Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

. (page 18 of 31)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 18 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


But this storm in a teacup evolved as many passions in the



THE ABBE BIROTTEAU. 213

actors as would have sufficed to direct the largest social inter-
ests. Is it not a mistake to suppose that time flies swiftly
only to those whose hearts are a prey to such vast projects as
trouble life and make it boil ? The Abbe Troubert's hours
were spent as busily, flew loaded with thoughts as anxious,
and marked by despair and hopes as deep as could the rack-
ing hours of the man of ambition, the gamester, or the lover.
God alone knows the secret of the energy we put forth to
win the occult triumphs we achieve over men, or things, or
ourselves. Though we do not always know whither we are
going, we know full well the fatigues of the voyage. Still, if
the historian may be allowed to digress from the drama he is
narrating, to assume for a moment the functions of the critic
if he may invite you to glance at the lives of these old
maids and of these two priests, to investigate the causes of the
misfortune which vitiated their inmost core you will perhaps
find it proved to a demonstration that man must necessarily
experience certain passions if he is to evolve those qualities
which give nobleness to life, which expand its limits and
silence the selfishness natural to all beings.

Madame de Listomere returned to town, not knowing that
for five or six days past several of her friends had been obliged
to dispute a rumor concerning herself, and accepted by some,
though she would have laughed at it had she heard of it,
which attributed her affection for her nephew to almost crim-
inal causes.

She took the abbe to see her lawyer, who did not think
an action an easy matter. The abbe's friends, confident in
the feeling that comes of the justice of a good case, or else
dilatory about proceedings which did not concern them
personally, had postponed the preliminary inquiry till the
day when they should return to Tours. Thus Mademoiselle
Gamard's allies had been able to make the first move, and
had told the story in a way unfavorable to the Abbe Birotteau.
Hence the man of law, whose clients consisted exclusively of



214 THE CELIBATES.

the pious folks of the town, very much astonished Madame
de Listomere by urging her on no account to be mixed up in
such proceedings ; and he closed the interview by saying that
" he, at any rate, would not undertake the case, because, by
the terms of the agreement, Mademoiselle Gamard was right
in the eye of the law ; that in equity, that is to say, out of
the jurisdiction of the court, Monsieur Birotteau would appear
in the eyes of the bench and of all honest folks to have fallen
away from the meek, peace-loving, and conciliatory character
he had hitherto enjoyed ; that Mademoiselle Gamard, regarded
as a gentle person and easy to live with, had accommodated
Birotteau by lending the money needed to pay the succession
duties arising from Chapeloud's bequest, without demanding
any receipt ; that Birotteau was not of an age, nor of a na-
ture, to sign a document without knowing what it contained
and recognizing its importance; and that as he had ceased to
live at Mademoiselle Gamard's after only two years' residence,
whereas his friend Chapeloud had been with her for twelve
years and Troubert for fifteen, it would only be in accordance
with some plan best known to himself. That, consequently,
the action would be generally considered as an act of ingrati-
tude," etc.

After seeing Birotteau to the head of the stairs, the lawyer
detained Madame de Listomere a moment as he showed her
out, and besought her, as she loved her peace of mind, to
have nothing to do with the affair.

In the evening, however, the hapless abbe, as miserable as
a criminal in the condemned cell at Bicetre while awaiting
the result of his petition to the court of appeal, could not
keep himself from telling his friends of the result of his visit
to the lawyer, at the hour before the card-parties were made
up, when the little circle was assembling round Madame de
Listomere's fire.

" I know no lawyer in Tours, excepting the solicitor for
the Liberal party, who would undertake the case, unless he



THE ABBE BIROTTEACT. 215

meant to lose it," exclaimed Monsieur de Bourbonne, "and
I do not advise you to embark on it."

" Well, it is a rascally shame ! " said the navy lieutenant.
" I myself will take the abbe to see that lawyer ! "

"Then go after dark," said Monsieur de Bourbonne, inter-
rupting him.

"Why?"

" I have just heard that the Abbe Troubert is appointed
vicar-general in the place of him who died the day before
yesterday."

"Much I care for the Abbe Troubert ! "

Unluckily, the Baron de Listomere, a man of six-and-
thirty, did not see the sign made to him by Monsieur de
Bourbonne warning him to weigh his words, and pointing
significantly at a town councilor who was known to be a
friend of Troubert's. So the officer went on with his denun-
ciations of the abbe's treatment :

" If Monsieur Troubert is a rogue "

"Dear me," said Monsieur de Bourbonne, "why bring
the Abbe Troubert's name into a matter with which he has
no concern whatever?"

