Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

. (page 2 of 31)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 2 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

a hundred crowns a year, and worth, perhaps, ten thousand

Young Madame Lorrain died there after her mother's
second and luckless marriage, in 1819, and almost at the same
time as her mother. This daughter of the old man and his
young wife was small, fragile, and delicate ; the damp air of Le
Marais did not agree with her. Her husband's family, eager
to keep her there, persuaded her that nowhere else in the
world would she find a place healthier or pleasanter than Le
Marais, the scene of Charette's exploits. She was so well


taken care of, nursed, and coaxed that her death brought
honor to the Lorrains.

Some persons asserted that Brigaut, an old Vendeen, one
of those men of iron who served under Charette, Mercier,
the Marquis de Montauran, and the Baron du Guenic in the
wars against the Republic, counted for much in young Madame
Lorrain's submission. If this were so, it was certainly for the
sake of a most loving and devoted soul. And, indeed, all
Pen-Hoel could see that Brigaut, respectfully designated as
the major having held that rank in the Royalist army
spent his days and his evenings in the Lorrains' sitting-room
by the side of the Emperor's major's widow. Towards the
end the cure of Pen-Hoel allowed himself to speak of this
matter to old Madame Lorrain ; he begged her to persuade
her daughter-in-law to marry Brigaut, promising to get him an
appointment as justice of the peace to the district of Pen-
Hoel, by the intervention of the Vicomte de Kergarouet.
But the poor woman's death made the scheme useless.

Pierrette remained with her grandparents, who owed her
four hundred francs a year, naturally spent on her mainte-
nance. The old people, now less and less fit for business, had
an active and pushing rival in trade, whom they could only
abuse, without doing anything to protect themselves. The
major, their friend and adviser, died six months after young
Madame Lorrain, perhaps of grief, or perhaps of his wounds ;
he had had seven-and-twenty. Their bad neighbor, as a good
man of business, now aimed at ruining his rivals, so as to
extinguish all competition. He got the Lorrains to borrow
on their note of hand, foreseeing that they could never pay,
and so forced them in their old age to become bankrupt.
Pierrette's mortgage was second to a mortgage held by her
grandmother, who clung to her rights to secure a morsel
of bread for her husband. The house at Nantes was sold for
nine thousand five hundred francs, and the costs came to
fifteen hundred francs. The remaining eight thousand francs


came to Madame Lorrain, who invested them in a mortgage
in order to live at Nantes in a sort of almshouse, like that of
Sainte-Perine in Paris, called Saint-Jacques, where the two
worthy old people found food and lodging at a very moderate

As it was impossible that they should take with them their
little destitute grandchild, the old Lorrains bethought them
of her uncle and aunt Rogron, to whom they wrote. The
Rogrons of Provins were dead. Thus the letter from the
Lorrains to the Rogrons would seem to be lost. But if there
is anything here below which can take the place of Provi-
dence, is it not the General Postoffice ? The genius of the
post, immeasurably superior to that of the public, outdoes in
inventiveness the imagination of the most brilliant novelist.
As soon as the post has charge of a letter, worth, on delivery,
from three to ten sous, if it fails at once to find him or her
to whom it should be delivered, it displays a mercenary solic-
itude which has no parallel but in the boldest duns. The
post comes, goes, hunts through the eighty-six departments.
Difficulties incite the genius of its officials, who, not unfre-
quently, are men of letters, and who then throw themselves
into the pursuit with the ardor of the mathematicians at the
National Observatory ; they rummage the kingdom. At the
faintest gleam of hope the Paris offices are on the alert again.
You often sit amazed as you inspect the scrawls that meander
over the letter, back and front the glorious evidence of the
administrative perseverance that animates the postoffice. If
a man were to undertake what the post has accomplished,
he would have spent ten thousand francs in traveling, in time
and in money, to recover twelve sous. The post certainly
has more intelligence than it conveys.

