Copyright
Honoré de Balzac.

A Distinguished Provincial at Paris online

. (page 12 of 29)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacA Distinguished Provincial at Paris → online text (page 12 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


him as one man.

"You will find it no easy matter to get seats," said the head-clerk.
"There is nothing left now but the stage box."

A certain amount of time was wasted in controversies with the
box-keepers in the lobbies, when Etienne said, "Let us go behind
the scenes; we will speak to the manager, he will take us into the
stage-box; and besides, I will introduce you to Florine, the heroine of
the evening."

At a sign from Etienne Lousteau, the doorkeeper of the orchestra took
out a little key and unlocked a door in the thickness of the wall.
Lucien, following his friend, went suddenly out of the lighted corridor
into the black darkness of the passage between the house and the wings.
A short flight of damp steps surmounted, one of the strangest of all
spectacles opened out before the provincial poet's eyes. The height of
the roof, the slenderness of the props, the ladders hung with Argand
lamps, the atrocious ugliness of scenery beheld at close quarters, the
thick paint on the actors' faces, and their outlandish costumes, made
of such coarse materials, the stage carpenters in greasy jackets, the
firemen, the stage manager strutting about with his hat on his head,
the supernumeraries sitting among the hanging back-scenes, the ropes
and pulleys, the heterogeneous collection of absurdities, shabby, dirty,
hideous, and gaudy, was something so altogether different from the stage
seen over the footlights, that Lucien's astonishment knew no bounds.
The curtain was just about to fall on a good old-fashioned melodrama
entitled _Bertram_, a play adapted from a tragedy by Maturin which
Charles Nodier, together with Byron and Sir Walter Scott, held in the
highest esteem, though the play was a failure on the stage in Paris.

"Keep a tight hold of my arm, unless you have a mind to fall through
a trap-door, or bring down a forest on your head; you will pull down
a palace, or carry off a cottage, if you are not careful," said
Etienne. - "Is Florine in her dressing-room, my pet?" he added,
addressing an actress who stood waiting for her cue.

"Yes, love. Thank you for the things you said about me. You are so much
nicer since Florine has come here."

"Come, don't spoil your entry, little one. Quick with you, look sharp,
and say, 'Stop, wretched man!' nicely, for there are two thousand francs
of takings."

Lucien was struck with amazement when the girl's whole face suddenly
changed, and she shrieked, "Stop, wretched man!" a cry that froze the
blood in your veins. She was no longer the same creature.

"So this is the stage," he said to Lousteau.

"It is like the bookseller's shop in the Wooden Galleries, or a literary
paper," said Etienne Lousteau; "it is a kitchen, neither more nor less."

Nathan appeared at this moment.

"What brings you here?" inquired Lousteau.

"Why, I am doing the minor theatres for the _Gazette_ until something
better turns up."

"Oh! come to supper with us this evening; speak well of Florine, and I
will do as much for you."

"Very much at your service," returned Nathan.

"You know; she is living in the Rue du Bondy now."

"Lousteau, dear boy, who is the handsome young man that you have brought
with you?" asked the actress, now returned to the wings.

"A great poet, dear, that will have a famous name one of these days. - M.
Nathan, I must introduce M. Lucien de Rubempre to you, as you are to
meet again at supper."

"You have a good name, monsieur," said Nathan.

"Lucien, M. Raoul Nathan," continued Etienne.

"I read your book two days ago; and, upon my word, I cannot understand
how you, who have written such a book, and such poetry, can be so humble
to a journalist."

"Wait till your first book comes out," said Nathan, and a shrewd smile
flitted over his face.

"I say! I say! here are Ultras and Liberals actually shaking hands!"
cried Vernou, spying the trio.

"In the morning I hold the views of my paper," said Nathan, "in the
evening I think as I please; all journalists see double at night."

Felicien Vernou turned to Lousteau.

"Finot is looking for you, Etienne; he came with me, and - here he is!"

"Ah, by the by, there is not a place in the house, is there?" asked
Finot.

"You will always find a place in our hearts," said the actress, with the
sweetest smile imaginable.

"I say, my little Florville, are you cured already of your fancy? They
told me that a Russian prince had carried you off."

"Who carries off women in these days" said Florville (she who had cried,
"Stop, wretched man!"). "We stayed at Saint-Mande for ten days, and
my prince got off with paying the forfeit money to the management.
The manager will go down on his knees to pray for some more Russian
princes," Florville continued, laughing; "the forfeit money was so much
clear gain."

