Honoré de Balzac.

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THE BALL AT SCEAUX


BY HONORE DE BALZAC



Translated By Clara Bell



To Henri de Balzac, his brother Honore.





THE BALL AT SCEAUX


The Comte de Fontaine, head of one of the oldest families in Poitou, had
served the Bourbon cause with intelligence and bravery during the war
in La Vendee against the Republic. After having escaped all the dangers
which threatened the royalist leaders during this stormy period of
modern history, he was wont to say in jest, "I am one of the men who
gave themselves to be killed on the steps of the throne." And the
pleasantry had some truth in it, as spoken by a man left for dead at the
bloody battle of Les Quatre Chemins. Though ruined by confiscation, the
staunch Vendeen steadily refused the lucrative posts offered to him
by the Emperor Napoleon. Immovable in his aristocratic faith, he had
blindly obeyed its precepts when he thought it fitting to choose
a companion for life. In spite of the blandishments of a rich but
revolutionary parvenu, who valued the alliance at a high figure, he
married Mademoiselle de Kergarouet, without a fortune, but belonging to
one of the oldest families in Brittany.

When the second revolution burst on Monsieur de Fontaine he was
encumbered with a large family. Though it was no part of the noble
gentlemen's views to solicit favors, he yielded to his wife's wish, left
his country estate, of which the income barely sufficed to maintain his
children, and came to Paris. Saddened by seeing the greediness of his
former comrades in the rush for places and dignities under the new
Constitution, he was about to return to his property when he received a
ministerial despatch, in which a well-known magnate announced to him his
nomination as marechal de camp, or brigadier-general, under a rule
which allowed the officers of the Catholic armies to count the twenty
submerged years of Louis XVIII.'s reign as years of service. Some days
later he further received, without any solicitation, ex officio, the
crosses of the Legion of Honor and of Saint-Louis.

Shaken in his determination by these successive favors, due, as he
supposed, to the monarch's remembrance, he was no longer satisfied with
taking his family, as he had piously done every Sunday, to cry "Vive le
Roi" in the hall of the Tuileries when the royal family passed through
on their way to chapel; he craved the favor of a private audience.
The audience, at once granted, was in no sense private. The royal
drawing-room was full of old adherents, whose powdered heads, seen from
above, suggested a carpet of snow. There the Count met some old friends,
who received him somewhat coldly; but the princes he thought ADORABLE,
an enthusiastic expression which escaped him when the most gracious of
his masters, to whom the Count had supposed himself to be known only
by name, came to shake hands with him, and spoke of him as the most
thorough Vendeen of them all. Notwithstanding this ovation, none of
these august persons thought of inquiring as to the sum of his losses,
or of the money he had poured so generously into the chests of the
Catholic regiments. He discovered, a little late, that he had made war
at his own cost. Towards the end of the evening he thought he might
venture on a witty allusion to the state of his affairs, similar, as
it was, to that of many other gentlemen. His Majesty laughed heartily
enough; any speech that bore the hall-mark of wit was certain to please
him; but he nevertheless replied with one of those royal pleasantries
whose sweetness is more formidable than the anger of a rebuke. One of
the King's most intimate advisers took an opportunity of going up to the
fortune-seeking Vendeen, and made him understand by a keen and polite
hint that the time had not yet come for settling accounts with the
sovereign; that there were bills of much longer standing than his on the
books, and there, no doubt, they would remain, as part of the history of
the Revolution. The Count prudently withdrew from the venerable group,
which formed a respectful semi-circle before the august family; then,
having extricated his sword, not without some difficulty, from among the
lean legs which had got mixed up with it, he crossed the courtyard of
the Tuileries and got into the hackney cab he had left on the quay. With
the restive spirit, which is peculiar to the nobility of the old school,
in whom still survives the memory of the League and the day of the
Barricades (in 1588), he bewailed himself in his cab, loudly enough
to compromise him, over the change that had come over the Court.
"Formerly," he said to himself, "every one could speak freely to the
King of his own little affairs; the nobles could ask him a favor, or for
money, when it suited them, and nowadays one cannot recover the money
advanced for his service without raising a scandal! By Heaven! the cross
of Saint-Louis and the rank of brigadier-general will not make good the
three hundred thousand livres I have spent, out and out, on the royal
cause. I must speak to the King, face to face, in his own room."

