Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

. (page 17 of 31)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 17 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

in his place. The nomination to the canonry now depends en-
tirely on him. Now yesterday, at Mademoiselle delaBlottiere's,
the Abbe Poirel was speaking of the annoyances Monsieur
Birotteau occasioned to Mademoiselle Gamard, in such a
way as to seem to justify the neglect which will certainly fall
on our good abbe. ' The Abbe Birotteau is a man who badly
needed the Abbe Chapeloud,' said he, 'and since that vir-
tuous canon's death it has been proved that ' Then came

a series of suppositions and calumnies. You understand?"

"Troubert will be made vicar-general," said Monsieur de
Bourbonne solemnly.

"Come now," cried Madame de Listomere, looking at
Birotteau, "which would you prefer to be made canon or to
remain with Mademoiselle Gamard?"

"To be made canon," was the general outcry.

"Well, then," Madame de Listomere went on, " the Abb6
Troubert and Mademoiselle Gamard must be allowed to have
their way. Have they not conveyed to you indirectly by
Caron's visit that, provided you consented to leave your
rooms, you shall be made canon. One good turn for an-

Every one exclaimed at Madame de Listomere's acumen
and sagacity ; but her nephew, the Baron de Listomere, said
in a comical tone to Monsieur de Bourbonne

" I should have liked to see the battle between the Gamard
and the Birottcau"


But, for the abbe's worse luck, the forces were not equal,
with the worldly-wise on one side, and the old maid upheld
by the Abbe Troubert on the other. The time was at hand
when the struggle would become more decisive and assume a
greater scope and immense proportions.

By the advice of Madame de Listomere and most of her
adherents, who were beginning to take a passionate interest
in this intrigue flung into the vacuity of their country life, a
footman was despatched for Monsieur Caron. The lawyer
returned with amazing promptitude, a fact that alarmed no
one but Monsieur de Bourbonne.

" Let us adjourn any decision till we have fuller informa-
tion," was the advice of this Fabius in a dressing-gown, whose
deep reflections revealed to him some abstruse plan of battle
on the Tours chessboard.

He tried to enlighten Birotteau as to the perils of his
position. But the "old fox's" shrewdness did not subserve
the frenzy of the moment ; he was scarcely listened to.

The meeting between the lawyer and Birotteau was brief.
The abbe came in looking quite scared, and saying, " He re-
quires me to sign a paper declaring my decession."

"What barbarous word is that?" said the navy lieutenant.

"And what does it mean?" cried Madame de Listomere.

" It simply means that the abbe is to declare his readiness
to leave Mademoiselle Gamard's house," replied Monsieur de
Bourbonne, taking a pinch of snuff.

"Is that all? Sign it!" said Madame de Listomere to
Birotteau. "If you have really made up your mind to quit
her house, there can be no harm done by declaring your
will. The will of Birotteau ! "

"That is true," said Monsieur de Bourbonne, shutting his
snuff-box with a dry snap, of which it is impossible to render
the full meaning, for it was a language by itself. "But
writing is always dangerous," he added, placing the snuff-box
on the chimney-shelf with a look that terrified the abb.


Birotteau was so bewildered by the upheaval of all his ideas,
by the swiftness of events which had come on him and found
him defenseless, and by the lightness with which his friends
treated the most cherished circumstances of his lonely life,
that he remained motionless, as if lost in the moon, not think-
ing of anything, but listening and trying to catch the sense of
the hasty words everybody else was so ready with. He took
up Monsieur Caron's document, and read it as though the
lawyer's deed was in fact the object of his attention ; but it
was merely mechanical, and he signed the paper by which he
declared himself ready and willing to give up his residence
with Mademoiselle Gamard as well as his board, as provided
by the agreement between them. When Birotteau had signed
the deed Caron took it, and asked him where his client was
to bestow the goods and chattels belonging to him. Birotteau
mentioned Madame de Listomere's house, and the lady by a
nod consented to receive the abbe for some days, never
doubting but that he would ere long be a canon. The old
landowner wished to see this sort of act of renunciation, and
Monsieur Caron handed it to him.

"Why," said he to the abbe, after having read it, "is
there any written agreement between you and Mademoiselle
Gamard? Where is it? What are the conditions ? "

"The paper is in my rooms," said Birotteau.

"Do you know its contents?" the old gentleman asked
the lawyer.