"Nay," said the lieutenant, "is he not in the enjoyment
of the Abbe Birotteau's furniture? I remember having
called on Monsieur Chapeloud and seeing two valuable pic-
tures. Suppose they are worth ten thousand francs ? Can
you believe that Monsieur Birotteau ever intended to give, in
return for two years' board with this Gamard woman, ten
thousand francs, when the library and furniture are worth
almost as much more ? "

The abbe opened his eyes very wide on hearing that he
had ever owned such an enormous fortune. And the Baron
went on vehemently to the end.

"By Jove! Monsieur Salmon, an expert from the Paris
gallery, happens to be here on a visit to his mother-in-law.
I will go to him this very evening with Monsieur l'Abb, and



216 THE CELIBATES.

beg him to value the pictures. From there I will take him to
that lawyer."

Two days after this conversation the action had taken
shape. The solicitor to the Liberal party, now Birotteau's
attorney, cast some obloquy on the abbe's case. The opposi-
tion to the government, and some persons known to love
neither priests nor religion two things which many people
fail to distinguish took up the matter, and the whole town
was talking of it. The expert from Paris had valued "The
Virgin," by Le Valentin, and "The Christ," by Lebrun, at
eleven thousand francs ; they were both choice examples. As
to the bookcase and the Gothic furniture, the fashionable
taste, daily growing in Paris, for that style of work gave them
an immediate value of twelve thousand francs. In short,
the expert, on examination, estimated the contents of the
rooms at ten thousand crowns.

Now, it was obvious that as Birotteau had never intended
to give Mademoiselle Gamard this immense sum in payment
of the little money he might owe her in virtue of the stipu-
lated indemnity, there were grounds, legally speaking, for a
new contract, otherwise the old maid would be guilty of un-
intentional fraud. So the lawyer on Birotteau's behalf began
by serving a writ on Mademoiselle Gamard, formulating the
abbe's case. This statement, though exceedingly severe, and
supported by quotations from leading judgments, and con-
firmed by certain articles of the code, was at the same time a
masterpiece of legal logic, and so evidently condemned the
old maid, that thirty or forty copies were maliciously circu-
lated in the town by the opposite party.

A few days after this commencement of hostilities between
the old maid and Birotteau, the Baron de Listomere, who, as
commander of a corvette, hoped to be included in the next
list of promotions, which had been expected for some time at
the navy board, received a letter, in which a friend informed



THE ABBE BIROTTEAU. 217

him that there was, on the contrary, some idea in the office
of placing him on the retired list. Greatly amazed by this
news, he at once set out for Paris, and appeared at the minis-
ter's next reception. This official himself seemed no less sur-
prised, and even laughed at the fears expressed by the Baron
de Listomere.

Next day, in spite of the minister's words, the Baron in-
quired at the office. With an indiscretion, such as is not
unfrequently committed by heads of departments for their
friends, a secretary showed him a minute confirming the fatal
news, ready drawn up, but which had not yet been submitted
to the minister, in consequence of the illness of a head clerk.
The Baron at once went to call on an uncle, who, being a
deputy, could without delay meet the minister at the chamber,
and begged him to sound his excellency as to his views, since
to him this meant the sacrifice of his whole career. He
awaited the closing of the sitting in his uncle's carriage in the
greatest anxiety.

Long before the end his uncle came out, and as they drove
home to his house he asked the Baron

"What the devil led you to make war against the priest-
hood ? The minister told me at once that you had put your-
self at the head of the Liberal party at Tours. Your opinions
are detestable, you do not follow the line laid down by the
government, and what not ! His phrases were as confused as
if he were still addressing the chamber. So then I said to
him, * Come, let us understand each other.' And his excel-
lency ended by confessing that you were in a scrape with the
lord high almoner. In short, by making some inquiries
among my colleagues, I learned that you had spoken with
much levity of a certain Abbe Troubert, who, though but a
vicar-general, is the most important personage of the province,
where he represents the ecclesiastical power. I answered for
you to the minister in person. My noble nephew, if you want
to get on in the world, maUe no enemies in the church.



