Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

. (page 16 of 31)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 16 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

useless, must produce the contrary effect, and give to the inert
a contempt for themselves as great as that they provoke in
others. This stern social reprobation is one of the causes
which, unknown to themselves, contribute to implant in their
soul the grievance which is stamped on their faces.

A prejudice, not perhaps without a basis of truth, every-
where gives rise and in France more than elsewhere to
marked disfavor being felt towards a woman with whom no
man has chosen to share his fortunes or to endure the woes
of life. And an age comes to unmarried women when the
world, rightly or wrongly, condemns them on the strength
of the disdain to which they are victims. If ugly, the amia-
bility of their nature ought to have redeemed the imperfec-
tions of their persons ; if pretty, their loneliness must have its
cause in serious reasons. It is hard to decide which of the
two classes is most to be contemned. If their single life is
deliberately chosen, if it is a determination to be independ-
ent, neither men nor mothers can forgive them for having
shirked the sacrifice of woman by refusing to know the pas-
sions that make her sex pathetic. To reject its sufferings is to
forego its poetry, to cease to deserve the sweet consolations to
which a mother has always uncontested rights. Then the
generous feelings, the exquisite qualities of woman, can only
be developed by constant exercise. When she remains un-
married, a creature of the female sex is a self-contradiction :
egoistical and cold, she fills us with horror.

This pitiless verdict is unfortunately too just for old maids
to misinterpret its motives. These ideas germinate in their
heart as naturally as the effects of their desolate life are im-
printed on their features. Thus they wither, because the
constant expansion, or the happiness that blooms in a woman's
face and lends softness to her movements, has never existed


in them. Then they grow harsh and discontented, because a
creature that fails of its purpose is unhappy, it suffers, and
suffering brings forth viciousness. In fact, before an un-
married woman spites herself for her loneliness, she accuses
the whole world, and from accusation there is but one step to
the desire for revenge.

Again, the ill grace that disfigures their persons is an
inevitable outcome of their life. Never having felt the neces-
sity to please, elegance and good taste are unknown to them.
This feeling gradually leads them to choose everything to
suit their own convenience at the cost of what might be
agreeable to others. Without quite understanding their dis-
similarity to other women, at last they observe it and suffer
from it. Jealousy is an indelible passion in the female
heart. Old maids are jealous for nothing, and know only the
woes of the single passion which men can forgive in women
because it flatters them. Thus tormented on every side, and
compelled to reject the development of their nature, old
maids are always conscious of a moral uneasiness to which
they never become accustomed. Is it not hard at any age,
especially for a woman, to read a feeling of repugnance on
every face, when it ought to have been her fate to inspire
none but sensations of kindliness in the hearts of those about
her ? Hence an old maid's glance is always askance, not so
much from modesty as from fear and shame.

Now, it is impossible that a person perpetually at war with
herself, or at loggerheads with life, should leave others in
peace and never envy their happiness. This world of gloomy
ideas lay complete in Mademoiselle Gamard's dull gray eyes ;
and the broad, dark circle in which they were set spoke of
the long struggle of her solitary life. All the wrinkles on her
face were straight lines. The form of her brow, head, and
cheeks was characterized by rigidity and hardness. Without
heeding them, she left the hairs, once brown, of two or three
moles on her chin to grow as they would. Her thin lips


scarcely covered her long but sufficiently white teeth. She
was dark, and her hair had once been black, but terrible
headaches had turned it white. This disaster led her to wear
a front ; but not knowing how to put it on so as to conceal
the junction, there often was a small gap between her cap-
border and the black ribbon that fastened this half-wig, very
carelessly curled. Her gown, of thin silk in summer, of
merinos in winter, and always of Carmelite brown, fitted her
ungraceful figure and thin arms rather too closely. Her
collar, always limp, betrayed a throat whose reddish skin was
as finely lined as an oak leaf looked at in the light.