The letter written by the Lorrains to Monsieur Rogron,
who had been dead a year, was transmitted by the post to
Monsieur Rogron, his son, a haberdasher in the Rue Saint-
Denis, Paris. This is where the genius of the postoffice


shines. An heir is always more or less puzzled to know
whether he has really scraped up the whole of his inheritance,
whether he has not forgotten some debt or some fragments.
The Revenue guesses everything; it even reads character.
A letter addressed to old Rogron of Provins was bound to
pique the curiosity of Rogron, junior, of Paris, or of Made-
moiselle Rogron, his heirs. So the Revenue earned its sixty

The Rogron s, towards whom the Lorrains held out be-
seeching hands, though they were in despair at having to part
from their granddaughter, thus became the arbiters of Pier-
rette Lorrain's fate. It is indispensable, therefore, to give
some account of their antecedents and their character.

Old Rogron, the innkeeper at Provins, on whom Old Auf-
fray had bestowed the child of his first marriage, was hot-
faced, with a purple-veined nose, and cheeks which Bacchus
had overlaid with his crimson and bulbous blossoms. Though
stout, short, and pot-bellied, with stumpy legs and heavy
hands, he had all the shrewdness of the Swiss innkeeper, re-
sembling that race. His face remotely suggested a vast hail-
stricken vineyard. Certainly he was not handsome ; but his
wife was like him. Never were a better matched couple.
Rogron liked good living, and to have pretty girls to wait on
him. He was one of the sect of egoists whose ways are
brutal, and who give themselves up to their vices and do their
will in the face of Israel. Greedy, mercenary, and by no
means refined, obliged to be the purveyor to his own fancies,
he ate up all he earned till his teeth failed him. Then avarice
remained. In his old age he sold his inn, collected, as we
have seen, all his father-in-law's leavings, and retired to the
little house in the square, which he bought for a piece of
bread from old Auffray's widow, Pierrette's grandmother.

Rogron and his wife owned about two thousand francs a
year, derived from the letting of twenty-seven plots of land
in the neighborhood of Provins, and the interest on the price


of their inn, which they had sold for twenty thousand francs.
Old Auffray's house, though in a very bad state, was used as
it was for a dwelling by the innkeepers, who avoided repair-
ing it as they would have shunned the plague ; old rats love
cracks and ruins. The retired publican, taking a fancy for
gardening, spent his savings in adding to his garden; he
extended it to the bank of the river, making a long square
shut in by two walls, and ending with a stone embankment,
below which the water plants, left to run wild, displayed their
abundant flowers.

Early in their married life the Rogron couple had a son
and a daughter, with two years between them; everything
degenerates ; their children were hideous. Put out to nurse
in the country as cheaply as possible, these unhappy little
ones came home with the wretched training of village life,
having cried long and often for their foster-mother, who went
to work in the fields, and who left them meanwhile shut up
in one of the dark, damp, low rooms which form the dwelling
of the French peasant. By this process the children's features
grew thick, and their voices harsh ; they were far from flat-
tering their mother's vanity, and she tried to correct them of
their bad habits by a severity which, by comparison with their
father's, seemed tenderness itself. They were left to play in
the yards, stables, and outhouses of the inn, or to run about
the town ; they were sometimes whipped ; sometimes they
were sent to their grandfather Auffray, who loved them little.
This injustice was one of the reasons that encouraged the
Rogrons to secure a large share of the "old rascal's" leav-
ings. Meanwhile, however, Rogron sent his boy to school ;
and he paid a man, one of his carters, to save the lad from
the conscription. As soon as his daughter Sylvie was twelve
years old, he sent her to Paris as an apprentice in a house of
business. Two years later, his son, Jerome-Denis, was packed
off by the same road. When his friends the carriers, who
were his allies, or the inn customers asked him what he meant


to do with his children, old Rogron explained his plans with
a brevity which had this advantage over the statements of
most fathers, that it was frank

" When they are of an age to understand me, I shall just
give them a kick you know where, saying, ' Be off and make
your fortune,' " he would reply, as he drank, or wiped his
mouth with the back of his hand. Then looking at the in-
quirer with a knowing wink, "Ha, ha!" he would add,
" they are not greater fools than I am. My father gave me
three kicks, I shall give them but one. He put a louis into
my hand, I will give them ten ; so they will be better off
than I was. That's the right way. And after I am gone,
what is left will be left ; the notaries will find them fast
enough. A pretty joke, indeed, if I am to keep myself short
for the children's sake ! They owe their being to me ; I have
brought them up ; I ask nothing of them ; they have not paid
me back, heh, neighbor? I began life as a carter, and that
did not hinder me from marrying that old rascal Auffray's

