Honoré de Balzac.

A Distinguished Provincial at Paris online

. (page 7 of 29)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacA Distinguished Provincial at Paris → online text (page 7 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

from Bianchon's scalpel, for Horace Bianchon was before all things an

There was plenty of discussion, but no bickering. Vanity was not
engaged, for the speakers were also the audience. They would talk over
their work among themselves and take counsel of each other with the
delightful openness of youth. If the matter in hand was serious, the
opponent would leave his own position to enter into his friend's point
of view; and being an impartial judge in a matter outside his own
sphere, would prove the better helper; envy, the hideous treasure of
disappointment, abortive talent, failure, and mortified vanity, was
quite unknown among them. All of them, moreover, were going their
separate ways. For these reasons, Lucien and others admitted to their
society felt at their ease in it. Wherever you find real talent,
you will find frank good fellowship and sincerity, and no sort of
pretension, the wit that caresses the intellect and never is aimed at

When the first nervousness, caused by respect, wore off, it was
unspeakably pleasant to make one of this elect company of youth.
Familiarity did not exclude in each a consciousness of his own value,
nor a profound esteem for his neighbor; and finally, as every member of
the circle felt that he could afford to receive or to give, no one
made a difficulty of accepting. Talk was unflagging, full of charm, and
ranging over the most varied topics; words light as arrows sped to the
mark. There was a strange contrast between the dire material poverty in
which the young men lived and the splendor of their intellectual wealth.
They looked upon the practical problems of existence simply as matter
for friendly jokes. The cold weather happened to set in early that year.
Five of d'Arthez's friends appeared one day, each concealing firewood
under his cloak; the same idea had occurred to the five, as it sometimes
happens that all the guests at a picnic are inspired with the notion of
bringing a pie as their contribution.

All of them were gifted with the moral beauty which reacts upon the
physical form, and, no less than work and vigils, overlays a youthful
face with a shade of divine gold; purity of life and the fire of thought
had brought refinement and regularity into features somewhat pinched
and rugged. The poet's amplitude of brow was a striking characteristic
common to them all; the bright, sparkling eyes told of cleanliness of
life. The hardships of penury, when they were felt at all, were born so
gaily and embraced with such enthusiasm, that they had left no trace to
mar the serenity peculiar to the faces of the young who have no grave
errors laid to their charge as yet, who have not stooped to any of the
base compromises wrung from impatience of poverty by the strong desire
to succeed. The temptation to use any means to this end is the greater
since that men of letters are lenient with bad faith and extend an easy
indulgence to treachery.

There is an element in friendship which doubles its charm and renders it
indissoluble - a sense of certainty which is lacking in love. These young
men were sure of themselves and of each other; the enemy of one was the
enemy of all; the most urgent personal considerations would have been
shattered if they had clashed with the sacred solidarity of their
fellowship. All alike incapable of disloyalty, they could oppose a
formidable No to any accusation brought against the absent and defend
them with perfect confidence. With a like nobility of nature and
strength of feeling, it was possible to think and speak freely on all
matters of intellectual or scientific interest; hence the honesty of
their friendships, the gaiety of their talk, and with this intellectual
freedom of the community there was no fear of being misunderstood; they
stood upon no ceremony with each other; they shared their troubles
and joys, and gave thought and sympathy from full hearts. The charming
delicacy of feeling which makes the tale of _Deux Amis_ a treasury
for great souls, was the rule of their daily life. It may be imagined,
therefore, that their standard of requirements was not an easy one; they
were too conscious of their worth, too well aware of their happiness,
to care to trouble their life with the admixture of a new and unknown

This federation of interests and affection lasted for twenty years
without a collision or disappointment. Death alone could thin the
numbers of the noble Pleiades, taking first Louis Lambert, later Meyraux
and Michel Chrestien.

When Michel Chrestien fell in 1832 his friends went, in spite of
the perils of the step, to find his body at Saint-Merri; and Horace
Bianchon, Daniel d'Arthez, Leon Giraud, Joseph Bridau, and Fulgence
Ridal performed the last duties to the dead, between two political
fires. By night they buried their beloved in the cemetery of
Pere-Lachaise; Horace Bianchon, undaunted by the difficulties,
cleared them away one after another - it was he indeed who besought the
authorities for permission to bury the fallen insurgent and confessed to
his old friendship with the dead Federalist. The little group of friends
present at the funeral with those five great men will never forget that
touching scene.

