Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

. (page 11 of 31)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 11 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

once I am in the Chamber you will see how I shall rise, and
I will make Rogron a receiver-general. Well, swear to me
never to repeat a word of our conversation ! " Sylvie nodded
assent. "In the first place, our gallant colonel is an invet-
erate gambler."

"Indeed !" said Sylvie.

"But for the difficulties this passion has gotten him into,
he might perhaps have been a marshal of France," the lawyer
went on. " So he might squander all your fortune. But he
is a deep customer. Do not believe that married people have
or have not children, and you know what will happen to you.
No. If you wish to marry, wait till I am in the Chamber,
and then you can marry old Desfondrilles, who will be presi-
dent of the court here. To revenge yourself, make your
brother marry Mademoiselle de Chargebceuf ; I will undertake
to get her consent ; she will have two thousand francs a year,
and you will be as nearly connected with the Chargebceufs as
I am. Take my word for it, the Chargeboeufs will call us
cousins some day."

"Gouraud is in love with Pierrette," replied Sylvie.

" He is quite capable of it," said Vinet ; " and quite capa-
ble of marrying her after your death."

" A pretty little scheme ! " said she.

"I tell you, he is as cunning as the devil. Make your


brother marry, and announce that you intend to remain un-
married and leave your money to your nephews or nieces ;
you will thus hit Pierrette and Gouraud by the same blow,
and you will see how foolish he will look."

"To be sure," cried the old maid; "I can catch them.
She shall go into a store, and will have nothing. She has not
a penny. Let her do as we did, and work."

Vinet having got his idea into Sylvie's head, and knowing
her obstinacy, left the house. The old maid ended by think-
ing that the plan was her own.

Vinet found the colonel outside, smoking a cigar while he
waited for him.

" Hold hard ! " said the colonel. " You have pulled me to
pieces, but there are stones enough in the ruins to bury you."


"There is no 'colonel' in the case. I am going to lead
you a dance. In the first place, you will never be deputy "


" I can surely command ten votes, and the election depends
on "

" Colonel, just listen to me. Is there no one in the world
but old Sylvie ? I have just been trying to clear you. You
are accused and proved guilty of writing to Pierrette; she
has seen you coming out of your house at midnight to stand
below the girl's window "

" Well imagined !"

" She means her brother to marry Bathilde, and will keep
her fortune for their children."

"Will Rogron have any?"

"Yes," said Vinet. "But I promise to find you a young
and agreeable woman with a hundred and fifty thousand francs.
Are you mad? Can you and I afford to quarrel? Things
have turned against you in spite of me; but you do not
know me."

"Well, we must learn to know each other," replied the


colonel. " Get me a wife with fifty thousand crowns before
the elections otherwise, your servant. I do not like awk-
ward bed-fellows, and you have pulled all the blankets to your
side. Good-night. ' '

"You will see," said Vinet, shaking hands affectionately
with the colonel.

At about one in the morning three clear, low hoots, like
those of an owl, admirably mimicked, sounded in the piazza ;
Pierrette heard them in her fevered sleep. She got up, quite
damp, opened her window, saw Brigaut, and threw out a ball
of silk, to which he tied a letter.

Sylvie, excited by the events of the evening and her own
deliberations, was not asleep ; she was taken in by the owl's cry.

"Ah! what a bird of ill-omen. But, hark! Pierrette is
out of bed. What does she want? "

On hearing the attic window open, Sylvie rushed to her
own window and heard Brigaut's paper rustle against the shut-
ters. She tied her jacket strings, and nimbly mounted the
stairs to Pierrette's room ; she found her untying the silk from
round the letter.

" So I have caught you ! " cried the old maid, going to the
window, whence she saw Brigaut take to his heels. "Give
me that letter."

"No, cousin," said the girl, who, by one of the stupen-
dous inspirations of youth, and sustained by her spirit, rose
to the dignity of resistance which we admire in the history of
some nations reduced to desperation.

"What, you will not?" cried Sylvie, advancing on her
cousin, and showing her a hideous face full of hatred and
distorted by rage.

Pierrette drew back a step or two to have time to clutch
her letter in her hand, which she kept shut with invincible
strength. On seeing this, Sylvie seized Pierrette's delicate
white hand in her lobster's claws, and tried to wrench it
open. It was a fearful struggle, an infamous struggle, as


everything is that dares to attack thought, the only treasure
that God has set beyond the reach of power, and keeps as a
secret bond between the wretched and Himself.

