Honoré de Balzac.

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The Government Clerks
A Man of Business

Sinet, Seraphine
The Unconscious Humorists

Steinbock, Count Wenceslas
The Imaginary Mistress

Modeste Mignon
The Member for Arcis
Cousin Pons
The Unconscious Humorists

Tillet, Ferdinand du
Cesar Birotteau
The Firm of Nucingen
The Middle Classes
A Bachelor's Establishment
Melmoth Reconciled
A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
The Secrets of a Princess
A Daughter of Eve
The Member for Arcis
The Unconscious Humorists

Trailles, Comte Maxime de
Cesar Birotteau
Father Goriot
Ursule Mirouet
A Man of Business
The Member for Arcis
The Secrets of a Princess
The Member for Arcis
The Unconscious Humorists

Turquet, Marguerite
The Imaginary Mistress
The Muse of the Department
A Man of Business

The Unconscious Humorists

Vernisset, Victor de
The Seamy Side of History

Vernou, Felicien
A Bachelor's Establishment
Lost Illusions
A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
Scenes from a Courtesan's Life
A Daughter of Eve

Vignon, Claude
A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
A Daughter of Eve
The Unconscious Humorists





Translated by

Ellen Marriage


Towards three o'clock in the afternoon of one October day in the year
1844, a man of sixty or thereabouts, whom anybody might have credited
with more than his actual age, was walking along the Boulevard des
Italiens with his head bent down, as if he were tracking some one.
There was a smug expression about the mouth - he looked like a merchant
who has just done a good stroke of business, or a bachelor emerging
from a boudoir in the best of humors with himself; and in Paris this
is the highest degree of self-satisfaction ever registered by a human

As soon as the elderly person appeared in the distance, a smile broke
out over the faces of the frequenters of the boulevard, who daily,
from their chairs, watch the passers-by, and indulge in the agreeable
pastime of analyzing them. That smile is peculiar to Parisians; it
says so many things - ironical, quizzical, pitying; but nothing save
the rarest of human curiosities can summon that look of interest to
the faces of Parisians, sated as they are with every possible sight.

A saying recorded of Hyacinthe, an actor celebrated for his repartees,
will explain the archaeological value of the old gentleman, and the
smile repeated like an echo by all eyes. Somebody once asked Hyacinthe
where the hats were made that set the house in a roar as soon as he
appeared. "I don't have them made," he said; "I keep them!" So also
among the million actors who make up the great troupe of Paris, there
are unconscious Hyacinthes who "keep" all the absurd freaks of
vanished fashions upon their backs; and the apparition of some bygone
decade will startle you into laughter as you walk the streets in
bitterness of soul over the treason of one who was your friend in the

In some respects the passer-by adhered so faithfully to the fashions
of the year 1806, that he was not so much a burlesque caricature as a
reproduction of the Empire period. To an observer, accuracy of detail
in a revival of this sort is extremely valuable, but accuracy of
detail, to be properly appreciated, demands the critical attention of
an expert _flaneur_; while the man in the street who raises a laugh as
soon as he comes in sight is bound to be one of those outrageous
exhibitions which stare you in the face, as the saying goes, and
produce the kind of effect which an actor tries to secure for the
success of his entry. The elderly person, a thin, spare man, wore a
nut-brown spencer over a coat of uncertain green, with white metal
buttons. A man in a spencer in the year 1844! it was as if Napoleon
himself had vouchsafed to come to life again for a couple of hours.

The spencer, as its name indicates, was the invention of an English
lord, vain, doubtless, of his handsome shape. Some time before the
Peace of Amiens, this nobleman solved the problem of covering the bust
without destroying the outlines of the figure and encumbering the
person with the hideous boxcoat, now finishing its career on the backs
of aged hackney cabmen; but, elegant figures being in the minority,
the success of the spencer was short-lived in France, English though
it was.