218 THE CELIBATES.

" Now, go back to Tours, and make your peace with this
devil of a vicar-general. Remember that vicars-general are
men with whom you must always live in peace. Deuce take
it ! When we are all trying to re-establish the church, to
cast discredit on the priests is a blunder in a ship's lieuten-
ant who wants his promotion. If you do not make it up with
this Abbe Troubert, you need not look to me ; I shall cast
you off. The minister for church affairs spoke to me of the
man just now as certain to be a bishop. If Troubert took an
aversion for our family, he might hinder my name from appear-
ing in the next batch of peers. Do you understand ? "

This speech explained to the navy lieutenant what Trou-
bert's secret occupations were, when Birotteau so stupidly
remarked, " I cannot think what good he gains by sitting up
all night!"

The canon's position, in the midst of the feminine senate
which so craftily kept a surveillance over the province, as
well as his personal capabilities, had led to his being chosen
by the church authorities from among all the priests in the
town to be the unacknowledged proconsul of Touraine. Arch-
bishop, general, prefet high and low were under his occult
domain.

The Baron de Listomere had soon made up his mind.

"I have no notion," said he to his uncle, "of receiving
another ecclesiastical broadside below the water-line."

Three days after this diplomatic interview between the
uncle and nephew, the sailor, who had suddenly returned to
Tours by the mail-coach, explained to his aunt, the very
evening of his arrival, all the danger that would be incurred
by the Listomere family if they persisted in defending that
idiot Birotteau. The Baron had caught Monsieur de Bour-
bonne at the moment when the old gentleman was taking up
his stick and hat to leave after his rubber. The " old fox's "
intelligence was indispensable to throw a light on the reefs
among which the Listomeres had been entangled ; he rose so



THE ABBE BIROTTEAU. 219

early to seek his hat and stick, only to be stopped by a word
in his ear

" Wait ; we want to talk."

The young Baron's prompt return, and his air of satisfac-
tion, though contrasting with the gravity his face assumed
now and then, had vaguely hinted to Monsieur de Bourbonne
of some checks the lieutenant might have received in his cruise
against Gamard and Troubert. He manifested no surprise on
hearing the Baron proclaim the secret power possessed by the
vicar-general.

"I knew that," said he.

"Well, then," exclaimed the Baroness, "why did you not
warn us?"

"Madame," he hastily replied, "if you will forget that I
guessed this priest's occult influence, I will forget that you
know it as well as I. If we should fail to keep the secret, we
might be taken for his accomplices ; we should be feared and
hated. Do as I do. Pretend to be a dupe ; but look carefully
where you set your feet. I said quite enough ; you did not
understand me. I coulS not compromise myself."

"What must we do now?" said the Baron.

The desertion of Birotteau was not a matter of question ; it
was the primary condition, and so understood by this council
of three.

"To effect a retreat with all the honors of war has always
been the greatest achievement of the most skillful generals,"
said Monsieur de Bourbonne. "Yield to Troubert; if his
hatred is less than his vanity, you will gain an ally ; but if
you yield too much, he will trample on your body, for, as
Boileau says, ' Destruction is by choice the spirit of the
church.' Make as though you were quitting the service, and
you will escape him, Monsieur le Baron. Dismiss Birotteau,
madame, and you will gain Gamard her lawsuit. When you
meet the Abbe Troubert at the archbishop's, ask him if he
plays whist ; he will answer ' Yes. ' Invite him to play a rubber



220 THE CELIBATES.

in this drawing-room, where he longs to be admitted ; he will
certainly come. You are a woman ; try to enlist this priest in
your interest. When the Baron is a ship's captain, his uncle
a peer of France, and Troubert a bishop, you can make Birot-
teau a canon at your leisure. Till then yield ; but yield grace-
fully, and with a threat. Your family can give Troubert quite
as much assistance as he can give you; you will meet half-way
to admiration. And take soundings constantly as you go,
sailor ! "

" Poor Birotteau ! " said the Baroness.

" Oh ! begin at once," said the old man as he took leave.
" If some clever Liberal should get hold of that vacuous
brain, he would get you into trouble. After all, the law
would pronounce in his favor, and Troubert must be afraid
of the verdict. As yet he may forgive you for having begun
the action, but after a defeat he would be implacable. I have
spoken."

He snapped his snuff-box lid, went to put on his thick
shoes, and departed.

The next morning, after breakfast, the Baroness remained
alone with Birotteau, and said to him, not without visible em-
barrassment

" My dear Monsieur Birotteau, I am going to make a re-
quest that you will think very unjust and inconsistent ; but
both for your sake and for ours you must, in the first place,
put an end to your action against Mademoiselle Gamard by
renouncing your claims, and also quit my house."