The two women, one dying, the other full of vigor, looked
steadfastly at each other. Pierrette's eyes flashed at her tor-
turer such a look as the Templar's who received on his breast
the blows from a mace in the presence of Philippe le Bel.
The King could not endure that fearful gleam, and retired
appalled by it; Sylvie, a woman, and a jealous woman,
answered that magnetic glance by an ominous glare. Awful
silence reigned. The Bretonne's clenched fingers resisted
her cousin's efforts with the tenacity of a steel vise. Sylvie
wrung Pierrette's arm, and tried to open her hand ; as this
had no effect, she vainly set her nails in the flesh. Finally,
madness reinforced her anger ; she raised Pierrette's fist to
her teeth to bite her fingers and subdue her by pain. Pier-
rette still defied her with the terrifying gaze of innocence.
The old maid's fury was roused to such a pitch that she was
blind to all else ; gripping Pierrette's arm, she beat the girl's
fist on the window-sill, and on the marble chimney-piece, as
we beat a nut to crack it and get at the kernel.

" Help, help ! " cried Pierrette ; " I am being killed."

" So you scream, do you, when I find you with a lover in
the middle of the night ? "

And she hit again and again without mercy.

" Help, help ! " cried Pierrette, whose fist was bleeding.

At this moment there were violent blows on the street-door.
Both equally exhausted, the two women ceased.

Rogron, aroused and anxious, not knowing what was hap-
pening, had gotten out of bed, gone to his sister's room, and
not finding her he was alarmed, went down and opened the
door, and was almost upset by Brigaut, followed by what
seemed a phantom.

At the same instant Sylvie's eyes fell on Pierrette's stays ;
she remembered having felt the papers in them ; she threw


herself on them like a tiger on his prey, twisted the stays
round her hand, and held them up with a smile, as an Iroquois
smiles at his foe before scalping him.

"I am dying " said Pierrette, dropping on her knees.

" Who will save me? "

" I will," cried a woman with white hair, turning on Pier-
rette an aged, parchment face in which a pair of gray eyes

"Ah, grandmother, you have come too late ! " cried the
poor child, melting into tears.

Pierrette went to fall on her bed, bereft of all her strength,
and half-killed by the reaction, which in a sick girl was inevi-
table after such a violent struggle. The tall, withered appari-
tion took her in her arms as a nurse takes a child, and went
out, followed by Brigaut, without saying a word to Sylvie, at
whom, by a tragic glance, she hurled majestic accusation.
The sight of this dignified old woman in her Breton costume,
shrouded in her coiffe, which is a sort of long cloak made of
black cloth, and accompanied by the terrible Brigaut, appalled
Sylvie ; she felt as if she had seen death.

She went downstairs, heard the door shut, and found her-
self face to face with her brother, who said to her. "They
have not killed you then?"

" Go to bed," said Sylvie. " To-morrow morning we will
see what is to be done."

She got into bed again, unpicked the stays, and read Bri-
gaut's two letters, which utterly confounded her. She went
to sleep in the strangest perplexity, never dreaming of the
terrible legal action to which her conduct was to give rise.

Brigaut's letter to the widow Lorrain had found her in the
greatest joy, which was checked when she read it. The poor
old woman, now past seventy, had been dying of grief at
having to live without Pierrette at her side ; she only com-
forted herself for her loss by the belief that she had sacrificed


herself to her grandchild's interests. She had one of those
ever-young hearts to which self-sacrifice gives strength and
vitality. Her old husband, whose only joy Pierrette had
been, had grieved for the child ; day after day he had looked
for her and missed her. It was an old man's sorrow; the
sorrow old men live on, and die of at last.

Everybody can therefore imagine the joy felt by this poor
woman, shut up in an almshouse, on hearing of one of those
actions which, though rare, are still heard of in France.

After his failure Francois Joseph Collinet, the head of the
house of Collinet, sailed for America with his children. He
was a man of too much good feeling to sit down at Nantes,
ruined and bereft of credit, in the midst of the disasters
caused by his bankruptcy. From 1814 till 1824 this brave
merchant, helped by his children and by his cashier, who
remained faithful to him and loaned him the money to start
again, valiantly worked to make a second fortune. After in-
credible efforts, that were crowned by success, by the eleventh
year he was able to return to Nantes and rehabilitate himself,
leaving his eldest son at the head of the American house. He
found Madame Lorrain of Pen-Hoel at Saint-Jacques, and
beheld the resignation with which the most hapless of his fel-
low-victims endured her penury.