As you walk in the trim cemetery you will see a grave purchased in
perpetuity, a grass-covered mound with a dark wooden cross above it,
and the name in large red letters - MICHEL CHRESTIEN. There is no other
monument like it. The friends thought to pay a tribute to the sternly
simple nature of the man by the simplicity of the record of his death.

So, in that chilly garret, the fairest dreams of friendship were
realized. These men were brothers leading lives of intellectual effort,
loyally helping each other, making no reservations, not even of their
worst thoughts; men of vast acquirements, natures tried in the crucible
of poverty. Once admitted as an equal among such elect souls, Lucien
represented beauty and poetry. They admired the sonnets which he read to
them; they would ask him for a sonnet as he would ask Michel Chrestien
for a song. And, in the desert of Paris, Lucien found an oasis in the
Rue des Quatre-Vents.

At the beginning of October, Lucien had spent the last of his money on a
little firewood; he was half-way through the task of recasting his work,
the most strenuous of all toil, and he was penniless. As for Daniel
d'Arthez, burning blocks of spent tan, and facing poverty like a hero,
not a word of complaint came from him; he was as sober as any elderly
spinster, and methodical as a miser. This courage called out Lucien's
courage; he had only newly come into the circle, and shrank with
invincible repugnance from speaking of his straits. One morning he went
out, manuscript in hand, and reached the Rue du Coq; he would sell
_The Archer of Charles IX._ to Doguereau; but Doguereau was out. Lucien
little knew how indulgent great natures can be to the weaknesses of
others. Every one of the friends had thought of the peculiar troubles
besetting the poetic temperament, of the prostration which follows upon
the struggle, when the soul has been overwrought by the contemplation of
that nature which it is the task of art to reproduce. And strong as they
were to endure their own ills, they felt keenly for Lucien's distress;
they guessed that his stock of money was failing; and after all the
pleasant evenings spent in friendly talk and deep meditations, after the
poetry, the confidences, the bold flights over the fields of thought or
into the far future of the nations, yet another trait was to prove how
little Lucien had understood these new friends of his.

"Lucien, dear fellow," said Daniel, "you did not dine at Flicoteaux's
yesterday, and we know why."

Lucien could not keep back the overflowing tears.

"You showed a want of confidence in us," said Michel Chrestien; "we
shall chalk that up over the chimney, and when we have scored ten we
will - - "

"We have all of us found a bit of extra work," said Bianchon; "for
my own part, I have been looking after a rich patient for Desplein;
d'Arthez has written an article for the _Revue Encyclopedique_;
Chrestien thought of going out to sing in the Champs Elysees of an
evening with a pocket-handkerchief and four candles, but he found a
pamphlet to write instead for a man who has a mind to go into politics,
and gave his employer six hundred francs worth of Machiavelli; Leon
Giraud borrowed fifty francs of his publisher, Joseph sold one or two
sketches; and Fulgence's piece was given on Sunday, and there was a full

"Here are two hundred francs," said Daniel, "and let us say no more
about it."

"Why, if he is not going to hug us all as if we had done something
extraordinary!" cried Chrestien.

Lucien, meanwhile, had written to the home circle. His letter was a
masterpiece of sensibility and goodwill, as well as a sharp cry wrung
from him by distress. The answers which he received the next day
will give some idea of the delight that Lucien took in this living
encyclopedia of angelic spirits, each of whom bore the stamp of the art
or science which he followed: -

