Honoré de Balzac.

A woman of thirty ; The seamy side of history and other stories online

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were to apply to Monsieur Moreau, the steward at Presles — he
is such a good fellow, that he would, perhaps, take my note of
hand at six months' date," thought he, struck by a new idea.

At this instant, a servant out of livery, carrying a leather
trunk, on coming across from the Touchards' office, where be
had failed to find a place vacant on the Chambly coach start-
ing at one o'clock, said to the driver —

" Pierrotin ? Is that you ? "

** What then?" said Pierrotin.

'' If you can wait less than a quarter of an hour, you can
carry my master; if not, I will take his portmanteau back
again, and he must make the best of a chaise off the stand."

'* I will wait two — three-quarters of an hour, and five
minutes more to that, my lad," said Pierrotin, with a glance
at the smart little leather trunk, neatly strapped, and fastened
with a brass lock engraved with a coat-of-arms.

** Very good, then, there you are," said the man, relieving
his shoulder of the trunk, which Pierrotin lifted, weighed in
his hand, and scrutinized.

"Here," said he to his stable-boy, "pack it round with
soft hay, and put it in the boot at the back. There is no
name on it," said he.

"There are monseigneur's arms," replied the servant.

" Monseigneur ? — worth his weight in gold 1 Come and
have a short drink," said Pierrotin, with a wink, as he led
the way to the Caf6 of the Echiquiers. "Two absinthes,"
cried he to the waiter as they went in. " But who is your
master, and where is he bound? I never saw you before,"
said Pierrotin to the servant as they clinked glasses.

" And for very good reasons," replied the footman. " My
master does not go your way once a year, and always then in



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222 A START IN LIFE,

his own carriage. He prefers the road by the Orge valley,
where he has the finest park near Paris, a perfect Versailles, a
family estate, from which he takes his name. Don't you
know Monsieur Moreau?"

"The steward at Presles?" said Pierrotin.

** Well, Monsieur le Comte is going to spend two days at
Presles."

"Oh, ho, then my passenger is the Comte de Sdrizy!"
cried Pierrotin.

" Yes, my man, no less. But, mind, he sends strict orders.
If you have any of the people belonging to your parts in your
chaise, do not mention the count's name ; he wants to travel
incognito^ and desired me to tell you so, and promise you a
handsome tip."

" Hah I and has this hide-and-seek journey anything to do,
by any chance, with the bargain that old L^ger, the farmer
at les Moulineaux, wants to make ? "

"I don't know," replied the man; " but the fat is in the
fire. Last evening I was sent to the stables to order the
chaise ^ la Daumoni^ by seven this morning, to drive to
Presles ; but at seven my master countermanded it. Augustin,
his valet, ascribes this change of plan to the visit of a lady,
who seemed to have come from the country."

" Can any one have had anything to say against Monsieur
Moreau? The best of men, the most honest, the king of
men, I say I He might have made a deal more money than
he has done if he had chosen, take my word for it "

" Then he was very foolish," said the servant sententiously.

" Then Monsieur de S^rizy is going to live at Presles at
Tast? The castle. has been refurnished and done up," said
Pierrotin after a pause. "Is it true that two hundred thou-
sand francs have been spent on it already?"

" If you or I had the money that has been spent there, we
could set up in the world. If Madame la Comtesse goes
* A carriage known by this name.



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A START IN LIFE. m

down there, the Moreaus' fun will be over/' added the man,
with mysterious significance.

"A good man is Monsieur Moreau," repeated Pierrot in,
who was still thinking of borrowing the thousand francs from
the steward ; '' a man that makes his men work, and does not
spare them ; who gets all the profit out of the land, and for
his master's benefit too. A good man 1 He often comes to
Paris, and always by my coach ; he gives me something hand-
some for myself, and always has a lot of parcels to and fro.
Three or four a day, sometimes for monsieur and sometimes
for madame ; a bill of fifty francs a month, say, only pn the
carrier's score. Though madame holds her head a little
above her place, she is fond of her children ; I take them
to school for her and bring them home again. And she
always gives me five francs, and your biggest pot would not
do more. And whenever I have any one .from them or to
them, I always drive right up to the gates of the house — I
could not do less, now, could I?"

"They say that Monsieur Moreau had no more than a
thousand crowns in the world when Monsieur le Comte put
him in as land steward at Presles," said the loquacious man-
servant.

