Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

. (page 15 of 31)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 15 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


pleasant evening.

As yet he knew Mademoiselle Gamard and the Abbe
Troubert but very little, and saw only the surface. Few
persons show their faults unveiled at first. Generally every-
body tries to assume an attractive exterior. So Birotteau
conceived the delightful purpose of devoting his evenings to
Mademoiselle Gamard instead of spending them elsewhere.
The lady had some few years since conceived a desire which
revived more strongly every day. This desire, common to



176 THE CELIBATES.

old men, and even to pretty women, had become in her a
passion like that of Birotteau for his friend Chapeloud's
rooms, and was rooted in the old maid's heart by the feelings
of pride, egoism, envy, and vanity which are innate in the
worldly-minded. This story repeats itself in every age. You
have but slightly to enlarge the circle at the bottom of which
these personages are about to move to find the coefficient
motive of events which happen in the highest ranks of society.

Mademoiselle Gamard spent her evenings at six or eight
different houses by turns. Whether it was that she was an-
noyed at having to seek company, and thought that at her
age she had a right to expect some return ; whether her con-
ceit was affronted by her having no circle of her own; or
whether it was that her vanity craved the compliments and
amusements she saw her friends enjoying all her ambition
was to make her salon a centre of union towards which a
certain number of persons would tend every evening with
pleasure. When Birotteau and his friend Mademoiselle
Salomon had spent a few evenings in her room with the
faithful and patient Abbe Troubert, one night, as she came
out of Saint-Gatien, Mademoiselle Gamard said to the kind
friends of whom she had hitherto considered herself the slave,
that those who cared to see her might very well come once
a week to her house, where a sufficient party met already to
make up a game of boston; that she could not leave her new
boarder, the Abbe Birotteau, alone ; that Mademoiselle Salo-
mon had not yet missed a single evening of the week; that
she belonged to her boarders ; and that, etc., etc.

Her speech was all the more humbly haughty and volubly
sweet because Mademoiselle Salomon de Villenoix belonged
to the most aristocratic circle in Tours. Though Mademoi-
selle Salomon came solely for the abbe's sake, Mademoiselle
Gamard triumphed in having her in her drawing-room.
Thanks to the Abbe" Birotteau, she found herself on the eve
of succeeding in her great scheme of forming a circle which



THE ABBE BIROTTEAU. 177

might become as numerous and as agreeable as were those of
Madame de Listomere, of Mademoiselle Merlin de la Blot-
tiere, and other devout persons in a position to receive the
pious society of Tours. But, alas ! the Abbe Birotteau brought
Mademoiselle Gamard's hopes to an overthrow.

Now, if any persons, who have attained in life the enjoy-
ment of a long-wished-for happiness, have entered into the
gladness the abbe must have felt in lying down to rest in
Chapeloud's bed, they must also form a slight notion of
Mademoiselle Gamard's chagrin at the ruin of her cherished
scheme. After accepting his good fortune patiently enough
for six months, Birotteau deserted his home, carrying with
him Mademoiselle Salomon.

In spite of unheard-of efforts, the ambitious Gamard had
secured no more than five or six recruits, whose fidelity was
very problematical, and at least four unfailing visitors were
needed for regular boston. She was consequently obliged to
make honorable amends and return to her old friends, for old
maids are too poor company to themselves not to crave the
doubtful pleasures of society.

The causes of this defection are easily imagined. Though
the abbe was one of those to whom paradise shall one day
be opened in virtue of the words, " Blessed are the poor in
spirit," he, like many fools, could not endure the weariness
inflicted on him by other fools. Unintelligent persons are
like weeds that thrive in good ground; they love to be amused
in proportion to the degree in which they weary themselves.
Being the incarnation of the dullness they suffer from, the
craving they perpetually feel to be divorced from themselves
produces the mania for excitement, the need to be where they
are not, which characterizes them as it does other creatures
who lack feeling, or whose lot is a failure, or who suffer by
their own fault. Without understanding too clearly the
vacuity and nullity of Mademoiselle Gamard, or discerning
the smallness of her mind, poor Birotteau discovered, too
12



178 THE CELIBATES.

late for happiness, the faults she had in common with all old
maids, as well as those personal to herself.