As he heard these words the poor priest turned pale.

"I am the innocent cause of your misfortunes," she went
on ; " and I know that but for my nephew you would never
have begun the proceedings which now are working woe for
you and for us. Listen to me."

And she briefly set forth the immense scope of this affair,
explaining the seriousness of its consequences. Her medita-
tions during the night had enabled her to form an idea of



THE ABB& BIROTTEAU. 221

what the Abbe Troubert's former life had been. Thus she
could unerringly point out to Birotteau the web in which he
had been involved by this skillfully-plotted vengeance, could
show him the superior cleverness and power of the enemy,
revealing his hatred and explaining its causes ; she pictured
him as crouching for twelve years to Chapeloud, and now
devouring and persecuting Chapeloud in the person of his
friend.

The guileless Birotteau clasped his hands as if to pray, and
wept with grief at this vision of human wickedness which his
innocent soul had never conceived of. Terrified, as though
he was standing on the verge of an abyss, he listened to his
benefactress with moist and staring eyes, but without express-
ing a single idea. She said in conclusion

" I know how vile it is to desert you ; but, my dear abbe,
family duties must supersede those of friendship. Bend
before this storm, as I must, and I will prove my gratitude.
I say nothing of your personal concerns ; I undertake them ;
you shall be released from money difficulties for the rest of
your life. By the intervention of Monsieur de Bourbonne,
who will know how to save appearances, I will see that you
lack nothing. My friend, give me the right to throw you
over. I shall remain your friend while conforming to the re-
quirements of the world. Decide."

The hapless abbe, quite bewildered, exclaimed

" Ah ! then Chapeloud was right when he said that if Trou-
bert could drag him out of his grave by the heels, he would
do it ! He sleeps in Chapeloud's bed ! "

"It is no time for lamentations," said Madame de Listo-
mere. "We have no time to spare. Come "

Birotteau was too kind-hearted not to submit in any great
crisis to the impulsive self-sacrifice of the first moment. But,
in any case, his life already was but one long martyrdom.

He answered with a heart-broken look at his protectress,
which wrung her soul



222 THE CELIBATES.

"I am in your hands. I am no more than a straw in the
street ! "

The local word he used, bourrier, is peculiar to Touraine,
and its only literal rendering is a straw. But there are pretty
little straws, yellow, shiny, and smart, the delight of chil-
dren ; while a bourrier is a dirty, colorless, miry straw, left in
the gutter, driven by the wind, crushed by the foot of every
passer-by.

" But, madame," he went on, " I should not wish to leave
the portrait of Chapeloud for the Abbe Troubert. It was
done for me, and belongs to me ; get that back for me, and
I will give up everything else."

"Well," said Madame de Listomere, " I will go to Made-
moiselle Gamard." She spoke in a tone which showed what
extraordinary effort the Baroness de Listomere was making in
stooping to flatter the old maid's conceit. "And I will try
to settle everything," she went on. " I hardly dare hope it.
Go and see Monsieur de Bourbonne. Get him to draw up
your act of renunciation in due form, and bring it to me
signed and witnessed. With the help of the archbishop, I
may perhaps get the thing settled."

Birotteau went away overpowered. Troubert had assumed
in his eyes the proportions of an Egyptian pyramid. The
man's hands were in Paris, and his elbows in the Close of
Saint-Gatien.

" He," said he to himself, " to hinder Monsieur le Marquis
de Listomere being made a peer of France ! And then,
' With the help of the archbishop, perhaps get the thing
settled ! ' "

In comparison with such high interests, Birotteau felt him-
self a grasshopper ; he was honest to himself.

The news of Birotteau's removal was all the more astound-
ing because the reason was undiscoverable. Madame de
Listomere gave out that as her nephew wished to marry and
retire from the service, she needed the abbe's room to add to



THE A3 BE BIROTTEAU. 223

her own. No one as yet had heard that Birotteau had with-
drawn the action. Monsieur de Bourbonne's instructions
were thus judiciously carried out.

These two pieces of news, when they should reach the ears
of the vicar-general, must certainly flatter his vanity, by
showing him that, though the Listomere family would not
capitulate, it would at least remain neutral, tacitly recognizing
the secret power of the church council ; and was not recogni-
tion submission ? Still, the action remained sub judice. Was
not this to yield and to threaten ?