"But in seventeen years' time — since 1806 — the man must
have made something," replied Pierrotin.

"To be sure," said the servant, shaking his head. "And
masters are queer too. I hope, for Moreau' s sake, that he has
feathered his nest."

" I often deliver hampers at your house in the Chauss^e-
d'Antin," said Pierrotin, "but I have never had the privilege
of seeing either the master or his lady."

"Monsieur le Comte is a very good sort," said the man
confidentially ; " but if he wants you to hold your tongue
about his cognito, there is a screw loose you may depend.
At least, that is what we think at home. For why else should he
counterorder the traveling carriage? Why ride in a public



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224 A START IN LIFE,

chaise ? A peer of France might take a hired chaise, you
would think."

'^ A hired chaise might cost him as much as forty francs for
the double journey ; for, I can tell, if you don't know our
road, it is fit for squirrels to climb. Everlastingly up and
down I" said Pierrotin. **Peer of France or tradesman,
everybody looks at both sides of a five-franc piece. If this
trip means mischief to Monsieur Moreau — dear, dear, I should
be vexed indeed if any harm came to him. By the mass I
Can no way be found of warning him ? For he is a real
good 'un, an honest sort, the king of men, I say "

'' Pooh ! Monsieur le Comte is much attached to Monsieur
Moreau," said the other. '* But if you will take a bit of good
advice from me, mind your own business, and let him mind
his. We all have quite enough to do to take care of ourselves.
You just do what you are asked to do ; all the more because
it docs not pay to play fast and loose with monseigneur.
Add to that, the count is generous. If you oblige him that
much," said the man, measuring off the nail of one finger,
** he will reward you that much,*' and he stretched out his
arm.

This judicious hint, and yet more the illustrative figure,
coming from a man so high in office as the Comte de S^rizy's
second footman, had the effect of cooling Pierrotin's zeal ifor
the steward of Presles.

** Well, good-day. Monsieur Pierrotin," said the man.

1 A short sketch of the previous history of the Comte de
S6rizy and his steward is here necessary to explain the little
drama about to be played in Pierrotin's coach.

Monsieur Hugret de S^rizy is descended in a direct line
from the famous Pr^ident Hugret, ennobled by Francis the
First. They bear as arms party per pale or and sabUy an
orle and two lozenges counter changed. Motto, / semper
melius eris^ which, like the two distaffs assumed as supporters.



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A START IN LIFE. 225

shows the modest pretense of the citizen class at a time when
each rank of society had its own place in the State, and also
the artlessness of the age in the punning motto, where eris
with the /at the beginning, and the final 5 of melius, repre-
sent the name, S6risi, of the estate, whence the title.

The present count's father was a president of Parliament
before the Revolution. He himself, a member of the High
Council of State in 1787, at the early age of two-and-twenty,
was favorably known for certain reports on some delicate
matters. He did not emigrate during the Revolution, but
remained on his lands of S^rizy, near Arpajon, where the
respect felt for his father protected him from molestation.

After spending a few years in nursing the old president,
whom he lost in 1794, he was elected to the Council of Five
Hundred, and took up his legislative functions as a distraction
from his grief.

After the eighteenth Brumaire, Monsieur de S^rizy became
the object — as did all the families connected with the old
Parliament — of the First Consul's attentions, and by him he
was appointed a councilor of State to reorganize one of the
most disorganized branches of the administration. Thus this
scion of a great historical family became one of the most
important wheels in the vast and admirable machinery due to
Napoleon. The State councilor ere long left his depart-
ment to be made a minister. The Emperor created him
count and senator, and he was proconsul to two different
kingdoms in succession.

In 1 806, at the age of forty, he married the sister of the
one-time Marquis de Ronquerolles, and widow, at the age of
twenty, of Gaubert, one of the most distinguished of the
Republican generals, who left her all his wealth. This match,
suitable in point of rank, doubled the Comte de Serizy's
already considerable fortune ; he was now the brother-in-law
of the H'devani Marquis de Rouvre, whom Napoleon created
count and appointed to be his chamberlain.
15



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226 A START IN LIFE.

