Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

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Room 7," he added, looking at Derville with timid anxiety,
the fear of an old man and a child. "Are you going to visit
the man condemned to death ? " he asked after a moment's
silence. " He is not married ! He is very lucky ! "

"Poor fellow " said Godeschal. " Would you like some-
thing to buy snuff? "

With all the simplicity of a street Arab, the colonel eagerly
held out his hand to the two strangers, who each gave him a
twenty-franc piece ; he thanked them with a puzzled look,
saying :

" Brave troopers ! "

He ported arms, pretended to take aim at them, and
shouted with a smile :

"Fire! both arms! Vive Napoleon!" And he drew a
flourish in the air with his stick.

"The nature of his wound has no doubt made him child-
ish," said Derville.

" Childish ! he ? " said another old pauper, who was look-
ing on. " Why, there are days when you had better not
tread on his corns. He is an old rogue, full of philosophy
and imagination. But to-day, what can you expect ! He
has had his Monday treat. He was here, monsieur, so long
ago as 1820. At that time a Prussian officer, whose chaise
was crawling up the hill of Villejuif, came by on foot. We
two were together, Hyacinthe and I, by the roadside. The
officer, as he walked, was talking to another, a Russian, or
some animal of the same species, and when the Prussian saw
the old boy, just to make fun, he said to him, ' Here is an
old cavalry man who must have been at Rossbach.' ' I was
too young to be there,' said Hyacinthe. ' But I was at
Jena.' And the Prussian made off pretty quick, without ask-
ing any more questions."

"What a destiny!" exclaimed Derville. "Taken out of
20



306 COLONEL CHASE RT.

the Foundling Hospital to die in the Infirmary for the Aged,
after helping Napoleon between whiles to conquer Egypt and
Europe. Do you know, my dear fellow," Derville went on
after a pause, " there are in modern society three men who
can never think well of the world the priest, the doctor, and
the man of law? And they wear black robes, perhaps be-
cause they are in mourning for every virtue and every illu-
sion. The most hapless of the three is the lawyer. When a
man comes in search of the priest, he is prompted by repent-
ance, by remorse, by beliefs which make him interesting,
which elevate him and comfort the soul of the intercessor
whose task will bring him a sort of gladness ; he purifies, re-
pairs, and reconciles. But we lawyers, we see the same evil
feelings repeated again and again, nothing can correct them;
our offices are sewers which can never be cleansed.

" How many things have I learned in the excercise of my
profession ! I have seen a father die in a garret, deserted by
two daughters, to whom he had given forty thousand francs a
year ! I have known wills burnt ; I have seen mothers rob-
bing their children, wives killing their husbands, and work-
ing on the love they could inspire to make the men idiotic or
mad, that they might live in peace with a lover. I have seen
women teaching the child of their marriage such tastes as
must bring it to the grave in order to benefit the child of an
illicit affection. I could not tell you all that I have seen, for
I have seen crimes against which justice is impotent. In
short, all the horrors that romancers suppose they have in-
vented are still below the truth. You will know something
of these pretty things ; as for me, I am going to live in the
country with my wife. I have a horror of Paris."

"I have seen plenty of them already in Desroches* office,"
replied Godeschal.

PARIS, February-March, 1832.



THE VENDETTA.

Dedicated to Puttinati, Sculptor at Milan.

IN the year 1800, towards the end of October, a stranger,
having with him a woman and a little girl, made his appear-
ance in front of the Tuileries Palace, and stood for some little
time close to the ruins of a house, then recently pulled down,
on the spot where the wing is still unfinished which was in-
tended to join Catherine de Medici's Palace to the Louvre
built by the Valois. There he stood, his arms folded, his
head bent, raising it now and again to look at the Consul's
Palace, or at his wife, who sat on a stone by his side.

Though the stranger seemed to think only of the little girl
of nine or ten, whose black hair was a plaything in his fingers,
the woman lost none of the glances shot at her by her compan-
ion. A common feeling, other than love, united these two
beings, and a common thought animated their thoughts and
their actions. Misery is perhaps the strongest of all bonds.

The man had one of those broad, solemn-looking heads,
with a mass of hair, of which so many examples have been
perpetuated by the Carracci. Among the thick black locks
were many white hairs. His features, though fine and proud,
had a set hardness which spoiled them. In spite of his power-
ful and upright frame, he seemed to be more than sixty years
of age. His clothes, which were dilapidated, betrayed his
foreign origin.