"And as for you, child," said Finot, turning to a pretty girl in a
peasant's costume, "where did you steal these diamond ear-drops? Have
you hooked an Indian prince?"

"No, a blacking manufacturer, an Englishman, who has gone off already.
It is not everybody who can find millionaire shopkeepers, tired of
domestic life, whenever they like, as Florine does and Coralie. Aren't
they just lucky?"

"Florville, you will make a bad entry," said Lousteau; "the blacking has
gone to your head!"

"If you want a success," said Nathan, "instead of screaming, 'He is
saved!' like a Fury, walk on quite quietly, go to the staircase, and
say, 'He is saved,' in a chest voice, like Pasta's '_O patria_,' in
_Tancreda_. - There, go along!" and he pushed her towards the stage.

"It is too late," said Vernou, "the effect has hung fire."

"What did she do? the house is applauding like mad," asked Lousteau.

"Went down on her knees and showed her bosom; that is her great
resource," said the blacking-maker's widow.

"The manager is giving up the stage box to us; you will find me there
when you come," said Finot, as Lousteau walked off with Lucien.

At the back of the stage, through a labyrinth of scenery and corridors,
the pair climbed several flights of stairs and reached a little room on
a third floor, Nathan and Felicien Vernou following them.

"Good-day or good-night, gentlemen," said Florine. Then, turning to a
short, stout man standing in a corner, "These gentlemen are the rulers
of my destiny," she said, "my future is in their hands; but they will be
under our table to-morrow morning, I hope, if M. Lousteau has forgotten
nothing - - "

"Forgotten! You are going to have Blondet of the _Debats_," said
Etienne, "the genuine Blondet, the very Blondet - Blondet himself, in
short."

"Oh! Lousteau, you dear boy! stop, I must give you a kiss," and she
flung her arms about the journalist's neck. Matifat, the stout person in
the corner, looked serious at this.

Florine was thin; her beauty, like a bud, gave promise of the flower
to come; the girl of sixteen could only delight the eyes of artists
who prefer the sketch to the picture. All the quick subtlety of her
character was visible in the features of the charming actress, who
at that time might have sat for Goethe's Mignon. Matifat, a wealthy
druggist of the Rue des Lombards, had imagined that a little Boulevard
actress would have no very expensive tastes, but in eleven months
Florine had cost him sixty thousand francs. Nothing seemed more
extraordinary to Lucien than the sight of an honest and worthy merchant
standing like a statue of the god Terminus in the actress' narrow
dressing-room, a tiny place some ten feet square, hung with a pretty
wall-paper, and adorned with a full-length mirror, a sofa, and two
chairs. There was a fireplace in the dressing-closet, a carpet on the
floor, and cupboards all round the room. A dresser was putting the
finishing touches to a Spanish costume; for Florine was to take the part
of a countess in an imbroglio.

"That girl will be the handsomest actress in Paris in five years' time,"
said Nathan, turning to Felicien Vernou.

"By the by, darlings, you will take care of me to-morrow, won't you?"
said Florine, turning to the three journalists. "I have engaged cabs for
to-night, for I am going to send you home as tipsy as Shrove Tuesday.
Matifat has sent in wines - oh! wines worthy of Louis XVIII., and engaged
the Prussian ambassador's cook."

"We expect something enormous from the look of the gentleman," remarked
Nathan.

"And he is quite aware that he is treating the most dangerous men in
Paris," added Florine.

Matifat was looking uneasily at Lucien; he felt jealous of the young
man's good looks.

"But here is some one that I do not know," Florine continued,
confronting Lucien. "Which of you has imported the Apollo Belvedere from
Florence? He is as charming as one of Girodet's figures."

"He is a poet, mademoiselle, from the provinces. I forgot to present him
to you; you are so beautiful to-night that you put the _Complete Guide
to Etiquette_ out of a man's head - - "

"Is he so rich that he can afford to write poetry?" asked Florine.

"Poor as Job," said Lucien.

"It is a great temptation for some of us," said the actress.

Just then the author of the play suddenly entered, and Lucien beheld
M. du Bruel, a short, attenuated young man in an overcoat, a composite
human blend of the jack-in-office, the owner of house-property, and the
stockbroker.

"Florine, child," said this personage, "are you sure of your part, eh?
No slips of memory, you know. And mind that scene in the second act,
make the irony tell, bring out that subtle touch; say, 'I do not love
you,' just as we agreed."

