Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

. (page 10 of 31)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 10 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


game to lead hearts since he found that you had one ! "

The speech made Desfondrilles smile ; he was a keen ob-
server, who amused himself with watching all the interests at
stake in Provins, where he played the part of " Rigaudin " in
Picard's play of " La Maison en Loterie."

"It was the colonel's game," Cournant put in, without
knowing anything about it.

Sylvie shot at MademoiseUe Habert a look of old maid
against old maid, villainous but honeyed.

" Pierrette, you saw my hand," said Sylvie, fixing her eyes
on the girl.

" No, cousin."

"I was watching you all," said the archaeological judge;
" I can bear witness that the little girl saw no one's hand but
the colonel's."

"Pooh! these little girls know very well how to steal a
glance with their sweet eyes," said Gouraud in alarm.

" Indeed ! " said Sylvie.

"Yes," replied Gouraud; "she may have looked over
your hand to play you a trick. Was it not so, my beauty?"

"No," said the honest Bretonne. "I am incapable of
such a thing ! In that case I should have followed my cousin's
game."

"You know very well that you are a story-teller and a little
fool into the bargain," said Sylvie. " Since what took place
this morning, who can believe a word you may say? You
area "

Pierrette did not wait to hear her cousin end the sentence
in her presence. Anticipating a torrent of abuse, she rose,
went out of the room without a light, and up to her room.
Sylvie turned pale with rage, and muttered between her teeth,
"I will pay her out ! "



112 THE CELIBATES.

" Will you pay your losses ? " said Madame de Chargeboeuf.

At this moment poor Pierrette hit her head against the
passage door which the judge had left open.

" Good! That serves her right ! " cried Sylvie.

" What has happened? " asked Desfondrilles.

" Nothing that she does not deserve," replied Sylvie.

" She has given herself some severe blow," said Mademoi-
selle Habert.

Sylvie tried to evade paying her stakes by rising to see
what Pierrette had done ; but Madame de Chargebceuf stopped
her.

"Pay us first," said she, laughing; "by the time you re-
turn you will have forgotten all about it."

This suggestion, based on the bad faith the ex-haberdasher
showed in the matter of her gambling debts, met with general
approval. Sylvie sat down and thought no more of Pierrette;
and no one was surprised at her indifference. All the evening
Sylvie was absent-minded. When cards were over, at about
half-past nine, she sank into an easy-chair by the fire, and
only rose to take leave of her guests. The colonel tortured
her ; she did not know what to think about him.

" Men are so false ! " said she to herself as she fell asleep.

Pierrette had given herself a frightful blow against the edge
of the door, just over her ear, where girls part their hair to
put the forepart into curl-papers. Next morning there was a
bad purple-veined bruise.

" God has punished you," said Sylvie at breakfast; " you
disobeyed me, you showed a great want of respect in not
listening to me, and in going away in the middle of my sen-
tence. You have received no more than you have justly
deserved. ' '

" Still," said Rogron, " you should put on a rag dipped in
salt and water."

" Pooh ! It is nothing ! " said Sylvie.



PIERRETTE. 113

The poor child had come to the point when she thought
her guardian's remark a proof of interest.

The week ended as it had begun, in constant torment.
Sylvie became ingenious, and carried her refinement of
tyranny to an extreme pitch. The Iroquois, Cherokees, and
Mohicans might have learned of her. Pierrette dared not
complain of her misery and the intense pain she suffered
in her head. At the bottom of Sylvie's displeasure lay the
girl's refusal to tell anything about Brigaut ; and Pierrette,
with Breton obstinacy, was determined to keep a very natural
silence. Every one can imagine what a glance she gave
Brigaut, who, as she believed, would be lost to her if he were
discovered, and whom she instinctively longed to keep near
her, happy in knowing that he was at Provins. What a de-
light to her to see Brigaut again ! The sight of the com-
panion of her childhood was to her like the view an exile
gets from afar of his native land ; she looked on him as a
martyr gazes at the sky when, during his torments, his eyes,
blessed with double sight, see through to heaven.

Pierrette's parting glance had been so perfectly intelligible
to the major's son that, while he planed his boards, opened
his compasses, took his measurements, and fitted his pieces,
he racked his brains for some means of corresponding with
Pierrette. Brigaut at last hit on this extremely simple plan.
At a certain hour at night Pierrette must let down a string,
and he would tie a letter to the end of it. In the midst of
her terrible sufferings from two maladies, an abscess which
was forming in her head, and her general disorderment, Pier-
rette was sustained by the idea of corresponding with Brigaut.
The same desire agitated both hearts; though apart, they
understood each other ! At every pang that made her heart
flutter, at every pain that shot through her brain, Pierrette
said to herself, "Brigaut is at hand ! " and then she could
suffer without complaining.