Sylvie was placed as an apprentice, with a premium of a
hundred crowns for her board, with some tradespeople in the
Rue Saint-Denis, natives of Provins. Two years later she
was paying her way; though she earned no money, her
parents had nothing to pay for her food and lodging. This,
in the Rue Saint-Denis, is called being "at par." Two years
later Sylvie was earning a hundred crowns a year. In the
course of that time her mother had sent her a hundred francs
for pocket-money. Thus, at the age of nineteen, Mademoi-
selle Sylvie Rogron was independent. When she was twenty,
she was second " young lady " in the house of Julliard, raw-
silk merchants, at the sign of the Ver chinois (or Silkworm),
in the Rue Saint-Denis.

The history of the brother was like the sister's. Little
Jerome-Denis Rogron was placed with one of the largest
wholesale mercers in the Rue Saint-Denis, the Maison Gutpin


at the Trots Quenouilles. While Sylvie, at twenty-one, was
forewoman with a thousand francs a year, Jerome-Denis,
better served by luck, was, at eighteen, head store-clerk, earn-
ing twelve hundred, with the Guepins, also natives of Provins.
The brother and sister met every Sunday and holiday, and
spent the day in cheap amusements. They dined outside
Paris ; they went to St. Cloud, Meudon, Belleville, or Vin-

At the end of 1815 they united the money they had earned
by the sweat of their brow, and bought of Madame Guenee
the business and good-will of a famous house, the Soeur dc
famille, one of the best-known retail haberdashers. The
sister kept the cash, the store, and the accounts; the brother
was both buyer and head-clerk, as Sylvie was for some time
her own forewoman. In 1821, after five years' hard work,
competition had become so lively in the haberdashery busi-
ness that the brother and sister had scarcely been able to pay
off the purchase-money and keep up the reputation of the

Though Sylvie Rogron was at this time but forty, her ugli-
ness, her constant toil, and a peculiarly crabbed expression,
arising as much from the shape of her features as from her
anxieties, made her look like a woman of fifty. Jerome-
Denis Rogron, at the age of thirty-eight, had the most idiotic
face that ever bent over a counter to a customer. His low
forehead, crushed by fatigue, was seamed by three arid fur-
rows. His scanty gray hair, cut very short, suggested the
unutterable stupidity of a cold-blooded animal ; in the gaze
of his blue-gray eyes there was neither fire nor mind. His
round, flat face aroused no sympathy, and did not even bring
a smile to the lips of those who study the varieties of Parisian
physiognomy ; it was depressing. And while, like his father,
he was short and thick, his shape, not having the coarse
obesity of the innkeeper, showed in every detail an absurd
flabbiness. His father's excessive redness gave place in him


to the flaccid lividness acquired by people who live in airless
backstores, in the barred coops that serve as counting-houses,
always folding and unfolding skeins of thread, paying or re-
ceiving money, harrying clerks, or repeating the same phrases
to customers. The small intelligence of this brother and
sister had been completely sunk in mastering their business,
in debit and credit, and in the study of the rules and customs
of the Paris market. Thread, needles, ribbon, pins, buttons,
tailors' trimmings, in short, the vast list of articles constitu-
ting Paris haberdashery, had filled up their memory. Letters
to write and answer, bills and stock-taking, had absorbed all
their capabilities.

Outside their line of business they knew absolutely noth-
ing ; they did not even know Paris. To them Paris was
something spread out round the Rue Saint-Denis. Their
narrow nature found its field in their store. They knew very
well how to nag their assistants and shop-girls and find them
at fault. Their joy consisted in seeing all their hands as busy
on the counters as mice's paws, handling the goods or fold-
ing up the pieces. When they heard seven or eight young
voices of lads and girls simpering out the time-honored
phrases with which shop-assistants reply to a customer's re-
marks, it was a fine day, nice weather. When ethereal blue
brought life to Paris, and Parisians out walking thought of no
haberdashery but what they wore, " Bad weather for busi-
ness," the silly master would observe. The great secret,
which made Rogron the object of his apprentices' admira-
tion was his art in tying, untying, re-tying, and making up a
parcel. Rogron could pack a parcel and look out at what
was going on in the street, or keep an eye on his store to its
farther depths ; he had seen everything by the time he handed
it to the buyer, saying, " Madame nothing more this morn-

