Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

. (page 14 of 31)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 14 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


rooms were bare and the ceilings blackened by smoke. The
chimney fronts, clumsily carved in stone, had never been
painted. All the furniture the poor canon could at first put
in consisted of a bed, a table, some chairs, and his few books.
The apartment was like a fine woman in rags.

But two or three years later, an old lady having left the
Abbe Chapeloud two thousand francs, he laid out the money
in the purchase of an oak bookcase, saved from the destruc-
tion of an old chateau pulled down by the Black Band (a
company who bought old buildings to demolish), and re-
markable for carvings worthy of the admiration of artists.
The abbe made the purchase, fascinated less by its cheapness
than by its exact correspondence in size with the dimensions
of his corridor. His savings then allowed him completely to
restore this corridor, until now abandoned to neglect. The



164 THE CELIBATES.

floor was carefully waxed, the ceiling white-washed, the wood-
work painted and grained to imitate the tone and knots of
oak. A marble chimney-shelf replaced the old one. The
canon had taste enough to hunt up and find some old arm-
chairs of carved walnut-wood. Then a long ebony table and
two little Boulle cabinets gave this library a finish full of
character.

Within two years, the liberality of various devout persons,
and the bequests of pious penitents, though small, had filled
the shelves of the bookcase hitherto vacant. Finally, an
uncle of Chapeloud's, an old oratorian, left him his collec-
tion in folio of the "Fathers of the Church," and several
other large works of value to an ecclesiastic.

Birotteau, more and more surprised by the successive trans-
formations in this formerly bare corridor, by degrees became
involuntarily covetous. He longed to possess this study, so
perfectly adapted to the gravity of priestly habits. This
passion grew day by day. Spending whole days, as he often
did, in working in this snuggery, he could appreciate the
silence and peace of it, after having at first admired its com-
fortable arrangement. For the next few years the Abbe
Chapeloud used this retreat as an oratory which his lady
friends delighted to embellish. Later, again, a lady pre-
sented to the canon a piece of furniture in worsted-work for
his bedroom, at which she had long been stitching under the
amiable priest's eyes without his suspecting its purpose. Then
Birotteau was as much dazzled by the bedroom as by the
library.

Finally, three years before his death, the Abbe Chapeloud
had completed the comfort of his rooms by decorating the
drawing-room. Though simply furnished with red Utrecht
velvet, this had been too much for Birotteau. From the day
when the canon's friend first saw the red silk curtains, the
mahogany furniture, the Aubusson carpet that graced this
large room, freshly painted, Chapeloud's apartment became



THE ABBE BIROTTEAU. 165

to him the object of a secret monomania. To live there, to
sleep in the great bed with silk curtains in which the canon
slept, and have all his comforts about him as Chapeloud had,
seemed to Birotteau perfect happiness ; he looked for nothing
beyond. Every feeling which envy and ambition arouse in
the souls of other men was, in that of the Abbe Birotteau,
centred in the deep and secret longing with which he wished
for a home like that created for himself by the Abbe Chape-
loud. When his friend fell ill, it was no doubt sincere affec-
tion that brought Birotteau to see him ; but on first hearing
of the canon's sickness, and while sitting with him, there rose
from the depths of his soul a thousand thoughts, of which the
simplest formula was always this, " If Chapeloud dies, I can
have his rooms." Still, as Birotteau had a good heart, strict
principles, and a narrow intellect, he never went so far as to
conceive of means for getting his friend to leave him his
library and furniture.

The Abbe Chapeloud, an amiable and indulgent egoist,
guessed his friend's mania which it was not difficult to do,
and forgave it which for a priest would seem less easy.
Still, Birotteau, whose friendship remained unaltered, never
ceased to walk day after day with the canon up and down the
same path in the mall at Tours without curtailing by a single
minute the time devoted to this exercise for the last twenty
years. Birotteau thought of his involuntary wishes as sins,
and would have been capable, in sheer contrition, of the
utmost devotion for Chapeloud's sake.

The canon paid his debt to this sincere and artless brother-
liness by saying, a few days before his death, to the priest,
who was reading to him from the Quotidienne, " You will get
the rooms this time. I feel that it is all over with me."