Her parentage accounted for the faults of her figure. She
was the daughter of a dealer in fire-logs, a peasant who had
risen in the world. At eighteen she might have been fresh
and plump, but not a trace was now left either of the white
skin or the fine color she boasted of having then had. The
hues of her complexion had acquired the dull pallor common
enough in very devout persons. An aquiline nose was of all
her features that which most strongly expressed the despotism
of her ideas, just as the flatness of her forehead revealed her
narrowness of mind. Her movements had an odd abruptness
bereft of all grace ; and only to see her pull her handkerchief
out of her bag and loudly blow her nose would have told you
what her character and habits were. Fairly tall, she held her-
self very upright, justifying the remark of a naturalist, who
explains the stiffness of old maids physiologically by declar-
ing that all their joints anchylose. She walked so that the
motion did not distribute itself equally over her whole person,
or produce the graceful undulations that are so attractive in a
woman ; she moved all of a piece, so to speak, seeming to
lift herself at every step, like the statue of the Commenda-

In her few moments of good-humor she would give it out,
as all old maids do, that she could have been married, but
that, happily, she had found out her lover's faithlessness in


time, and she thus, without knowing it, passed judgment on
her heart in favor of her sense of self-interest.

This typical figure of an old maid was suitably set against
a background of the grotesque pattern, representing Turkish
landscapes, of a satin wall-paper with which the dining-room
was hung. Mademoiselle Gamard habitually occupied this
room, ornamented by two consoles and a barometer. In the
place occupied by each priest was a little footstool in worsted
work of faded hues.

The public sitting-room, where she received company, was
worthy of her. The room will be at once familiar when it is
known that it went by the name of the yellow drawing-room ;
the hangings were yellow, the furniture and wall-paper yellow ;
on the chimney-shelf, in front of a mirror with a gilt frame,
candlesticks and a clock in cut-glass reflected a hard glitter to
the eye. As to Mademoiselle Gamard's private sanctum, no
one had ever been allowed to enter it. It could only be con-
jectured that it was full of the odds and ends, the shabby
furniture, the rags and tatters, so to speak, which all old maids
collect and cling to so fondly.

This was the woman who was destined to exert the greatest
influence over the Abbe Birotteau's latter days. Having failed
to exercise the energies bestowed on woman in the way in-
tended by nature, and urged by the need of expending them,
this old maid had thrown them into the sordid intrigue, the
petty tittle-tattle of provincial life, and the selfish scheming
which at last exclusively absorbs all old maids.

Birotteau, for his woe, had developed in Sophie Gamard
the only feelings this unhappy creature could possibly know,
those of hatred ; these, till now latent, as a result of the calm
monotony of a country-town life, whose horizon was to her
more especially narrow, were presently to become all the more
intense for being wreaked on small things, and in a narrow
sphere of activity. Birotteau was one of those men who are
predestined to suffer everything, because, as they never foresee


anything, they can avoid nothing ; everything seems to fall
on them.

"Yes, it will be fine," the canon replied after a pause,
seeming to come out of his meditations and to wish to fulfill
the laws of good manners.

Birotteau, frightened at the time that had elapsed between
the remark and the reply, since he, for the first time in his
life, had swallowed his coffee without speaking, left the dining-
room, where his heart was held as in a vise. Feeling his cup
of coffee lie heavy on his stomach, he went to walk, sadly
enough, up and down the narrow box-edged paths which
marked out a star in the garden. But as he turned after his
first round, he saw the Abbe Troubert and Mademoiselle
Gamard standing at the glass door of the drawing-room ; he
with his arms crossed, as motionless as the statue on a tomb,
she leaning against the shutter-door. Both, as they watched
him, seemed to be counting the number of his steps.

To a timid person there is nothing so distressing as being
the object of inquisitive inspection ; when it is made by the
eyes of hatred, the sort of suffering it inflicts becomes an in-
tolerable martyrdom. Presently the abbe fancied that he was
hindering Mademoiselle Gamard and the canon from taking
their walk. This notion, inspired alike by fear and by good-
nature, acquired such proportions, that he abandoned the
place. He went away, already thinking no more of his can-
onry, so greatly was he worried by the woman's maddening

By chance, and happily for him, he was kept very busy at
Saint-Gatien, where there were several funerals, a marriage,
and two baptisms. This enabled him to forget his troubles.
When his appetite warned him of the dinner hour, he took
out his watch in some alarm, seeing that it was some minutes
past four. He knew Mademoiselle Gamard's punctuality, so
he hurried home.