This scene cooled Monsieur de Fontaine's ardor all the more effectually
because his requests for an interview were never answered. And,
indeed, he saw the upstarts of the Empire obtaining some of the offices
reserved, under the old monarchy, for the highest families.

"All is lost!" he exclaimed one morning. "The King has certainly never
been other than a revolutionary. But for Monsieur, who never derogates,
and is some comfort to his faithful adherents, I do not know what hands
the crown of France might not fall into if things are to go on
like this. Their cursed constitutional system is the worst possible
government, and can never suit France. Louis XVIII. and Monsieur Beugnot
spoiled everything at Saint Ouen."

The Count, in despair, was preparing to retire to his estate,
abandoning, with dignity, all claims to repayment. At this moment
the events of the 20th March (1815) gave warning of a fresh storm,
threatening to overwhelm the legitimate monarch and his defenders.
Monsieur de Fontaine, like one of those generous souls who do not
dismiss a servant in a torrent of rain; borrowed on his lands to
follow the routed monarchy, without knowing whether this complicity in
emigration would prove more propitious to him than his past devotion.
But when he perceived that the companions of the King's exile were
in higher favor than the brave men who had protested, sword in hand,
against the establishment of the republic, he may perhaps have hoped to
derive greater profit from this journey into a foreign land than from
active and dangerous service in the heart of his own country. Nor was
his courtier-like calculation one of these rash speculations which
promise splendid results on paper, and are ruinous in effect. He was - to
quote the wittiest and most successful of our diplomates - one of the
faithful five hundred who shared the exile of the Court at Ghent,
and one of the fifty thousand who returned with it. During the short
banishment of royalty, Monsieur de Fontaine was so happy as to be
employed by Louis XVIII., and found more than one opportunity of giving
him proofs of great political honesty and sincere attachment. One
evening, when the King had nothing better to do, he recalled Monsieur de
Fontaine's witticism at the Tuileries. The old Vendeen did not let such
a happy chance slip; he told his history with so much vivacity that
a king, who never forgot anything, might remember it at a convenient
season. The royal amateur of literature also observed the elegant style
given to some notes which the discreet gentleman had been invited to
recast. This little success stamped Monsieur de Fontaine on the King's
memory as one of the loyal servants of the Crown.

At the second restoration the Count was one of those special envoys who
were sent throughout the departments charged with absolute jurisdiction
over the leaders of revolt; but he used his terrible powers with
moderation. As soon as the temporary commission was ended, the High
Provost found a seat in the Privy Council, became a deputy, spoke
little, listened much, and changed his opinions very considerably.
Certain circumstances, unknown to historians, brought him into such
intimate relations with the Sovereign, that one day, as he came in, the
shrewd monarch addressed him thus: "My friend Fontaine, I shall take
care never to appoint you to be director-general, or minister. Neither
you nor I, as employees, could keep our place on account of our opinions.
Representative government has this advantage; it saves Us the trouble We
used to have, of dismissing Our Secretaries of State. Our Council is
a perfect inn-parlor, whither public opinion sometimes sends strange
travelers; however, We can always find a place for Our faithful
adherents."

This ironical speech was introductory to a rescript giving Monsieur de
Fontaine an appointment as administrator in the office of Crown lands.
As a consequence of the intelligent attention with which he listened to
his royal Friend's sarcasms, his name always rose to His Majesty's
lips when a commission was to be appointed of which the members were
to receive a handsome salary. He had the good sense to hold his tongue
about the favor with which he was honored, and knew how to entertain the
monarch in those familiar chats in which Louis XVIII. delighted as
much as in a well-written note, by his brilliant manner of
repeating political anecdotes, and the political or parliamentary
tittle-tattle - if the expression may pass - which at that time was rife.
It is well known that he was immensely amused by every detail of his
Gouvernementabilite - a word adopted by his facetious Majesty.

