Honoré de Balzac.

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" But all like the dinner will not amount to much."

"What is it like?"

"Well, the front door, of which we were, of course, re-
quired to admire the gilt-iron window-frames that you all
know, opens into a long passage through the house, dividing
it unequally, since there is but one window to the street on
the right, and two on the left. At the garden end this pas-
sage has a glass door to steps leading down to the lawn, a
lawn with a decorative pedestal supporting a plaster cast of
the Spartacus, painted to imitate bronze. Behind the kitchen
the architect has contrived a little pantry under the staircase,
which we were not spared seeing. The stair, painted through-
out like yellow-veined marble, is a hollow spiral, just like the
stairs that in a cafe lead from the ground floor to the entresol.
This trumpery structure of walnut-wood, really dangerously
light, and with banisters picked out with brass, was displayed
to us as one of the seven new wonders of the world. The way
to the cellars is beneath.

"On the other side of the passage, looking on the street,
is the dining-room, opening by folding doors into the draw-
ing-room, of the same size, but looking on to the garden."


" So there is no hall? " said Madame Auffray.

"The hall, no doubt, is the long passage where you stand
in a draught," replied Madame Tiphaine. " We have had the
eminently national, liberal, constitutional, and patriotic no-
tion," she went on, " of making use only of wood grown in
France ! In the dining-room, the floor, laid in a neat pattern,
is of walnut-wood. The sideboards, table, and chairs are also
in walnut. The window-curtains are of white cotton with red
borders, looped back with vulgar ropes over enormous pegs
with elaborate dull-gilt rosettes, the mushroom-like object
standing out against a reddish paper. These magnificent
curtains run on rods ending in huge scrolls, and are held up
by lions' claws in stamped brass, one at the top of each

" Over one of the sideboards is a regular cafe clock, draped,
as it were, with a sort of napkin in bronze gilt, an idea that
quite enchants the Rogrons. They tried to make me admire
this device ; and I could find nothing better to say than that
if it could ever be proper to hang a napkin round a clock
face, it was, no doubt, in a dining-room. On this sideboard
are two large lamps, like those which grace the counters of
grand restaurants. Over the other is a highly decorative
barometer, which seems to play an important part in their
existence ; Rogron gazes at it as he might gaze at his bride-
elect. Between the windows the builder has placed a white
earthenware stove in a hideously ornate niche. The walls
blaze with a splendid paper in red and gold, such as you will
see in these same restaurants, and Rogron chose it there no
doubt on the spot.

"Dinner was served in a set of white-and-gold china ; the
dessert service is bright blue with green sprigs ; but they
opened the china closet to show us that they had another
service of stoneware for every-day use. The linen is in large
cupboards facing the sideboards. Everything is varnished,
shining, new, and harsh in color. Still, I could accept the


dining-room ; it has a character of its own which, though not
pleasing, is fairly representative of that of the owners ; but
there is no enduring the five engravings those black-and-
white things against which the minister of the interior ought
really to get a decree ; they represent Poniatowski leaping
into the Elster ; the Defense of the Barriere de Clichy, Napo-
leon himself pointing a gun ; and two prints of Mazeppa, all
in gilt frames of a vulgar pattern suitable to the prints, which
are enough to make one loathe popularity. Oh ! how much
I prefer Madame Julliard's pastels representing fruits, those
capital pastels which were done in the time of Louis XV.,
and which harmonize with the nice old dining-room and its
dark, rather worm-eaten panels, which are at least character-
istic of the country, and suit the heavy family silver, the
antique china, and all our habits. The country is provincial ;
it becomes ridiculous when it tries to ape Paris. You may
perhaps retort, ' Vous ttes orfevre, Monsieur fosse ! ' ' You
are to the manner born.' But I prefer this old room of my
father-in-law Tiphaine's, with its heavy curtains of green-and-
white damask, its Louis XV. chimney-piece, its scroll pattern
pier glass, its old beaded mirrors and time-honored card-
tables; my jars of old Sevres, old blue, mounted in old
gilding ; my clock with its impossible flowers, my out-of-date
chandelier, and my tapestried furniture, to all the splendor
of their drawing-room."

" What is it like ? " said Monsieur Martener, delighted with
the praise of the country so ingeniously brought in by the
pretty Parisienne.

" The drawing-room is a fine red as red as Mademoiselle
Sylvie when she is angry at losing a mis ere."