What is evil, in other people, contrasts so strongly with
what is good, that it generally strikes the eye before inflicting
a wound. This moral phenomenon might at need justify the
tendency that leads us all more or less to evil speaking. So-
cially speaking, it is so natural to satirize the faults of others
that we ought to forgive the severe gossip to which our own
absurdities give rise, and wonder at nothing but calumny.

But the good abbe's eyes were never at the precise fccus
which enables the worldly wise to see and at once evade their
neighbors' sharp tongues ; to discover his landlady's fault, he
was obliged to endure the warning given by nature to all its
creatures, that of suffering.

Old maids, having never bent their temper or their lives to
other lives and other tempers, as woman's destiny requires,
have for the most part a mania for making everything about
them bend to them. In Mademoiselle Gamard this feeling
had degenerated into despotism, but this despotism could
only be exerted in small things. For instance out of a
thousand cases the basket of counters and fish placed on the
boston table for the Abbe Birotteau must be left on the spot
where she had put it, and the abbe irritated her extremely by
moving it, as he did almost every evening. What was the
cause of this touchiness foolishly provoked by mere trifles,
and what was its object ? No one could say ; Mademoiselle
Gamard herself did not know.

Though very lamblike by nature, the new boarder did not
like to feel the crook too often, any more than a sheep, espe-
cially a crook set with nails. Without understanding Canon
Troubert's amazing patience, Birotteau was anxious to escape
the bliss which Mademoiselle Gamard was bent on seasoning
to her own taste, for she thought she could compound happi-
ness as she could preserves ; but the luckless priest set to work
very clumsily, as a result of his perfectly artless nature. So



THE ABB& BIROTTEAU. 179

the separation was not effected without some clawing and
pricking, to which the Abbe Birotteau tried to seem insensible.

By the end of the first year of his life under Mademoiselle
Gamard's roof the abbe had fallen into his old habits, spend-
ing two evenings a week at Madame de Listomere's, three
with Mademoiselle Salomon, and the other two with Made-
moiselle Merlin de la Blottiere. These ladies moved in the
aristocratic sphere of Tours society, to which Mademoiselle
Gamard was not admitted. So the landlady was excessively
indignant at the abbe's defection, which made her aware of
her small importance : any kind of selection implying some
contempt for the rejected object.

"Monsieur Birotteau did not find us good enough com-
pany," the Abbe Troubert would say to Mademoiselle
Gamard's friends when she was obliged to give up her "even-
ings." " He is a wit, a gourmet ! He must have fashion,
luxury, brilliant conversation, the tittle-tattle of the town."

And such words always prompted Mademoiselle Gamard to
praise the canon's excellent temper at the expense of Birot-
teau's.

"He is not so clever when all is said," she remarked.
"But for Canon Chapeloud he would never have been re-
ceived by Madame de Listomere. Oh, I lost a great deal
when the Abbe Chapeloud died. What an amiable man !
and so easy to live with ! Indeed, in twelve years we never
had the smallest difficulty or disagreement."

Mademoiselle Gamard painted so unflattering a portrait of
Monsieur Birotteau that her innocent boarder was regarded
by this citizen circle, secretly hostile to the aristocratic class,
as an essentially fractious man, very difficult to get on with.
Then for a few weeks the old maid had the satisfaction of
hearing herself pitied by her female friends, who, without be-
lieving a word of what they said, repeated again and again,
" How can you, who are so gentle and so kind, have inspired



180 THE CELIBATES.

him with such dislike? " or, " Be comforted, dear Made-
moiselle Gamard, every one knows you too well " and so

forth.

Delighted, nevertheless, to escape spending an evening
each week in the Close the most deserted and gloomy spot
in all Tours, and the most remote from the centre of life
they all blessed the abbe.

Love or hatred must constantly increase between two per-
sons who are always together ; every moment fresh reasons
are found for loving or hating better. Thus to Mademoiselle
Gamard the Abbe Birotteau became unendurable. Eighteen
months after taking him as a boarder, just when the good
man believed he had found the peace of contentment in the
silence of aversion, and prided himself on having come so
comfortably to terms with the old woman, to use his expres-
sion, he was to her the object of covert persecution and
calmly planned animosity.