" No, monsieur," said Monsieur Caron, holding out his
hand for the ominous document.

"Ah, ha!" said Monsieur de Bourbonne to himself,
" you, master lawyer, are no doubt informed of what that
agreement contains, but you are not paid to tell us." And
he returned the deed of " decession " to the lawyer.

" Where am I to put all my furniture? " cried Birotteau,
" and my books, my beautiful library, my nice pictures, my
red drawing-room all my things, in short ! "


And the poor man's despair at finding himself thus uprooted
was so guileless, it so perfectly showed the purity of his life,
and his ignorance of the world, that Madame de Listomere
and Mademoiselle Salomon said, to comfort him, and in the
tone that mothers use when they promise a child a plaything :

" There, there, do not worry yourself about such silly
trifles. We shall easily find you a home less cold and gloomy
than Mademoiselle Gamard's house. If no lodging is to be
found to suit you well, one of us will take you as a boarder.
Come, play a hit at backgammon. You can call on the
Abbe Troubert to-morrow to ask his support, and you will see
how well he will receive you."

Weak-minded persons are reassured as easily as they are
frightened. So poor Birotteau, dazzled by the prospect of
living with Madame de Listomere, forgot the ruin, now irre-
mediably complete, of the happiness he had so long sighed for
and so thoroughly reveled in. Still, at night, before falling
asleep, with the anguish of a man to whom a removal and
the formation of new habits were as the end of the world,
he tortured his mind to imagine where he could find as con-
venient a home for his library as that corridor. As he
pictured his books astray, his furniture dispersed, and his
home broken up, he wondered a thousand times why his first
year at Mademoiselle Gamard's had been so delightful, and
the second so wretched. And again and again this disaster
was a bottomless pit in which his mind was lost.

The canonry no longer seemed to him a sufficient compen-
sation for so many misfortunes ; he compared his life to a
stocking in which one dropped stitch leads to a ladder all the
way down the web. Mademoiselle Salomon was left to him.
But, losing all his old illusions, the poor priest no longer
dared believe in a new friend.

In the doleful city of old maids there are several, especially
in France, whose life is a sacrifice nobly renewed day by day to


noble feeling. Some remain proudly faithful to a heart which
death untimely snatched from them ; martyrs to love, they
learn the secret of womanliness of soul. Others succumb to
a family pride which, to our shame, is daily waxing less ;
they have devoted themselves to make the fortune of a
brother, or to the care of orphan nephews ; such women are
mothers though remaining maids. These old maids rise to
the highest heroism of their sex, by consecrating every
womanly feeling to the worship of misfortune. They idealize
the concept of woman by renouncing all the rewards of her
natural destiny and accepting only its penalties. They live
enshrined in the beauty of their self-sacrifice, and men rever-
ently bow their heads before their faded forms. Mademoiselle
de Sombreuil is neither wife nor maid ; she was, and always
will be, an embodied poem.

Mademoiselle Salomon was one of these heroic creatures.
Her sacrifice was religiously sublime, inasmuch as it would
remain inglorious after having been a daily anguish. Young
and handsome, she was loved ; her lover lost his reason.
For five years she had devoted herself with the courage of
love to the mechanical joys of the unhappy man ; she was
so fully wedded to his madness that she did not think
him mad.

She was a woman of simple manners, frank in speech, with
a pale face not devoid of character, though the features were
regular. She never spoke of the experiences of her life.
Only, now and then, the sudden shudder with which she
heard the narrative of some dreadful or melancholy incident
betrayed in her the fine qualities evolved by great sorrows.
She had come to live at Tours after the death of her com-
panion in life. There she could not be appreciated at her
true value; she was regarded as a "good creature." She
was very charitable, and attached herself by preference to the
weak and helpless. For this reason she had, of course, the
deepest interest in the unhappy priest.


Mademoiselle Salomon de Villenoix, driving into town
early next morning, took Birotteau with her, set him down
on the cathedral quay, and left him making his way towards
the Close, where he was in great haste to arrive, to save the
canonry, at any rate, from the shipwreck, and to superintend
the removal of his furniture. He rang, not without violent
palpitations, at the door of the house, whither for fourteen
years he had been in the habit of coming, in which he had
dwelt, and whence he was now to be forever exiled after
dreaming that he might die there in peace like his friend

Marianne was surprised to see him. He told her he had
come to speak to Monsieur Troubert, and turned towards the
ground-floor rooms in which the canon lodged ; but Marianne
called out to him

" The Abbe Troubert is not there, Monsieur le Vicaire ; he
is in your old rooms."