On the next market-day after their first meeting in the
8



114 THE CELIBATES.

church, Brigaut looked out for his little friend. Though he
saw that she was pale, and trembling like a November leaf
about to drop from the bough, without losing his head he
went to bargain for some fruit at the stall where the terrible
Sylvie was beating down the price of her purchases. Brigaut
contrived to slip a note into Pierrette's hand, and he did it
naturally, while jesting with the market-woman, and with all
the dexterity of a rake, as if he had never done anything else,
so coolly did he manage it, in spite of the hot blood that
sang in his ears and surged boiling from his heart, almost
bursting the veins and arteries. On the surface he had the
determination of an old housebreaker, and within the quaking
heart of innocence, like mothers sometimes in their mortal
anguish, when they are gripped between two dangers, between
two precipices. Pierrette felt Brigaut's dizziness; she crushed
the paper into her apron pocket; the pallor of her cheeks
changed to the cherry redness of a fierce fire. These two
children each unconsciously went through sensations enough
for ten commonplace love-affairs. That instant left in their
souls a wellspring of emotions. Sylvie, who did not recog-
nize the Breton accent, could not suspect a lover in Brigaut,
and Pierrette came home with her treasure.

The letters of these two poor children were destined to serve
as documents in a horrible legal squabble; for, but for that
fatal circumstance, they never would have been seen. This
is what Pierrette read that evening in the quiet seclusion of
her attic room :

" MY DEAR PIERRETTE: At midnight, when everybody is
asleep, but when I shall be awake for your sake, I will come
every night under the kitchen window. You can let down
out of your window a string long enough to reach me, which
will make no noise, and tie to the end of it whatever you
want to write to me. I will answer you in the same way. I
knew that you had been taught to read and write by those



PIERRETTE. 115

wretched relations who were to do you so much good, and
who are doing you so much harm ! You, Pierrette, the daugh-
ter of a colonel who died for France, are compelled by these
monsters to cook for them ! That is how your pretty color
and your fane health have vanished. What has become of
my Pierrette? What have they done to her? I can see
plainly that you are not happy.

"Oh! Pierrette, let us go back to Brittany. I can earn
enough to give you everything you need ; you may have three
francs a day, for I earn from four to five, and thirty sous are
plenty for me. Oh ! Pierrette, how I have prayed to God for
you since seeing you again. I have asked Him to give me all
your pain, and to grant you all the pleasures.

"What have you to do with them that they keep you?
Your grandmother is more to you than they are. These
Rogrons are venomous; they have spoiled all your gaiety.
You do not even walk at Provins as you used to move in
Brittany. Let us go home to Brittany. In short, here I am
to serve you, to do your bidding ; and you must tell me what
you wish. If you want money, I have sixty crowns of ours,
and I shall have the grief of sending them to you by the
string instead of kissing your dear hands respectfully when I
give you the money. Ah ! my dear Pierrette, the blue sky
has now for a long time been dark to me. I have not had
two hours of joy since I put you into that ill-starred diligence ;
and when I saw you again, like a shade, that witch of a cousin
disturbed our happiness. However, we shall have the comfort
of praying to God together every Sunday ; He will perhaps
hear us the better. Not good-by, dear Pierrette, only till
to-night."

This letter agitated her so greatly that she sat for above an
hour reading and re-reading it ; but she reflected, not without
pain, that she had nothing to write with. So she made up
her mind to the difficult expedition from her attic to the



116 THE CELIBATES.

dining-room, where she could find ink, pen, and paper ; and
she accomplished it without waking Sylvie. A few minutes
before midnight she had finished this letter, which was also
produced in court :

" MY FRIEND : Oh, yes, my friend ! For there is no one
but you, Jacques, and my grandmother, who loves me. God
forgive me, but you are the only two persons I love, one as
much as the other, neither more nor less. I was too little
to remember my mother ; but you, Jacques, and my grand-
mother, and my grandfather too, God rest his soul, for he
suffered much from his ruin, which was mine too in short,
you are the only two remaining, and I love you as much as I
am wretched ! So to know how much I love you, you would
have to know how much I suffer ; but I do not wish that it
would make you too unhappy. I am spoken to as you would
not speak to a dog ; I am treated as if I were dirt ; and in
vain I examine myself as if I were before God, I cannot see
that I am in fault towards them. Before you sang the bride's
song to me I saw that God was good in my misery ; for I
prayed to Him to take me out of this world, and as I felt
very ill, I said to myself, ' God has heard me ! '

