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Honoré de Balzac.

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France; and the press has more wit than all men of intellect put
together, and the hypocrisy of Tartufe besides."

"Blondet! Blondet! you are going too far!" called Finot. "Subscribers
are present."

"You are the proprietor of one of those poison shops; you have reason to
be afraid; but I can laugh at the whole business, even if I live by it."

"Blondet is right," said Claude Vignon. "Journalism, so far from being
in the hands of a priesthood, came to be first a party weapon, and then
a commercial speculation, carried on without conscience or scruple, like
other commercial speculations. Every newspaper, as Blondet says, is a
shop to which people come for opinions of the right shade. If there were
a paper for hunchbacks, it would set forth plainly, morning and evening,
in its columns, the beauty, the utility, and necessity of deformity. A
newspaper is not supposed to enlighten its readers, but to supply them
with congenial opinions. Give any newspaper time enough, and it will
be base, hypocritical, shameless, and treacherous; the periodical press
will be the death of ideas, systems, and individuals; nay, it will
flourish upon their decay. It will take the credit of all creations
of the brain; the harm that it does is done anonymously. We, for
instance - I, Claude Vignon; you, Blondet; you, Lousteau; and you,
Finot - we are all Platos, Aristides, and Catos, Plutarch's men, in
short; we are all immaculate; we may wash our hands of all iniquity.
Napoleon's sublime aphorism, suggested by his study of the Convention,
'No one individual is responsible for a crime committed collectively,'
sums up the whole significance of a phenomenon, moral or immoral,
whichever you please. However shamefully a newspaper may behave, the
disgrace attaches to no one person."

"The authorities will resort to repressive legislation," interposed du
Bruel. "A law is going to be passed, in fact."

"Pooh!" retorted Nathan. "What is the law in France against the spirit
in which it is received, the most subtle of all solvents?"

"Ideas and opinions can only be counteracted by opinions and ideas,"
Vignon continued. "By sheer terror and despotism, and by no other means,
can you extinguish the genius of the French nation; for the language
lends itself admirably to allusion and ambiguity. Epigram breaks out the
more for repressive legislation; it is like steam in an engine without
a safety-valve. - The King, for example, does right; if a newspaper is
against him, the Minister gets all the credit of the measure, and _vice
versa_. A newspaper invents a scandalous libel - it has been misinformed.
If the victim complains, the paper gets off with an apology for
taking so great a freedom. If the case is taken into court, the editor
complains that nobody asked him to rectify the mistake; but ask for
redress, and he will laugh in your face and treat his offence as a
mere trifle. The paper scoffs if the victim gains the day; and if
heavy damages are awarded, the plaintiff is held up as an unpatriotic
obscurantist and a menace to the liberties of the country. In the course
of an article purporting to explain that Monsieur So-and-so is as honest
a man as you will find in the kingdom, you are informed that he is not
better than a common thief. The sins of the press? Pooh! mere trifles;
the curtailers of its liberties are monsters; and give him time enough,
the constant reader is persuaded to believe anything you please.
Everything which does not suit the newspaper will be unpatriotic, and
the press will be infallible. One religion will be played off against
another, and the Charter against the King. The press will hold up the
magistracy to scorn for meting out rigorous justice to the press, and
applaud its action when it serves the cause of party hatred. The most
sensational fictions will be invented to increase the circulation;
Journalism will descend to mountebanks' tricks worthy of Bobeche;
Journalism would serve up its father with the Attic salt of its own wit
sooner than fail to interest or amuse the public; Journalism will outdo
the actor who put his son's ashes into the urn to draw real tears from
his eyes, or the mistress who sacrifices everything to her lover."

"Journalism is, in fact, the People in folio form," interrupted Blondet.

"The people with hypocrisy added and generosity lacking," said Vignon.
"All real ability will be driven out from the ranks of Journalism,
as Aristides was driven into exile by the Athenians. We shall see
newspapers started in the first instance by men of honor, falling sooner
or later into the hands of men of abilities even lower than the
average, but endowed with the resistance of flexibility of india-rubber,
qualities denied to noble genius; nay, perhaps the future newspaper
proprietor will be the tradesman with capital sufficient to buy venal
pens. We see such things already indeed, but in ten years' time every
little youngster that has left school will take himself for a great man,
slash his predecessors from the lofty height of a newspaper column, drag
them down by the feet, and take their place.