" God forgive you ! " said the old woman, "since you give
me on the brink of the grave the means of securing my grand-
child's happiness. I, alas ! can never see my poor old man's
credit re-established."

Monsieur Collinet had brought to his creditor her capital
and interest at trade rates, altogether about forty-two thousand
francs. His other creditors, active, wealthy, and capable men,
had kept themselves above water, while the Lorrains' over-
throw had seemed to old Collinet irremediable ; he had now
promised the widow that he would rehabilitate her husband's
good name, finding that it would involve an expenditure of
only about forty thousand francs more. When this act of


generous restitution became known on 'change at Nantes, the
authorities were eager to reopen its doors to Collinet before
he had surrendered to the court at Rennes ; but the merchant
declined the honor, and submitted to all the rigor of the com-
mercial code.

Madame Lorrain, then, had received forty-two thousand
francs the day before the post brought her Brigaut's letters.
As she signed her receipt, her first words were

" Now I can live with my Pierrette, and let her marry
poor Brigaut, who will then be able to make a fortune out of
my money ! "

She could not sit still ; she fussed and fidgeted, and wanted
to set out for Provins. And when she had read the fatal
letters, she rushed out into the town like a mad thing, asking
how she could get to Provins with the swiftness of lightning.
She set out by mail when she heard of the governmental
rapidity of that conveyance. From Paris she took the Troyes
coach; she had arrived at eleven that evening at Frappier's,
where Brigaut, seeing the old Bretonne's deep despair, at
once promised to fetch her granddaughter, after describing
Pierrette's state in a few words. Those few words so alarmed
the old woman that she could not control her impatience ; she
ran out to the square. When Pierrette screamed, her grand-
mother's heart was pierced by the cry as keenly as was Brigaut's.
The two together would no doubt have roused all the inhab-
itants, if Rogron, in sheer terror, had not opened the door.
This cry of a girl in her extremity filled the old woman with
strength as great as her horror ; she carried her dear Pier-
rette all the way to Frappier's, where his wife had hastily
arranged Brigaut's room for Pierrette's grandmother. So in
this miserable lodging, on a bed scarcely made, they laid the
poor child ; she fainted away, still keeping her hand closed,
bruised and bleeding as it was, her nails set in the flesh. Bri-
gaut, Frappier, his wife, and the old woman contemplated
Pierrette in silence, all lost in unutterable astonishment.


"Why is her hand covered with blood?" was the grand-
mother's first question.

Pierrette, overcome by the sleep which follows such an
extreme exertion of strength, and knowing that she was safe
from any violence, relaxed her fingers. Brigaut's letter fell
out as an answer.

"They wanted to get my letter," said Brigaut, falling on
his knees and picking up the note he had written, desiring his
little friend to steal softly out of the Rogrons' house. He
piously kissed the little martyr's hand.

Then there was a thing which made the joiners shudder :
it was the sight of old Madame Lorrain, a sublime spectre,
standing by the child's bedside. Horror and vengeance fired
with fierce expression the myriad wrinkles that furrowed her
skin of ivory yellow ; on her brow, shaded by thin, gray
locks, sat divine wrath. With the powerful intuition granted
to the aged as they approach the tomb, she read all Pierrette's
life, of which indeed she had been thinking all the way she
had come.

She understood the malady that threatened the life of her
darling. Two large tears gathered painfully in her gray-and-
white eyes, which sorrow had robbed of lashes and eyebrows ;
two beads of grief that gave a fearful moisture to those eyes,
and swelled and rolled over those withered cheeks without
wetting them.

"They have killed her!" she exclaimed at last, clasping
her hands.

She dropped on her knees, which hit two sharp blows on
the floor; she was making a vow, no doubt, to Sainte-Anne
d'Auray, the most powerful Madonna of Brittany.

"A doctor from Paris," she next said to Brigaut. "Fly
there, Brigaut. Go!"

She took the artisan by the shoulders and turned him round
with a despotic gesture.

"I was coming at any rate, my good Brigaut," she said,


calling him back. " I am rich. Here ! " She untied the
ribbon that fastened her bodice across her bosom, took out a
paper, in which were wrapped forty-two bank-notes, and said,
" Take as much as you need ; bring back the greatest doctor
in Paris."