" But since you have come, Brigaut, I want to go away
with you to Brittany to see my grandmamma, who loves me,
though they tell me she has robbed me of eight thousand
francs. Brigaut, if they are really mine, can you get them ?
But it is all a lie ; if we had eight thousand francs, grand-
mamma would not be at Saint- Jacques. I would not trouble
that good saintly woman's last days by telling her of my
miseries ; it would be enough to kill her. Ah ! if she could
know that they make her grandchild wash the pots and pans
she who would say to me, 'Leave that alone, my darling,'
when I tried to help her in her troubles ; ' leave it, leave it,
my pet; you will spoil your pretty little hands.' Well, my
nails are clean at any rate ! Many times I cannot carry the



PIERRETTE. 117

market basket, and the handle saws my arm as I come home
from market.

" At the same time, I do not think that my cousins are
cruel ; but it is their way always to be scolding, and it would
seem that I can never get away from them. My cousin
Rogron is my guardian. One day when I meant to run away,
as I was too miserable, and I told them so, my cousin Sylvie
answered that the police would go after me, that the law was
on my guardian's side ; and I saw very clearly that cousins
can no more take the place of our father and mother than the
saints can take the place of God. My poor Jacques, what
use could I make of your money ? Keep it for our journey.
Oh ! how I have thought of you and Pen-Hoel and the large
pool. We ate our cake first, out there. I think that I am
getting worse. I am very ill, Jacques. I have such pains in
my head that I could scream, and in my back and my bones ;
something round my loins that half kills me; and I have no
appetite but for nasty things, leaves and roots, and I like the
smell of printed paper. There are times when I should cry
if I were alone, for I may not do anything as I wish ; I am
not even allowed to cry. I have to hide myself to offer up
my tears to Him from whom we receive those mercies which
we call our afflictions. Was it not He who inspired you with
the good idea of coming to sing the bride's song under my
window? Oh! Jacques, cousin Sylvie,, who heard you, told
me I had a lover. If you will be my lover, love me very
much ; I promise always to love you, as in the past, and to be
your faithful servant,

" PIERRETTE LORRAIN.

" You will always love me, won't you? "

The girl had taken a crust of bread from the kitchen, in
which she made a hole to stick her letter in, so as to weight
the thread. At midnight, after opening her window with



118 THE CELIBATES.

excessive caution, she let down her note with the bread,
which could make no noise by tapping against the wall or the
shutters. She felt the thread pulled by Brigaut, who broke
it, and then went stealthily away. When he was in the mid-
dle of the square she could see him, though indistinctly, in
the starlight ; but he could gaze at her in the luminous band
projected by the candle. The two young things remained
there for an hour, Pierrette signaling to him to go away, he
going and she remaining, and he returning to his post, while
Pierrette again waved to him to be gone. This was several
times repeated, till the girl shut her window, got into bed,
and blew out her light.

Once in bed, she went to sleep, happy though suffering;
she had Brigaut's letter under her pillow. She slept the sleep
of the persecuted, a sleep blessed by the angels, the sleep of
golden and far-away glories full of the arabesques of heaven,
which Raphael dreamed of and drew.

Her delicate physical nature was so responsive to her moral
nature that Pierrette rose next morning as glad and light as a
lark, beaming and gay. Such a change could not escape
Sylvie's eye ; this time, instead of scolding her, she pro-
ceeded to watch her with the cunning of a raven.

"What makes her so happy? " was suggested by jealousy,
and not by tyranny. If Sylvie had not been possessed by
the idea of the colonel, she would certainly have said as
usual, " Pierrette, you are very turbulent, or very heedless of
what is said to you." The old maid determined to spy on
Pierrette, as only old maids can spy. The day passed in
gloom and silence, like the hour before a storm.

"So you are no longer so ailing, miss?" said Sylvie at
dinner. " Did I not tell you that she shams it all to worry
us?" she exclaimed, turning to her brother, without waiting
for Pierrette's reply.

" On the contrary, cousin, I have a sort of fever," said the
distressed child.



PIERRETTE. 119

"What sort of fever. You are as gay as a linnet. You
have seen someone again, perhaps?"