"Napoleon did wisely when he muzzled the press. I would wager that the
Opposition papers would batter down a government of their own setting
up, just as they are battering the present government, if any demand
was refused. The more they have, the more they will want in the way
of concessions. The _parvenu_ journalist will be succeeded by the
starveling hack. There is no salve for this sore. It is a kind of
corruption which grows more and more obtrusive and malignant; the wider
it spreads, the more patiently it will be endured, until the day
comes when newspapers shall so increase and multiply in the earth that
confusion will be the result - a second Babel. We, all of us, such as
we are, have reason to know that crowned kings are less ungrateful than
kings of our profession; that the most sordid man of business is not so
mercenary nor so keen in speculation; that our brains are consumed to
furnish their daily supply of poisonous trash. And yet we, all of us,
shall continue to write, like men who work in quicksilver mines, knowing
that they are doomed to die of their trade.

"Look there," he continued, "at that young man sitting beside
Coralie - what is his name? Lucien! He has a beautiful face; he is a
poet; and what is more, he is witty - so much the better for him. Well,
he will cross the threshold of one of those dens where a man's intellect
is prostituted; he will put all his best and finest thought into his
work; he will blunt his intellect and sully his soul; he will be guilty
of anonymous meannesses which take the place of stratagem, pillage, and
ratting to the enemy in the warfare of _condottieri_. And when, like
hundreds more, he has squandered his genius in the service of others who
find the capital and do no work, those dealers in poisons will leave him
to starve if he is thirsty, and to die of thirst if he is starving."

"Thanks," said Finot.

"But, dear me," continued Claude Vignon, "_I_ knew all this, yet here am
I in the galleys, and the arrival of another convict gives me pleasure.
We are cleverer, Blondet and I, than Messieurs This and That, who
speculate in our abilities, yet nevertheless we are always exploited by
them. We have a heart somewhere beneath the intellect; we have NOT
the grim qualities of the man who makes others work for him. We are
indolent, we like to look on at the game, we are meditative, and we are
fastidious; they will sweat our brains and blame us for improvidence."

"I thought you would be more amusing than this!" said Florine.

"Florine is right," said Blondet; "let us leave the cure of public evils
to those quacks the statesmen. As Charlet says, 'Quarrel with my own
bread and butter? _Never_!'"

"Do you know what Vignon puts me in mind of?" said Lousteau. "Of one of
those fat women in the Rue du Pelican telling a schoolboy, 'My boy, you
are too young to come here.'"

A burst of laughter followed the sally, but it pleased Coralie. The
merchants meanwhile ate and drank and listened.

"What a nation this is! You see so much good in it and so much evil,"
said the Minister, addressing the Duc de Rhetore. - "You are prodigals
who cannot ruin yourselves, gentlemen."

And so, by the blessing of chance, Lucien, standing on the brink of
the precipice over which he was destined to fall, heard warnings on all
sides. D'Arthez had set him on the right road, had shown him the noble
method of work, and aroused in him the spirit before which all obstacles
disappear. Lousteau himself (partly from selfish motives) had tried to
warn him away by describing Journalism and Literature in their practical
aspects. Lucien had refused to believe that there could be so much
hidden corruption; but now he had heard the journalists themselves
crying woe for their hurt, he had seen them at their work, had watched
them tearing their foster-mother's heart to read auguries of the future.

That evening he had seen things as they are. He beheld the very heart's
core of corruption of that Paris which Blucher so aptly described; and
so far from shuddering at the sight, he was intoxicated with enjoyment
of the intellectually stimulating society in which he found himself.

These extraordinary men, clad in armor damascened by their vices, these
intellects environed by cold and brilliant analysis, seemed so
far greater in his eyes than the grave and earnest members of the
brotherhood. And besides all this, he was reveling in his first taste of
luxury; he had fallen under the spell. His capricious instincts awoke;
for the first time in his life he drank exquisite wines, this was
his first experience of cookery carried to the pitch of a fine art.
A minister, a duke, and an opera-dancer had joined the party of
journalists, and wondered at their sinister power. Lucien felt a
horrible craving to reign over these kings, and he thought that he had
power to win his kingdom. Finally, there was this Coralie, made happy by
a few words of his. By the bright light of the wax-candles, through
the steam of the dishes and the fumes of wine, she looked sublimely
beautiful to his eyes, so fair had she grown with love. She was the
loveliest, the most beautiful actress in Paris. The brotherhood, the
heaven of noble thoughts, faded away before a temptation that appealed
to every fibre of his nature. How could it have been otherwise? Lucien's
author's vanity had just been gratified by the praises of those who
know; by the appreciation of his future rivals; the success of his
articles and his conquest of Coralie might have turned an older head
than his.