He saw the first course brought down again as he passed the


kitchen. Then on going into the dining-room, the old maid
said to him in a tone of voice which betrayed alike the harsh-
ness of a reproof and the glee of finding her boarder in fault,
" It is half-past four, Monsieur Birotteau ; you knew we should
not wait for you."

The priest looked at the dining-room clock, and the arrange-
ment of the gauze wrapper, intended to protect it from dust,
showed him that his landlady had wound it in the course of
the morning, and had allowed herself the pleasure of setting
it faster than the clock of Saint-Gatien's. There was nothing
to be said. The least word of the suspicion he had conceived
would have sprung the most terrible and plausible of those
explosions of eloquence which Mademoiselle Gamard, like all
women of her class, could give vent to in such cases.

The thousand-and-one vexations that a maidservant can
inflict on her master, or a wife on her husband, in the daily
course of private life, were imagined by Mademoiselle Gamard,
who heaped them on her boarder. The way in which she
plotted her conspiracies against the poor abbe's domestic
comfort bore the stamp of deeply malignant genius. She
contrived never to be in the wrong.

By the end of a week after the opening of this tale, his life
in the house, and his position towards Mademoiselle Gamard,
revealed to him a plot, hatching for six months past. So long
as the old maid had been covert in her revenge, and the priest
could voluntarily keep up his self-deceit, refusing to believe
in her malevolent purpose, the moral effects had made no
great progress in him. But since the incidents of the dis-
placement of the candlestick and the clock put too fast, Birot-
teau could no longer doubt that he was living under the rule
of an aversion that kept an ever-watchful eye on him. From
this he rapidly sank into despair, forever seeing Mademoiselle
Gamard's lean and talon-like fingers ready to claw his heart.

The old maid, happy in living on a sentiment so teeming
with excitement as revenge is, delighted in hovering and


wheeling above the abbe as a bird of prey hovers and circles
over a field-mouse before seizing it. She had long plotted a
scheme which the bewildered priest could not possibly guess,
and which she soon began to unfold, showing the genius that
can be displayed in small things by isolated beings whose soul,
incapable of apprehending the grandeur of true piety, has lost
itself in the trivialities of devotion. The last and most frightful
aggravation of his torments was that the nature of them pro-
hibited Birotteau, an effusive man who loved to be pitied and
comforted, from enjoying the little solace of relating them to
his friends. The small amount of tact he owed to his shyness
made him dread appearing ridiculous by troubling himself
about such silly trifles. At the same time, these silly trifles
made up his whole life, the life he loved, full of busy vacuity
and vacuous business, a dull, gray life, in which too strong a
feeling was a misfortune, and the absence of all excitement is
happiness. Thus the poor abbe's paradise had suddenly be-
come a hell. In short, his torments were intolerable.

The terror with which he contemplated an explanation with
Mademoiselle Gamard grew daily, and the secret misfortunes
which blighted every hour of his old age injured his health.
One morning, as he put on his speckled blue stockings, he
observed that the circumference of his calf had shrunk by
eight lines. Appalled at such a terribly unmistakable symp-
tom, he determined to make an effort to persuade the Abbe
Troubert to intervene officially between himself and Made-
moiselle Gamard.

When he found himself in the presence of the imposing
canon, who came out of a study crammed with papers, where
he was always at work, admitting nobody, to receive him in a
bare room, the abb6 was almost ashamed to speak of Made-
moiselle Gamard's petty aggravations to a man who seemed so
seriously occupied. But after having suffered all the misery
of mental deliberation which humble, weak, or irresolute per-
sons go through, even with regard to trifles, he made up his


mind to explain the position to the canon, not without feeling
his heart swollen by extraordinary throbs. Troubert listened
with a cold, grave air, trying, but in vain, to control some
smiles, which, to intelligent eyes, might have betrayed the
satisfaction of a secret desire. A flash sparkled in his eye
when Birotteau described to him, with the eloquence inspired
by true emotion, the bitterness that was incessantly poured
out for him ; but Troubert at once covered his eyes with his
hand, a gesture common to great thinkers, and preserved his
habitually dignified attitude.