At the sight of the spencer, men of forty or fifty mentally invested
the wearer with top-boots, pistachio-colored kerseymere small clothes
adorned with a knot of ribbon; and beheld themselves in the costumes
of their youth. Elderly ladies thought of former conquests; but the
younger men were asking each other why the aged Alcibiades had cut off
the skirts of his overcoat. The rest of the costume was so much in
keeping with the spencer, that you would not have hesitated to call
the wearer "an Empire man," just as you call a certain kind of
furniture "Empire furniture;" yet the newcomer only symbolized the
Empire for those who had known that great and magnificent epoch at any
rate _de visu_, for a certain accuracy of memory was needed for the
full appreciation of the costume, and even now the Empire is so far
away that not every one of us can picture it in its Gallo-Grecian

The stranger's hat, for instance, tipped to the back of his head so as
to leave almost the whole forehead bare, recalled a certain jaunty
air, with which civilians and officials attempted to swagger it with
military men; but the hat itself was a shocking specimen of the
fifteen-franc variety. Constant friction with a pair of enormous ears
had left their marks which no brush could efface from the underside of
the brim; the silk tissue (as usual) fitted badly over the cardboard
foundation, and hung in wrinkles here and there; and some skin-disease
(apparently) had attacked the nap in spite of the hand which rubbed it
down of a morning.

Beneath the hat, which seemed ready to drop off at any moment, lay an
expanse of countenance grotesque and droll, as the faces which the
Chinese alone of all people can imagine for their quaint curiosities.
The broad visage was as full of holes as a colander, honeycombed with
the shadows of the dints, hollowed out like a Roman mask. It set all
the laws of anatomy at defiance. Close inspection failed to detect the
substructure. Where you expected to find a bone, you discovered a
layer of cartilaginous tissue, and the hollows of an ordinary human
face were here filled out with flabby bosses. A pair of gray eyes,
red-rimmed and lashless, looked forlornly out of a countenance which
was flattened something after the fashion of a pumpkin, and surmounted
by a Don Quixote nose that rose out of it like a monolith above a
plain. It was the kind of nose, as Cervantes must surely have
explained somewhere, which denotes an inborn enthusiasm for all things
great, a tendency which is apt to degenerate into credulity.

And yet, though the man's ugliness was something almost ludicrous, it
aroused not the slightest inclination to laugh. The exceeding
melancholy which found an outlet in the poor man's faded eyes reached
the mocker himself and froze the gibes on his lips; for all at once
the thought arose that this was a human creature to whom Nature had
forbidden any expression of love or tenderness, since such expression
could only be painful or ridiculous to the woman he loved. In the
presence of such misfortune a Frenchman is silent; to him it seems the
most cruel of all afflictions - to be unable to please!

The man so ill-favored was dressed after the fashion of shabby
gentility, a fashion which the rich not seldom try to copy. He wore
low shoes beneath gaiters of the pattern worn by the Imperial Guard,
doubtless for the sake of economy, because they kept the socks clean.
The rusty tinge of his black breeches, like the cut and the white or
shiny line of the creases, assigned the date of the purchase some
three years back. The roomy garments failed to disguise the lean
proportions of the wearer, due apparently rather to constitution than
to a Pythagorean regimen, for the worthy man was endowed with thick
lips and a sensual mouth; and when he smiled, displayed a set of white
teeth which would have done credit to a shark.

A shawl-waistcoat, likewise of black cloth, was supplemented by a
white under-waistcoat, and yet again beneath this gleamed the edge of
a red knitted under-jacket, to put you in mind of Garat's five
waistcoats. A huge white muslin stock with a conspicuous bow, invented
by some exquisite to charm "the charming sex" in 1809, projected so
far above the wearer's chin that the lower part of his face was lost,
as it were, in a muslin abyss. A silk watch-guard, plaited to resemble
the keepsakes made of hair, meandered down the shirt front and secured
his watch from the improbable theft. The greenish coat, though older
by some three years than the breeches, was remarkably neat; the black
velvet collar and shining metal buttons, recently renewed, told of
carefulness which descended even to trifles.

The particular manner of fixing the hat on the occiput, the triple
waistcoat, the vast cravat engulfing the chin, the gaiters, the metal
buttons on the greenish coat, - all these reminiscences of Imperial
fashions were blended with a sort of afterwaft and lingering perfume
of the coquetry of the Incroyable - with an indescribable finical
something in the folds of the garments, a certain air of stiffness and
correctness in the demeanor that smacked of the school of David, that
recalled Jacob's spindle-legged furniture.