During the discussion, moreover, every one at table had made a
remarkably good supper, and such wines are not met with every day.
Lousteau, sitting beside Camusot, furtively poured cherry-brandy several
times into his neighbor's wineglass, and challenged him to drink. And
Camusot drank, all unsuspicious, for he thought himself, in his own way,
a match for a journalist. The jokes became more personal when dessert
appeared and the wine began to circulate. The German Minister, a
keen-witted man of the world, made a sign to the Duke and Tullia, and
the three disappeared with the first symptoms of vociferous nonsense
which precede the grotesque scenes of an orgy in its final stage.
Coralie and Lucien had been behaving like children all the evening; as
soon as the wine was uppermost in Camusot's head, they made good their
escape down the staircase and sprang into a cab. Camusot subsided under
the table; Matifat, looking round for him, thought that he had gone home
with Coralie, left his guests to smoke, laugh, and argue, and followed
Florine to her room. Daylight surprised the party, or more accurately,
the first dawn of light discovered one man still able to speak, and
Blondet, that intrepid champion, was proposing to the assembled sleepers
a health to Aurora the rosy-fingered.

Lucien was unaccustomed to orgies of this kind. His head was very
tolerably clear as he came down the staircase, but the fresh air was
too much for him; he was horribly drunk. When they reached the handsome
house in the Rue de Vendome, where the actress lived, Coralie and her
waiting-woman were obliged to assist the poet to climb to the first
floor. Lucien was ignominiously sick, and very nearly fainted on the
staircase.

"Quick, Berenice, some tea! Make some tea," cried Coralie.

"It is nothing; it is the air," Lucien got out, "and I have never taken
so much before in my life."

"Poor boy! He is as innocent as a lamb," said Berenice, a stalwart
Norman peasant woman as ugly as Coralie was pretty. Lucien, half
unconscious, was laid at last in bed. Coralie, with Berenice's
assistance, undressed the poet with all a mother's tender care.

"It is nothing," he murmured again and again. "It is the air. Thank you,
mamma."

"How charmingly he says 'mamma,'" cried Coralie, putting a kiss on his
hair.

"What happiness to love such an angel, mademoiselle! Where did you pick
him up? I did not think a man could be as beautiful as you are," said
Berenice, when Lucien lay in bed. He was very drowsy; he knew nothing
and saw nothing; Coralie made him swallow several cups of tea, and left
him to sleep.

"Did the porter see us? Was there anyone else about?" she asked.

"No; I was sitting up for you."

"Does Victoire know anything?"

"Rather not!" returned Berenice.

Ten hours later Lucien awoke to meet Coralie's eyes. She had watched by
him as he slept; he knew it, poet that he was. It was almost noon, but
she still wore the delicate dress, abominably stained, which she meant
to lay up as a relic. Lucien understood all the self-sacrifice and
delicacy of love, fain of its reward. He looked into Coralie's eyes. In
a moment she had flung off her clothing and slipped like a serpent to
Lucien's side.

At five o'clock in the afternoon Lucien was still sleeping, cradled in
this voluptuous paradise. He had caught glimpses of Coralie's chamber,
an exquisite creation of luxury, a world of rose-color and white. He
had admired Florine's apartments, but this surpassed them in its dainty
refinement.

Coralie had already risen; for if she was to play her part as the
Andalusian, she must be at the theatre by seven o'clock. Yet she had
returned to gaze at the unconscious poet, lulled to sleep in bliss; she
could not drink too deeply of this love that rose to rapture, drawing
close the bond between the heart and the senses, to steep both in
ecstasy. For in that apotheosis of human passion, which of those that
were twain on earth that they might know bliss to the full creates
one soul to rise to love in heaven, lay Coralie's justification. Who,
moreover, would not have found excuse in Lucien's more than human
beauty? To the actress kneeling by the bedside, happy in love within
her, it seemed that she had received love's consecration. Berenice broke
in upon Coralie's rapture.

"Here comes Camusot!" cried the maid. "And he knows that you are here."