Thanks to the Comte de Fontaine's good sense, wit, and tact, every
member of his numerous family, however young, ended, as he jestingly
told his Sovereign, in attaching himself like a silkworm to the leaves
of the Pay-List. Thus, by the King's intervention, his eldest son
found a high and fixed position as a lawyer. The second, before the
restoration a mere captain, was appointed to the command of a legion on
the return from Ghent; then, thanks to the confusion of 1815, when the
regulations were evaded, he passed into the bodyguard, returned to a
line regiment, and found himself after the affair of the Trocadero
a lieutenant-general with a commission in the Guards. The youngest,
appointed sous-prefet, ere long became a legal official and director of
a municipal board of the city of Paris, where he was safe from changes
in Legislature. These bounties, bestowed without parade, and as secret
as the favor enjoyed by the Count, fell unperceived. Though the father
and his three sons each had sinecures enough to enjoy an income in
salaries almost equal to that of a chief of department, their political
good fortune excited no envy. In those early days of the constitutional
system, few persons had very precise ideas of the peaceful domain of the
civil service, where astute favorites managed to find an equivalent for
the demolished abbeys. Monsieur le Comte de Fontaine, who till lately
boasted that he had not read the Charter, and displayed such indignation
at the greed of courtiers, had, before long, proved to his august
master that he understood, as well as the King himself, the spirit
and resources of the representative system. At the same time,
notwithstanding the established careers open to his three sons, and the
pecuniary advantages derived from four official appointments,
Monsieur de Fontaine was the head of too large a family to be able to
re-establish his fortune easily and rapidly.

His three sons were rich in prospects, in favor, and in talent; but
he had three daughters, and was afraid of wearying the monarch's
benevolence. It occurred to him to mention only one by one, these
virgins eager to light their torches. The King had too much good
taste to leave his work incomplete. The marriage of the eldest with a
Receiver-General, Planat de Baudry, was arranged by one of those royal
speeches which cost nothing and are worth millions. One evening, when
the Sovereign was out of spirits, he smiled on hearing of the existence
of another Demoiselle de Fontaine, for whom he found a husband in the
person of a young magistrate, of inferior birth, no doubt, but wealthy,
and whom he created Baron. When, the year after, the Vendeen spoke of
Mademoiselle Emilie de Fontaine, the King replied in his thin sharp
tones, "Amicus Plato sed magis amica Natio." Then, a few days later, he
treated his "friend Fontaine" to a quatrain, harmless enough, which
he styled an epigram, in which he made fun of these three daughters so
skilfully introduced, under the form of a trinity. Nay, if report is to
be believed, the monarch had found the point of the jest in the Unity of
the three Divine Persons.

"If your Majesty would only condescend to turn the epigram into an
epithalamium?" said the Count, trying to turn the sally to good account.

"Though I see the rhyme of it, I fail to see the reason," retorted the
King, who did not relish any pleasantry, however mild, on the subject of
his poetry.

From that day his intercourse with Monsieur de Fontaine showed less
amenity. Kings enjoy contradicting more than people think. Like most
youngest children, Emilie de Fontaine was a Benjamin spoilt by almost
everybody. The King's coolness, therefore, caused the Count all the more
regret, because no marriage was ever so difficult to arrange as that of
this darling daughter. To understand all the obstacles we must make our
way into the fine residence where the official was housed at the expense
of the nation. Emilie had spent her childhood on the family estate,
enjoying the abundance which suffices for the joys of early youth; her
lightest wishes had been law to her sisters, her brothers, her mother,
and even her father. All her relations doted on her. Having come to
years of discretion just when her family was loaded with the favors of
fortune, the enchantment of life continued. The luxury of Paris seemed
to her just as natural as a wealth of flowers or fruit, or as the
rural plenty which had been the joy of her first years. Just as in her
childhood she had never been thwarted in the satisfaction of her playful
desires, so now, at fourteen, she was still obeyed when she rushed into
the whirl of fashion.