The woman's face, formerly handsome, but now faded, bore
a stamp of deep melancholy, though, when her husband looked
at her, she forced herself to smile, and affected a calm expres-
sion. The little girl was standing, in spite of the fatigue that
was written on her small sunburnt face. She had Italian feat-
ures, large black eyes under well-arched eyebrows, a native

(307)



308 THE VENDETTA.

dignity and genuine grace. More than one passer-by was
touched by the mere sight of this group, for the persons com-
posing it made no effort to disguise a despair evidently as
deep as the expression of it was simple ; but the spring of the
transient kindliness which distinguishes the Parisian is quickly
dried up. As soon as the stranger perceived that he was the
object of some idler's attention, he stared at him so fiercely
that the most intrepid lounger hastened his step, as though he
had trodden on a viper.

After remaining there a long time undecided, the tall man
suddenly passed his hand across his brow, driving away, so to
speak, the thoughts that had furrowed it with wrinkles, and
made up his mind no doubt to some desperate determination.
Casting a piercing look at his wife and daughter, he drew out
of his jerkin a long dagger, held it out to the woman, and
said in Italian, " I am going to see whether the Bonapartes
remember us."

He walked on, with a slow, confident step, towards the en-
trance to the palace, where, of course, he was checked by a
soldier on guard, with whom there could be no long discus-
sion. Seeing that the stranger was obstinate, the sentry
pointed his bayonet at him by way of ultimatum. As chance
would have it at this moment, a squad came round to relieve
guard, and the corporal very civilly informed the stranger
where he might find the captain of the guard.

" Let Bonaparte know that Bartolomeo di Piombo wants to
see him," said the Italian to the officer.

In vain did the captain explain to Bartolomeo that it was
not possible to see the First Consul without having written to
him beforehand to request an audience. The stranger insisted
that the officer should go to inform Bonaparte. The captain
urged the rules of his duty, and formally refused to yield to
the demands of this strange petitioner. Bartolomeo knit his
brows, looked at the captain with a terrible scowl, and seemed
to make him responsible for all the disasters his refusal might



THE VENDETTA. 309

occasion ; then he remained silent, his arms tightly crossed
on his breast, and took his stand under the archway which
connects the garden and the courtyard of the Tuileries.

People who are thoroughly bent on anything are almost
always well served by chance. At the moment when Barto-
lomeo sat down on one of the curb-stones near the entrance
to the palace, a carriage drove up, and out of it stepped Lucien
Bonaparte, at that time minister of the interior.

" Ah ! Lucien, good luek for me to have met you ! " cried
the stranger.

These words, spoken in the Corsican dialect, made Lucien
stop at the instant when he was rushing into the vestibule ; he
looked at his fellow-countryman, and recognized him. At
the first word that Bartolomeo said in his ear, he took him
with him. Murat, Lannes, and Rapp were in the First Con-
sul's Cabinet. On seeing Lucien come in with so strange a
figure as was Piombo, the conversation ceased. Lucien took
his brother's hand and led him into a window recess. After
exchanging a few words, the First Consul raised his hand
with a gesture, which Murat and Lannes obeyed by retiring.
Rapp affected not to have seen it, and remained. Then,
Bonaparte having sharply called him to order, the aide-de-
camp went out with a sour face. The First Consul, who heard
the sound of Rapp's steps in the neighboring room, hastily
followed him, and saw him close to the wall between the
cabinet and the anteroom.

"You refuse to understand me?" said the First Consul.
" I wish to be alone with my countryman."

"A Corsican!" retorted the aide-de-camp. "I distrust
those creatures too much not to "

The First Consul could not help smiling, and lightly pushed
his faithful officer by the shoulders.

" Well, and what are you doing here, my poor Barto-
lomeo? " said the First Consul to Piombo.



310 THE VENDETTA.

"I have come to ask for shelter and protection, if you are
a true Corsican," replied Bartolomeo in a rough tone.

"What misfortune has driven you from your native land?
You were the richest, the most "

"I have killed all the Porta," replied the Corsican, in a
hollow voice, with a frown.

The First Consul drew back a step or two, like a man
astonished.

"Are you going to betray me? " cried Bartolomeo, with a
gloomy look at Bonaparte. " Do you forget that there are
still four of the Piombo in Corsica? "

Lucien took his fellow-countryman by the arm and shook
him.