The four capital facts of the closed door, the forgotten
slippers, the lack of fire, the candlestick taken to his rooms,
alone could betray the terrible enmity of which the last
effects were not to fall on him till the moment when they
would be irremediable. As he went to sleep, the good abbe
racked his brain, but vainly and, indeed, he must soon have
come to the bottom of it to account for Mademoiselle
Gamard's singularly uncivil behavior. In point of fact, as
he had originally acted very logically, obeying the natural
law of his egoism, he could not possibly form a guess as to
how he had offended his landlady. While great things are
simple to understand and easy to express, the mean things of
life need much detail. The incidents which constitute the
prologue, as it were, to this parochial drama, in which the
passions will be seen not less violent than if they had been
excited by important interests, necessitated this long intro-
duction, and any exact historian would have found it difficult
to abridge the trivial tale.



THE ABBE BIROTTEAU, 181

When he awoke next morning, the abbe's thoughts were so
much set on the canonry that he forgot the four circum-
stances, which, the evening before, had appeared to him to be
sinister prognostics of a future full of disaster. Birotteau was
not the man to get up without a fire ; he rang to announce to
Marianne that he was awake, and wanted her ; then, as he was
wont, he lay lost in a somnolent, half-dreamy state, during
which, as a rule, the woman made the fire, and dragged him
gently from his last doze by a hum of inquiry and quiet
bustle a sort of music that he liked.

Half an hour went by, and Marianne had not appeared.
The abbe, already half a canon, was about to ring again,
when he stayed his hand on hearing a man's step on the
stairs. In fact, the Abbe Troubert, after discreetly tapping
at the door, at Birotteau's bidding came in. This call did
not surprise him ; the priests were in the habit of paying each
other a visit once a month. The canon was at once amazed
that Marianne should not yet have lighted his quasi-colleague's
fire. He opened a window, called Marianne in a rough tone,
and bid her come up at once ; then, turning to his brother
priest, he said, "If mademoiselle should hear that you have
no fire, she would give Marianne a good scolding."

After this speech he inquired for Birotteau's health, and
asked him, in an insinuating voice, whether he had any
recent news that could encourage his hope of being made a
canon. The abbe explained to him what was being done,
and guilelessly told him who the personages were that Mad-
ame de Listomere was canvassing, not knowing that Troubert
had never forgiven that lady for not inviting him to her
house him Canon Troubert, twice designated to be made
vicar-general of the diocese.

It would be impossible to meet with two figures offering so
many points of contrast as those of these two priests. Trou-
bert, tall and lean, had a bilious-yellow hue, while Birotteau
was what is familiarly called crummy. His face, round and



182 THE CELIBATES.

florid, spoke of good-nature devoid of ideas; while Trou-
bert's, long and furrowed by deep wrinkles, wore at times an
expression of irony and scorn; still, attentive examination
was needed to discover these feelings. The canon was habit-
ually and absolutely placid, his eyelids almost always lowered
over a pair of orange-hazel eyes, whose glance was at will
very clear and piercing. Red hair completed this coun-
tenance, which was constantly clouded under the shroud cast
over his features by serious meditations. Several persons had
at first supposed him to be absorbed in high and rooted am-
bition ; but those who thought they knew him best had ended
by demolishing this opinion, representing him as stultified by
Mademoiselle Gamard's tyranny, or worn by long fasting.
He rarely spoke, and never laughed. When he happened to
be pleasurably moved, a faint smile appeared and lost itself
in the furrows on his cheeks.

Birotteau, on the other hand, was all expansiveness, all
openness ; he liked titbits, and could be amused by a trifle
with the artlessness of a man free from gall and malice. The
Abbe Troubert at first sight inspired an involuntary feeling of
dread, while the vicar made every one who looked at him
smile kindly. When the tall canon stalked solemnly along
the cloisters and aisles of Saint-Gatien, his brow bent, his eye
stern, he commanded respect ; his bowed figure harmonized
with the yellow vaulting of the cathedral ; there was some-
thing monumental in the folds of his gown, and worthy of
the sculptor's art. But the good little abbe moved without
dignity, trotted and pattered, looking as if he rolled along.