But for his sister, this simpleton would have been ruined.
Sylvie had good sense and the spirit of trade. She advised


her brother as to his purchases from the manufacturers, and
relentlessly sent him off to the other end of France to make a
sou of profit on some article. The shrewdness, of which
every woman possesses more or less, having no duty to do for
her heart, she had utilized it in speculation. Stock to be
paid for ! this thought was the piston that worked this
machine and gave it appalling energy. Rogron was never
more than head-assistant ; he did not understand his business
as a whole ; personal interest, the chief motor of the mind,
had not carried him forward one step. He often stood dis-
mayed when his sister desired him to sell some article at a
loss, foreseeing that it would go out of the fashion ; and
afterwards he guilelessly admired her. He did not reason
well or ill ; he was incapable of reasoning ; but he had sense
enough to submit to his sister, and he did so for a reason that
had nothing to do with business. "She is the eldest," he
would say. Physiologists and moralists may possibly find in
such a persistently solitary life, reduced to satisfy mere needs,
and deprived of money and pleasure in youth, an explana-
tion of the animal expression of face, the weak brain, and
idiotic manner of this haberdasher. His sister had always
hindered his marrying, fearing perhaps that she might lose
her influence in the house, and seeing a source of expense
and ruin in a wife certainly younger, and probably less hide-
ous, than herself.

Stupidity may betray itself in two ways it is talkative or
it is mute. Mute stupidity may be endured ; but Rogron's
was talkative. The tradesman had fallen into the habit of
scolding his assistants, of expatiating to them on the minutiae
of the haberdashery business and selling to "the trade,"
ornamenting his lectures with the flat jokes that constitute
the bagout, the gab of the store. (This word bagout, used
formerly to designate the stereotyped repartee, has given way
before the soldier's slang word blague or humbug.) Rogron,
to whom his little domestic audience was bound to listen;


Rogron, very much pleased with himself, had finally adopted
a set of phrases of his own. The chatterbox believed himself
eloquent. The need for explaining to customers the thing
they want, for finding out their wishes, for making them want
the thing they do not want, loosens the tongue of the counter-
jumper. The retail dealer at last acquires the faculty of
pouring out sentences in which words have no meaning, but
which answer their purpose. Then he can explain to his cus-
tomers methods of manufacture unknown to them, and this
gives him a sort of short-lived superiority over the purchaser ;
but apart from the thousand and one explanations necessitated
by the thousand and one articles he sells, he is, so far as
thought is concerned, like a fish on straw in the sunshine.

Rogron and Sylvie a pair of machines illicitly baptized
had neither potentially nor actively the feelings which give
life to the heart. These two beings were utterly dry and
tough, hardened by toil, by privations, by the remembrance
of their sufferings during a long and wearisome apprentice-
ship. Neither he nor she had pity for any misfortune. They
were not implacable, but impenetrable with regard to anybody
in difficulties. To them virtue, honor, loyalty, every human
feeling was epitomized in the regular payment of their ac-
counts. Close-fisted, heartless, and sordidly thrifty, the
brother and sister had a terrible reputation among the traders
of the Rue Saint-Denis.

But for their visits to Provins, whither they went thrice a
year, at times when they could shut the store for two or three
days, they would never have gotten any store assistants. But
old Rogron packed off to his children every unhappy creature
intended by its parents to go into trade ; he carried on for them
a business in apprentices in Provins, where he vaunted with
much vanity his children's fortune. The parents, tempted
by the remote hope of having their son or daughter well
taught and well looked after, and the chance of seeing a
child some day step into Rogron junior's business, sent the


youth who was in the way to the house kept by the old bach-
elor and old maid. But as soon as the apprentices, man or
maid, for whom the fee of a hundred crowns was always paid,
saw any way of escaping from these galleys, they fled with a
glee which added to the terrible notoriety of the Rogrons.
The indefatigable innkeeper always supplied them with fresh

From the age of fifteen Sylvie Rogron, accustomed to
grimace over the counter, had two faces the amiable mask
of the saleswoman and the natural expression of a shriveled
old maid. Her assumed countenance was a marvelous piece
of mimicry ; she smiled all over ; her voice turned soft and
insinuating, and held the customers under a commercial spell.
Her real face was what she had shown between the two half-
opened shutters. It would have scared the bravest of the
Cossacks of 1815, though they dearly loved every variety of

