Honoré de Balzac.

A Distinguished Provincial at Paris online

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Bargeton. Chatelet, interested in her without presumption, taking care
of her in a manner that revealed a profound passion; Chatelet, elegant,
and as much at home as an actor treading the familiar boards of his
theatre, in two days had recovered all the ground lost in the past six

Ordinary people will not admit that our sentiments towards each other
can totally change in a moment, and yet certain it is, that two lovers
not seldom fly apart even more quickly than they drew together. In Mme.
de Bargeton and in Lucien a process of disenchantment was at work; Paris
was the cause. Life had widened out before the poet's eyes, as society
came to wear a new aspect for Louise. Nothing but an accident now was
needed to sever finally the bond that united them; nor was that blow, so
terrible for Lucien, very long delayed.

Mme. de Bargeton set Lucien down at his inn, and drove home with
Chatelet, to the intense vexation of the luckless lover.

"What will they say about me?" he wondered, as he climbed the stairs to
his dismal room.

"That poor fellow is uncommonly dull," said Chatelet, with a smile, when
the door was closed.

"That is the way with those who have a world of thoughts in their heart
and brain. Men who have so much in them to give out in great works long
dreamed of, profess a certain contempt for conversation, a commerce in
which the intellect spends itself in small change," returned the haughty
Negrepelisse. She still had courage to defend Lucien, but less for
Lucien's sake than for her own.

"I grant it you willingly," replied the Baron, "but we live with human
beings and not with books. There, dear Nais! I see how it is, there is
nothing between you yet, and I am delighted that it is so. If you decide
to bring an interest of a kind hitherto lacking into your life, let
it not be this so-called genius, I implore you. How if you have made a
mistake? Suppose that in a few days' time, when you have compared
him with men whom you will meet, men of real ability, men who have
distinguished themselves in good earnest; suppose that you should
discover, dear and fair siren, that it is no lyre-bearer that you have
borne into port on your dazzling shoulders, but a little ape, with
no manners and no capacity; a presumptuous fool who may be a wit in
L'Houmeau, but turns out a very ordinary specimen of a young man in
Paris? And, after all, volumes of verse come out every week here, the
worst of them better than all M. Chardon's poetry put together. For
pity's sake, wait and compare! To-morrow, Friday, is Opera night," he
continued as the carriage turned into the Rue Nueve-de-Luxembourg; "Mme.
d'Espard has the box of the First Gentlemen of the Chamber, and will
take you, no doubt. I shall go to Mme. de Serizy's box to behold you in
your glory. They are giving _Les Danaides_."

"Good-bye," said she.

Next morning Mme. de Bargeton tried to arrange a suitable toilette
in which to call on her cousin, Mme. d'Espard. The weather was rather
chilly. Looking through the dowdy wardrobe from Angouleme, she found
nothing better than a certain green velvet gown, trimmed fantastically
enough. Lucien, for his part, felt that he must go at once for his
celebrated blue best coat; he felt aghast at the thought of his tight
jacket, and determined to be well dressed, lest he should meet the
Marquise d'Espard or receive a sudden summons to her house. He must
have his luggage at once, so he took a cab, and in two hours' time spent
three or four francs, matter for much subsequent reflection on the scale
of the cost of living in Paris. Having dressed himself in his best, such
as it was, he went to the Rue Nueve-de-Luxembourg, and on the doorstep
encountered Gentil in company with a gorgeously be-feathered chasseur.

"I was just going round to you, sir, madame gave me a line for you,"
said Gentil, ignorant of Parisian forms of respect, and accustomed to
homely provincial ways. The chasseur took the poet for a servant.

Lucien tore open the note, and learned that Mme. de Bargeton had gone to
spend the day with the Marquise d'Espard. She was going to the Opera
in the evening, but she told Lucien to be there to meet her. Her cousin
permitted her to give him a seat in her box. The Marquise d'Espard was
delighted to procure the young poet that pleasure.

"Then she loves me! my fears were all nonsense!" said Lucien to himself.
"She is going to present me to her cousin this very evening."