These words were a fearful shock to Birotteau, who at last
understood Troubert's character, and the unfathomable depth
of revenge so slowly worked out, when he saw him quite at
home in Chapeloud's library, seated in Chapeloud's fine
Gothic chair sleeping, no doubt, in Chapeloud's bed, using
Chapeloud's furniture, contravening Chapeloud's will, in
short, disinheriting Chapeloud's friend ; that very Chape-
loud who had for so long penned him in at Mademoiselle
Gamard's, hindered his advancement, and kept him out of
the drawing-rooms at Tours. By what magic wand had this
transformation been effected ? Were these things no longer

Indeed, as he noted the sardonic expression with which
Troubert looked round on this library, Birotteau inferred
that the future vicar-general was secure of possessing for ever
the plunder of the two men he had so bitterly hated Chape-
loud as an enemy, and Birotteau because in him he still saw
Chapeloud. At the sight a thousand ideas surged up in the


worthy man's heart and wrapped him in a sort of trance. He
stood motionless, and, as it were, fascinated by Troubert's
eye, which was fixed on him.

" I cannot suppose, monsieur," said Birotteau at last,
" that you would wish to deprive me of the things that are
mine. Though Mademoiselle Gamard may have been impa-
tient to move you, she must surely be just enough to allow me
time to identify my books and remove my furniture."

" Monsieur," said the canon coldly, and betraying no sort
of feeling in his face, " Mademoiselle Gamard told me yester-
day that you were leaving ; of the cause of it I know nothing.
If she moved me up here, it was because she was obliged to do
so. Monsieur 1'Abbe Poirel has taken my rooms. Whether
the furniture in these rooms belongs to mademoiselle, I know
not. If it is yours, you know her perfect honesty ; the saint-
liness of her life is a guarantee for it.

" As to myself, you know how plainly I live. For fifteen
years I slept in a bare room, never heeding the damp, which
is killing me by inches. At the same time, if you wish to
return to these rooms, I am ready to give them up to you."

As he listened to this terrible speech, Birotteau forgot the
matter of the canonry ; he went downstairs as briskly as a
young man to find Mademoiselle Gamard, and met her at the
bottom of the stairs in the large paved passage which joined
the two parts of the house.

"Mademoiselle," said he, bowing, and not heeding the
sour, sardonic smile that curled her lips, or the extraordinary
fire that gave her eyes a glare like a tiger's, " I cannot under-
stand why you did not wait till I had removed my furniture
before "

"What !" she exclaimed, interrupting him, "have not all
your things been taken to Madame de Listomdre's?"

"But my furniture?"

" Did you never read your agreement ?" cried she, in tones
which ought to be expressed in musical notation to show how


many shades hatred could infuse into the accentuation of every

And Mademoiselle Gamard seemed to swell, her eyes flashed
once more, and her face beamed ; her whole person thrilled
with satisfaction.

The Abbe Troubert opened a window to see better to read
a folio volume.

Birotteau stood as if thunder-stricken.

Mademoiselle Gamard trumpeted at him, in a voice as shrill
as a clarion, the following words :

"Was it not agreed that, in the event of your leaving my
house, your furniture was to become mine to indemnify me
for the difference between what you paid me for your board
and what I received from the late respectable Abbe Chape-
loud? Now, as Monsieur 1'Abbe Poirel has been made
canon "

At these last words Birotteau bowed slightly as if to take
leave ; then he rushed out of the house. He was afraid lest,
if he stayed any longer, he should faint, and so give his
relentless foes too great a triumph. Walking like a drunken
man, he got back to Madame de Listomere's town house,
where, in a lower room, he found his linen, clothes, and
papers all packed into a trunk. At the sight of those relics
of his property, the unhappy priest sat down and hid his face
in his hands to hide his tears from the sight of men. The
Abbe Poirel was canon ! He, Birotteau, found himself home-
less, bereft of fortune and furniture.

