Honoré de Balzac.

The celibates and other stories online

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marriage has its risks. In confiding their ideas to each other
to secure mutual approbation, Celeste Habert, on a hint from
the vindictive abbe, had enlightened Sylvie as to the possibil-
ities of the position. The colonel, a violent man, with the
health of a soldier, a burly bachelor of forty-five, would no
doubt act on the moral of all fairy tales : they lived happy,
and had many children. This form of happiness alarmed
Sylvie; she was afraid of dying a fear which tortures
unmarried women to the utmost.

But the Martignac ministry was now established the
second victory which upset the Villele administration. Vi-
net's party held their head high in Provins. Vinet, now the
leading advocate of La Brie, carried all before him, to use a
colloquialism. Vinet was a personage ; the Liberals prophe-
sied his advancement ; he would certainly be a deputy or
public prosecutor. As to the colonel, he would be mayor of
Provins. Oh ! to reign as Madame Garceland reigned, to be
the mayoress ! Sylvie could not resist this hope ; she deter-
mined to consult a doctor, though it might cover her with
ridicule. The two women, one triumphant, and the other
sure of having her in leading-strings, invented one of those
stratagems which women advised by a priest are so clever in
planning. To consult Monsieur Neraud, the Liberal physi-
cian, Monsieur Martener's rival, would be a blunder. Celeste
Habert proposed to Sylvie to hide her in a dressing-closet
while she, Mademoiselle Habert, consulted Monsieur Mar-
tener, who attended the school, on her own account. Whether
he were Celeste's accomplice or not, Martener told his client


that there was some, though very little, danger for a woman
of thirty. "But with your constitution," he added, "you
have nothing to fear."

"And if a woman is past forty?" asked Mademoiselle
Celeste Habert.

" A woman of forty who has been married and had children
need fear nothing."

" But an unmarried woman, perfectly well conducted for
example, Mademoiselle Rogron?"

" Well conducted ! There can be no doubt," said Mon-
sieur Martener. " In such a case the safe birth of a child is
a miracle which God certainly works sometimes, but rarely."

"And why? " asked Celeste Habert.

Whereupon the doctor replied in a terrific pathological
description, explaining that the elasticity bestowed by nature
on the muscles and joints in youth ceased to exist at a certain
age, particularly in women whose occupations had made them
sedentary for some years, like Mademoiselle Rogron.

"And so, after forty, no respectable woman ought to
marry? "

"Or she should wait," replied the doctor. "But then it
is hardly a marriage ; it is a partnership. What else could it

In short, it was proved by this consultation, clearly, scien-
tifically, seriously, and rationally, that after the age of forty
a virtuous maiden should not rush into matrimony.

When Monsieur Martener had left, Mademoiselle Celeste
Habert found Mademoiselle Rogron green and yellow, her
eyes dilated in fact, in a frightful state.

"Then you truly love the colonel?" said she.

" I still hoped," said the old maid.

"Well, then, wait," said Mademoiselle Habert, who knew
that time would be avenged on the colonel.

The morality of this marriage was also doubtful. Sylvie
went to sound her conscience in the confessional. The stern


director expounded the views of the church, which regards
marriage only as a means of propagating the race, reprobates
second marriages, and scorns passions that have no social aim.
Sylvie Rogron's perplexity was great. These mental struggles
gave strange force to her passion, and lent it the unaccount-
able charm which forbidden joys have always had for women
since the time of Eve.

Mademoiselle Rogron's disturbed state could not escape the
lawyer's keen eye. One evening, after cards, Vinet went up
to his dear friend Sylvie, took her hand, and led her to sit
down with him on one of the sofas.

" Something ails you," he said in her ear.

She gloomily bent her head. The pleader let Rogron leave
the room, sat alone with the old maid, and got her to make a
clean breast of it.

" Well played, abbe 1 But you have played my game for
me," he said to himself after hearing of all the private consul-
tations Sylvie had held, of which the last was the most alarm-

This sly legal fox was even more terrible in his explanations
than the doctor had been ; he advised the marriage, but only
ten years hence for greater safety. The lawyer vowed that all
the Rogron fortune should be Bathilde's. He rubbed his
hands and his very face grew sharper as he ran after Madame
and Mademoiselle de Chargeboeuf, whom he had left to start
homewards with their servant armed with a lantern.