In fact, by his will, the Abbe Chapeloud left his library
and furniture to Birotteau. The possession of these much-
longed-for things, and the prospect of being taken as a boarder
by Mademoiselle Gamard, greatly softened Birotteau's grief



166 THE CELIBATES.

at the loss of his friend the canon. He would not perhaps
have called him to life again, but he wept for him. For sev-
eral days he was like Gargantua, whose wife died in giving
birth to Pantagruel, and who knew not whether to rejoice
over his son's birth or to lament at having buried his good
Badebec, and made the mistake of rejoicing at his wife's death
and deploring the birth of Pantagruel.

The Abb6 Birotteau spent the first days of his grief in veri-
fying the volumes of his library and enjoying the use of his
furniture, examining them, and saying in a tone which, un-
fortunately, could not be recorded, " Poor Chapeloud ! " In
short, his joy and his grief were so absorbing that he felt no
distress at seeing the canonry bestowed on another, though
the lamented Chapeloud had always hoped that Birotteau
might be his successor. Mademoiselle Gamard received the
abbe with pleasure as a boarder, and he thus enjoyed thence-
forth all the delights of material existence that the deceased
canon had so highly praised.

Incalculable advantages! For, to hear the late departed
Canon Chapeloud, not one of the priests who dwelt in the
town of Tours, not even the archbishop himself, could be the
object of care so delicate or so precise as that lavished by
Mademoiselle Gamard on her two boarders. The first words
spoken by the canon to his friend as they walked in the mall
had almost always referred to the excellent dinner he had just
eaten; and it was a rare thing if, in the course of the seven
walks they took in the week, he did not happen to say at least
fourteen times, " That good woman has certainly a vocation
for taking charge of the priesthood."

"Only think," said the canon to Birotteau, "for twelve
successive years clean linen, albs, surplices, bands nothing
has ever been missing. I always find everything in its place
and in sufficient numbers, all smelling of orris-root. My
furniture is constantly polished and so well wiped that for a
long time past I have not known what dust means. Did you



THE ABBE BIROTTEAU. 167

ever see a speck in my rooms ? Then the fire-logs are well
chosen, the smallest things are all good ; in short, it is as if
Mademoiselle Gamard always had an eye on my room. I
cannot recollect in ten years ever having had to ring twice for
anything whatever. That I call living ! never to have to look
for a thing, not even for one's slippers ; always to find a good
fire and a good table. Once my bellows put me out, the
nozzle had gotten burnt ; I had not to complain twice. The
very next day mademoiselle had bought me a nice pair of
bellows and the pair of tongs you see me use to put the fire
together."

Birotteau's only reply was, " Smelling of orris-root ! " That
smelling of orris-root always struck him. The canon's words
painted a really ideal state of happiness to the poor priest
whose bands and albs nearly turned his brain ; for he had no
sense of order, and not unfrequently forgot to bespeak his din-
ner. And so, whenever he caught sight of Mademoiselle Ga-
mard at Saint-Gatien, either while going round for the offertory
or while reading mass, he never failed to give her a gentle and
kindly glance such as Saint Theresa may have raised to heaven.

Though the comfort which every creature desires, and of
which he had so often dreamed, had now fallen to his lot, as
it is difficult for any man, even for a priest, to live without a
hobby, for the last eighteen months the Abbe Birotteau had sub-
stituted for his two gratified passions a craving for a canonry.
The title of canon had become to him what that of a peer
must be to a plebeian minister. And the probability of a
nomination, the hopes he had just been encouraged in at
Madame de Listomere's, had so effectually turned his brain
that it was only on reaching home that he discovered that he
had left his umbrella at her house. Perhaps, indeed, but for the
rain that fell in torrents, he would not have remembered it then,
so completely was he absorbed in repeating to himself all that
had been said on the subject of his preferment by the mem-



168 THE CELIBATES.

bers of the party at Madame de Listomere's an old lady with
whom he spent every Wednesday evening.

The abbe rang sharply as a hint to the maid not to keep
him waiting. Then he shrank into the corner by the door so
as to be splashed as little as possible ; but the water from the
roof ran off precisely on the toes of his shoes, and the gusts
of wind blew on to him squalls of rain not unlike a repeated
shower-bath. After calculating the time necessary for coming
from the kitchen to pull the latch-string under the door, he
rang again, a very significant peal. "They cannot have
gone out," thought he, hearing not a sound within. And for
the third time he rang, again and again, a peal that sounded
so sharply through the house, and was so loudly repeated by
every echo in the cathedral, that it was impossible not to be
roused by this assertive jangle. And a few moments after it
was not without satisfaction, mingled with annoyance, that he
heard the maid's wooden shoes clattering over the pebbly
stone floor. Still, the gouty priest's troubles were not over so
soon as he thought. Instead of pulling the latch, Marianne
was obliged to unlock the door with the huge key, and draw
back the bolts.