And yet the two men had one point of resemblance.
While Troubert's ambitious looks, by making the world afraid
of him, had perhaps contributed to condemn him to the
modest dignity of a mere canon, Birotteau's character and
appearance seemed to stamp him forever as no more than a
vicar of the cathedral. The Abb6 Troubert meanwhile, at
the age of fifty, by the moderation of his conduct, by the



THE ABBE BIROTTEAU. 183

apparently total absence of any ambition in his aims, and by
his saintly life, had dispelled the fears his superiors had con-
ceived of his supposed cleverness and his alarming exterior.
Indeed, for a year past, his health had been seriously im-
paired, so that his early promotion to the dignity of vicar-
general by the archbishop seemed probable. His rivals even
hoped for his appointment, to enable them the more effectually
to prepare for their own, during the short span of life that
might yet be granted him by a malady that had become
chronic. Birotteau's triple chin, far from suggesting the
same hopes, displayed to the candidates who were struggling
for the canonry all the symptoms of vigorous health, and his
gout seemed to them the proverbial assurance of a long life.

The Abbe Chapeloud, a man of great good sense, whose
amiability had secured him the friendship of persons in good
society and of the various heads of the diocese, had always
opposed the elevation of the Abbe Troubert, secretly and
with much address ; he had even hindered his admission to
any of the salons where the best set in Tours were wont to
meet, though during his lifetime Troubert always treated
him with great respect, and on all occasions showed him the
utmost deference. This persistent submissiveness had not
availed to change the deceased canon's opinion ; during his
last walk with Birotteau, he had said to him once more

" Do not trust that dry pole Troubert ! He is Sixtus V.
reduced to the scale of a bishopric."

This was Mademoiselle Gamard's friend and messmate,
who, the very day after that on which she had, so to speak,
declared war with poor Birotteau, had come to call on him
with every mark of friendliness.

"You must excuse Marianne," said Troubert, as she came
in. "I fancy she did my room first. My place is very
damp, and I coughed a great deal during the night. You are
very healthily situated here," he added, looking up at the
mouldings.



184 THE CELIBATES.

" Oh, I am lodged like a canon ! " replied Birotteau with
a smile.

" And I like a curate," replied Abbe Troubert the humble
priest.

" Yes, but before very long you will be lodged in the arch-
bishop's palace," said the good abbe, who only wanted that
everybody should be happy.

"Oh! or in the graveyard. God's will be done!" and
Troubert looked up to heaven with a resigned air. " I came,"
he went on, " to beg you to lend me the ' General Clergy
List.' No one but you has the book at Tours."

" Take it out of the bookcase," replied Birotteau, re-
minded by the canon's last words of all the joys of his
life.

The tall priest went into the library, and remained there
all the time the abb was dressing. Presently the breakfast-
bell rang, and Birotteau, reflecting that but for Troubert's
visit here he would have had no fire to get up by, said to
himself, " He is a good man ! "

The two priests went down together, each armed with an
enormous folio, which they laid on one of the consoles in the
dining-room.

"What in the world is that?" asked Mademoiselle Ga-
mard in sharp tones, addressing Birotteau. "You are not
going to lumber up my dining-room with old books I
hope ! "

"They are some books I wanted," said the Abbe Troubert.
"Monsieur is kind enough to lend them to me."

"I might have guessed that," said she with a scornful
smile. " Monsieur Birotteau does not often study such big
books."

" And how are you, mademoiselle ? " asked the abbe* in a
piping voice.

"Why, not at all well," she replied curtly. "You were
the cause of my being roused from my first sleep, and I felt



THE ABB& BIROTTEAU. 185

the effects all night." And as she seated herself, Mademoi-
selle Gamard added, "Gentlemen, the milk will get cold."

Astounded at being so sourly received by his hostess when
he expected her to apologize, but frightened, as timid people
are, by the prospect of a discussion, especially when they
themselves are the subject of it, the poor abbe took his place
in silence. Then, recognizing in Mademoiselle Gamard's
face the obvious symptoms of a bad temper, he sat warring
with his common sense, which advised him not to submit to
her want of manners, while his nature prompted him to avoid
a quarrel. Birotteau, a prey to this internal struggle, began
by seriously studying the broad-green stripes painted on the
oilcloth cover, which, from immemorial habit, Mademoiselle
Gamard always left on the table during breakfast, heedless of
the frayed edges and scars innumerable that covered this
cloth. The two boarders were seated opposite each
other, in cane armchairs at each end of the table, a royal
square ; the place between them being occupied by the land-
lady, who towered above the table from a chair mounted on
runners, padded with cushions, and backing on the dining-
room stove. This room and the common sitting-room were
on the ground floor, under the Abbe Birotteau's bedroom
and drawing-room. When the abbe had received from Made-
moiselle Gama-d his cup of sweetened coffee, he felt chilled
by the utter silence in which he was doomed to perform the
usually cheerful function of breakfast. He dared not look
either at Troubert's expressionless face or at the old maid's
threatening countenance ; so, to do something, he turned to
the pug-dog, overburdened with fat, lying near the stove on a
cushion whence it never stirred, finding always on the left a
little plate of dainties, and on the right a saucer of clean
water.

