacy and persistence finally prevailed and she
secured a position for her protege as designer of
ornaments. Steinbock very quickly learned the art
of modeling ornaments, and invented new ones; he
had the aptitude. Five months after he had finished
his apprenticeship as carver he became acquainted
with the famous Stidmann, the principal sculptor
of the house of Florent. After twenty months
Wenceslas knew more than his master; but in thirty
months the savings amassed by the old maid bit by
bit, during sixteen years, were all gone. Two thou-
sand five hundred francs in gold! a sum which she
intended to invest in an annuity, and represented
by what? By the note of hand of a Pole! Thus
Lisbeth still worked, as in her younger days, to de-
fray the Livonian's expenses. When she saw in
her hands a bit of paper instead of her gold pieces,
she lost her head, and went to consult M. Rivet,
who had been for fifteen years the friend and adviser
of his chief and most skilful workwoman. When
they knew what had happened M. and Madame
Rivet berated Lisbeth, treated her as a lunatic, re-
viled the refugees, whose manoeuvres to become a
nation once more, endangered the prosperity of our
commerce, and the peace-at-any-price policy, and
they urged the old maid to take what is called in
business, security.

" The only security that rascal can offer you is
his freedom," said M. Rivet.

M. Achille Rivet was a judge at the Tribunal de


"And that's no joking matter for foreigners," he
continued. "A Frenchman remains five years in
prison, and then goes free without paying his debts,
to be sure, for he is no longer subject to any law
but his conscience, which never troubles him; but
a foreigner never gets out of prison. Give me the
note of hand; you must indorse it over to my book-
keeper, who will have it protested, sue you both,
and obtain, after hearing, a judgment for arrest, and,
when all is in order, he will execute a defeasance
to you. In this way your interest will run on, and
you will always have a loaded pistol at your Pole's

The old maid allowed this course to be adopted,
and told her protege not be disturbed by the lawsuit,
the only purpose of which was to furnish security
to a money-lender who agreed to make them an
advance. This shift was due to the inventive genius
of the judge of the Tribunal de Commerce. The
unsuspecting artist, with blind confidence in his bene-
factress, lighted his pipe with the stamped docu-
ments, for he was a smoker, like all men who have
disappointments or superfluous energy to overcome.
One fine day M. Rivet showed Mademoiselle Fischer
a bundle of papers, and said to her:

" You have Wenceslas Steinbock bound hand and
foot, and so effectively that in twenty-four hours
you can shut him up at Clichy for the rest of his life."

The upright and worshipful magistrate experi-
enced that day the satisfaction which should follow
the certainty of having committed a bad action for


a good purpose. Good-will wears so many guises
at Paris, that this singular expression is consistent
with one of its variations. Once the Livonian was
entangled in the meshes of commercial procedure,
payment of the debt was the next thing to be thought
of, for the eminent tradesman looked upon Wenceslas
Steinbock as a swindler. The heart, probity, poetry,
were in his eyes, in matters of business, horrors. In
the interest of poor Mademoiselle Fischer, who had, to
use his expression, been plucked by a Pole, Rivet
called upon the wealthy firm with whom Steinbock
served his apprenticeship. Now Stidmann, who,
seconded by the notable artists among Parisian
goldsmiths already named, raised the art in France
to its present state of perfection which enables it to
contend with the Florentines and the Renaissance,
Stidmann happened to be in Chanor's office when
the lace-maker called in quest of information con-
cerning one Steinbock, a Polish refugee.

"Whom do you call 'one Steinbock?'" cried
Stidmann ironically. " Can it be by any chance a
young Livonian I had for a pupil? Understand,
monsieur, that he is a great artist. They say that
I think I'm the devil; but that poor boy doesn't
know that he may become a god "

"Aha!" exclaimed Rivet with satisfaction.

"Although," he continued, " you spoke rather
cavalierly to a man who has the honor of being a
judge of the Tribunal of the Seine "

"Your pardon, consul! "interposed Stidmann,
putting the back of his hand to his head.


"I am very glad to hear what you say," con<
tinued the magistrate. " This young man is able

1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacScenes of Parisian life (Volume 3) → online text (page 6 of 23)