" Sylvie-red," said the president, and the word took its
place in the vocabulary of the district.

"The window-curtains red! the furniture red! the
chimney-piece red marble veined with yellow ! the cande-
labra and clock red marble veined with yellow, and mounted


in a heavy vulgar style ; Roman lamp-brackets supported on
Greek foliage ! From the top of the clock a lion stares down
on you, stupidly, as the Rogrons stare ; a great good-natured
lion, the ornamental lion so-called, which will long continue
to dethrone real lions; he spends his life clutching a black
ball exactly like a deputy of the left. Perhaps it is a consti-
tutional allegory. The dial of this clock is an extraordinary
piece of work.

"The chimney glass is framed with applique ornaments,
which look poor and cheap, though they are a novelty. But
the upholsterer's genius shines most in a panel of red stuff of
which the radiating folds all centre in a rosette in the middle
of the chimney-board a romantic poem composed expressly
for the Rogrons, who display it with ecstasy. From the ceil-
ing hangs a chandelier, carefully wrapped in a green cotton
shroud, and with reason ; it is in the very worst taste, raw-toned
bronze, with even more detestable tendrils of brown gold.
Under it a round tea-table of marble, with more yellow than
ever in the red, displays a shining metal tray, on which glit-
ter cups of painted china such painting ! arranged round a
cut-glass sugar-basin, so bold in style that our grandchildren
will open their eyes in amazement at the gilt rings round the
edge and the diamond pattern on the sides, like a mediaeval
quilted doublet, and at the tongs for taking the sugar, which
probably no one will ever use.

"This room is papered with red flock-paper imitating vel-
vet, divided into panels by a beading of gilt brass, finished
at the corners with enormous palms. A chromo-lithograph
hangs on each panel, framed most elaborately in plaster cast-
ing of garlands to imitate fine wood-carving. The furniture
of elm-root, upholstered with satin-cloth, classically consists
of two sofas, two large easy-chairs, six armchairs, and six
light chairs. The console is graced by an alabaster vase,
called a la Medicis, under a glass shade, and by the much-
talked-of liqueur-case. We were told often enough that ' there


is not such another in Provins.' In each window bay, hung
with splendid red silk curtains and lace curtains besides,
stands a card-table. The carpet is Aubusson ; the Rogrons
have not failed to get hold of the crimson ground with medal-
lions of flowers, the vulgarest of all the common patterns.

" The room looks uninhabited ; there are no books or
prints none of the little things that furnish a table," and
she looked at her own table covered with fashionable trifles,
albums, and the pretty toys that were given her. "There
are no flowers, none of the little nothings that fade and are
renewed. It is all as cold and dry as Mademoiselle Sylvie.
Buftbn is right in saying that the style is the man, and cer-
tainly drawing-rooms have a style ! "

Pretty Madame Tiphaine went on with her description by
epigrams ; and from this specimen, it is easy to imagine the
rooms in which the brother and sister really lived on the first-
floor, which they also displayed to their guests. Still, no one
could conceive of the foolish expenses into which the cunning
builder had dragged the Rogrons ; the moulding of the
doors, the elaborate inside shutters, the plaster ornaments on
the cornices, the fancy painting, the brass-gilt knobs and
bells, the ingenious smoke-consuming fireplaces, the con-
trivance for the prevention of damp, the sham inlaid wood on
the staircase, the elaborate glass and smith's work in short,
all the fancy-work which adds to the cost of building, and
delights the common mind, had been lavished without stint.

No one would go to the Rogrons' evenings ; their preten-
sions were still-born. There were abundant reasons for refus-
ing ; every day was taken up by Madame Garceland, Madame
Galardon, the two Julliard ladies, Madame Tiphaine, the
sous-prefet, etc. The Rogrons thought that giving dinners
was all that was needed to get into society ; they secured
some young people who laughed at them, and some diners-
out, such as are to be found in every part of the world ; but
serious people quite gave them up. Sylvie, alarmed at the


clear loss of forty thousand francs swallowed up without any
return in the house she called her dear house, wanted to re-
cover the sum by economy. So she soon ceased to give din-
ners that cost from thirty to forty francs, without the wine, as
they failed to realize her hope of forming a circle a thing as
difficult to create in the country as it is in Paris. Sylvie dis-
missed her cook, and hired a country girl for the coarser
work. She herself cooked " to amuse herself."