Thus, accustomed by degrees to the enjoyment of money, elegance of
dress, of gilded drawing-rooms and fine carriages, became as necessary
to her as the compliments of flattery, sincere or false, and the
festivities and vanities of court life. Like most spoiled children,
she tyrannized over those who loved her, and kept her blandishments for
those who were indifferent. Her faults grew with her growth, and her
parents were to gather the bitter fruits of this disastrous education.
At the age of nineteen Emilie de Fontaine had not yet been pleased to
make a choice from among the many young men whom her father's politics
brought to his entertainments. Though so young, she asserted in society
all the freedom of mind that a married woman can enjoy. Her beauty was
so remarkable that, for her, to appear in a room was to be its queen;
but, like sovereigns, she had no friends, though she was everywhere the
object of attentions to which a finer nature than hers might perhaps
have succumbed. Not a man, not even an old man, had it in him to
contradict the opinions of a young girl whose lightest look could
rekindle love in the coldest heart.

She had been educated with a care which her sisters had not enjoyed;
painted pretty well, spoke Italian and English, and played the piano
brilliantly; her voice, trained by the best masters, had a ring in it
which made her singing irresistibly charming. Clever, and intimate with
every branch of literature, she might have made folks believe that,
as Mascarille says, people of quality come into the world knowing
everything. She could argue fluently on Italian or Flemish painting, on
the Middle Ages or the Renaissance; pronounced at haphazard on books new
or old, and could expose the defects of a work with a cruelly graceful
wit. The simplest thing she said was accepted by an admiring crowd as a
fetfah of the Sultan by the Turks. She thus dazzled shallow persons; as
to deeper minds, her natural tact enabled her to discern them, and for
them she put forth so much fascination that, under cover of her charms,
she escaped their scrutiny. This enchanting veneer covered a careless
heart; the opinion - common to many young girls - that no one else dwelt
in a sphere so lofty as to be able to understand the merits of her
soul; and a pride based no less on her birth than on her beauty. In
the absence of the overwhelming sentiment which, sooner or later, works
havoc in a woman's heart, she spent her young ardor in an immoderate
love of distinctions, and expressed the deepest contempt for persons of
inferior birth. Supremely impertinent to all newly-created nobility, she
made every effort to get her parents recognized as equals by the most
illustrious families of the Saint-Germain quarter.

These sentiments had not escaped the observing eye of Monsieur de
Fontaine, who more than once, when his two elder girls were married, had
smarted under Emilie's sarcasm. Logical readers will be surprised to see
the old Royalist bestowing his eldest daughter on a Receiver-General,
possessed, indeed, of some old hereditary estates, but whose name
was not preceded by the little word to which the throne owed so many
partisans, and his second to a magistrate too lately Baronified to
obscure the fact that his father had sold firewood. This noteworthy
change in the ideas of a noble on the verge of his sixtieth year - an age
when men rarely renounce their convictions - was due not merely to his
unfortunate residence in the modern Babylon, where, sooner or later,
country folks all get their corners rubbed down; the Comte de Fontaine's
new political conscience was also a result of the King's advice and
friendship. The philosophical prince had taken pleasure in converting
the Vendeen to the ideas required by the advance of the nineteenth
century, and the new aspect of the Monarchy. Louis XVIII. aimed at
fusing parties as Napoleon had fused things and men. The legitimate
King, who was not less clever perhaps than his rival, acted in a
contrary direction. The last head of the House of Bourbon was just as
eager to satisfy the third estate and the creations of the Empire, by
curbing the clergy, as the first of the Napoleons had been to attract
the grand old nobility, or to endow the Church. The Privy Councillor,
being in the secret of these royal projects, had insensibly become one
of the most prudent and influential leaders of that moderate party which
most desired a fusion of opinion in the interests of the nation. He
preached the expensive doctrines of constitutional government, and lent
all his weight to encourage the political see-saw which enabled his
master to rule France in the midst of storms. Perhaps Monsieur de
Fontaine hoped that one of the sudden gusts of legislation, whose
unexpected efforts then startled the oldest politicians, might carry
him up to the rank of peer. One of his most rigid principles was to
recognize no nobility in France but that of the peerage - the only
families that might enjoy any privileges.

"A nobility bereft of privileges," he would say, "is a tool without a
handle."