"Why do you take parts in which you have to say such things?" asked
Matifat.

The druggist's remark was received with a general shout of laughter.

"What does it matter to you," said Florine, "so long as I don't say such
things to you, great stupid? - Oh! his stupidity is the pleasure of my
life," she continued, glancing at the journalist. "Upon my word, I would
pay him so much for every blunder, if it would not be the ruin of me."

"Yes, but you will look at me when you say it, as you do when you are
rehearsing, and it gives me a turn," remonstrated the druggist.

"Very well, then, I will look at my friend Lousteau here."

A bell rang outside in the passage.

"Go out, all of you!" cried Florine; "let me read my part over again and
try to understand it."

Lucien and Lousteau were the last to go. Lousteau set a kiss on
Florine's shoulder, and Lucien heard her say, "Not to-night. Impossible.
That stupid old animal told his wife that he was going out into the
country."

"Isn't she charming?" said Etienne, as they came away.

"But - but that Matifat, my dear fellow - - "

"Oh! you know nothing of Parisian life, my boy. Some things cannot be
helped. Suppose that you fell in love with a married woman, it comes to
the same thing. It all depends on the way that you look at it."

Etienne and Lucien entered the stage-box, and found the manager there
with Finot. Matifat was in the ground-floor box exactly opposite with a
friend of his, a silk-mercer named Camusot (Coralie's protector), and a
worthy little old soul, his father-in-law. All three of these city men
were polishing their opera-glasses, and anxiously scanning the house;
certain symptoms in the pit appeared to disturb them. The usual
heterogeneous first-night elements filled the boxes - journalists and
their mistresses, _lorettes_ and their lovers, a sprinkling of the
determined playgoers who never miss a first night if they can help it,
and a very few people of fashion who care for this sort of sensation.
The first box was occupied by the head of a department, to whom
du Bruel, maker of vaudevilles, owed a snug little sinecure in the
Treasury.

Lucien had gone from surprise to surprise since the dinner at
Flicoteaux's. For two months Literature had meant a life of poverty and
want; in Lousteau's room he had seen it at its cynical worst; in the
Wooden Galleries he had met Literature abject and Literature insolent.
The sharp contrasts of heights and depths; of compromise with
conscience; of supreme power and want of principle; of treachery and
pleasure; of mental elevation and bondage - all this made his head swim,
he seemed to be watching some strange unheard-of drama.

Finot was talking with the manager. "Do you think du Bruel's piece will
pay?" he asked.

"Du Bruel has tried to do something in Beaumarchais' style. Boulevard
audiences don't care for that kind of thing; they like harrowing
sensations; wit is not much appreciated here. Everything depends on
Florine and Coralie to-night; they are bewitchingly pretty and graceful,
wear very short skirts, and dance a Spanish dance, and possibly they
may carry off the piece with the public. The whole affair is a gambling
speculation. A few clever notices in the papers, and I may make a
hundred thousand crowns, if the play takes."

"Oh! come, it will only be a moderate success, I can see," said Finot.

"Three of the theatres have got up a plot," continued the manager; "they
will even hiss the piece, but I have made arrangements to defeat their
kind intentions. I have squared the men in their pay; they will make a
muddle of it. A couple of city men yonder have taken a hundred tickets
apiece to secure a triumph for Florine and Coralie, and given them to
acquaintances able and ready to act as chuckers out. The fellows, having
been paid twice, will go quietly, and a scene of that sort always makes
a good impression on the house."

"Two hundred tickets! What invaluable men!" exclaimed Finot.

"Yes. With two more actresses as handsomely kept as Florine and Coralie,
I should make something out of the business."

For the past two hours the word money had been sounding in Lucien's ears
as the solution of every difficulty. In the theatre as in the publishing
trade, and in the publishing trade as in the newspaper-office - it was
everywhere the same; there was not a word of art or of glory. The steady
beat of the great pendulum, Money, seemed to fall like hammer-strokes
on his heart and brain. And yet while the orchestra played the
overture, while the pit was full of noisy tumult of applause and hisses,
unconsciously he drew a comparison between this scene and others
that came up in his mind. Visions arose before him of David and the
printing-office, of the poetry that he came to know in that atmosphere
of pure peace, when together they beheld the wonders of Art, the high
successes of genius, and visions of glory borne on stainless wings. He
thought of the evenings spent with d'Arthez and his friends, and tears
glittered in his eyes.