Pierrette shuddered, and kept her eyes on her plate.

"Tartu/e/" cried Sylvie. "At fourteen ! Already! What
a nature ! Why, you will be a wretch indeed ! "

" I do not know what you mean," replied Pierrette, raising
her fine luminous hazel eyes to her cousin's face.

"This evening," said Sylvie, "you will remain in the
dining-room to sew by a candle. You are in the way in the
drawing-room, and I will not have you looking over my hand
to advise your favorites."

Pierrette did not flinch.

" Hypocrite ! " exclaimed Sylvie as she left the room.

Rogron, who could not understand what his sister was
talking about, said to Pierrette, " What is the matter between
you two ? Try, Pierrette, to please your cousin ; she is most
indulgent, most kind ; and if she is put out with you, cer-
tainly you must be wrong. Why do you squabble ? For tny
part, I like a quiet life. Look at Mademoiselle Bathilde ; you
should try to copy her."

Pierrette could bear it all ; Brigaut would come, beyond
doubt, at midnight to bring his answer, and this hope was
her viaticum for the day. But she was exhausting her last
strength. She did not go to sleep ; she sat up listening to
the clocks strike the hours, and fearing to make a sound. At
last twelve struck ; she softly opened her window, and this
time she used a string she had made long enough by tying
several bits together. She heard Brigaut's step, and when she
drew up the string she read the following letter, which filled
her with joy :

" MY DEAR PIERRETTE: If you are in such pain, you must
not tire yourself by sitting up for me. You will be sure to
hear me call like a ' Chouan.' My father luckily taught me
to imitate their cry. So I shall repeat it three times, and



120 THE CELIBATES.

you will know that I have come, and that you must let down
the string, but I shall not come again for some few days. I hope
then to have good news for you. Oh ! Pierrette, not death !
What are you thinking of? All my heart quaked; I thought
I was dead myself at the mere idea. No, my Pierrette, you
shall not die ; you shall live happy, and soon be rescued from
your persecutors. If I should not succeed in what I am
attempting, to save you, I would go to the lawyers and declare
in the face of heaven and earth how you are treated by your
cruel relations.

"I am certain that you have only to endure a few days
more ; have patience. Pierrette, Brigaut is watching over
you, as he did in the days when we went to slide on the pond,
and I pulled you out of the deep hole where we were so
nearly lost together. Good-by, my dear Pierrette ; in a few
days we shall be happy, please God. Alas ! I dare not tell
you of the only thing that may hinder our meeting. But
God loves us ! So in a few days I shall be able to see my
dear Pierrette in liberty, without a care, without any one
hindering my looking at you, for I am very hungry to see
you, Oh Pierrette ! Pierrette, who condescends to love me
and to tell me so. Yes, Pierrette, I will be your lover, but
only when I have earned the grand fortune you deserve, and
till then I will be no more to you than a devoted servant
whom you may command. Adieu.

' ' JACQUES BRIGAUT. ' '

This was what the young fellow did not tell Pierrette. He
had written the following letter to Madame Lorrain at Nantes :

" MADAME LORRAIN : Your granddaughter will die, killed
by ill-usage, if you do not come to claim her back. I hardly
knew her again ; and to enable you to judge for yourself of
the state of things, I enclose in this letter one from Pierrette
to me. You are reported here to have your grandchild's
fortune, and you ought to justify yourself on this point. In



PIERRETTE. 121

short, if you can, come quickly ; we may yet be happy, or
later you will find Pierrette dead.

" I remain, with respect, your humble servant,

"JACQUES BRIGAUT.

" At Monsieur Frappier's, master joiner, Grand' Rue,
Provins."

Brigaut only feared lest Pierrette's grandmother might be
dead.

Though this letter from him, whom in her innocence she
called her lover, was almost inexplicable to Pierrette, she
accepted it with virgin faith. Her heart experienced the
feeling which travelers in the desert know when they see
from afar the palm grove round a well. In a few days her
miseries would be ended, Brigaut said it; she slept on the
promise of her childhood's friend ; and yet, as she laid this
letter with the former one, a dreadful thought found dreadful
expression

"Poor Brigaut," said she to herself, "he does not know
the hole I have my feet in ! "

Sylvie had heard Pierrette ; she had also heard Brigaut
below the window ; she sprang up, rushed to look out on the
square through the shutter slats, and saw a man going away
towards the house where the colonel lived. In front of that
Brigaut stopped. The old maid gently opened her door,
went upstairs, was amazed at seeing a light in Pierrette's
room, peeped through the keyhole, and could see nothing.