When the abbe ceased speaking, he would have been puzzled
indeed if he had tried to read any sign of the feelings he
imagined he should excite in this mysterious priest, on his
face, mottled now with yellow patches yellower than even
his usual bilious complexion. After a moment's silence, the
canon made one of those replies of which every word must
have been carefully studied to give them their full bearing,
but which subsequently showed to capable persons the amaz-
ing depth of his mind and the power of his intellect.

He finally crushed Birotteau by saying that all these things
surprised him the more, because, but for his brother's explana-
tion, he would never have discerned them. He ascribed this
dullness of perception to his important occupations, to his
work, and to the supremacy of certain lofty thoughts, which
did not allow of his heeding the trivialities of life. He
pointed out, but without assuming the airs of wishing to cen-
sure the conduct of a man whose years and learning com-
manded his respect, that " the hermits of old rarely thought
about their food, or their dwelling in the deserts, where they
gave themselves up to holy contemplation," and that " in our
days the priest could, in mind, make a desert for himself in
every place." Then, returning to Birotteau, he remarked
that such squabbles were quite a new thing to him. During
twelve years nothing of the kind had ever arisen between
Mademoiselle Gamard and the venerated Abbe Chapeloud.


As for himself he could, no doubt, act as moderator between
the priest and their landlady, since his friendship for her did
not overstep the limits imposed by the laws of the church on
its faithful ministers ; but then justice would require that he
should also hear Mademoiselle Gamard. At the same time,
he discerned no change in her ; he had always seen her thus ;
he had willingly yielded to some of her vagaries, knowing
that the excellent woman was kindness and sweetness itself;
these little caprices of temper were to be ascribed to the suf-
ferings caused by a pulmonary trouble, of which she never
spoke, resigning herself to it as a true Christian." He ended
by saying that " when he should have lived a few years longer
with mademoiselle, he would appreciate her better and recog-
nize the beauties of her admirable character."

The Abbe Birotteau came away bewildered. Under the
absolute necessity of taking counsel with himself alone, he
gauged Mademoiselle Gamard by himself. The poor man
thought that by absenting himself for a few days this woman's
hatred would burn itself out for lack of fuel. So he deter-
mined to go, as he had done before now, to spend some time
at a country place where Madame de Listomere always went
at the end of the autumn, a season when, in Touraine, the
sky is usually clear and mild. Poor man ! He was thus
carrying out the secret wishes of his terrible enemy, whose
schemes could not be thwarted by anything short of monk-
like endurance ; while he, guessing nothing and not knowing
his own business even, was doomed to fall like a lamb under
the first blow from the butcher.

Lying on the slope between the town of Tours and the
heights of Saint-Georges, facing the south, and sheltered by
cliffs, Madame de Listomere' s estate combined all the charms
of the country with the pleasures of the town. It was not
more than a ten-minutes' drive from the Bridge of Tours to
the gate of this house, known as " L'Alouette " (The Lark)


an immense convenience in a place where no one will disturb
himself for any earthly thing, not even in quest of pleasure.

The poor Abbe Birotteau had been about ten days at
"L'Alouette," when one morning, at the breakfast hour, the
lodgekeeper came to tell him that Monsieur Caron wished to
speak with him. Monsieur Caron was a lawyer employed by
Mademoiselle Gamard. Birotteau, not remembering this,
and conscious of no litigious difficulty to be settled with
anybody in the world, left the table, not without some
anxiety, to meet the lawyer ; he found him sitting modestly
on the parapet of a terrace.

" Your intention of remaining no longer as a resident
under Mademoiselle Gamard's roof being now quite evident
she " the man of business began.

" Dear me, monsieur ! " cried Birotteau, interrupting him,
" I never thought of leaving her."

" And yet, monsieur," the lawyer went on, " you must
certainly have expressed yourself to that effect to made-
moiselle, since she has sent me to inquire whether you intend
remaining long in the country. The event of a prolonged
absence not having been provided for in your agreement
might give rise to some discussion. Now, as Mademoiselle
Gamard understands it, your board "

" Monsieur," said Birotteau in surprise, and again inter-
rupting the lawyer, " I did not think it could be necessary
to take steps, almost legal in their nature, to "

" Mademoiselle Gamard, wishing to preclude any difficulty,"
said Monsieur Caron, " has sent me to come to an under-
standing with you."