As far from Lafayette's party as he was from La Bourdonnaye's, he
ardently engaged in the task of general reconciliation, which was to
result in a new era and splendid fortunes for France. He strove to
convince the families who frequented his drawing-room, or those whom
he visited, how few favorable openings would henceforth be offered by a
civil or military career. He urged mothers to give their boys a start in
independent and industrial professions, explaining that military posts
and high Government appointments must at last pertain, in a quite
constitutional order, to the younger sons of members of the peerage.
According to him, the people had conquered a sufficiently large share
in practical government by its elective assembly, its appointments to
law-offices, and those of the exchequer, which, said he, would always,
as heretofore, be the natural right of the distinguished men of the
third estate.

These new notions of the head of the Fontaines, and the prudent matches
for his eldest girls to which they had led, met with strong resistance
in the bosom of his family. The Comtesse de Fontaine remained faithful
to the ancient beliefs which no woman could disown, who, through her
mother, belonged to the Rohans. Although she had for a while opposed
the happiness and fortune awaiting her two eldest girls, she yielded
to those private considerations which husband and wife confide to each
other when their heads are resting on the same pillow. Monsieur de
Fontaine calmly pointed out to his wife, by exact arithmetic that their
residence in Paris, the necessity for entertaining, the magnificence of
the house which made up to them now for the privations so bravely shared
in La Vendee, and the expenses of their sons, swallowed up the chief
part of their income from salaries. They must therefore seize, as a boon
from heaven, the opportunities which offered for settling their girls
with such wealth. Would they not some day enjoy sixty - eighty - a hundred
thousand francs a year? Such advantageous matches were not to be met
with every day for girls without a portion. Again, it was time that they
should begin to think of economizing, to add to the estate of Fontaine,
and re-establish the old territorial fortune of the family. The Countess
yielded to such cogent arguments, as every mother would have done in her
place, though perhaps with a better grace; but she declared that Emilie,
at any rate, should marry in such a way as to satisfy the pride she had
unfortunately contributed to foster in the girl's young soul.

Thus events, which ought to have brought joy into the family, had
introduced a small leaven of discord. The Receiver-General and the young
lawyer were the objects of a ceremonious formality which the Countess
and Emilie contrived to create. This etiquette soon found even ampler
opportunity for the display of domestic tyranny; for Lieutenant-General
de Fontaine married Mademoiselle Mongenod, the daughter of a rich
banker; the President very sensibly found a wife in a young lady whose
father, twice or thrice a millionaire, had traded in salt; and the
third brother, faithful to his plebeian doctrines, married Mademoiselle
Grossetete, the only daughter of the Receiver-General at Bourges. The
three sisters-in-law and the two brothers-in-law found the high
sphere of political bigwigs, and the drawing-rooms of the Faubourg
Saint-Germain, so full of charm and of personal advantages, that they
united in forming a little court round the overbearing Emilie. This
treaty between interest and pride was not, however, so firmly cemented
but that the young despot was, not unfrequently, the cause of revolts
in her little realm. Scenes, which the highest circles would not have
disowned, kept up a sarcastic temper among all the members of this
powerful family; and this, without seriously diminishing the regard they
professed in public, degenerated sometimes in private into sentiments
far from charitable. Thus the Lieutenant-General's wife, having become
a Baronne, thought herself quite as noble as a Kergarouet, and imagined
that her good hundred thousand francs a year gave her the right to be as
impertinent as her sister-in-law Emilie, whom she would sometimes wish
to see happily married, as she announced that the daughter of some peer
of France had married Monsieur So-and-So with no title to his name. The
Vicomtesse de Fontaine amused herself by eclipsing Emilie in the taste
and magnificence that were conspicuous in her dress, her furniture, and
her carriages. The satirical spirit in which her brothers and sisters
sometimes received the claims avowed by Mademoiselle de Fontaine roused
her to wrath that a perfect hailstorm of sharp sayings could hardly
mitigate. So when the head of the family felt a slight chill in the
King's tacit and precarious friendship, he trembled all the more
because, as a result of her sisters' defiant mockery, his favorite
daughter had never looked so high.

In the midst of these circumstances, and at a moment when this petty
domestic warfare had become serious, the monarch, whose favor Monsieur
de Fontaine still hoped to regain, was attacked by the malady of which


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