" Do you come here to threaten the savior of France ? " he
said vehemently.

Bonaparte made a sign to Lucien, who was silent. Then
he looked at Piombo, and said, " And why did you kill all
the Porta?"

"We had made friends," he replied; "theBarbanti had
reconciled us. The day after we had drunk together to drown
our quarrel I left, because I had business at Bastia, They
stayed at my place, and set fire to my vineyard at Longone.
They killed my son Gregorio ; my daughter Ginevra and my
wife escaped; they had taken the communion that morning;
the Virgin protected them. When I got home I could no
longer see my house ; I searched for it with my feet in the
ashes. Suddenly I came across Gregorio's body ; I recog-
nized it in the moonlight. ' Oh, the Porta have played this
trick ! ' said I to myself. I went off at once into the scrub ;
I got together a few men to whom I had done some service
do you hear, Bonaparte ? and we marched down on the
Porta's vineyard. We arrived at five in the morning, and by
seven they were all in the presence of God. Giacomo de-
clares that Elisa Vanni saved a child, little Luigi ; but I tied
him into bed with my own hands before setting the house on



LUCIEN TOOK HIS FELLOW-COUNTRYMAN BY THE ARM.



THE VENDETTA. 311

fire. Then I quitted the island with my wife and daughter
without being able to make sure whether Luigi Porta was
still alive."

Bonaparte looked at Bartolomeo with curiosity, but no
astonishment.

" How many were they ? " asked Lucien.

"Seven," replied Piombo. "They persecuted you in
their day," he added. The words aroused no signs of hatred
in the two brothers. "Ah ! you are no longer Corsicans ! "
cried Bartolomeo, with a sort of despair. " Good-by.
Formerly I protected you," he went on reproachfully. "But
for me your mother would never have reached Marseilles,"
he said, turning to Bonaparte, who stood thoughtful, his
elbow resting on the chimney-piece.

" I cannot in conscience take you under my wing, Piombo,"
replied Napoleon. "I am the head of a great nation; I
govern the Republic ; I must see that the laws are carried
out."

"Ah, ha! " said Bartolomeo.

-'But I can shut my eyes," Bonaparte went on. "The
tradition of the Vendetta will hinder the reign of law in
Corsica for a long time yet," he added, talking to himself.
"But it must be stamped out at any cost."

He was silent for a minute, and Lucien signed to Piombo
to say nothing. The Corsican shook his head from side to
side with a disapproving look.

" Remain here," the First Consul said, addressing Barto-
lomeo. " We know nothing. I will see that your estates are
purchased so as to give you at once the means of living.
Then later, some time hence, we will remember you. But no
more Vendetta. There is no Maquis scrub here. If you
play tricks with your dagger, there is no hope for you. Here
the law protects everybody, and we do not do justice on our
own account."

"He has put himself at the head of a strange people,"



312 THE VENDETTA.

replied Bartolomeo, taking Lucien's hand and pressing it.
"But you recognize me in misfortune; it is a bond between
us for life and death ; and you may command every one
named Piombo." As he spoke his brow cleared, and he
looked about him approvingly.

"You are not badly off here," he said, with a smile, as if
he would like to lodge there. "And you are dressed all in
red like a cardinal."

"It rests with you to rise and have a palace in Paris," said
Bonaparte, looking at him from head to foot. " It may often
happen that I must look about me for a devoted friend to
whom I can trust myself."

A sigh of gladness broke from Piombo's deep chest ; he
held out his hand to the First Consul, saying, "There is
something of the Corsican in you still ! "

Bonaparte smiled. He gazed in silence at this man, who
had brought him as it were a breath of air from his native
land, from the island where he had formerly been so miracu-
lously saved from the hatred of the " English party," and
which he was fated never to see again. He made a sign to
his brother, who led away Bartolomeo di Piombo.

Lucien inquired with interest as to the pecuniary position
of the man who had once protected his family. Piombo led
the minister of the interior to a window and showed him his
wife and Ginevra, both seated on a heap of stones, awaiting
his return.

"We have come from Fontainebleau on foot," said he,
" and we have not a sou."

Lucien gave his fellow-countryman his purse, and desired
him to come again next morning to consult as to the means
of providing for his family. The income from all Piombo's
possessions in Corsica could hardly suffice to maintain him
respectably in Paris.