"Pierrette," said she, "are you ill?"

"No, cousin," said Pierrette, startled.

" Then why have you a light in your room at midnight ?
Open your door. I must know what you are about."

Pierrette, barefoot, opened the door, and Sylvie saw the
skein of twine which Pierrette, never dreaming of being
caught, had neglected to put away. Sylvie pounced upon it.

" What do you use that for?" .-



122 THE CELIBATES.

"Nothing, cousin."

" Nothing ! " said she. " Very good. Lies again ! You
will not find that the way to heaven. Go to bed ; you are
cold."

She asked no more, but disappeared, leaving Pierrette
terror-stricken by such leniency. Instead of an outbreak,
Sylvie had suddenly made up her mind to steal a march on
the colonel and Pierrette, to possess herself of the letters, and
confound the couple who were deceiving her. Pierrette, in-
spired by danger, put the two letters inside her stays and
covered them with calico.

This was the end of the loves of Pierrette and Brigaut.

Pierrette was glad of her friend's decision, for Sylvie's
suspicions would be disconcerted by having nothing to feed
on. And, in fact, Sylvie spent three nights out of her bed
and three evenings in watching the innocent colonel, without
discovering anything in Pierrette's room, or in the house or
out of it, that hinted at their having any understanding.
She sent Pierrette to confession, and took advantage of her
absence to hunt through everything in the child's room as
dexterously and as keenly as the spies and searchers at the
gates of Paris. She found nothing. Her rage rose to the
climax of human passion. If Pierrette had been present, she
would certainly have beaten her without ruth. To a woman
of this temper, jealousy was not so much a feeling as a pos-
session ; she breathed, she felt her heart beat, she had emo-
tions in a way hitherto completely unknown to her ; at the
least movement she was on the alert, she listened to the
faintest sounds, she watched Pierrette with gloomy concen-
tration.

"That little wretch will be the death of me ! " she would
say.

Sylvie's severity to the child became at last the most refined
cruelty, and aggravated the miserable state in which Pierrette



PIERRETTE. 12 3

lived. The poor little thing was constantly in a fever, and
the pain in her head became intolerable. By the end of a
week she displayed to the frequenters of the Rogrons' house
a face of suffering which must certainly have softened any less
cruel egotism ; but Doctor Neraud, advised perhaps by Vinet,
did not call for more than a week. The colonel, suspected
by Sylvie, was afraid she might break off their marriage if
he showed the smallest anxiety about Pierrette; Bathilde
accounted for her indisposition by simple causes, in no way
dangerous.

At last, one Sunday evening, when the drawing-room was
full of company, Pierrette could not endure the pain ; she
fainted completely away ; and the colonel, who was the first
to observe that she had lost consciousness, lifted her up and
carried her to a sofa.

"She did it on purpose," said Sylvie, looking at Made-
moiselle Habert and the other players.

"Your cousin is very ill, I assure you," said the colonel.
"She was very well in your arms," retorted Sylvie, with a
hideous smile.

"The colonel is right," said Madame de Chargeboeuf;
" you ought to send for a doctor. This morning in church
every one was talking of Mademoiselle Lorrain's state as they
came out it is obvious."

" I am dying," said Pierrette.

Desfondrilles called to Sylvie to unfasten the girl's frock.
Sylvie complied, saying, " It is all a sham ! "

She undid the dress, and was going to loosen the stays.
Then Pierrette found superhuman strength ; she sat up, and
exclaimed, " No, no ; I will go to bed."

Sylvie had touched her stays, and had felt the papers. She
allowed Pierrette to escape, saying to everybody, "Well, do
you think she is so very ill ? It is all put on ; you could
never imagine the naughtiness of that child."

She detained Vinet at the end of the evening ; she was



124 THE CELIBATES.

furious, she was bent on revenge ; she was rough with the
colonel as he bid her good-night. Gouraud shot a glance at
Vinet that seemed to pierce him to the very bowels, and
mark the spot for a bullet. Sylvie begged Vinet to remain.
When they were alone, the old maid began

"Never in my life, nor in all my days, will I marry the
colonel ! "

" Now that you have made up your mind, I may speak.
The colonel is my friend ; still, I am yours rather than his.
Rogron has done me services I can never forget. I am as
firm a friend as I am an implacable enemy. Certainly, when



Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 10 of 31)