_David Sechard to Lucien._

"MY DEAR LUCIEN, - Enclosed herewith is a bill at ninety days,
payable to your order, for two hundred francs. You can draw on M.
Metivier, paper merchant, our Paris correspondent in the Rue
Serpente. My good Lucien, we have absolutely nothing. Eve has
undertaken the charge of the printing-house, and works at her task
with such devotion, patience, and industry, that I bless heaven
for giving me such an angel for a wife. She herself says that it
is impossible to send you the least help. But I think, my friend
now that you are started in so promising a way, with such great
and noble hearts for your companions, that you can hardly fail to
reach the greatness to which you were born, aided as you are by
intelligence almost divine in Daniel d'Arthez and Michel Chrestien
and Leon Giraud, and counseled by Meyraux and Bianchon and Ridal,
whom we have come to know through your dear letter. So I have
drawn this bill without Eve's knowledge, and I will contrive
somehow to meet it when the time comes. Keep on your way, Lucien;
it is rough, but it will be glorious. I can bear anything but the
thought of you sinking into the sloughs of Paris, of which I saw
so much. Have sufficient strength of mind to do as you are doing,
and keep out of scrapes and bad company, wild young fellows and
men of letters of a certain stamp, whom I learned to take at their
just valuation when I lived in Paris. Be a worthy compeer of the
divine spirits whom we have learned to love through you. Your life
will soon meet with its reward. Farewell, dearest brother; you
have sent transports of joy to my heart. I did not expect such
courage of you.


_Eve Sechard to Lucien._

"DEAR, - your letter made all of us cry. As for the noble hearts to
whom your good angel surely led you, tell them that a mother and a
poor young wife will pray for them night and morning; and if the
most fervent prayers can reach the Throne of God, surely they will
bring blessings upon you all. Their names are engraved upon my
heart. Ah! some day I shall see your friends; I will go to Paris,
if I have to walk the whole way, to thank them for their
friendship for you, for to me the thought has been like balm to
smarting wounds. We are working like day laborers here, dear. This
husband of mine, the unknown great man whom I love more and more
every day, as I discover moment by moment the wealth of his
nature, leaves the printing-house more and more to me. Why, I
guess. Our poverty, yours, and ours, and our mother's, is
heartbreaking to him. Our adored David is a Prometheus gnawed by a
vulture, a haggard, sharp-beaked regret. As for himself, noble
fellow, he scarcely thinks of himself; he is hoping to make a
fortune for _us_. He spends his whole time in experiments in
paper-making; he begged me to take his place and look after the
business, and gives me as much help as his preoccupation allows.
Alas! I shall be a mother soon. That should have been a crowning
joy; but as things are, it saddens me. Poor mother! she has grown
young again; she has found strength to go back to her tiring
nursing. We should be happy if it were not for these money cares.
Old Father Sechard will not give his son a farthing. David went
over to see if he could borrow a little for you, for we were in
despair over your letter. 'I know Lucien,' David said; 'he will
lose his head and do something rash.' - I gave him a good scolding.
'My brother disappoint us in any way!' I told him, 'Lucien knows
that I should die of sorrow.' - Mother and I have pawned a few
things; David does not know about it, mother will redeem them as
soon as she has made a little money. In this way we have managed
to put together a hundred francs, which I am sending you by the
coach. If I did not answer your last letter, do not remember it
against me, dear; we were working all night just then. I have been
working like a man. Oh, I had no idea that I was so strong!

"Mme. de Bargeton is a heartless woman; she has no soul; even if
she cared for you no longer, she owed it to herself to use her
influence for you and to help you when she had torn you from us to
plunge you into that dreadful sea of Paris. Only by the special
blessing of Heaven could you have met with true friends there
among those crowds of men and innumerable interests. She is not
worth a regret. I used to wish that there might be some devoted
woman always with you, a second myself; but now I know that your
friends will take my place, and I am happy. Spread your wings, my
dear great genius, you will be our pride as well as our beloved.


"My darling," the mother wrote, "I can only add my blessing to all
that your sister says, and assure you that you are more in my
thoughts and in my prayers (alas!) than those whom I see daily;
for some hearts, the absent are always in the right, and so it is
with the heart of your mother."

So two days after the loan was offered so graciously, Lucien repaid it.
Perhaps life had never seemed so bright to him as at that moment;
but the touch of self-love in his joy did not escape the delicate
sensibility and searching eyes of his friends.

"Any one might think that you were afraid to owe us anything," exclaimed

"Oh! the pleasure that he takes in returning the money is a very
serious symptom to my mind," said Michel Chrestien. "It confirms some
observations of my own. There is a spice of vanity in Lucien."

"He is a poet," said d'Arthez.

"But do you grudge me such a very natural feeling?" asked Lucien.