In 1 814, worn out with incessant work, Monsieur de S^rizy
whose broken health needed rest, gave up all his appoint-
ments, left the district of which Napoleon had noade him
governor, and came to Paris, where the Emperor was com-
pelled by ocular evidence to concede his claims. This inde-
fatigable master, who could not believe in fatigue in other
people, had at first supposed the necessity that prompted the
Comte de S^rizy to be simple defection. Though the senator
was not in disgrace, it was said that he had cause for com-
plaint of Napoleon. Consequently, when the Bourbons came
back, Louis XVIII., whom Monsieur de S6rizy acknowledged
as his legitimate sovereign, granted to the senator, now a peer
of France, the highly confidential post of steward of his privy
purse, and made him a minister of State.

On the 2oth March, Monsieur de S^rizy did not follow the
King to Ghent ; he made it known to Napoleon that he re-
mained faithful to the House of Bourbon, and accepted no
peerage during the Hundred Da)rs, but spent that brief reign
on his estate of S^rizy. After the Emperor's second fall, the
count naturally resumed his seat in the Privy Council, was one
of the Council of State, and liquidator on behalf of France
in the settlement of the indemnities demanded by foreign
powers.

He had no love of personal magnificence, no ambition
even, but exerted great influence in public affairs. No import-
ant political step was ever taken without his being consulted,
but he never went to court, and was seldom seen in his own
drawing-room. His noble life, devoted to work from the
first, ended by being perpetual work and nothing else. The
count rose at four in the morning in all seasons, worked till
midday, then took up his duties as a peer, or as vice-president
of the Council, and went to bed at nine.

Monsieur de S6rizy had long worn the grand cross of the
Legion of Honor; he also had the orders of the Golden
Fleece, of Saint Andrew of Russia, of the Prussian Eagle ; in



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A START IN LIFE. 287

short, almost every order of the European Courts. No one was
less conspicuous or more valuable than he in the world of
politics. As may be supposed, to a man of his temper the
flourish of court favor and worldly success were a matter of
indifference.

But no man, unless he is a priest, can live such a life with-
out some strong motive ; and his mysterious conduct had its
key — a cruel one. The count had loved his wife before he
married her, and in him this passion had withstood all the
domestic discomforts of matrimony with a widow who re-
mained mistress of herself, after as well as before her second
marriage, and who took all the more advantage of her liberty
because Monsieur de S^rizy indulged her as a mother indulges
a spoilt child. Incessant work served him as a shield against
his heart-felt woes, buried with the care that a man engaged
in politics takes to hide such secrets. And he fully understood
how ridiculous jealousy would be in the eyes of the world,
which would certainly never have admitted the possibility of
conjugal passion in a time-worn official.

How was it that his wife had thus bewitched him from the
first days of marriage ? Why had he suffered in those early
days without taking his revenge ? Why did he no longer dare
to be revenged ? And why, deluded by hope, had he allowed
time to slip away ? By what means had his young, pretty,
clever wife reduced him to subjection? The answer to these
questions would require a long story, out of place in this
"Scene," and women, if not men, may be able to guess it.
At the same time, it may be observed that the count's inces-
sant work and many sorrows had unfortunately done much to
deprive him of the advantages indispensable to a man who has
to compete with unfavorable comparisons. The saddest, per-
haps, of all the count's secrets was the fact that his wife's repul-
sion was partly justified by ailments which he owed entirely to
overwork. Kind, nay, more than kind, to his wife, he made her
mistress of herself and house ; she received all Paris, she went



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228 A START IN LIFE,

into the country, or she came back again, precisely as though
she were still a widow ; he took care of her money, and sup-
plied her luxuries as if he had been her agent.

The countess held her husband in the highest esteem ; in-
deed, she liked his turn of wit. Her approbation could give
him pleasure, and thus she could do what she liked with the
poor man by sitting and chatting with him for an hour. Like
the great nobles of former days, the count so effectually pro-
tected his wife that he would have regarded any slur cast
•n her reputation as an unpardonable insult to himself. The
world greatly admired his character, and Madame de S^rizy
owed much to her husband. Any other woman, even though
she belonged to so distinguishd a family as that of Ronque-
roUes, might have found herself disgraced for ever. The
countess was very ungrateful — ^but charming in her ingratitude.
Yet from time to time she would pour a balm on the count's
heart-wounds.

We must now explain the cause of the minister's hurried
journey and wish to remain unknown.