Happily, Mademoiselle Salomon happened to drive past.
The doorkeeper, understanding the poor man's despair,
signaled to the coachman. After a few words of explanation
between the lady and the porter, the abbe allowed himself to
be led to his faithful friend, though he could only answer her
in incoherent words. Mademoiselle Salomon, alarmed by the
temporary derangement of a brain already so feeble, carried
him at once to " L'Alouette," ascribing these symptoms of


mental disturbance to the effect naturally produced on him
by the Abbe Poirel's promotion. She knew nothing of the
hapless priest's agreement with Mademoiselle Gamard, for
the excellent reason that he himself did not know its full
bearing. And as it is in the nature of things that comedy
is often mixed up with the most pathetic incidents, Birot-
teau's bewildered answers almost made Mademoiselle Salomon

" Chapeloud was right," said he ; " he is a monster."

"Who?" said she.

" Chapeloud. He has robbed me of everything."

"Then you mean Poirel?"

"No, Troubert."

At length they reached "L'Alouette," where the priest's
friends lavished on him such effusive kindness, that by the
evening he grew calmer, and they could extract from him
an account of all that had occurred that morning.

Monsieur de Bourbonne, always phlegmatic, naturally asked
to see the agreement which ever since the day before had
seemed to him to contain the key to the riddle. Birotteau
brought the fatal document out of his pocket, and held it out
to the landowner, who read it hastily, presently coming to a
sentence in these terms :

" Whereas there is a difference of eight hundred francs a
year between the price paid by the late Monsieur Chapeloud
and the sum for which the aforenamed Sophie Gamard agrees
to lodge and board, on the terms hereinbefore stated, the said
Francois Birotteau ; whereas the said Francois Birotteau fully
acknowledges that it is out of his power for some years to
come to pay the full price paid by Mademoiselle Gamard's
boarders, and more especially by the Abbe Troubert ; and,
finally, whereas the said Sophie Gamard has advanced certain
sums of money, the said Birotteau hereby pledges himself to
bequeath to her, as an indemnity, the furniture of which he
may be possessed at the time of his decease ; or in the event


of his voluntarily departing, for whatever cause or reason,
and quitting the premises at present let to him, and no longer
availing himself of the benefits contracted for in the agree-
ment made by Mademoiselle Gamard hereinbefore "

" Heaven above us ! What impudence ! " exclaimed Mon-
sieur de Bourbonne. "And what claws the said Sophie
Gamard has ! "

Poor Birotteau, never conceiving in his childish brain of
any cause which could ever separate him from Mademoiselle
Gamard, had counted on dying under her roof. He had not
the least recollection of this clause, of which the terms had
not even been discussed at the time when, in his eagerness to
lodge with the old maid, he would have signed all the docu-
ments she might have chosen to lay before him. His inno-
cence was so creditable, and Mademoiselle Gamard's conduct
so atrocious ; there was something so deplorable in the fate
of this hapless sexagenarian, and his weakness made him so
pitiable, that in a first impulse of indignation Madame de
Listomere exclaimed, " I am the cause of your having signed
the act that has ruined you ; I ought to make up to you for
the comfort you have lost."

"But," said Monsieur de Bourbonne, "such proceedings
constitute a fraud ; there are grounds for an action "

" Good, Birotteau shall bring an action. If he loses it
at Tours, he will win it at Orleans ; if he loses it at Orleans,
he will win it at Paris ! " cried the Baron de Listomere.

"If he means to bring an action, I should advise him first
to resign his benefice in the cathedral," said Monsieur de
Bourbonne calmly.

"We will take legal advice," replied Madame de Listo-
mere; "and we will bring an action if we ought. But this
business is so disgraceful for Mademoiselle Gamard, and may
prove so damaging to the Abbe Troubert, that we can surely
effect a compromise."

After mature deliberation, everybody promised to assist the


Abbe Birotteau in the struggle that must ensue between him,
his enemies, and their allies. A confident presentiment, an
indescribable provincial instinct prompted every one to com-
bine the names of Troubert and Gamard. But not a soul of
those then assembled at Madame de Listomere's, excepting
the " old fox," had any accurate notion of the importance of
such a conflict.

Monsieur de Bourbonne took the poor priest into a corner.

"Of all the fourteen persons present," said he in a low
voice, " not one will be still on your side within a fortnight.
If you then want to call in help, you will perhaps find no one
but myself bold enough to undertake your defense, because I
know the country, men, and things, and, better still, their
interests. All your friends here, though full of good inten-
tions, are starting on the wrong road, which you can never
get out of. Listen to my advice. If you want to live in
peace, give up your office in Saint-Gatien and leave Tours.
Tell no one where you go, but seek a cure of souls far from
here, where this man Troubert can never again come across

" Leave Tours ! " cried the abbe, with unspeakable dismay.