Lucien sprang up at once. Innate generosity suggested that he was doing
Coralie an injury. Berenice drew aside a curtain, and he fled into a
dainty dressing-room, whither Coralie and the maid brought his clothes
with magical speed.

Camusot appeared, and only then did Coralie's eyes alight on Lucien's
boots, warming in the fender. Berenice had privately varnished them, and
put them before the fire to dry; and both mistress and maid alike forgot
that tell-tale witness. Berenice left the room with a scared glance at
Coralie. Coralie flung herself into the depths of a settee, and bade
Camusot seat himself in the _gondole_, a round-backed chair that stood
opposite. But Coralie's adorer, honest soul, dared not look his mistress
in the face; he could not take his eyes off the pair of boots.

"Ought I to make a scene and leave Coralie?" he pondered. "Is it worth
while to make a fuss about a trifle? There is a pair of boots wherever
you go. These would be more in place in a shop window or taking a walk
on the boulevard on somebody's feet; here, however, without a pair of
feet in them, they tell a pretty plain tale. I am fifty years old, and
that is the truth; I ought to be as blind as Cupid himself."

There was no excuse for this mean-spirited monologue. The boots were
not the high-lows at present in vogue, which an unobservant man may be
allowed to disregard up to a certain point. They were the unmistakable,
uncompromising hessians then prescribed by fashion, a pair of extremely
elegant betasseled boots, which shone in glistening contrast against
tight-fitting trousers invariably of some light color, and reflected
their surroundings like a mirror. The boots stared the honest
silk-mercer out of countenance, and, it must be added, they pained his
heart.

"What is it?" asked Coralie.

"Nothing."

"Ring the bell," said Coralie, smiling to herself at Camusot's want of
spirit. - "Berenice," she said, when the Norman handmaid appeared, "just
bring me a button-hook, for I must put on these confounded boots again.
Don't forget to bring them to my dressing-room to-night."

"What?... _your_ boots?"... faltered out Camusot, breathing more freely.

"And whose should they be?" she demanded haughtily. "Were you beginning
to believe? - great stupid! Oh! and he would believe it too," she went
on, addressing Berenice. - "I have a man's part in What's-his-name's
piece, and I have never worn a man's clothes in my life before. The
bootmaker for the theatre brought me these things to try if I could walk
in them, until a pair can be made to measure. He put them on, but they
hurt me so much that I have taken them off, and after all I must wear
them."

"Don't put them on again if they are uncomfortable," said Camusot. (The
boots had made him feel so very uncomfortable himself.)

"Mademoiselle would do better to have a pair made of very thin
morocco, sir, instead of torturing herself as she did just now; but the
management is so stingy. She was crying, sir; if I was a man and loved a
woman, I wouldn't let her shed a tear, I know. You ought to order a pair
for her - - "

"Yes, yes," said Camusot. "Are you just getting up, Coralie?"

"Just this moment; I only came in at six o'clock after looking for you
everywhere. I was obliged to keep the cab for seven hours. So much for
your care of me; you forget me for a wine-bottle. I ought to take care
of myself now when I am to play every night so long as the _Alcalde_
draws. I don't want to fall off after that young man's notice of me."

"That is a handsome boy," said Camusot.

"Do you think so? I don't admire men of that sort; they are too much
like women; and they do not understand how to love like you stupid old
business men. You are so bored with your own society."

"Is monsieur dining with madame?" inquired Berenice.

"No, my mouth is clammy."

"You were nicely screwed yesterday. Ah! Papa Camusot, I don't like men
who drink, I tell you at once - - "

"You will give that young man a present, I suppose?" interrupted
Camusot.

"Oh! yes. I would rather do that than pay as Florine does. There, go
away with you, good-for-nothing that one loves; or give me a carriage to
save time in future."

"You shall go in your own carriage to-morrow to your manager's dinner at
the _Rocher de Cancale_. The new piece will not be given next Sunday."

"Come, I am just going to dine," said Coralie, hurrying Camusot out of
the room.

An hour later Berenice came to release Lucien. Berenice, Coralie's
companion since her childhood, had a keen and subtle brain in her
unwieldy frame.