" Well, my pet," said he, "so you want your coffee ! "
This personage, one of the most important members of the
household, but not a troublesome one, since he never barked



186 THE CELIBATES.

now, and left the conversation to his mistress, looked up at
Birotteau with little eyes buried in the folds of fat that
wrinkled his face. Then he cunningly shut them again.

To give the measure of the priest's discomfiture, it must
be explained that, being gifted with a voice and volubility as
resonant and meaningless as the sound of an India-rubber ball,
he asserted, without being able to give the faculty any reason
for his opinion, that speech favored digestion. Mademoiselle
Gamard, who shared this theory of hygiene, had never
hitherto failed to converse during meals, notwithstanding
their misunderstanding ; but now for some few days the abbe
had racked his wits in vain to ask her insidious questions
which might loosen her tongue. If the narrow limits to which
this story is restricted would allow of a report in full of one
of these conversations which always provoked the Abbe
Troubert's bitter and sardonic smiles, it would give a perfect
picture of the Boeotian existence of provincials. Some clever
men might perhaps be even pleased to know the extraordinary
amplitude given by the Abbe Birotteau and Mademoiselle
Gamard to their personal opinions on politics, religion, and
literature. There would certainly be some very funny things
to tell : such as their reasons, in 1820, for doubting the death
of Napoleon, or the conjectures which led them to believe in
the survival of Louis XVII. , smuggled away in a hollow log
of wood. Who would not have laughed to hear them assert-
ing, with arguments peculiarly their own, that the King of
France alone spent the money collected in taxes ; that the
Chambers met to destroy the clergy ; that more than thirteen
hundred thousand persons had perished on the scaffold during
the Revolution ? Then they discussed the press, knowing
nothing of how many newspapers were issued, having not the
smallest idea of what this modern power is. Finally, Mon-
sieur Birotteau listened respectfully to Mademoiselle Gamard
when she asserted that a man fed on an egg every morning
would infallibly die at the end of a year, and that it had



THE ABBE BIROTTEAU. 187

been known that a soft roll eaten without drinking for a few
days would cure sciatica ; that all the workmen who had been
employed in the destruction of the Abbey of Saint-Martin
had died within six months ; that a certain prefet had done his
utmost in Bonaparte's time to ruin the towers of Saint-Gatien,
and a thousand other absurd stories.

But at the present juncture Birotteau felt his tongue dead
within him ; so he resigned himself to eating without trying
to converse. He soon thought that such silence was perilous
to his digestion, and boldly said, " This is excellent coffee ! "
But the courageous act fell flat.

After looking at the narrow strip of sky above the garden,
between the two black buttresses of Saint-Gatien, the abbe
again was brave enough to remark, "It will be finer to-day
than it was yesterday."

At this Mademoiselle Gamard did no more than cast one of
her most ingratiating glances at Monsieur Troubert, and then
turn her eyes full of terrible severity on Birotteau, who was
happily looking down.

No being of the female sex was better able to assume the
elegiac attitude of an old maid than Mademoiselle Sophie
Gamard ; but to do justice in describing a person whose char-
acter will give the greatest interest to the trivial events of this
drama, and to the antecedent lives of the figures playing a part
in it, it will be well here to epitomize the ideas of which the
old maid is the outcome. The habits of life form the soul, and
the soul forms the countenance. If in society, as in the uni-
verse, everything must have a purpose, there yet are on this
earth some existences of which the use and purpose are undis-
coverable ; morality and political economy alike reject the in-
dividual that consumes without producing, that fills a place on
earth without diffusing either good or evil for evil, no doubt,
is a form of good of which the results are not immediately
manifest. Very rarely does an old maid fail to place herself
by her own act in this class of unproductive creatures. Now



188 THE CELIBATES.

if the consciousness of work done gives productive beings a
sense of satisfaction which helps them to endure life, the
knowledge that they are a burthen on others, or even merely



Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 15 of 31)