"How can you leave me to ring three times in such
weather? " said he to Marianne.

" Why, sir, as you see, the house was locked up. Every-
body has been in bed a long time ; it has struck a quarter to
ten. Mademoiselle must have thought you had not gone
out."

"But you yourself saw me go out. Besides, mademoiselle
knows very well that I go to Madame de Listomere's every
Wednesday."

"Well, sir, I only did as mademoiselle told me," replied
Marianne, locking the door again.

These words were a blow to the abbe, which he felt all the
more keenly for the intense bliss of his day-dream. He said
nothing, but followed Marianne to the kitchen, to fetch his



THE ABBE BIROTTEAU. 169

bedroom candle, which he supposed would have been brought
down there. But instead of going to the kitchen, Marianne
lighted the abbe up to his rooms, where he found the candle-
stick on a table outside the door of the red drawing-room, in
a sort of anteroom, formed of the stair-landing, which the
canon had shut in for the purpose by a large glass partition.
Dumb with surprise, he hurried into his bedroom, found no
fire on the hearth, and called Marianne, who had not yet had
time to go downstairs.

" You have not lighted my fire ? " said he.

" I beg your pardon, sir; it must have gone out again."

Birotteau looked again at the hearth, and saw plainly that
the ashes had been piled there since the morning.

"I want to dry my feet," he went on; "make up the
fire."

Marianne obeyed with the haste of a woman who wants to
go to sleep, while the abbe himself hunted for his slippers ;
failing to see them in the middle of his bed-rug, as usual, he
made certain observations as to the way Marianne was dressed,
which proved to a demonstration that she had not just gotten
out of bed, as she had asserted. And he then remembered
that for about a fortnight past he had been weaned from all
the little attentions that had made life so endurable for the
last eighteen months. Now, as it is in the nature of narrow
minds to argue from minute things, he at once gave himself
up to deep reflections on these four incidents, imperceptible
to anybody else, but to him nothing less than four catastrophes.
The oversight as to his slippers, Marianne's falsehood with
regard to the fire, the unaccustomed removal of his candle-
stick to the table in the anteroom, and the long waiting so
ingeniously inflicted on him, on the threshold in the rain, were
ominous of a complete wreck of his happiness.

When the fire was blazing on the dogs, when his night-
lamp was lighted, and Marianne had left him without inquir-
ing as usual, "Does monsieur need anything further?" the



170 THE CELIBATES.

abbe sank gently into his departed friend's roomy and hand-
some easy-chair ; still his action as he dropped into it was
somewhat melancholy. The worthy man was oppressed by
the presentiment of terrible disaster. His eyes fell in succes-
sion on the handsome timepiece, the chest of drawers, the
chairs, curtains, and rugs, the four-post bed, the holy-water
shell and the crucifix, on a Virgin by Le Valentin, on a Christ
by Lebrun in short, on all the details of the room ; the ex-
pression of his face betrayed the pangs of the tenderest fare-
well that a lover ever looked at his first mistress, or an old
man at his latest plantation. The abbe had just detected a
little late, it is true the symptoms of a covert persecution to
which he had for about three months been subjected by Made-
moiselle Gamard, whose ill-will would no doubt have been
suspected sooner by a man of keener intelligence.

Have not all old maids a certain talent for emphasizing the
acts and words suggested to them by hatred ? They scratch
as cats do. And not only do they hurt, but they take pleas-
ure in hurting, and in making their victim see that they can
hurt. While a man of the world would not have allowed him-
self to be clawed a second time, the worthy Birotteau had
taken several scratches in the face before he had conceived of
malignant purpose.