He jumped for joy. He would spend the day that separated him from the
happy evening as joyously as might be. He dashed out in the direction
of the Tuileries, dreaming of walking there until it was time to dine
at Very's. And now, behold Lucien frisking and skipping, light of foot
because light of heart, on his way to the Terrasse des Feuillants to
take a look at the people of quality on promenade there. Pretty women
walk arm-in-arm with men of fashion, their adorers, couples greet each
other with a glance as they pass; how different it is from the terrace
at Beaulieu! How far finer the birds on this perch than the Angouleme
species! It is as if you beheld all the colors that glow in the plumage
of the feathered tribes of India and America, instead of the sober
European families.

Those were two wretched hours that Lucien spent in the Garden of the
Tuileries. A violent revulsion swept through him, and he sat in judgment
upon himself.

In the first place, not a single one of these gilded youths wore a
swallow-tail coat. The few exceptions, one or two poor wretches, a clerk
here and there, an annuitant from the Marais, could be ruled out on
the score of age; and hard upon the discovery of a distinction between
morning and evening dress, the poet's quick sensibility and keen eyes
saw likewise that his shabby old clothes were not fit to be seen; the
defects in his coat branded that garment as ridiculous; the cut was
old-fashioned, the color was the wrong shade of blue, the collar
outrageously ungainly, the coat tails, by dint of long wear, overlapped
each other, the buttons were reddened, and there were fatal white lines
along the seams. Then his waistcoat was too short, and so grotesquely
provincial, that he hastily buttoned his coat over it; and, finally, no
man of any pretension to fashion wore nankeen trousers. Well-dressed
men wore charming fancy materials or immaculate white, and every one
had straps to his trousers, while the shrunken hems of Lucien's nether
garments manifested a violent antipathy for the heels of boots which
they wedded with obvious reluctance. Lucien wore a white cravat with
embroidered ends; his sister had seen that M. du Hautoy and M. de
Chandour wore such things, and hastened to make similar ones for her
brother. Here, no one appeared to wear white cravats of a morning
except a few grave seniors, elderly capitalists, and austere public
functionaries, until, in the street on the other side of the railings,
Lucien noticed a grocer's boy walking along the Rue de Rivoli with a
basket on his head; him the man of Angouleme detected in the act of
sporting a cravat, with both ends adorned by the handiwork of some
adored shop-girl. The sight was a stab to Lucien's breast; penetrating
straight to that organ as yet undefined, the seat of our sensibility,
the region whither, since sentiment has had any existence, the sons of
men carry their hands in any excess of joy or anguish. Do not accuse
this chronicle of puerility. The rich, to be sure, never having
experienced sufferings of this kind, may think them incredibly petty and
small; but the agonies of less fortunate mortals are as well worth our
attention as crises and vicissitudes in the lives of the mighty and
privileged ones of earth. Is not the pain equally great for either?
Suffering exalts all things. And, after all, suppose that we change
the terms and for a suit of clothes, more or less fine, put instead a
ribbon, or a star, or a title; have not brilliant careers been tormented
by reason of such apparent trifles as these? Add, moreover, that
for those people who must seem to have that which they have not, the
question of clothes is of enormous importance, and not unfrequently the
appearance of possession is the shortest road to possession at a later

A cold sweat broke out over Lucien as he bethought himself that to-night
he must make his first appearance before the Marquise in this dress - the
Marquise d'Espard, relative of a First Gentleman of the Bedchamber,
a woman whose house was frequented by the most illustrious among
illustrious men in every field.

"I look like an apothecary's son, a regular shop-drudge," he raged
inwardly, watching the youth of the Faubourg Saint-Germain pass
under his eyes; graceful, spruce, fashionably dressed, with a certain
uniformity of air, a sameness due to a fineness of contour, and a
certain dignity of carriage and expression; though, at the same time,
each one differed from the rest in the setting by which he had chosen
to bring his personal characteristics into prominence. Each one made the
most of his personal advantages. Young men in Paris understand the art
of presenting themselves quite as well as women. Lucien had inherited
from his mother the invaluable physical distinction of race, but the
metal was still in the ore, and not set free by the craftsman's hand.