Thus the Listomeres had assumed an attitude precisely
similar to that of the Abbe Troubert in this contest ; they
stood aside and could direct their forces as circumstances
might dictate.

But a serious event now occurred, and added to their diffi-
culties, hindering the success of the means by which Monsieur
de Bourbonne and the Listomeres hoped to mollify the
Gamard and Troubert faction. On the previous day Made-
moiselle Gamard had taken a chill on coming out of the ca-
thedral, had gone to bed, and was reported to be seriously ill.
The whole town rang with lamentations, excited by spurious
commiseration. " Mademoiselle Gamard's highly strung sen-
sibilities had succumbed to the scandal of this lawsuit.
Though she was undoubtedly in the right, she was dying of
grief. Birotteau had killed his benefactress." This was the
sum and substance of the phrases fired off through the capil-
lary ducts of the great feminine synod, and readily repeated
by the town of Tours.

Madame de Listomere suffered the humiliation of calling
on the old woman without gaining anything by her visit.
She very politely requested to be allowed to speak to the
vicar-general. Flattered, perhaps, at receiving a woman who
had slighted him, in Chapeloud's library, by the fireplace
over which the two famous pictures in dispute were hanging,



224 THE CELIBATES.

Troubert kept the Baroness waiting a minute, then he con-
sented to see her.

No courtier, no diplomat, ever threw into the discussion
of private interests or national negotiations greater skill,
dissimulation, and depth of purpose than the Baroness and
the abbe displayed when they found themselves face to face.

Old Bourbonne, like the sponsor, in the middle ages, who
armed the champion, and fortified his courage by good
counsel as he entered the lists, had instructed the Baroness

" Do not forget your part ; you are a peacemaker, and not
an interested party. Troubert likewise is a mediator. Weigh
your words. Study the tones of the vicar-general's voice.
If he strokes his chin, you have won him."

Some caricaturists have amused themselves by representing
the contrast that so frequently exists between what we say and
what we think. In this place, to represent fully the interesting
points of the duel of words that took place between the priest
and the fine lady, it is necessary to disclose the thoughts they
each kept concealed under apparently trivial speech.

Madame de Listomere began by expressing the regret she
felt about this lawsuit of Birotteau's, and she went on to speak
of her desire of seeing the affair settled to the satisfaction of
both parties.

" The mischief is done, madame," said the abbe. "The
admirable Mademoiselle Gamard is dying." (" / care no
more for that stupid creature than for Prester John" thought
he, " but I sJiould like to lay her death at your door, and bur-
then your conscience, if you are silly enough to care."}

" On hearing of her illness," said the Baroness, " I desired
the abb6 to sign a withdrawal, which I have brought to that
saintly person." ("I see through you" thought she, "you old
rascal; but we are no longer at the mercy of your vagaries.
As for you, if you accept the deed, you will have put your foot
in it ; it will be a confession of complicity"}

There was a brief silence.



"THE MISCHIEF /s DONE, MADAME," SAID THE ABBE.



THE ABBE BIROTTEAU. 225

" Mademoiselle Gamard's temporal affairs are no concern
of mine," said the priest at length, closing the deep lids over
his eagle eyes to conceal his excitement. ("Ah, ha, you will
not catch me tripping ! But God be praised, those cursed
lawyers will not fight out a case that might bespatter me ! But
what on earth can the Listonieres want that they are so hum-
ble?"}

" Monsieur," replied the Baroness, " the concerns of Mon-
sieur 1'Abbe Birotteau interest me no more than those of
Mademoiselle Gamard do you. But, unluckily, religion
might suffer from their quarrels, and in you I see but a medi-
ator, while I myself come forward as a peacemaker "

(" We can neither of us throw dust in the other 1 s eyes, Mon-
sieur Troubert, 11 thought she. " Do you appreciate the epi-
gram in that reply ? ")

11 Religion! " said the vicar-general. " Madame, religion
stands too high for man to touch it." (^'Religion means
me, 1 ' thought he.) "God will judge us unerringly, mad-
ame," he coolly added, "and I can recognize no other
tribunal."

"Well, then, monsieur," replied she, "let us try to make
man's judgments agree with God's." ("Yes, religion means
you."}

The Abbe Troubert changed his tone.

"Has not monsieur your nephew just been to Paris?"
(" You heard of me there, I fancy," thought he; "/ can
crush you you who scorned me ! You have come to sur-



Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 18 of 31)