Fifteen years elapsed between the arrival of the Piombo



THE VENDETTA. 313

family in Paris and the following incidents, which, without
the story of this event, would have been less intelligible.

Servin, one of our most distinguished artists, was the first
to conceive the idea of opening a studio for young ladies who
may wish to take lessons in painting. He was a man of over
forty, of blameless habits, and wholly given up to his art ;
and he had married for love the daughter of a general with-
out any fortune. At first mothers brought their daughters
themselves to the professor's studio ; but when they under-
stood his high principles and appreciated the care by which
he strove to deserve such confidence, they ended by sending
the girls alone. It was part of the painter's scheme to take as
pupils only young ladies of rich or highly respectable family,
that no difficulties might arise as to the society in his studio;
he had even refused to take young girls who intended to
become artists, and who must necessarily have had certain
kinds of training without which no mastery is possible. By
degrees his prudence, the superior method by which he initi-
ated his pupils into the secrets of his art, as well as the
security their mothers felt in knowing that their daughters
were in the company of well-bred girls, and in the artist's
character, manners, and marriage, won him a high reputation
in the world of fashion. As soon as a young girl showed any
desire to learn drawing or painting, and her mother asked
advice, " Send her to Servin," was always the answer.

Thus Servin had a specialty for teaching ladies art, as Her-
bault had for bonnets, Leroy for dresses, and Chevet for
dainties. It was acknowledged that a young woman who had
taken lessons of Servin could pronounce definitely on the
pictures in the Louvre, paint a portrait in a superior manner,
copy an old picture, and produce her own painting of genre.
Thus this artist sufficed for all the requirements of the aris-
tocracy.

Notwithstanding his connection with all the best houses
in Paris, he was independent and patriotic, preserving with



314 THE VENDETTA.

all alike the light and witty tone, sometimes ironical, and
the freedom of opinion which characterize painters.

He had carried his scrupulous precautions into the ar-
rangement of the place where his scholars worked. The
outer entrance to the loft above his dwelling-rooms had
been walled up; to get into this retreat, as sacred as a
harem, the way was up a staircase in the centre of the
house. This studio, which occupied the whole of the top
story, was on the vast scale which always surprises inquis-
itive strangers when, having climbed to sixty feet above the
ground, they expect to find an artist lodged in the gutter.
It was a kind of gallery, abundantly lighted by immense
skylights screened with the large green blinds which artists
use to distribute the light. A quantity of caricatures, heads
sketched in outline with a brush or the point of a palette
knife, all over the dark gray walls, proved that, allowing
for a difference in the expression, fine young ladies have
as much whimsicality in their brain as men can have. A
small stove, with a huge pipe that made amazing zigzags
before reaching the upper region of the roof, was the in-
evitable decoration of this studio. There was a shelf all
round the room, supporting plaster casts which lay there
in confusion, most of them under a coating of whitish
dust.

Above this shelf here and there a head of Niobe hanging
to a nail showed its pathetic bend, a Venus smiled, a hand
was unexpectedly thrust out before your eyes, like a beggar
asking alms ; then there were anatomical tcorchcs, yellow
with smoke, and looking like limbs snatched from coffins ;
and pictures, drawings, lay figures, frames without canvas,
and canvasses without frames, completed the effect, giving
the room the characteristic aspect of a studio, a singular
mixture of ornamentation and bareness, of poverty and
splendor, of care and neglect.

This huge sort of hold, in which everything, even man,



THE VENDETTA. 315

looks small, has a behind-the-scenes flavor; here are to be
seen old linen, gilt armor, odds and ends of stuffs, and some
machinery. But there is something about it as grand as
thought : genius and death are there ; Diana and Apollo
side by side with a skull or a skeleton ; beauty and disorder,
poetry and reality, gorgeous coloring in shadow, and often
a whole drama, but motionless and silent. How symbol-
ical of the artist brain !

At the moment when my story begins the bright sun of
July lighted up the studio, and two beams of sunshine shot
across its depths, broad bands of diaphanous gold in which
the dust-motes glistened. A dozen easels raised their pointed
spars, looking like the masts of vessels in a harbor. Sev-
eral young girls gave life to the scene by the variety of
their countenances and attitudes, and the difference in their
dress. The strong shadows cast by the green baize blinds,
arranged to suit the position of each easel, produced a multi-
tude of contrasts and fascinating effects of chiaro-oscuro.