At first sight, moreover, you set him down either for the gentleman by
birth fallen a victim to some degrading habit, or for the man of small
independent means whose expenses are calculated to such a nicety that
the breakage of a windowpane, a rent in a coat, or a visit from the
philanthropic pest who asks you for subscriptions to a charity,
absorbs the whole of a month's little surplus of pocket-money. If you
had seen him that afternoon, you would have wondered how that
grotesque face came to be lighted up with a smile; usually, surely, it
must have worn the dispirited, passive look of the obscure toiler
condemned to labor without ceasing for the barest necessaries of life.
Yet when you noticed that the odd-looking old man was carrying some
object (evidently precious) in his right hand with a mother's care;
concealing it under the skirts of his coat to keep it from collisions
in the crowd, and still more, when you remarked that important air
always assumed by an idler when intrusted with a commission, you would
have suspected him of recovering some piece of lost property, some
modern equivalent of the marquise's poodle; you would have recognized
the assiduous gallantry of the "man of the Empire" returning in
triumph from his mission to some charming woman of sixty, reluctant as
yet to dispense with the daily visit of her elderly _attentif_.

In Paris only among great cities will you see such spectacles as this;
for of her boulevards Paris makes a stage where a never-ending drama
is played gratuitously by the French nation in the interests of Art.

In spite of the rashly assumed spencer, you would scarcely have
thought, after a glance at the contours of the man's bony frame, that
this was an artist - that conventional type which is privileged, in
something of the same way as a Paris gamin, to represent riotous
living to the bourgeois and philistine mind, the most _mirific_
joviality, in short (to use the old Rabelaisian word newly taken into
use). Yet this elderly person had once taken the medal and the
traveling scholarship; he had composed the first cantata crowned by
the Institut at the time of the re-establishment of the Academie de
Rome; he was M. Sylvain Pons, in fact - M. Sylvain Pons, whose name
appears on the covers of well-known sentimental songs trilled by our
mothers, to say nothing of a couple of operas, played in 1815 and
1816, and divers unpublished scores. The worthy soul was now ending
his days as the conductor of an orchestra in a boulevard theatre, and
a music master in several young ladies' boarding-schools, a post for
which his face particularly recommended him. He was entirely dependent
upon his earnings. Running about to give private lessons at his age!
- Think of it. How many a mystery lies in that unromantic situation!

But the last man to wear the spencer carried something about him
besides his Empire Associations; a warning and a lesson was written
large over that triple waistcoat. Wherever he went, he exhibited,
without fee or charge, one of the many victims of the fatal system of
competition which still prevails in France in spite of a century of
trial without result; for Poisson de Marigny, brother of the Pompadour
and Director of Fine Arts, somewhere about 1746 invented this method
of applying pressure to the brain. That was a hundred years ago. Try
if you can count upon your fingers the men of genius among the
prizemen of those hundred years.

In the first place, no deliberate effort of schoolmaster or
administrator can replace the miracles of chance which produce great
men: of all the mysteries of generation, this most defies the
ambitious modern scientific investigator. In the second - the ancient
Egyptians (we are told) invented incubator-stoves for hatching eggs;
what would be thought of Egyptians who should neglect to fill the
beaks of the callow fledglings? Yet this is precisely what France is
doing. She does her utmost to produce artists by the artificial heat
of competitive examination; but, the sculptor, painter, engraver, or
musician once turned out by this mechanical process, she no more
troubles herself about them and their fate than the dandy cares for
yesterday's flower in his buttonhole. And so it happens that the
really great man is a Greuze, a Watteau, a Felicien David, a Pagnesi,
a Gericault, a Decamps, an Auber, a David d'Angers, an Eugene
Delacroix, or a Meissonier - artists who take but little heed of
_grande prix_, and spring up in the open field under the rays of that
invisible sun called Vocation.

To resume. The Government sent Sylvain Pons to Rome to make a great
musician of himself; and in Rome Sylvain Pons acquired a taste for the
antique and works of art. He became an admirable judge of those
masterpieces of the brain and hand which are summed up by the useful
neologism "bric-a-brac;" and when the child of Euterpe returned to
Paris somewhere about the year 1810, it was in the character of a
rabid collector, loaded with pictures, statuettes, frames,
wood-carving, ivories, enamels, porcelains, and the like. He had sunk
the greater part of his patrimony, not so much in the purchases
themselves as on the expenses of transit; and every penny inherited
from his mother had been spent in the course of a three-years' travel
in Italy after the residence in Rome came to an end. He had seen
Venice, Milan, Florence, Bologna, and Naples leisurely, as he wished
to see them, as a dreamer of dreams, and a philosopher; careless of
the future, for an artist looks to his talent for support as the
_fille de joie_ counts upon her beauty.