"We should bear in mind that he did not hide it," said Leon Giraud; "he
is still open with us; but I am afraid that he may come to feel shy of

"And why?" Lucien asked.

"We can read your thoughts," answered Joseph Bridau.

"There is a diabolical spirit in you that will seek to justify courses
which are utterly contrary to our principles. Instead of being a sophist
in theory, you will be a sophist in practice."

"Ah! I am afraid of that," said d'Arthez. "You will carry on admirable
debates in your own mind, Lucien, and take up a lofty position in
theory, and end by blameworthy actions. You will never be at one with

"What ground have you for these charges?"

"Thy vanity, dear poet, is so great that it intrudes itself even into
thy friendships!" cried Fulgence. "All vanity of that sort is a symptom
of shocking egoism, and egoism poisons friendship."

"Oh! dear," said Lucien, "you cannot know how much I love you all."

"If you loved us as we love you, would you have been in such a hurry to
return the money which we had such pleasure in lending? or have made so
much of it?"

"We don't lend here; we give," said Joseph Bridau roughly.

"Don't think us unkind, dear boy," said Michel Chrestien; "we are
looking forward. We are afraid lest some day you may prefer a petty
revenge to the joys of pure friendship. Read Goethe's _Tasso_, the
great master's greatest work, and you will see how the poet-hero loved
gorgeous stuffs and banquets and triumph and applause. Very well, be
Tasso without his folly. Perhaps the world and its pleasures tempt
you? Stay with us. Carry all the cravings of vanity into the world
of imagination. Transpose folly. Keep virtue for daily wear, and let
imagination run riot, instead of doing, as d'Arthez says, thinking high
thoughts and living beneath them."

Lucien hung his head. His friends were right.

"I confess that you are stronger than I," he said, with a charming
glance at them. "My back and shoulders are not made to bear the burden
of Paris life; I cannot struggle bravely. We are born with different
temperaments and faculties, and you know better than I that faults and
virtues have their reverse side. I am tired already, I confess."

"We will stand by you," said d'Arthez; "it is just in these ways that a
faithful friendship is of use."

"The help that I have just received is precarious, and every one of us
is just as poor as another; want will soon overtake me again. Chrestien,
at the service of the first that hires him, can do nothing with the
publishers; Bianchon is quite out of it; d'Arthez's booksellers only
deal in scientific and technical books - they have no connection with
publishers of new literature; and as for Horace and Fulgence Ridal and
Bridau, their work lies miles away from the booksellers. There is no
help for it; I must make up my mind one way or another."

"Stick by us, and make up your mind to it," said Bianchon. "Bear up
bravely, and trust in hard work."

"But what is hardship for you is death for me," Lucien put in quickly.

"Before the cock crows thrice," smiled Leon Giraud, "this man will
betray the cause of work for an idle life and the vices of Paris."

"Where has work brought you?" asked Lucien, laughing.

"When you start out from Paris for Italy, you don't find Rome half-way,"
said Joseph Bridau. "You want your pease to grow ready buttered for

The conversation ended in a joke, and they changed the subject. Lucien's
friends, with their perspicacity and delicacy of heart, tried to efface
the memory of the little quarrel; but Lucien knew thenceforward that it
was no easy matter to deceive them. He soon fell into despair, which he
was careful to hide from such stern mentors as he imagined them to be;
and the Southern temper that runs so easily through the whole gamut of
mental dispositions, set him making the most contradictory resolutions.

Again and again he talked of making the plunge into journalism; and
time after time did his friends reply with a "Mind you do nothing of the

"It would be the tomb of the beautiful, gracious Lucien whom we love and
know," said d'Arthez.

"You would not hold out for long between the two extremes of toil and
pleasure which make up a journalist's life, and resistance is the very
foundation of virtue. You would be so delighted to exercise your power
of life and death over the offspring of the brain, that you would be an
out-and-out journalist in two months' time. To be a journalist - that is
to turn Herod in the republic of letters. The man who will say anything
will end by sticking at nothing. That was Napoleon's maxim, and it
explains itself."

"But you would be with me, would you not?" asked Lucien.