His hair was badly cut. Instead of holding himself upright with
an elastic corset, he felt that he was cooped up inside a hideous
shirt-collar; he hung his dejected head without resistance on the part
of a limp cravat. What woman could guess that a handsome foot was hidden
by the clumsy boots which he had brought from Angouleme? What young man
could envy him his graceful figure, disguised by the shapeless blue sack
which hitherto he had mistakenly believed to be a coat? What bewitching
studs he saw on those dazzling white shirt fronts, his own looked
dingy by comparison; and how marvelously all these elegant persons were
gloved, his own gloves were only fit for a policeman! Yonder was a youth
toying with a cane exquisitely mounted; there, another with dainty gold
studs in his wristbands. Yet another was twisting a charming riding-whip
while he talked with a woman; there were specks of mud on the ample
folds of his white trousers, he wore clanking spurs and a tight-fitting
jacket, evidently he was about to mount one of the two horses held by
a hop-o'-my-thumb of a tiger. A young man who went past drew a watch no
thicker than a five-franc piece from his pocket, and looked at it
with the air of a person who is either too early or too late for an

Lucien, seeing these petty trifles, hitherto unimagined, became aware of
a whole world of indispensable superfluities, and shuddered to think of
the enormous capital needed by a professional pretty fellow! The more he
admired these gay and careless beings, the more conscious he grew of his
own outlandishness; he knew that he looked like a man who has no idea of
the direction of the streets, who stands close to the Palais Royal and
cannot find it, and asks his way to the Louvre of a passer-by, who tells
him, "Here you are." Lucien saw a great gulf fixed between him and this
new world, and asked himself how he might cross over, for he meant to be
one of these delicate, slim youths of Paris, these young patricians who
bowed before women divinely dressed and divinely fair. For one kiss from
one of these, Lucien was ready to be cut in pieces like Count Philip of
Konigsmark. Louise's face rose up somewhere in the shadowy background of
memory - compared with these queens, she looked like an old woman. He saw
women whose names will appear in the history of the nineteenth century,
women no less famous than the queens of past times for their wit,
their beauty, or their lovers; one who passed was the heroine Mlle. des
Touches, so well known as Camille Maupin, the great woman of letters,
great by her intellect, great no less by her beauty. He overheard the
name pronounced by those who went by.

"Ah!" he thought to himself, "she is Poetry."

What was Mme. de Bargeton in comparison with this angel in all the glory
of youth, and hope, and promise of the future, with that sweet smile of
hers, and the great dark eyes with all heaven in them, and the glowing
light of the sun? She was laughing and chatting with Mme. Firmiani, one
of the most charming women in Paris. A voice indeed cried, "Intellect is
the lever by which to move the world," but another voice cried no less
loudly that money was the fulcrum.

He would not stay any longer on the scene of his collapse and defeat,
and went towards the Palais Royal. He did not know the topography of his
quarter yet, and was obliged to ask his way. Then he went to Very's and
ordered dinner by way of an initiation into the pleasures of Paris,
and a solace for his discouragement. A bottle of Bordeaux, oysters
from Ostend, a dish of fish, a partridge, a dish of macaroni and
dessert, - this was the _ne plus ultra_ of his desire. He enjoyed this
little debauch, studying the while how to give the Marquise d'Espard
proof of his wit, and redeem the shabbiness of his grotesque
accoutrements by the display of intellectual riches. The total of the
bill drew him down from these dreams, and left him the poorer by fifty
of the francs which were to have gone such a long way in Paris. He
could have lived in Angouleme for a month on the price of that dinner.
Wherefore he closed the door of the palace with awe, thinking as he did
so that he should never set foot in it again.

"Eve was right," he said to himself, as he went back under the stone
arcading for some more money. "There is a difference between Paris
prices and prices in L'Houmeau."

He gazed in at the tailors' windows on the way, and thought of the
costumes in the Garden of the Tuileries.

"No," he exclaimed, "I will _not_ appear before Mme. d'Espard dressed
out as I am."

He fled to his inn, fleet as a stag, rushed up to his room, took out
a hundred crowns, and went down again to the Palais Royal, where his
future elegance lay scattered over half a score of shops. The first
tailor whose door he entered tried as many coats upon him as he would
consent to put on, and persuaded his customer that all were in the very
latest fashion. Lucien came out the owner of a green coat, a pair of
white trousers, and a "fancy waistcoat," for which outfit he gave two
hundred francs. Ere long he found a very elegant pair of ready-made
shoes that fitted his foot; and, finally, when he had made all necessary
purchases, he ordered the tradespeople to send them to his address, and
inquired for a hairdresser. At seven o'clock that evening he called
a cab and drove away to the Opera, curled like a Saint John of a
Procession Day, elegantly waistcoated and gloved, but feeling a little
awkward in this kind of sheath in which he found himself for the first

In obedience to Mme. de Bargeton's instructions, he asked for the box
reserved for the First Gentleman of the Bedchamber. The man at the box
office looked at him, and beholding Lucien in all the grandeur assumed
for the occasion, in which he looked like a best man at a wedding, asked
Lucien for his order.