All through those splendid years of travel Pons was as happy as was
possible to a man with a great soul, a sensitive nature, and a face so
ugly that any "success with the fair" (to use the stereotyped formula
of 1809) was out of the question; the realities of life always fell
short of the ideals which Pons created for himself; the world without
was not in tune with the soul within, but Pons had made up his mind to
the dissonance. Doubtless the sense of beauty that he had kept pure
and living in his inmost soul was the spring from which the delicate,
graceful, and ingenious music flowed and won him reputation between
1810 and 1814.

Every reputation founded upon the fashion or the fancy of the hour, or
upon the short-lived follies of Paris, produces its Pons. No place in
the world is so inexorable in great things; no city of the globe so
disdainfully indulgent in small. Pons' notes were drowned before long
in floods of German harmony and the music of Rossini; and if in 1824
he was known as an agreeable musician, a composer of various
drawing-room melodies, judge if he was likely to be famous in 183l!
In 1844, the year in which the single drama of this obscure life began,
Sylvain Pons was of no more value than an antediluvian semiquaver;
dealers in music had never heard of his name, though he was still
composing, on scanty pay, for his own orchestra or for neighboring

And yet, the worthy man did justice to the great masters of our day; a
masterpiece finely rendered brought tears to his eyes; but his
religion never bordered on mania, as in the case of Hoffmann's
Kreislers; he kept his enthusiasm to himself; his delight, like the
paradise reached by opium or hashish, lay within his own soul.

The gift of admiration, of comprehension, the single faculty by which
the ordinary man becomes the brother of the poet, is rare in the city
of Paris, that inn whither all ideas, like travelers, come to stay for
awhile; so rare is it, that Pons surely deserves our respectful
esteem. His personal failure may seem anomalous, but he frankly
admitted that he was weak in harmony. He had neglected the study of
counterpoint; there was a time when he might have begun his studies
afresh and held his own among modern composers, when he might have
been, not certainly a Rossini, but a Herold. But he was alarmed by the
intricacies of modern orchestration; and at length, in the pleasures
of collecting, he found such ever-renewed compensation for his
failure, that if he had been made to choose between his curiosities
and the fame of Rossini - will it be believed? - Pons would have
pronounced for his beloved collection.

Pons was of the opinion of Chenavard, the print-collector, who laid it
down as an axiom - that you only fully enjoy the pleasure of looking at
your Ruysdael, Hobbema, Holbein, Raphael, Murillo, Greuze, Sebastian
del Piombo, Giorgione, Albrecht Durer, or what not, when you have paid
less than sixty francs for your picture. Pons never gave more than a
hundred francs for any purchase. If he laid out as much as fifty
francs, he was careful to assure himself beforehand that the object
was worth three thousand. The most beautiful thing in the world, if it
cost three hundred francs, did not exist for Pons. Rare had been his
bargains; but he possessed the three qualifications for success - a
stag's legs, an idler's disregard of time, and the patience of a Jew.

This system, carried out for forty years, in Rome or Paris alike, had
borne its fruits. Since Pons returned from Italy, he had regularly
spent about two thousand francs a year upon a collection of
masterpieces of every sort and description, a collection hidden away
from all eyes but his own; and now his catalogue had reached the
incredible number of 1907. Wandering about Paris between 1811 and
1816, he had picked up many a treasure for ten francs, which would
fetch a thousand or twelve hundred to-day. Some forty-five thousand
canvases change hands annually in Paris picture sales, and these Pons
had sifted through year by year. Pons had Sevres porcelain, _pate
tendre_, bought of Auvergnats, those satellites of the Black Band who
sacked chateaux and carried off the marvels of Pompadour France in
their tumbril carts; he had, in fact, collected the drifted wreck of
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; he recognized the genius of
the French school, and discerned the merit of the Lepautres and
Lavallee-Poussins and the rest of the great obscure creators of the
Genre Louis Quinze and the Genre Louis Seize. Our modern craftsmen now
draw without acknowledgment from them, pore incessantly over the
treasures of the Cabinet des Estampes, borrow adroitly, and give out
their _pastiches_ for new inventions. Pons had obtained many a piece
by exchange, and therein lies the ineffable joy of the collector. The
joy of buying bric-a-brac is a secondary delight; in the give-and-take
of barter lies the joy of joys. Pons had begun by collecting
snuff-boxes and miniatures; his name was unknown in bric-a-bracology,
for he seldom showed himself in salesrooms or in the shops of
well-known dealers; Pons was not aware that his treasures had any
commercial value.