A rich farmer of Beaumont-sur-Oise, named L^ger, held a
farm of which the various portions were all fractions of the
estate owned by the count, thus impairing the splendid prop-
erty of Presles. The farm-lands belonged to a townsman of
Beaumont-sur-Oise, one Margueron. The lease he had granted
to L^er in 1799, ^^ ^ ^^^^ when the advance since made in
agriculture could not be foreseen, was nearly run out, and the
owner had refused Lager's terms for renewing it. Long since,
Monsieur de S^rizy, wanting to be quit of the worry and
squabbling that come of such inclosed plots, had hoped to be
able to buy the farm, having heard that Monsieur Margueron's
sole ambition was to see his only son, a modest official, pro-
moted to be collector of the revenue at Sen lis.

Moreau had hinted to his master that he had a dangerous
rival in the person of old L^er. The farmer, knowing that
he coald run up the land to a high price by selling it piece-



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A START IN LIFE. 229

meal to the count, was capable of paying a sum so high as to
outbid the profit derivable from the collectorship to be be-
stowed on the younger Margueron. Two days since, the
count, who wanted to have done with the matter, had sent for
his notary, Alexandre Crottat, and Derville his solicitor, to
inquire into the state of the affair. Though Crottat and Der-
ville cast doubts on the steward's zeal — ^and, indeed, it was a
puzzling letter from him that gave rise to this consultation-*
the count defended Moreau, who had, he said, served him
fiiithfully for seventeen years.

" Well," Derville replied, " I can only advise your lordship
to go in person to Presles and ask this Margueron to dinner.
Crottat will send down his head-clerk with a form of sale ready
drawn out, leaving blank pages or lines for the insertion of
descriptions of the plots and the necessary titles. Your excel-
lency will do well to go provided with a cheque for part of the
purchase-money in case of need, and not to forget the letter
appointing the son to the collectorship at Senlis. If you do
not strike on the nail, the farm will slip through your fingers.
You have no idea. Monsieur le Comte, of peasant cunning.
Given a peasant on one side and a diplomatist on the other,
the peasant will win the day."

Crottat confirmed this advice, which, from the footman's
report to Pierrotin, the count had evidently adopted. On the
day before, the count had sent a note to Moreau by the Beau-
mont diligence, desiring him to invite Margueron to dinner,
as he meant to come to some conclusion concerning the
Moulineaux farm-lands.

Before all this, the count had given orders for the restora-
tion of the living-rooms at Presles, and Monsieur Grindot, a
fashionable architect, went down there once a week. So,
while treating for his acquisition, Monsieur de S^rizy pro-
posed inspecting the works at the same time and the effect of
the new decorations. He intended to give his wife a surprise
by taking her to Presles, and the restoration of the castle was



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280 A STAUT IN LIFE,

a matter of pride to him. What event, then, could have hap-
pened that the count, who, only the day before, was intend-
ing to go overtly to Presles, should now wish to travel thither
incognito^ in Pierrotin's chaise ?

Here a few words are necessary as to the antecedent history
of the steward at Presles.

This man, Moreau, was the son of a proctor in a provincial
town, who at the time of the Revolution had been made a
magistrate {procureur-syndic) at Versailles. In this position
the elder Moreau had been largely instrumental in saving the
property and life of the S6rizys, father and son. Citizen
Moreau had belonged to the party of Danton ; Robespierre,
implacable in revenge, hunted him down, caught him, and
had him executed at Versailles. The younger Moreau, in-
heriting his father's doctrines and attachments, got mixed up
in one of the conspiracies plotted against the First Consul on
his accession to power. Then Monsieur de S6rizy, anxious to
pay a debt of gratitude, succeeded in effecting Moreau's escape
after he was condemned to death; in 1804 he asked and ob-
tained his pardon ; he at first found him a place in his of&ce,
and afterward made him his secretary and manager of his
private affairs.

Some time after his patron's marriage, Moreau fell in love
with the countess' maid and married her. To avoid the un-
pleasantly false position in which he was placed by this union
— and there were many such at the Imperial Court — he asked
to be appointed land steward at Presles, where his wife could
play the lady, and where, in a neighborhood of small folk,
they would neither of them be hurt in their own conceits.
The count needed a faithful agent at Presles, because his wife
preferred to reside at S6rizy, which is no more than five
leagues from Paris. Moreau was familiar with all his affairs,
and he was intelligent ; before the Revolution he had studied
law under his father. So Monsieur de S6rizy said to him —

•* You will not make a fortune, for you have tied a millstone



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A START IN LIFE. 231

around your neck ; but you will be well off, for I will provide
for that."