"I have no order."

"Then you cannot go in," said the man at the box office drily.

"But I belong to Mme. d'Espard's party."

"It is not our business to know that," said the man, who could not help
exchanging a barely perceptible smile with his colleague.

A carriage stopped under the peristyle as he spoke. A chasseur, in a
livery which Lucien did not recognize, let down the step, and two women
in evening dress came out of the brougham. Lucien had no mind to
lay himself open to an insolent order to get out of the way from the
official. He stepped aside to let the two ladies pass.

"Why, that lady is the Marquise d'Espard, whom you say you know, sir,"
said the man ironically.

Lucien was so much the more confounded because Mme. de Bargeton did not
seem to recognize him in his new plumage; but when he stepped up to her,
she smiled at him and said:

"This has fallen out wonderfully - come!"

The functionaries at the box office grew serious again as Lucien
followed Mme. de Bargeton. On their way up the great staircase the lady
introduced M. de Rubempre to her cousin. The box belonging to the First
Gentleman of the Bedchamber is situated in one of the angles at the
back of the house, so that its occupants see and are seen all over
the theatre. Lucien took his seat on a chair behind Mme. de Bargeton,
thankful to be in the shadow.

"M. de Rubempre," said the Marquise with flattering graciousness, "this
is your first visit to the Opera, is it not? You must have a view of the
house; take this seat, sit in front of the box; we give you permission."

Lucien obeyed as the first act came to an end.

"You have made good use of your time," Louise said in his ear, in her
first surprise at the change in his appearance.

Louise was still the same. The near presence of the Marquise d'Espard, a
Parisian Mme. de Bargeton, was so damaging to her; the brilliancy of the
Parisienne brought out all the defects in her country cousin so clearly
by contrast; that Lucien, looking out over the fashionable audience in
the superb building, and then at the great lady, was twice enlightened,
and saw poor Anais de Negrepelisse as she really was, as Parisians
saw her - a tall, lean, withered woman, with a pimpled face and faded
complexion; angular, stiff, affected in her manner; pompous and
provincial in her speech; and, and above all these things, dowdily
dressed. As a matter of fact, the creases in an old dress from Paris
still bear witness to good taste, you can tell what the gown was meant
for; but an old dress made in the country is inexplicable, it is a thing
to provoke laughter. There was neither charm nor freshness about the
dress or its wearer; the velvet, like the complexion had seen wear.
Lucien felt ashamed to have fallen in love with this cuttle-fish bone,
and vowed that he would profit by Louise's next fit of virtue to leave
her for good. Having an excellent view of the house, he could see
the opera-glasses pointed at the aristocratic box par excellence. The
best-dressed women must certainly be scrutinizing Mme. de Bargeton, for
they smiled and talked among themselves.

If Mme. d'Espard knew the object of their sarcasms from those feminine
smiles and gestures, she was perfectly insensible to them. In the first
place, anybody must see that her companion was a poor relation from the
country, an affliction with which any Parisian family may be visited.
And, in the second, when her cousin had spoken to her of her dress with
manifest misgivings, she had reassured Anais, seeing that, when once
properly dressed, her relative would very easily acquire the tone of
Parisian society. If Mme. de Bargeton needed polish, on the other
hand she possessed the native haughtiness of good birth, and that
indescribable something which may be called "pedigree." So, on Monday
her turn would come. And, moreover, the Marquise knew that as soon as
people learned that the stranger was her cousin, they would suspend
their banter and look twice before they condemned her.

Lucien did not foresee the change in Louise's appearance shortly to be
worked by a scarf about her throat, a pretty dress, an elegant coiffure,
and Mme. d'Espard's advice. As they came up the staircase even now, the
Marquise told her cousin not to hold her handkerchief unfolded in her
hand. Good or bad taste turns upon hundreds of such almost imperceptible
shades, which a quick-witted woman discerns at once, while others will
never grasp them. Mme. de Bargeton, plentifully apt, was more than
clever enough to discover her shortcomings. Mme. d'Espard, sure that her
pupil would do her credit, did not decline to form her. In short, the
compact between the two women had been confirmed by self-interest on
either side.