" Keep that," said Frappier ; "he could not change a bank-
note at this hour. I have money; the diligence will pass
presently, he will be sure to find a place in it. But would it
not be better first to consult Monsieur Martener, who will
give us the name of a Paris physician ? The diligence is not
due for an hour; we have plenty of time."

Brigaut went off to rouse Monsieur Martener. He brought
the doctor back with him, not a little surprised to find Made-
moiselle Lorrain at Frappier's. Brigaut described to him the
scene that had just taken place at the Rogrons. The loqua-
city of a despairing lover threw light on this domestic drama,
though the doctor could not suspect its horrors or its extent.
Martener gave Brigaut the address of the famous Horace
Bianchon, and Jacques and his master left the room on hear-
ing the approach of the diligence.

Monsieur Martener sat down, and began by examining the
bruises and wounds on the girl's hand, which hung out of bed.

" She did not hurt herself in such a way," said he.

"No, the dreadful creature I was so unhappy as to trust
her with was torturing her," said the grandmother. "My
poor Pierrette was crying out, ' Help ! Murder ! ' It was
enough to touch the heart of an executioner."

"But why?" said the doctor, feeling Pierrette's pulse.
" She is very ill," he went on, bringing the light close to the
bed. " We shall hardly save her," said he, after looking at
her face. " She must have suffered terribly, and I cannot
understand their having left her without care."

" It is my intention," said the old woman, " to appeal to
justice. Had these people, who wrote to ask me for my
granddaughter, saying that they had twelve thousand francs a


year, any right to make her their cook and give her work far
beyond her strength? "

"They did not choose to see that she was obviously suffer-
ing from one of the ailments to which young girls are some-
times subject, and needed the greatest care ! " cried Monsieur

Pierrette was roused, partly by the light held by Madame
Frappier so as to show her face more clearly, and partly by
the dreadful pain in her head, caused by reactionary collapse
after her struggle.

"Oh, Monsieur Martener, I am very ill," said she, in her
pretty voice.

"Where is the pain, my child? " said the doctor.

"There," she replied, pointing to a spot on her head
above the left ear.

"There is an abscess!" cried the doctor, after feeling
Pierrette's head for some time, and questioning her as to the
pain. "You must tell us everything, my dear, to enable us
to cure you. Why is your hand in this state ? You did not
injure it like this yourself."

Pierrette artlessly told the tale of her struggle with her
cousin Sylvie.

" Make her talk to you," said the doctor to her grand-
mother, " and learn all about it. I will wait till the surgeon
arrives from Paris, and we will call in the head surgeon of the
hospital for a consultation. It seems to me very serious. I
will send a soothing draught to give mademoiselle some
sleep. She needs rest."

The old Bretonne, left alone with her grandchild, made
her tell everything, by exerting her influence over her, and
explaining to her that she was rich enough for all three, so
that Brigaut need never leave them. The poor child con-
fessed all her sufferings, never dreaming of the lawsuit she
was leading up to. The monstrous conduct of these two
loveless beings, who knew nothing of family affection,


revealed to the old woman worlds of torment, as far from her
conception as the manners of the savage tribes must have
been to the first travelers who penetrated the savannahs of

Her grandmother's presence, and the certainty of living
with her for the future in perfect ease, lulled Pierrette's mind
as the draught lulled her body. The old woman watched by
her, kissing her brow, hair, and hands, as the holy women
may have kissed Jesus while laying Him in the sepulchre.

By nine in the morning Monsieur Martener went to the
president of the courts, and related to him the scene of the
past night between Sylvie and Pierrette, the moral and phys-
ical torture, the cruelty of every kind inflicted by the Rogrons
on their ward, and the two fatal maladies which had been
developed by this ill-usage. The president sent for the notary,
Monsieur Auffray, a connection of Pierrette's on her mother's

At this moment the war between the Vinet party and the
Tiphaine party was at its height. The gossip circulated in
Provins by the Rogrons and their adherents as to the well-
known liaison between Madame Roguin and du Tillet the
banker, and the circumstances of Monsieur Roguin's bank-
ruptcy Madame Tiphaine' s father was said to have com-
mitted forgery hit all the more surely because, though it
was scandal, it was not calumny. Such wounds pierced to
the bottom of things ; they attacked self-interest in its most
vital part. These statements, repeated to the partisans of
Tiphaine by the same speakers who also reported to the
Rogrons all the sarcasms uttered by the " beautiful Madame
Tiphaine" and her friends, added fuel to their hatred, com-
plicated as it was with political feeling.