Thus, fourteen months after their return home, the brother
and sister had drifted into a life of isolation and idleness.
Her banishment from " the world " had roused in Sylvie's
soul an intense hatred of the Tiphaines, Julliards, Auffrays,
and Garcelands in short, of everybody in Provins society,
which she stigmatized as a " clique," with which she was on
the most distant terms. She would gladly have set up a rival
circle ; but the second-rate citizen class was composed entirely
of small trades-people, never free but on Sundays and holi-
days ; or of persons in ill-odor, like Vinet the lawyer and
Doctor Neraud; or of rank Bonapartists, like General Gou-
raud ; and Rogron very rashly made friends with these, though
the upper set had vainly warned him against them. The
brother and sister were obliged to sit together by the fire of
their dining-room stove, talking over their business, the faces
of their customers, and other equally amusing matters.

The second winter did not come to an end without their
being almost crushed by its weight of dullness. They had the
greatest difficulty in spending the hours of their day. As they
went to bed at night, they thought, " One more over !" They
spun out the morning by getting up late and dressing slowly.
Rogron shaved himself every morning ; he examined his face
and described to his sister the changes he fancied he noted in
it; he squabbled with the maid over the temperature of the
hot water; he wandered into the garden to see if the flowers
were sprouting; he ventured down to the river-bank, where


he had built a summer-house ; he examined the woodwork of
the house. Had it warped? Had the settling split any of
the panels? Was the paint wearing well? Then he came in
to discuss his anxieties as to a sick hen, or some spot where
the damp had left stains, talking to his sister, who affected
hurry in laying the table while she scolded the maid. The
barometer was the most useful article in the house to Rogron ;
he consulted it for no reason, tapped it familiarly like a friend,
and then said, "Vile weather!" to which his sister would
reply, "Pooh, the weather is quite seasonable." If anybody
called, he would boast of the excellence of this instrument.

Their breakfast took up some little time. How slowly did
these two beings masticate each mouthful. And their diges-
tion was perfect : they had no cause to fear catarrh of the
stomach. By reading the Ruche and the Constiiutionncl they
got on to noon. They paid a third of the subscription to
the Paris paper with Vinet and Colonel Gouraud. Rogron
himself carried the paper to the colonel, who lived in the
square, lodging with Monsieur Martener; the soldier's long
stories were an immense delight to him. Rogron could only
wonder why the colonel was considered dangerous. He was
such an idiot as to speak to him of the ostracism under which
he lived, and retail the sayings of the "clique." God only
knows what the colonel who feared no one, and was as re-
doubtable with the pistol as with the sword had to say of
"la Tiphaine " and "her Julliard," of the ministerial offi-
cials of the upper town " men brought over by foreigners,
capable of anything to stick in their places, cooking the lists
of votes at the elections to suit themselves," and the like.

At about two o'clock Rogron sallied forth for a little walk.
He was quite happy when a storekeeper, standing at his door,
stopped him with a "How d'ye do, Pere Rogron?" He
gossiped, and asked, "What news in the town?" heard and
repeated scandal, or the tittle-tattle of Provins. He walked
to the upper town, or in the sunk roads, according to the


weather. Sometimes he met other old men airing themselves
in like manner. Such meetings were happy events in the
course of such a retired life.

There were at Provins certain men who were out of conceit
with the life of Paris, learned and modest men, living with
their books. Imagine Rogron's frame of mind when he lis-
tened to a supernumerary judge named Desfondrilles, more of an
archaeologist than a lawyer, saying to a man of education, old
Monsieur Martener, the doctor's father, as he pointed to the

" Will you tell me why the idlers of all Europe flock to
Spa rather than to Provins, when the waters of Provins are
acknowledged to be superior by the whole French faculty of
medicine, and to have effects and an energy worthy of the
medicinal properties of our roses?"