Immediately, with the inquisitorial shrewdness acquired by
priests, accustomed as they are to direct consciences and to
investigate trifles from the shades of the confessional, the Abbe
Birotteau set to work to formulate the following proposition
as though it were the basis of a religious controversy. Grant-
ing that Mademoiselle Gamard may have forgotten Madame
de Listomere's evening that Marianne had neglected to light
my fire that they thought I was at home ; as it is certain that
I, myself, must have taken my candlestick downstairs this
morning ! ! ! it is impossible that Mademoiselle Gamard,
seeing it in her sitting-room, could have supposed I had gone
to bed. Ergo, Mademoiselle Gamard left me at the door in



THE ABBE BIROTTEAU. 171

the rain on purpose ; and by having the candlestick carried
up to my rooms she meant me to know it. "What does it
mean?" he said aloud, carried away by the gravity of the
case, as he rose to take off his wet clothes and put on his
dressing-gown and his nightcap. Then he went from the bed
to the fire, gesticulating and jerking out such comments as
these, in various tones of voice, all ended in a falsetto pitch
as though to represent points of interrogation :

" What the deuce have I done ? Why does she owe me a
grudge ? Marianne cannot have forgotten my fire ; made-
moiselle must have told her not to light it ! I should be
childish not to see from the tone and manner she assumes
towards me that I have been so unfortunate as to displease
her. Nothing of the kind ever happened to Chapeloud ! It
will be impossible for me to live in the midst of the annoy-
ances that At my age too ! "

He went to bed, hoping to clear up on the morrow the
cause of the hatred which was destroying for ever the happi-
ness he had enjoyed for two years after wishing for it so long.
Alas ! the secret motives of Mademoiselle Gamard's feeling
against him were destined to remain for ever unknown to him ;
not because they were difficult to guess, but because the poor
man had not the simple candor which enables great minds
and thorough scoundrels to recognize and judge themselves.
Only a man of genius or a master of intrigue ever says to him-
self, " I was to blame." Interest and talent are the only con-
scientious and lucid counselors.

Now, the Abbe Birotteau, whose kindliness went to the
pitch of silliness, whose knowledge was a sort of veneer laid
on by patient work, who had no experience whatever of the
world and its ways, and who lived between the altar and the
confessional, chiefly engaged in deciding trivial cases of con-
science in his capacity of confessor to the schools of the
town, and to some noble souls who appreciated him the
Abbe 1 Birotteau was, in short, to be regarded as a big baby to



172 THE CELIBATES.

whom the greater part of social customs were absolutely un-
known. At the same time, the selfishness natural to all human
beings, reinforced by the egoism peculiar to a priest, and by
that of the narrow life of a provincial town, had insensibly
grown strong in him without his suspecting it. If any one
had taken enough interest in searching the good man's soul to
show him that, in the infinitely small details of his existence
and the trivial duties of his private life, he failed essentially
in the self-sacrifice he professed, he would have punished and
mortified himself in all sincerity.

But those whom we offend, even unwittingly, reck not of
our innocence ; they desire and achieve revenge. Thus Bi-
rotteau, weak as he was, was doomed to suffer under the hand
of that great distributive justice which always trusts the world
to carry out its sentences, known to many simpletons as the
misfortunes of life.

There was this difference between Canon Chapeloud and
the abbe : one was a witty and ingenious egoist, the other an
honest and clumsy one. When Monsieur Chapeloud had
come to board with Mademoiselle Gamard, he could perfectly
well gauge his landlady's character. The confessional had
enlightened him as to the bitterness infused into an old
maid's heart by the misfortune of finding herself outside
society ; his behavior to Mademoiselle Gamard was shrewdly
calculated. The lady being no more than eight-and-thirty,
still had those little pretensions which, in such discreet
persons, turn in later years into a high opinion of them-
selves.

The canon understood that, to live comfortably with Made-
moiselle Gamard, he must always show her the same respect
and attention, and be more infallible than the pope. To
obtain this end he established no points of contact between
himself and her beyond what the strictest politeness required,
and those necessarily subsisting between two persons living
under the same roof. Thus, though he and the Abb6 Trou-



THE ABBE BIROJ^TEAU. 173

bert regularly took their three meals a day, he had never
appeared at breakfast, but had accustomed Mademoiselle
Gamard to send up to him, in his bed, a cup of coffee with
milk. Then he had avoided the boredom of supper by
always taking tea at some house where he spent the evening.
Thus he rarely saw his landlady at any time of the day ex-
cepting at dinner, but he always came into the room a few
minutes before the hour. During this polite little visit,
every day of the twelve years he had spent under her roof he
had asked her the same questions and received the same
answers. How Mademoiselle Gamard had slept during the
night, the breakfast, little domestic events, the appearance
of her face, the health of her person, the weather, the length
of the church services, the incidents of the morning's mass,
the health of this or that priest, constituted the themes of
this daily dialogue.