"Not by that time," said Fulgence. "If you were a journalist, you would
no more think of us than the Opera girl in all her glory, with her
adorers and her silk-lined carriage, thinks of the village at home and
her cows and her sabots. You could never resist the temptation to pen
a witticism, though it should bring tears to a friend's eyes. I come
across journalists in theatre lobbies; it makes me shudder to see them.
Journalism is an inferno, a bottomless pit of iniquity and treachery
and lies; no one can traverse it undefiled, unless, like Dante, he is
protected by Virgil's sacred laurel."

But the more the set of friends opposed the idea of journalism, the more
Lucien's desire to know its perils grew and tempted him. He began to
debate within his own mind; was it not ridiculous to allow want to find
him a second time defenceless? He bethought him of the failure of his
attempts to dispose of his first novel, and felt but little tempted
to begin a second. How, besides, was he to live while he was writing
another romance? One month of privation had exhausted his stock of
patience. Why should he not do nobly that which journalists did ignobly
and without principle? His friends insulted him with their doubts; he
would convince them of his strength of mind. Some day, perhaps, he would
be of use to them; he would be the herald of their fame!

"And what sort of a friendship is it which recoils from complicity?"
demanded he one evening of Michel Chrestien; Lucien and Leon Giraud were
walking home with their friend.

"We shrink from nothing," Michel Chrestien made reply. "If you were so
unlucky as to kill your mistress, I would help you to hide your crime,
and could still respect you; but if you were to turn spy, I should shun
you with abhorrence, for a spy is systematically shameless and base.
There you have journalism summed up in a sentence. Friendship can pardon
error and the hasty impulse of passion; it is bound to be inexorable
when a man deliberately traffics in his own soul, and intellect, and

"Why cannot I turn journalist to sell my volume of poetry and the novel,
and then give up at once?"

"Machiavelli might do so, but not Lucien de Rubempre," said Leon Giraud.

"Very well," exclaimed Lucien; "I will show you that I can do as much as

"Oh!" cried Michel, grasping Leon's hand, "you have done it,
Leon. - Lucien," he continued, "you have three hundred francs in hand;
you can live comfortably for three months; very well, then, work hard
and write another romance. D'Arthez and Fulgence will help you with the
plot; you will improve, you will be a novelist. And I, meanwhile, will
enter one of those _lupanars_ of thought; for three months I will be
a journalist. I will sell your books to some bookseller or other by
attacking his publications; I will write the articles myself; I will get
others for you. We will organize a success; you shall be a great man,
and still remain our Lucien."

"You must despise me very much, if you think that I should perish while
you escape," said the poet.

"O Lord, forgive him; it is a child!" cried Michel Chrestien.

When Lucien's intellect had been stimulated by the evenings spent in
d'Arthez's garret, he had made some study of the jokes and articles
in the smaller newspapers. He was at least the equal, he felt, of the
wittiest contributors; in private he tried some mental gymnastics of the
kind, and went out one morning with the triumphant idea of finding some
colonel of such light skirmishers of the press and enlisting in their
ranks. He dressed in his best and crossed the bridges, thinking as he
went that authors, journalists, and men of letters, his future comrades,
in short, would show him rather more kindness and disinterestedness than
the two species of booksellers who had so dashed his hopes. He should
meet with fellow-feeling, and something of the kindly and grateful
affection which he found in the _cenacle_ of the Rue des Quatre-Vents.
Tormented by emotion, consequent upon the presentiments to which men of
imagination cling so fondly, half believing, half battling with their
belief in them, he arrived in the Rue Saint-Fiacre off the Boulevard
Montmartre. Before a house, occupied by the offices of a small
newspaper, he stopped, and at the sight of it his heart began to throb
as heavily as the pulses of a youth upon the threshold of some evil

Nevertheless, upstairs he went, and found the offices in the low
_entresol_ between the ground floor and the first story. The first room
was divided down the middle by a partition, the lower half of solid
wood, the upper lattice work to the ceiling. In this apartment Lucien
discovered a one-armed pensioner supporting several reams of paper on
his head with his remaining hand, while between his teeth he held the
passbook which the Inland Revenue Department requires every newspaper to
produce with each issue. This ill-favored individual, owner of a yellow
countenance covered with red excrescences, to which he owed his nickname
of "Coloquinte," indicated a personage behind the lattice as the

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacA Distinguished Provincial at Paris → online text (page 7 of 29)