And, in fact, the count gave Moreau a fixed salary of a
thousand crowns, and a pretty little lodge to live in beyond
the outbuildings ; he also allowed him so many cords of wood
a year out of the plantations for fuel, so much straw, oats, and
hay for two horses, and a certain proportion of the payments
in kind. A -sub-prefect is less well off.

During the first eight years of his stewardship, Moreau
managed the estate conscientiously, and took an interest in
his work. The count, when he came down to inspect the
domain, to decide on purchases or sanction improvements,
was struck by Moreau's faithful service, and showed his appro-
bation by handsome presents. But when Moreau found him-
self the father of a girl — his third child — he was so completely
established at his ease at Presles that he forgot how greatly
he was indebted to Monsieur de S^rizy for such unusually
liberal advantages. Thus in 1816, the steward, who had
hitherto done no more than help himself freely, accepted
from a wood-merchant a bonus of twenty-five thousand francs,
with the promise of a rise, for signing an agreement for
twelve years allowing the contractor to cut fire-logs in the
woods of Presles. Moreau argued thus : He had no promise
of a pension ; he was the father of a family ; the count cer-
tainly owed him so much by way of premium on nearly ten
years' service. He was already lawfully possessed of sixty
thousand francs in savings ; with this sum added to it he
could purchase for a hundred and twenty thousand a farm in
the vicinity of Champagne, a hamlet on the right bank of the
Oise a little way above TIsle-Adam.

. The stir of politics hindered the count and the country-
folk from taking cognizance of this investment ; the business
was indeed transacted in the name of Madame Moreau, who
was supposed to have come into some money from an old
great-aunt in her own part of the country, at Saint-L6.



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232 A START IN LIFE.

When once the steward had tasted the delicious fruits of
ownership, though his conduct was still apparently honesty
itself, he never missed an opportunity of adding to his clan-
destine wealth ; the interests of his three children served as
an emollient to quench the ardors of his honesty, and we must
do him the justice to say that while he was open to a bribe,
took care of himself in concluding a bargain, and strained his
rights to the last point, he was still honest in the eye of the
law; no proof could have been brought in support of any
accusation. According to the jurisprudence of the least dis-
honest of Paris cooks, he shared with his master the profits
due to his sharp practice. This way of making a fortune was
a matter of conscience — nothing more. Energetic, and fully
alive to the count's interests, Moreau looked out all the more •
keenly for good opportunities of driving a bargain, since he
was sure of a handsome douceur. Presles was worth sixty-two
thousand francs in cash rents ; and throughout the district,
for ten leagues round, the saying was, ** Monsieur de S6rizy
has a second self in Moreau ! "

Moreau, like a prudent man, had, since 1817, invested his
salary and his profits year by year in the Funds, feathering his
nest in absolute secrecy. He had refused various business
speculations on the plea of want of money, and affected pov-
erty so well to the count that he had obtained two scholar-
ships for his boys at the College Henri IV. And, at this
moment, Moreau owned a hundred and twenty thousand
francs in reduced consols, then paying five per cent., and
quoted at eighty. These unacknowledged hundred and twenty
thousand francs, and his farm at Champagne, to which he had
made additions, amounted to a fortune of about two hundred
and eighty thousand francs, yielding an income of sixteen
thousand francs a year.

This, then, was the steward's position at the time whert the
count wished to purchase the farm of les Moulineaux, of which
the possession had become indispensable to his comfort. This



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A START IN LIFE. 233

Arm comprehended ninety-six plots of land, adjoining, bor-
dering, and marching with the estate of Presles, in many cases
indeed completely surromided by the count's property, like a
square in the middle of a chess-board, to say nothing of the
dividing hedges and ditches, which gave rise to constant dis-
putes when a tree was to be cut down if it stood on debatable
ground. Any other Minister of State would have fought
twenty lawsuits a year over the lands of les Moulineaux.

Old L6ger wanted to buy them only to sell to the count ;
and to make the thirty or forty thousand francs of profit he
hoped for, he had long been endeavoring to come to terms



Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacA woman of thirty ; The seamy side of history and other stories → online text (page 19 of 63)