During dinner he always indulged her with indirect flattery,
going on from the quality of the fish, the excellence of some
seasoning, or the merits of a sauce, to those of Mademoiselle
Gamard and her virtues as a housekeeper. He was sure of
soothing all the old maid's conceits when he praised the art
with which her preserves were made, her gherkins pickled,
and the excellence of her jam, her pies, and other gastronom-
ical inventions. Finally, the wily canon never quitted her
yellow drawing-room without remarking that there was not
another house in Tours where the coffee was so good as that
he had just been drinking.

Thanks to this perfect comprehension of Mademoiselle
Gamard's character, and this science of life as practiced by
the canon for those twelve years, no grounds had ever occurred
for a discussion on any matter of domestic discipline. The
Abbe Chapeloud had from the first discerned every angle,
every rasping edge, every asperity in this old maid, and had
so regulated the effect of the tangents where they inevitably
met as to secure from her every concession needed for peace



174 THE CELIBATES.

and happiness in life. And Mademoiselle Gamard would
always say that Canon Chapeloud was a most amiable man,
very easy to live with, and full of wit.

As to the Abbe Troubert, the bigot never by any chance
spoke of him. Troubert had so completely fallen into the
routine of her life, like a satellite in the orbit of its planet,
that he had become to her a sort of mongrel creature between
those of the human and those of the canine species ; he filled
a place in her mind exactly below that occupied by her friends
and that filled by a fat asthmatic pug-dog to which she was
tenderly devoted ; she managed him completely, and their
interests became so inextricably knit that many persons of
Mademoiselle Gamard's circle supposed that the Abbe Troubert
had an eye to the old maid's fortune, and was attaching her
to him by his constant patience, guiding her all the more
effectually because he affected to obey her, never allowing her
to see in him the faintest wish to rule her.

When the canon died, the old maid, anxious to have
a boarder of quiet habits, naturally thought of this priest.
The canon's will had not yet been opened when Made-
moiselle Gamard was already meditating giving the de-
parted canon's upper rooms to her worthy Abbe Troubert,
whom she thought but poorly lodged on the ground floor.
But when the Abb6 Birotteau came to discuss with her the
written conditions of her terms, she found that he was so
much in love with the lodgings for which he had long
cherished a passion he might now avow, that she did not
venture to propose an exchange, and affection gave way
before the pressure of interest. To console her favorite
abbe, mademoiselle substituted a parquet flooring in a neat
pattern for the white Chateau-Renaud tiles in the ground-
floor rooms, and rebuilt a chimney that smoked.

The Abbe Birotteau had seen his friend Chapeloud con-
stantly for twelve years without it ever having occurred to
him to wonder why he was so excessively circumspect in his



THE ABB BIROTTEAU. 175

intercourse with the old maid. When he came to live under
tliis saintly damsel's roof he felt like a lover on the verge of
happiness. Even if he had not been blinded by natural
stupidity, his eyes were too much dazzled by contentment for
him to be capable of gauging Mademoiselle Gamard or of
considering the due measure of his daily relations with her.
Mademoiselle Gamard, seen from afar, through the prism of
the material enjoyment the abbe dreamed of finding with her,
appeared to him an admirable creature, a perfect Christian,
an essentially charitable soul, the woman of the gospel, the
wise virgin graced with the humble and modest virtues which
shed celestial fragrance over life. And thus, with all the
enthusiasm of a man who has reached a long-wished-for goal,
with the simplicity of a child and the silly heedlessness of an
old man devoid of worldly experience, he came into Made-
moiselle Gamard's life as a fly is caught in a spider's web.

So the first day he was to dine and sleep in the old maid's
house he lingered in her drawing-room, as much in the wish
to make acquaintance with her as in the inexplicable embar-
rassment that often troubles shy people and makes them fear
lest they should be rude if they break off a conversation to
leave the room. So there he remained all the evening.
Another old maid, a friend of Birotteau's, Mademoiselle Sal-
omon de Villenoix, came in the evening. Then Mademoi-
selle Gamard had the joy of arranging a game of boston.
The abbe, as he went to bed, thought he had had a very



Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 14 of 31)