" Very well, if you will be so obliging as to call again
to-morrow, I, on my part, will have taken advice."

" So be it," said Caron with a bow.

The scrivener withdrew. The hapless priest, appalled by
the pertinacity of Mademoiselle Gamard's persecution, went
back to Madame de Listomere's dining-room looking quite


upset. At his mere appearance every one asked him, " Why,
Monsieur Birotteau, what is the matter?"

The abbe, greatly distressed, sat down without answering,
so overwhelmed was he by the vague vision of his misfortune.
But after breakfast, when several of his friends had gathered
round a good fire in the drawing-room, Birotteau artlessly told
them the tale of his catastrophe. The hearers, who were
just beginning to be bored by their stay in the country, were
deeply interested in an intrigue so completely in keeping
with provincial life. Everybody took the abbe's part against
the old maid.

"Why!" cried Madame de Listomere, "do you not
plainly see that the Abbe Troubert wants your rooms ? "

In this place the historian would have a right to sketch this
lady's portrait ; but it occurs to him that even those persons
to whom Sterne's cognomology is unknown could surely not
utter the three words MADAME DE LISTOMERE without seeing
her noble and dignified, tempering the austerity of piety
by the antique elegance of monarchical and classic manners
and polite distinction ; kind, but a little formal ; speaking
slightly through her nose; allowing herself to read "La
Nouvelle Helo'ise," and to go to the play; still wearing her
own hair.

" The Abb Birotteau must certainly not yield to that
nagging old woman ! " cried Monsieur de Listomere, a lieu-
tenant in the navy, spending a holiday with his aunt. " If
the abbe has any courage, and will follow my advice, he will
soon have recovered his peace of mind."

In short, everybody began to analyze Mademoiselle Gamard's
proceedings with the acumen peculiar to provincials, who, it
certainly cannot be denied, possess the talent of laying bare
the most secret human actions.

"You have not hit the mark," said an old landowner who
knew the country. " There is something v"ery serious under
this which I have not yet mastered. The Abbe Troubert is


far too deep to be so easily seen through. Our good friend
Birotteau is only at the beginning of his troubles. In the first
place, would he be happy and left in peace even if he gave
up his rooms to Troubert ? I doubt it. If Caron came to
tell you," he went on, turning to the puzzled abbe, "that
you had intended to leave Mademoiselle Gamard, with the

object of getting you out of her house Well, you will

have to go, willy nilly. That kind of man never risks a
chance; they only play when they hold the trumps."

This old gentleman, a certain Monsieur de Bourbonne,
epitomized provincial ideas as completely as Voltaire epito-
mized the spirit of his time. This withered, little old man
professed in matters of dress all the indifference of a propri-
etor whose estate has a quotable value in the department.
His countenance, tanned by the sun of Touraine, was shrewd
rather than clever. He was accustomed to weigh his words,
to consider his actions, and he concealed his deep caution
under a delusive bluntness. The very least observation was
enough to discover that, like a Norman peasant, he would get
the advantage in every stroke of business. He was great in
cenology the favorite science of the Tourangeaux. He had
managed to extend the circle of one of his estates by taking
in the alluvial land of the Loire without getting into a law-
suit with the state. This achievement had established his
reputation as a clever man. If, charmed by Monsieur de
Bourbonne's conversation, you had asked his biography of
one of his fellow-provincials, " Oh ! he is a cunning old fox,"
would have been the proverbial reply of all who envied him,
and they were many. In Touraine, as in most provinces,
jealousy lies at the base of the tongue.

Monsieur de Bourbonne's remark caused a brief silence,
during which the members of this little committee seemed lost
in thought.

At this juncture Mademoiselle Salomon de Villenoix was
announced. She had just come from Tours, prompted by her


wish to be of service to Birotteau, and the news she brought
completely changed the aspect of affairs. At the moment
when she came in, every one but the landowner was advising
Birotteau to hold his own against Troubert and Gamard,
under the auspices of the aristocratic party, who would sup-
port him.

"The vicar-general," said Mademoiselle Salomon, "who
has all the promotions in his hands, has just been taken ill,
and the archbishop has commissioned Canon Troubert to act

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 16 of 31)