When the letter came from the Lorrains, the Rogrons, in
mourning for their father, had come into possession of the
house they had almost stolen from Pierrette's grandmother, of
the innkeeper's acquired land, and finally of certain sums
derived from usurious loans in mortgages on land in the
hands of peasant-owners whom the old drunkard hoped to
dispossess. The charge on the business was paid off. The
Rogrons had stock to the value of about sixty thousand francs
in the shop, about forty thousand francs in their cash-box or
in assets, and the value of their good-will. Seated on the
bench, covered with striped-green worsted velvet, and fitted
into a square recess behind- the cash-desk, with just such
another desk opposite for the forewoman, the brother and
sister held council as to their plans. Every tradesman hopes
to retire. If they realized their whole stock and business,
they ought to have about a hundred and fifty thousand francs,
without counting their inheritance from old Rogron. Thus


by investing in the funds the capital at their disposal, each of
them would have three to four thousand francs a year, even if
they devoted the price of the business which would no doubt
be paid in installments to restoring their paternal home. So
they might go to Provins and live there in a house of their

Their forewoman was the daughter of a rich farmer at Don-
nemarie, who was burthened with nine children ; thus he was
obliged to place them all in business, for his wealth, divided
among nine, would be little enough for each. But in five
years the farmer lost seven of his children, consequently the
forewoman had become an interesting person ; so much so,
that Rogron had attempted, but vainly, to make her his wife.
The young lady manifested an aversion for the master which
nullified all his manoeuvres. On the other hand, Mademoi-
selle Sylvie did not encourage the plan ; she even opposed
her brother's marriage, and wanted rather to have so clever a
woman as their successor. Rogron's marriage she postponed
till they should be settled at Provins.

No passer-by can understand the motive-power that under-
lies the cryptogamic lives of certain storekeepers; as we look
at them we wonder, " On what, and why do they live ? What
becomes of them ? Where did they come from ?" We lose
ourselves in vacancy as we try to account for them. To dis-
cover the little poetry that germinates in these brains and
vivifies these existences, we must dig into them ; but we soon
reach the tufa on which everything rests. The Paris store-
keeper feeds on hopes more or less likely to be realized, and
without which he would evidently perish : one dreams of build-
ing or managing a theatre, another struggles for the honors of
the Maine ; this one has a castle in the air three leagues from
Paris, a so-called park, where he plants colored plaster statues
and arranges fountains that look like an end of thread, and
spends immense sums ; that one longs for promotion to the
higher grades of the National Guard. Provins, an earthly


paradise, excited in the two haberdashers the fanaticism which
the inhabitants of every pretty town in France feel for their
home. And to the glory of Champagne, it may be said that
this affection is amply justified. Provins, one of the most
charming spots in France, rivals Frangistan and the valley
of Cashmere ; not only has it all the poetry of Saadi, the
Homer of Persia, but it also has pharmaceutical treasures for
medical science. The crusaders brought roses from Jericho
to this delightful valley, where, by some chance, the flowers
developed new qualities without losing anything of their color.
And Provins is not only the Persia of France ; it might be
Baden, Aix, Bath ; it has mineral waters.

This is the picture seen year after year, which now and
again appeared in a vision to the haberdashers on the muddy
pavement of the Rue Saint-Denis.

After crossing the gray flats that lie between La Ferte-
Gaucher and Provins a desert, but a fertile one, a desert
of wheat you mount a hill. Suddenly, at your feet, you
see a town watered by two rivers ; at the bottom of the slope
spreads a green valley broken by graceful lines and retreating
distances. If you come from Paris you take .Provins length-
ways; you see the everlasting French high-road running along
the foot of the hill and close under it, owning its blindman
and its beggars, who throw in an accompaniment of lamentable
voices when you pause to gaze at this unexpectedly picturesque
tract of land. If you arrive from Troyes you come in from
the plain. The castle and the old town, with its rampart,
climb the shelves of the hill. The new town lies below.

There are upper and lower Provins ; above, a town in the
air, with steep streets and fine points of view, surrounded

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 2 of 31)