The late lamented Dusommerard tried his best to gain Pons' confidence,
but the prince of bric-a-brac died before he could gain an entrance to
the Pons museum, the one private collection which could compare with
the famous Sauvageot museum. Pons and M. Sauvageot indeed resembled
each other in more ways than one. M. Sauvageot, like Pons, was a
musician; he was likewise a comparatively poor man, and he had
collected his bric-a-brac in much the same way, with the same love of
art, the same hatred of rich capitalists with well-known names who
collect for the sake of running up prices as cleverly as possible.
There was yet another point of resemblance between the pair; Pons,
like his rival competitor and antagonist, felt in his heart an
insatiable craving after specimens of the craftsman's skill and
miracles of workmanship; he loved them as a man might love a fair
mistress; an auction in the salerooms in the Rue des Jeuneurs, with
its accompaniments of hammer strokes and brokers' men, was a crime of
_lese-bric-a-brac_ in Pons' eyes. Pons' museum was for his own delight
at every hour; for the soul created to know and feel all the beauty of
a masterpiece has this in common with the lover - to-day's joy is as
great as the joy of yesterday; possession never palls; and a
masterpiece, happily, never grows old. So the object that he held in
his hand with such fatherly care could only be a "find," carried off
with what affection amateurs alone know!

After the first outlines of this biographical sketch, every one will
cry at once, "Why! this is the happiest man on earth, in spite of his
ugliness!" And, in truth, no spleen, no dullness can resist the
counter-irritant supplied by a "craze," the intellectual moxa of a
hobby. You who can no longer drink of "the cup of pleasure," as it has
been called through all ages, try to collect something, no matter what
(people have been known to collect placards), so shall you receive the
small change for the gold ingot of happiness. Have you a hobby? You
have transferred pleasure to the plane of ideas. And yet, you need not
envy the worthy Pons; such envy, like all kindred sentiments, would be
founded upon a misapprehension.

With a nature so sensitive, with a soul that lived by tireless
admiration of the magnificent achievements of art, of the high rivalry
between human toil and the work of Nature - Pons was a slave to that
one of the Seven Deadly Sins with which God surely will deal least
hardly; Pons was a glutton. A narrow income, combined with a passion
for bric-a-brac, condemned him to a regimen so abhorrent to a
discriminating palate, that, bachelor as he was, he had cut the knot
of the problem by dining out every day.

Now, in the time of the Empire, celebrities were more sought after
than at present, perhaps because there were so few of them, perhaps
because they made little or no political pretension. In those days,
besides, you could set up for a poet, a musician, or a painter, with
so little expense. Pons, being regarded as the probable rival of
Nicolo, Paer, and Berton, used to receive so many invitations, that he
was forced to keep a list of engagements, much as barristers note down
the cases for which they are retained. And Pons behaved like an
artist. He presented his amphitryons with copies of his songs, he
"obliged" at the pianoforte, he brought them orders for boxes at the
Feydeau, his own theatre, he organized concerts, he was not above
taking the fiddle himself sometimes in a relation's house, and getting
up a little impromptu dance. In those days, all the handsome men in
France were away at the wars exchanging sabre-cuts with the handsome
men of the Coalition. Pons was said to be, not ugly, but
"peculiar-looking," after the grand rule laid down by Moliere in
Eliante's famous couplets; but if he sometimes heard himself described
as a "charming man" (after he had done some fair lady a service), his
good fortune went no further than words.

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacPoor Relations → online text (page 37 of 62)