"Stay here," she said. "Coralie is coming back alone; she even talked of
getting rid of Camusot if he is in your way; but you are too much of an
angel to ruin her, her heart's darling as you are. She wants to clear
out of this, she says; to leave this paradise and go and live in your
garret. Oh! there are those that are jealous and envious of you, and
they have told her that you haven't a brass farthing, and live in the
Latin Quarter; and I should go, too, you see, to do the house-work. - But
I have just been comforting her, poor child! I have been telling her
that you were too clever to do anything so silly. I was right, wasn't
I, sir? Oh! you will see that you are her darling, her love, the god to
whom she gives her soul; yonder old fool has nothing but the body. - If
you only knew how nice she is when I hear her say her part over! My
Coralie, my little pet, she is! She deserved that God in heaven should
send her one of His angels. She was sick of the life. - She was so
unhappy with her mother that used to beat her, and sold her. Yes, sir,
sold her own child! If I had a daughter, I would wait on her hand and
foot as I wait on Coralie; she is like my own child to me. - These are
the first good times she has seen since I have been with her; the first
time that she has been really applauded. You have written something,
it seems, and they have got up a famous _claque_ for the second
performance. Braulard has been going through the play with her while you
were asleep."

"Who? Braulard?" asked Lucien; it seemed to him that he had heard the
name before.

"He is the head of the _claqueurs_, and she was arranging with him the
places where she wished him to look after her. Florine might try to
play her some shabby trick, and take all for herself, for all she calls
herself her friend. There is such a talk about your article on the
Boulevards. - Isn't it a bed fit for a prince," she said, smoothing the
lace bed-spread.

She lighted the wax-candles, and to Lucien's bewildered fancy, the house
seemed to be some palace in the _Cabinet des Fees_. Camusot had chosen
the richest stuffs from the _Golden Cocoon_ for the hangings and
window-curtains. A carpet fit for a king's palace was spread upon the
floor. The carving of the rosewood furniture caught and imprisoned the
light that rippled over its surface. Priceless trifles gleamed from the
white marble chimney-piece. The rug beside the bed was of swan's skins
bordered with sable. A pair of little, black velvet slippers lined with
purple silk told of happiness awaiting the poet of _The Marguerites_. A
dainty lamp hung from the ceiling draped with silk. The room was full
of flowering plants, delicate white heaths and scentless camellias,
in stands marvelously wrought. Everything called up associations of
innocence. How was it possible in these rooms to see the life that
Coralie led in its true colors? Berenice noticed Lucien's bewildered
expression.

"Isn't it nice?" she said coaxingly. "You would be more comfortable
here, wouldn't you, than in a garret? - You won't let her do anything
rash?" she continued, setting a costly stand before him, covered with
dishes abstracted from her mistress' dinner-table, lest the cook should
suspect that her mistress had a lover in the house.

Lucien made a good dinner. Berenice waiting on him, the dishes were
of wrought silver, the painted porcelain plates had cost a louis d'or
apiece. The luxury was producing exactly the same effect upon him that
the sight of a girl walking the pavement, with her bare flaunting throat
and neat ankles, produces upon a schoolboy.

"How lucky Camusot is!" cried he.

"Lucky?" repeated Berenice. "He would willingly give all that he is
worth to be in your place; he would be glad to barter his gray hair for
your golden head."

She gave Lucien the richest wine that Bordeaux keeps for the wealthiest
English purchaser, and persuaded Lucien to go to bed to take a
preliminary nap; and Lucien, in truth, was quite willing to sleep on the
couch that he had been admiring. Berenice had read his wish, and felt
glad for her mistress.

At half-past ten that night Lucien awoke to look into eyes brimming over
with love. There stood Coralie in most luxurious night attire. Lucien
had been sleeping; Lucien was intoxicated with love, and not with wine.
Berenice left the room with the inquiry, "What time to-morrow morning?"

"At eleven o'clock. We will have breakfast in bed. I am not at home to
anybody before two o'clock."

At two o'clock in the afternoon Coralie and her lover were sitting
together. The poet to all appearance had come to pay a call. Lucien had
been bathed and combed and dressed. Coralie had sent to Colliau's for a
dozen fine shirts, a dozen cravats and a dozen pocket-handkerchiefs
for him, as well as twelve pairs of gloves in a cedar-wood box. When
a carriage stopped at the door, they both rushed to the window, and
watched Camusot alight from a handsome coupe.

"I would not have believed that one could so hate a man and luxury - - "

"I am too poor to allow you to ruin yourself for me," he replied. And



Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacA Distinguished Provincial at Paris → online text (page 15 of 29)