"What is the matter with you?" asked Etienne Lousteau.

"I see poetry fallen into the mire."

"Ah! you have still some illusions left, my dear fellow."

"Is there nothing for it but to cringe and submit to thickheads like
Matifat and Camusot, as actresses bow down to journalists, and we
ourselves to the booksellers?"

"My boy, do you see that dull-brained fellow?" said Etienne, lowering
his voice, and glancing at Finot. "He has neither genius nor cleverness,
but he is covetous; he means to make a fortune at all costs, and he is
a keen man of business. Didn't you see how he made forty per cent out
of me at Dauriat's, and talked as if he were doing me a favor? - Well, he
gets letters from not a few unknown men of genius who go down on their
knees to him for a hundred francs."

The words recalled the pen-and-ink sketch that lay on the table in the
editor's office and the words, "Finot, my hundred francs!" Lucien's
inmost soul shrank from the man in disgust.

"I would sooner die," he said.

"Sooner live," retorted Etienne.

The curtain rose, and the stage-manager went off to the wings to give
orders. Finot turned to Etienne.

"My dear fellow, Dauriat has passed his word; I am proprietor of
one-third of his weekly paper. I have agreed to give thirty thousand
francs in cash, on condition that I am to be editor and director. 'Tis
a splendid thing. Blondet told me that the Government intends to take
restrictive measures against the press; there will be no new papers
allowed; in six months' time it will cost a million francs to start
a new journal, so I struck a bargain though I have only ten thousand
francs in hand. Listen to me. If you can sell one-half of my share, that
is one-sixth of the paper, to Matifat for thirty thousand francs, you
shall be editor of my little paper with a salary of two hundred and
fifty francs per month. I want in any case to have the control of my old
paper, and to keep my hold upon it; but nobody need know that, and your
name will appear as editor. You will be paid at the rate of five francs
per column; you need not pay contributors more than three francs, and
you keep the difference. That means another four hundred and fifty
francs per month. But, at the same time, I reserve the right to use
the paper to attack or defend men or causes, as I please; and you may
indulge your own likes and dislikes so long as you do not interfere with
my schemes. Perhaps I may be a Ministerialist, perhaps Ultra, I do not
know yet; but I mean to keep up my connections with the Liberal party
(below the surface). I can speak out with you; you are a good fellow. I
might, perhaps, give you the Chambers to do for another paper on which I
work; I am afraid I can scarcely keep on with it now. So let Florine do
this bit of jockeying; tell her to put the screw on her druggist. If
I can't find the money within forty-eight hours, I must cry off my
bargain. Dauriat sold another third to his printer and paper-dealer
for thirty thousand francs; so he has his own third _gratis_, and ten
thousand francs to the good, for he only gave fifty thousand for the
whole affair. And in another year's time the magazine will be worth two
hundred thousand francs, if the Court buys it up; if the Court has the
good sense to suppress newspapers, as they say."

"You are lucky," said Lousteau.

"If you had gone through all that I have endured, you would not say that
of me. I had my fill of misery in those days, you see, and there was no
help for it. My father is a hatter; he still keeps a shop in the Rue du
Coq. Nothing but millions of money or a social cataclysm can open out
the way to my goal; and of the two alternatives, I don't know now that
the revolution is not the easier. If I bore your friend's name, I should
have a chance to get on. Hush, here comes the manager. Good-bye," and
Finot rose to his feet, "I am going to the Opera. I shall very likely
have a duel on my hands to-morrow, for I have put my initials to a
terrific attack on a couple of dancers under the protection of two
Generals. I am giving it them hot and strong at the Opera."

"Aha?" said the manager.

"Yes. They are stingy with me," returned Finot, "now cutting off a
box, and now declining to take fifty subscriptions. I have sent in my
_ultimatum_; I mean to have a hundred subscriptions out of them and
a box four times a month. If they take my terms, I shall have eight
hundred readers and a thousand paying subscribers, so we shall have
twelve hundred with the New Year."

"You will end by ruining us," said the manager.

"_You_ are not much hurt with your ten subscriptions. I had two good
notices put into the _Constitutionnel_."

"Oh! I am not complaining of you," cried the manager.

"Good-bye till to-morrow evening, Lousteau," said Finot. "You can give
me your answer at the Francais; there is a new piece on there; and as I
shall not be able to write the notice, you can take my box. I will
give you preference; you have worked yourself to death for me, and I
am grateful. Felicien Vernou offered twenty thousand francs for a
third share of my little paper, and to work without a salary for a
twelvemonth; but I want to be absolute master. Good-bye."