The irritation caused in France at that time by party spirit,
which had waxed excessively violent, was everywhere bound
up, as it was at Provins, with imperiled interests and offended


and antagonistic private feelings. Each coterie eagerly
pounced on anything that might damage its rival. Party
animosity was not less implicated than personal conceit in
even trivial questions, which were often carried to great
lengths. A whole town threw itself into some dispute, rais-
ing it to the dignity of a political contest. And so the
president discerned, in the action between Pierrette and the
Rogrons, a means of confuting, discrediting, and humiliating
the owners of that drawing-room where plots were hatched
against the monarchy, and where the opposition newspaper
had had its birth.

He sent for the public prosecutor. Then Monsieur Lesourd,
Monsieur Auffray the notary appointed the legal guardian
of Pierrette and the president of the court discussed in the
greatest privacy, with Monsieur Martener, what steps could
be taken. The legal guardian was to call a family council (a
formality of French law), and, armed with the evidence of
the three medical men, would demand the dismissal of Rogron
from his guardianship. The case thus formulated would be
brought before the tribunal, and then Monsieur Lesourd
would get it carried into the criminal court by demanding an

By mid-day all Provins was in a stir over the strange re-
ports of what had taken place at the Rogrons in the course
of the past night. Pierrette's screams had been remotely
heard in the square, but they had not lasted long ; no one had
gotten up; but everybody had asked in the morning, "Did
you hear the noise and screaming at about one o'clock?
What was it?" Gossip and comment had given such magni-
tude to the horrible drama that a crowd collected in front of
Frappier's shop, everybody cross-questioning the honest
joiner, who described the girl's arrival at his house with her
hand bleeding and her fingers mangled.

At about one in the afternoon a post-chaise, containing
Doctor Bianchon, by whom sat Brigaut, stopped at Frappier's


door, and Madame Frappier went off to the hospital to fetch
Monsieur Martener and the head surgeon. Thus the reports
heard in the town received confirmation.

The Rogrons were accused of having intentionally mal-
treated their young cousin, and endangered her life. The
news reached Vinet at the law courts; he left his business and
hurried to the Rogrons. Rogron and his sister had just
finished breakfast. Sylvie had avoided telling her brother of
her defeat during the night ; she allowed him to question
her, making no reply but : " It does not concern you." And
she bustled to and fro between the kitchen and dining-room
to avoid all discussion.

She was alone when Vinet walked in.

" Do you know nothing of what is going on? " asked the

"No," said Sylvie.

"You are going to have a criminal action brought against
you for the way in which matters stand with Pierrette," the
lawyer informed her.

"A criminal action ! " said Rogron, coming in. " Why ?
What for?"

"In the first place," said Vinet, looking at Sylvie, "tell
me exactly, without subterfuge, all that took place last night,
as though you were before God, for there is some talk of cut-
ting off Pierrette's hand."

Sylvie turned ashy pale and shivered.

" Then there was something?" said the lawyer.

Mademoiselle Rogron told the story, trying to justify her-
self; but, on being cross-questioned, related all the details of
the horrible conflict.

" If you have only broken her fingers, you will only appear
in the police court ; but if her hand has to be amputated, you
will find yourself brought up at the assizes. The Tiphaines
will do anything to get you there."

Sylvie, more dead than alive, confessed her jealousy, and,


which was even harder to bring out, how her suspicions had

"What a case for trial! " exclaimed Vinet. "You and
your brother may be ruined by it ; you will be thrown over
by many of your friends even if you gain it. If you do not
come out clear, you will have to leave Provins."

" Oh ! my dear Monsieur Vinet you who are such an able
lawyer," cried Rogron, horrified, " advise us, save us ! "

Vinet dexterously fomented the fears of these two fools to
the utmost, and declared positively that Madame and Made-
moiselle de Chargebceuf would hesitate to go to their house
again. To be forsaken by these two ladies would be a fatal
condemnation. In short, after an hour of magnificent ma-
noeuvring, it was agreed that in order to induce Vinet to save
the Rogrons he must have an interest at stake in defending

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 11 of 31)