"What do you expect?" replied the man of the world,
" it is one of the caprices of caprice, and just as inexplicable.
The wines of Bordeaux were unknown a hundred years ago.
Marechal Richelieu, one of the grandest figures of the last
century, the Alcibiades of France, was made governor of
Guyenne. His chest was delicate the world knew why
the wine of the country strengthened and restored him to
health. Bordeaux at once made a hundred millions of francs
a year, and the Marshal extended the Bordeaux district as
far as Angoulgme and as far as Cahors ; in short, to forty
leagues in every direction ! Who knows where the vineyards
of Bordeaux end ? And there is no equestrian statue of the
Marshal at Bordeaux ! ' '

" Ah ! if such an event should take place at Provins in this
century or the next," Monsieur Desfondrilles went on, " I hope
that either on the little square in the lower town, or on the
castle, or somewhere in the upper town, some bas-relief would
be seen representing the head of Monsieur Opoix, the redis-
coverer of the mineral waters of Provins ! "

"But, my dear sir, it would perhaps be impossible to re ha-


bilitate Provins," said old Monsieur Martener. "The town
is bankrupt."

At this Rogron opened his eyes wide, and exclaimed

" Provins was formerly a capital which, in the twelfth
century, held its own as a rival to Paris, when the counts of
Champagne held their court here as King Rene held his in
Provence," replied the man of learning. "In those days
civilization, pleasure, poetry, elegance, women in short, all
the splendor of social life was not exclusively restricted to
Paris. Towns find it as hard as houses of business to rise
again from ruin. Nothing is left to Provins but the fragrance
of its historic past and that of its roses and a sous-pre-

" Oh ! to think what France might be if she still had all
her feudal capitals!" said Desfondrilles. "Can our sous-
prefets fill the place of the poetic, gallant, and warlike race
of Thibault, who made Provins what Ferrara was in Italy,
what Weimar was in Germany, and Munich would like to be
in our day?"

" Provins was a capital? " asked Rogron.

" Why, where have you dropped from? " said Desfondrilles
the archaeologist.

The lawyer struck the pavement of the upper town where
they were standing with his stick: "Do you not know," he
cried, " that all this part of Provins is built on crypts? "

" Crypts?"

"Yes, to be sure, crypts of unaccountable loftiness and
extent. They are like cathedral aisles, full of pillars."

"Monsieur Desfondrilles is writing a great antiquarian
work in which he intends to describe these singular struc-
tures," said old Martener, seeing the lawyer mount his

Rogron came home enchanted to think that his house stood
in this valley. The crypts of Provins kept him occupied for


five or six days in exploring them, and for several evenings
afforded a subject of conversation to the old couple. Thus
Rogron generally picked up something about old Provins,
about the intermarriages of the families, or some stale political
news which he retailed to his sister. And a hundred times
over in the course of his walk several times even of the
same person he would ask, " Well, what is the news ? What
has happened lately? " When he came in he threw himself
on a sofa in the drawing-room as if he were tired out, but
really he was only weary of his own weight.

He got on to dinner-time by going twenty times to and fro
between the drawing-room and the kitchen, looking at the
clock, opening and shutting doors. So long as the brother
and sister spent the evenings in other houses they got through
the hours till bedtime, but after they were reduced to staying
at home the evening was a desert to traverse. Sometimes
people on their way home, after spending the evening out, as
they crossed the little piazza, heard sounds in the Rogrons'
house as if the brother were murdering the sister ; they recog-
nized them as the terrific yawns of a haberdasher driven to
bay. The two machines had nothing to grind with their
rusty wheels, so they creaked.

The brother talked of marrying, but with a sense of despair.
He felt himself old and worn; a wife terrified him. Sylvie,
who understood the need for a third person in the house,
then remembered their poor cousin, for whom no one in
Provins had ever inquired, for everybody supposed that little
Madame Lorrain and her daughter were both dead. Sylvie
Rogron never lost anything ; she was too thoroughly an old
maid to mislay anything, whatever it might be. She affected
to have found the letter from the Lorrains so as to make it
natural that she should mention Pierrette to her brother, and
he was almost happy at the possibility of having a little girl
about the house. Sylvie wrote to the old Lorrains in a half-
business-like, half-affectionate tone, attributing the delay in


her answer to the winding up of their affairs, to their move
back to Provins, and settling there. She affected to be anx-
ious to have her little cousin with her, allowing it to be un-
derstood that if Monsieur Rogron should not marry, Pierrette
would some day inherit twelve thousand francs a year. It
would be needful to have been, like Nebuchadnezzar, to some
extent a wild beast, shut up in a cage in a beast-garden with
nothing to prey on but butcher's meat brought in by the
keeper, or else a retired tradesman with no shop-clerks to
nag, to imagine the impatience with which the brother and
sister awaited their cousin Lorrain. Three days after the
despatch of the letter they were already wondering when the
child would arrive.