"He is not named Finot" (_finaud_, slyboots) "for nothing," said Lucien.

"He is a gallows-bird that will get on in the world," said Etienne,
careless whether the wily schemer overheard the remark or not, as he
shut the door of the box.

"_He_!" said the manager. "He will be a millionaire; he will enjoy the
respect of all who know him; he may perhaps have friends some day - - "

"Good heavens! what a den!" said Lucien. "And are you going to drag
that excellent creature into such a business?" he continued, looking at
Florine, who gave them side glances from the stage.

"She will carry it through too. You do not know the devotion and the
wiles of these beloved beings," said Lousteau.

"They redeem their failings and expiate all their sins by boundless
love, when they love," said the manager. "A great love is all the
grander in an actress by reason of its violent contrast with her
surroundings."

"And he who finds it, finds a diamond worthy of the proudest crown lying
in the mud," returned Lousteau.

"But Coralie is not attending to her part," remarked the manager.
"Coralie is smitten with our friend here, all unsuspicious of his
conquest, and Coralie will make a fiasco; she is missing her cues, this
is the second time she had not heard the prompter. Pray, go into the
corner, monsieur," he continued. "If Coralie is smitten with you, I will
go and tell her that you have left the house."

"No! no!" cried Lousteau; "tell Coralie that this gentleman is coming
to supper, and that she can do as she likes with him, and she will play
like Mlle. Mars."

The manager went, and Lucien turned to Etienne. "What! do you mean
to say that you will ask that druggist, through Mlle. Florine, to pay
thirty thousand francs for one-half a share, when Finot gave no more for
the whole of it? And ask without the slightest scruple? - - "

Lousteau interrupted Lucien before he had time to finish his
expostulation. "My dear boy, what country can you come from? The
druggist is not a man; he is a strong box delivered into our hands by
his fancy for an actress."

"How about your conscience?"

"Conscience, my dear fellow, is a stick which every one takes up to beat
his neighbor and not for application to his own back. Come, now! who
the devil are you angry with? In one day chance has worked a miracle for
you, a miracle for which I have been waiting these two years, and you
must needs amuse yourself by finding fault with the means? What! you
appear to me to possess intelligence; you seem to be in a fair way
to reach that freedom from prejudice which is a first necessity to
intellectual adventurers in the world we live in; and are you wallowing
in scruples worthy of a nun who accuses herself of eating an egg with
concupiscence?... If Florine succeeds, I shall be editor of a newspaper
with a fixed salary of two hundred and fifty francs per month; I shall
take the important plays and leave the vaudevilles to Vernou, and you
can take my place and do the Boulevard theatres, and so get a foot in
the stirrup. You will make three francs per column and write a column
a day - thirty columns a month means ninety francs; you will have some
sixty francs worth of books to sell to Barbet; and lastly, you can
demand ten tickets a month of each of your theatres - that is, forty
tickets in all - and sell them for forty francs to a Barbet who deals
in them (I will introduce you to the man), so you will have two hundred
francs coming in every month. Then if you make yourself useful to Finot,
you might get a hundred francs for an article in this new weekly review
of his, in which case you would show uncommon talent, for all the
articles are signed, and you cannot put in slip-shod work as you can
on a small paper. In that case you would be making a hundred crowns
a month. Now, my dear boy, there are men of ability, like that poor
d'Arthez, who dines at Flicoteaux's every day, who may wait for ten
years before they will make a hundred crowns; and you will be making
four thousand francs a year by your pen, to say nothing of the books you
will write for the trade, if you do work of that kind.

"Now, a sub-prefect's salary only amounts to a thousand crowns, and
there he stops in his arrondissement, wearing away time like the rung of
a chair. I say nothing of the pleasure of going to the theatre without
paying for your seat, for that is a delight which quickly palls; but you
can go behind the scenes in four theatres. Be hard and sarcastic for a
month or two, and you will be simply overwhelmed with invitations from
actresses, and their adorers will pay court to you; you will only dine
at Flicoteaux's when you happen to have less than thirty sous in your
pocket and no dinner engagement. At the Luxembourg, at five o'clock, you
did not know which way to turn; now, you are on the eve of entering a
privileged class, you will be one of the hundred persons who tell France



Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacA Distinguished Provincial at Paris → online text (page 12 of 29)