It was to him a form of death. Was it not tearing up all
the roots by which he held to the world ? Celibates make
habits take the place of feelings. And when to this system
of ideas, by which they go through life rather than live, they
add a weak nature, external things have an astonishing do-
minion over them. Birotteau had really become a sort of
vegetable ; to transplant it was to endanger its guileless func-
tions. Just as a tree, in order to live, must always find the
same juices at hand, and always send its filaments into the
same soil, so Birotteau must always patter round Saint-Gatien,
always trot up and down the spot on the mall where he was
wont to walk, always go through the same familiar streets,
and constantly frequent the three drawing-rooms where even-
ing after evening he played whist or backgammon.


"To be sure I was not thinking," replied Monsieur de
Bourbonne, looking compassionately at the priest.

Before long all Tours knew that Madame la Baronne de
Listomere, widow of a lieutenant-general, had given a home
to the Abbe Birotteau, vicar of Saint-Gatien. This fact, on
which several persons threw doubts, cut short all questions
and gave definiteness to party divisions, especially when
Mademoiselle Salomon was the first to dare speak of fraud
and an action at law.

Mademoiselle Gamard, with the subtle vanity and the
fanatical sense of personal importance that are characteristic
of old maids, considered herself greatly aggrieved by the line
of conduct taken by Madame de Listomere. The Baroness
was a woman of high rank, elegant in her habits, whose good
taste, polished manners, and genuine piety were beyond
dispute. By sheltering Birotteau she formally gave the lie to
all Mademoiselle Gamard's asseverations, indirectly censured
her conduct, and seemed to sanction the abbe's complaints of
his former landlady.

For the better comprehension of this story, it is necessary
here to explain how much power Mademoiselle Gamard de-
rived from the discernment and analytical spirit with which
old women can account to themselves for the actions of
others, and to set forth the resources of her faction. Escorted
by the always taciturn Abbe Troubert, she spent her evenings
in four or five houses where a dozen persons were wont to
meet, allied by common tastes and analogous circumstances.
There were two or three old men, wedded to the whims and
tittle-tattle of their cooks ; five or six old maids, who spent
their days in sifting the words and scrutinizing the proceed-
ings of their neighbors and those a little below them in the
social scale ; and, finally, several old women wholly occupied
in distilling scandal, in keeping an exact register of every-
body's fortune, and a check on everybody's actions. They


foretold marriages, and blamed their friends' conduct quite as
harshly as their enemies'. These persons, filling in the town
a position analogous to the capillary vessels of a plant, imbibed
news with the thirst of a leaf for the dew, picked up the secrets
of every household, discharged them and transmitted them
mechanically to Monsieur Troubert, as leaves communicate
to the plant the moisture they have absorbed. Thus, every
evening of the week, these worthy bigots, prompted by the
craving for excitement which exists in every one, struck an
accurate balance of the position of the town with a sagacity
worthy of the council of ten, and made an armed police out
of the unerring espionage to which our passions give rise.
Then, as soon as they had found the secret motive of any
event, their conceit led them to appropriate, severally, the
wisdom of their Sanhedrim, and to give importance to their
gossip in their respective circles.

This idle and busybody assembly, invisible though omnis-
cient, speechless but for ever talking, had at that time an
influence which was apparently harmless in view of its con-
temptibility, but which nevertheless could be terrible when it
was animated by a strong motive. Now it was a very long
time since any event had occurred within range of their lives
to compare in general importance to each and all with the
contest between Birotteau, supported by Madame de Listo-
mere, and the Abbe Troubert with Mademoiselle Gamard.
In fact, the three drawing-rooms of Madame de Listomere,
Mademoiselle Merlin de la Blottiere, and Mademoiselle de
Villenoix, being regarded as a hostile camp by those where
Mademoiselle Gamard visited, there lay behind this quarrel a
strong party spirit with all its vanities. It was the struggle
of the Roman senate and people in a molehill, or a tempest
in a glass of water, as Montesquieu said in speaking of the
republic of San Marino, where public officials held their
places but a day, so easy was it to seize despotic power.

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 17 of 31)