Mme. de Bargeton, enthralled, dazzled, and fascinated by her cousin's
manner, wit, and acquaintances, had suddenly declared herself a votary
of the idol of the day. She had discerned the signs of the occult power
exerted by the ambitious great lady, and told herself that she could
gain her end as the satellite of this star, so she had been outspoken
in her admiration. The Marquise was not insensible to the artlessly
admitted conquest. She took an interest in her cousin, seeing that she
was weak and poor; she was, besides, not indisposed to take a pupil with
whom to found a school, and asked nothing better than to have a sort
of lady-in-waiting in Mme. de Bargeton, a dependent who would sing her
praises, a treasure even more scarce among Parisian women than a staunch
and loyal critic among the literary tribe. The flutter of curiosity
in the house was too marked to be ignored, however, and Mme. d'Espard
politely endeavored to turn her cousin's mind from the truth.

"If any one comes to our box," she said, "perhaps we may discover the
cause to which we owe the honor of the interest that these ladies are
taking - - "

"I have a strong suspicion that it is my old velvet gown and Angoumoisin
air which Parisian ladies find amusing," Mme. de Bargeton answered,

"No, it is not you; it is something that I cannot explain," she added,
turning to the poet, and, as she looked at him for the first time, it
seemed to strike her that he was singularly dressed.

"There is M. du Chatelet," exclaimed Lucien at that moment, and he
pointed a finger towards Mme. de Serizy's box, which the renovated beau
had just entered.

Mme. de Bargeton bit her lips with chagrin as she saw that gesture,
and saw besides the Marquise's ill-suppressed smile of contemptuous
astonishment. "Where does the young man come from?" her look said, and
Louise felt humbled through her love, one of the sharpest of all pangs
for a Frenchwoman, a mortification for which she cannot forgive her

In these circles where trifles are of such importance, a gesture or a
word at the outset is enough to ruin a newcomer. It is the principal
merit of fine manners and the highest breeding that they produce the
effect of a harmonious whole, in which every element is so blended that
nothing is startling or obtrusive. Even those who break the laws of this
science, either through ignorance or carried away by some impulse, must
comprehend that it is with social intercourse as with music, a single
discordant note is a complete negation of the art itself, for the
harmony exists only when all its conditions are observed down to the
least particular.

"Who is that gentleman?" asked Mme. d'Espard, looking towards Chatelet.
"And have you made Mme. de Serizy's acquaintance already?"

"Oh! is that the famous Mme. de Serizy who has had so many adventures
and yet goes everywhere?"

"An unheard-of-thing, my dear, explicable but unexplained. The most
formidable men are her friends, and why? Nobody dares to fathom the
mystery. Then is this person the lion of Angouleme?"

"Well, M. le Baron du Chatelet has been a good deal talked about,"
answered Mme. de Bargeton, moved by vanity to give her adorer the title
which she herself had called in question. "He was M. de Montriveau's
traveling companion."

"Ah!" said the Marquise d'Espard, "I never hear that name without
thinking of the Duchesse de Langeais, poor thing. She vanished like
a falling star. - That is M. de Rastignac with Mme. de Nucingen," she
continued, indicating another box; "she is the wife of a contractor, a
banker, a city man, a broker on a large scale; he forced his way into
society with his money, and they say that he is not very scrupulous as
to his methods of making it. He is at endless pains to establish his
credit as a staunch upholder of the Bourbons, and has tried already to
gain admittance into my set. When his wife took Mme. de Langeais' box,
she thought that she could take her charm, her wit, and her success as
well. It is the old fable of the jay in the peacock's feathers!"

"How do M. and Mme. de Rastignac manage to keep their son in Paris,
when, as we know, their income is under a thousand crowns?" asked
Lucien, in his astonishment at Rastignac's elegant and expensive dress.

"It is easy to see that you come from Angouleme," said Mme. d'Espard,
ironically enough, as she continued to gaze through her opera-glass.

Her remark was lost upon Lucien; the all-absorbing spectacle of the
boxes prevented him from thinking of anything else. He guessed that he
himself was an object of no small curiosity. Louise, on the other hand,
was exceedingly mortified by the evident slight esteem in which the
Marquise held Lucien's beauty.

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacA Distinguished Provincial at Paris → online text (page 2 of 29)