This group of girls formed the most attractive picture in
the gallery. A fair-haired girl, simply dressed, stood at some
distance from her companions, working perseveringly and
seeming to foresee misfortune ; no one looked at her nor spoke
to her ; she was the prettiest, the most modest, and the least
rich. Two principal groups, divided by a little space, repre-
sented two classes of society, two spirits, even in this studio,
where rank and fortune ought to have been forgotten.

These young things, sitting or standing, surrounded by their
paint-boxes, playing with their brushes or getting them ready,
handling their bright-tinted palettes, painting, chattering,
laughing, singing, given up to their natural impulses and reveal-
ing their true characters, made up a drama unknown to men ;
this one proud, haughty, capricious, with black hair and beauti-
ful hands, flashed the fire of her eyes at random ; that one light-
hearted and heedless, a smile on her lips, her hair chestnut,
with delicate white hands, virginal and French, a light nature



316 THE VENDETTA.

without a thought of evil, living from hour to hour; another,
dreamy, melancholy, pale, her head drooping like a falling
blossom ; her neighbor, on the contrary, tall, indolent, with
Oriental manners, and long, black, melting eyes, speaking
little but lost in thought, and stealing a look at the head of
Antinous.

In the midst, like the Jocoso of a Spanish comedy, a girl,
full of wit and sparkling sallies, stood watching them all
with a single glance, and making them laugh ; raising a face
so full of life that it could not but be pretty. She was the
leader of the first group of pupils, consisting of the daughters
of bankers, lawyers, and merchants all rich, but exposed to
all the minute but stinging disdains freely poured out upon
them by the other young girls who belonged to the aristocracy.
These were governed by the daughter of a gentleman usher to
the King's private chamber, a vain little thing, as silly as she
was vain, and proud of her father having an office at court.
She aimed at seeming to understand the master's remarks at the
first word, and appearing to work by inspired grace ; she used
an eyeglass, came very much dressed, very late, and begged
her companions not to talk loud. Among this second group
might be observed some exquisite shapes and distinguished-
looking faces; but their looks expressed but little simplicity.
Though their attitudes were elegant and their movements
graceful, their faces were lacking in candor, and it was easy
to perceive that they belonged to a world where politeness
forms the character at an early age, and the abuse of social
pleasures kills the feelings and develops selfishness. When
the whole party of girl students was complete there were to
be seen among them child-like heads, virgin heads of en-
chanting purity, faces where the parted lips showed virgin
teeth, and where a virgin smile came and went. Then the
studio suggested not a seraglio, but a group of angels sitting
on a cloud in heaven.

It was near noon ; Servin had not yet made his appearance.



THE VENDETTA. 317

For some days past he had spent most of his time at a studio
he had elsewhere, finishing a picture he had there for the exhi-
bition. Suddenly Mademoiselle Amelie Thirion, the head of
the aristocrats in this little assembly, spoke at some length to
her neighbor; there was profound silence among the patrician
group; the banker faction was equally silent from astonish-
ment, and tried to guess the subject of such a conference. But
the secret of the young ultras was soon known. Amelie rose,
took an easel that stood near her, and moved it to some dis-
tance from the "nobility," close to a clumsy partition which
divided the studio from a dark closet where broken casts were
kept, paintings that the professor had condemned, and, in
winter, the firewood. Amelie's proceedings gave rise to a
murmur of surprise which did not hinder her from completing
the removal by wheeling up to the easel a stool and paint-box,
in fact, everything, even a picture by Prudhon, of which a
pupil, who had not yet come, was making a copy. After this
coup d'etat the party of the right painted on in silence ; but
the left talked it over at great length, each one freely ex-
pressing themselves against the wisdom of such an act.

"What will Mademoiselle Piombo say? " asked one of the
girls of Mademoiselle Mathilde Roguin, the oracle of mischief
of her group.

"She is not a girl to say much," was the reply. "But
fifty years hence she will remember this insult as if she had
experienced it the day before, and will find some cruel means
of revenge. She is a person I should not like to be at war
with."

" The proscription to which those ladies have condemned
her is all the more unjust," said another young girl, " because
Mademoiselle Ginevra was very sad the day before yesterday ;
her father, they say, has just given up his appointment. This
will add to her troubles, while she was very good to those



Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 25 of 31)