Sylvie discerned in her so-called generosity to her penniless
cousin a means of changing the views of Provins society with
regard to herself. She called on Madame Tiphaine, who had
stricken them with her disapproval, and who aimed at creat-
ing an upper class at Provins, like that at Geneva, and blew
the trumpet to announce the advent of her cousin Pierrette,
the child of Colonel Lorrain, pitying her woes, and con-
gratulating herself as a lucky woman on having a pretty young
heiress to introduce in society.

"You have been a long time discovering her," remarked
Madame Tiphaine, who sat enthroned on a sofa by her fire-

Madame Garceland, in a few words spoken in an under-
tone during a deal, revived the story of the Auffray property.
The notary related the innkeeper's iniquities.

"Where is the poor little thing?" asked the president

"In Brittany," said Rogron.

" But Brittany is a wide word ! " remarked Monsieur Le-
sourd, the public prosecutor.

" Her grandfather and grandmother wrote to us. When
was it, my dear?" asked Rogron.


Sylvie, absorbed in asking Madame Garceland where she
had bought the stuff for her dress, did not foresee the effect
of her answer, and said, " Before we sold our business."

" And you answered three days ago, Mademoiselle Sylvie?"
exclaimed the notary.

Sylvie turned as red as the hottest coals in the fire.

"We wrote to the Institution of Saint- Jacques," replied

"There is a sort of asylum there for old people," said a
lawyer, who had been supernumerary judge at Nantes. " But
she cannot be there, for they only take in persons who are
past sixty."

" She is there with her grandmother Lorrain," said Rogron.

" She had a little money, the eight thousand francs left her
by your father no, I mean your grandfather," said the
notary, blundering intentionally.

"Indeed!" said Rogron, looking stupid, and not under-
standing this sarcasm.

" Then you knew nothing of your first cousin's fortune or
position ? " asked the president.

"If Monsieur Rogron had known it, he would not have
left her in a place which is no more than a respectable work-
house," said the judge severely. "I remember now that a
house belonging to Monsieur and Madame Lorrain was sold
at Nantes under an execution ; and Mademoiselle Lorrain lost
her claims, for I was the commissioner in charge."

The notary spoke of Colonel Lorrain, who, if he were
alive, would indeed be astonished to think of his child being
in an institution like that of Saint-Jacques. The Rogrons
presently withdrew, thinking the world very spiteful. Sylvie
perceived that her news had had no success ; she had ruined
herself in everybody's opinion ; henceforth she had no hope
of making her way in the higher society of Provins.

From that day the Rogrons no longer dissembled their
hatred of the great citizen-families of Provins, and of all


their adherents. The brother now repeated all the Liberal
fables which Lawyer Vinet and Colonel Gouraud had crammed
him with about the Tiphaines, the Guenees, the Garcelands,
the Guepins, and the Julliards.

"I tell you what, Sylvie, I don't see why Madame Tiph-
aine should turn a cold shoulder on the Rue Saint-Denis : the
best of her beauty was made there. Madame Roguin, her
mother, is a cousin of the Guillaumes of the Cat and Racket,
who gave over their business to their son-in-law Joseph Lebas.
Her father is that notary, that Roguin, who failed in 1819,
and ruined the Birotteaus. So Madame Tiphaine's money is
stolen wealth ; for what is a notary's wife who takes her own
settlement out of the fire and allows her husband to become a
fraudulent bankrupt ? A pretty thing indeed ! Ah ! I under-
stand ! She got her daughter married to live here at Provins
through her connection with the banker du Tillet. And
these people are proud ! Well ! However, that is what the
world is! "

On the day when Denis Rogron and his sister Sylvie thus
broke out in abuse of the clique, they had without knowing
it become persons of importance, and were on the high-road
to having some society ; their drawing-room was on the point
of becoming a centre of interests which only needed a stage.
The retired haberdasher assumed historical and political dig-
nity, for, still without knowing it, he gave strength and unity
to the hitherto unstable elements of the Liberal party at
Provins. And this was the way of it : The early career of the
Rogrons had been anxiously observed by Colonel Gouraud
and the advocate Vinet, who had been thrown together by
their isolation and their agreement of ideas. These two men

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 4 of 31)