The influence exerted by Monsieur Habert, the physician
of the soul, was entirely counteracted by Vinet, the physician
of the purse. Rogron was by no means devout, so the man
of the church and the man of the law, the two black gowns,
pulled him opposite ways. When he heard of the victory
carried off by Mademoiselle Habert, who hoped to marry
Rogron, over Sylvie, hanging between the fear of death and
the joy of becoming a baroness, Vinet perceived the possi-
bility of removing the colonel from the scene of battle. He


knew Rogron well enough to find some means of making him
marry the fair Bathilde. Rogron had not been able to resist
the blandishments of Mademoiselle de Chargeboeuf; Vinet
knew that the first time Rogron should be alone with Bathilde
and himself their engagement would be settled. Rogron had
come to the point of staring at Mademoiselle Habert, so shy
was he of looking at Bathilde.

Vinet had just seen how much Sylvie was in love with the
colonel. He understood the depth of such a passion in an
old maid, no less eaten up by bigotry, and he soon hit on a
plan for ruining at one blow both Pierrette and the colonel,
getting rid of one by means of the other.

Next morning, on coming out of court, he met the colonel
and Rogron walking together, their daily habit.

When these three men were seen together, their conjunc-
tion always made the town talk. This triumvirate, held in
horror by the sous-prefet, the bench, and the Tiphaine parti-
sans, made a triad of which the Liberals of Provins were
proud. Vinet edited the Courrier single-handed \ he was the
head of the party ; the colonel, the responsible manager of
the paper, was its arm; Rogron, with his money, formed the
sinews ; he was considered as the link between the managing
committee at Provins and the managing committee in Paris.
To hear the Tiphaines, these three men were always plotting
something against the government, while the Liberals admired
them as defenders of the people. When the lawyer saw Ro-
gron returning to the square, brought homewards by the din-
ner-hour, he took the colonel's arm and hindered him from
accompanying the ex-haberdasher.

"Look here, colonel," said he, " I am going to take a great
weight off your shoulders. You can do better than marry
Sylvie ; if you go to work the right way, in two years' time
you may marry little Pierrette Lorrain."

And he told him the results of the Jesuit's skillful manoeu-
vring in the interest of his sister Celeste.


"What a clever stroke and reaching so far!" said the

"Colonel," said Vinet gravely, "Pierrette is a charming
creature ; you may be happy for the rest of your days. You
have such splendid health, that such a match would not, for
you, have the usual drawbacks of an ill-assorted marriage ;
still, do not imagine that this exchange of a terrible life for
a pleasant one will be easy to effect. To convert your lady-
love into your confidante is a manoeuvre as dangerous as,
in your profession, it is to cross a river under the enemy's
fire. Keen as you are as a cavalry officer, you must study the
position, and carry out your tactics with the superior skill
which has won us our present position. If I should one day
be public prosecutor, you may command the department.
Ah ! if only you had a vote, we should be farther on our
way. I might have bought the votes of those two officials by
indemnifying them for the loss of their places, and we should
have had a majority. I should be sitting by Dupin, Casimir
Perier, and "

The colonel had for some time past been thinking of Pier-
rette, but he hid the thought with deep dissimulation ; his
roughness to Pierrette was only on the surface. The child could
not imagine why the man who called himself her father's old
comrade treated her so ill, when, if he met her alone, he put
his hand under her chin and gave her a fatherly caress. Ever
since Vinet had confided to him Mademoiselle Sylvie's terror
of marriage, Gouraud had sought opportunities of seeing
Pierrette alone, and then the rough officer was as mild as a
cat ; he would tell her how brave her father was, and say
what a misfortune for her his death had been.

A few days before Brigaut's arrival, Sylvie had found Gou-
raud and Pierrette together. Jealousy had then entered into
her soul with monastic vehemence. Jealousy, which is above
all passions credulous and suspicious, is also that in which
fancy has most power ; but it does not lend wit, it takes if


away ; and in Sylvie jealousy gave birth to very strange ideas.
She conceived that the man who had sung the words " Mis-
tress Bride "to Pierrette must be the colonel; and Sylvie
thought she had reason to ascribe this serenade to the colonel,
because during the last week Gouraud's manner seemed to
have undergone a change. This soldier was the only man
who, in the solitude in which she had lived, had ever troubled
himself about her ; hence she watched him with all her eyes,
all her understanding; and by dint of indulging in hopes
alternately flourishing and blighted, she had given them so
much scope that they produced the effect on her of a moral
mirage. To use a fine but vulgar expression, by dint of
looking she often saw nothing. By turns she rejected and
struggled victoriously against the notion of this chimerical
rivalry. She instituted comparisons between herself and
Pierrette ; she was forty and her hair was gray ; Pierrette was
a deliciously white little girl, with eyes tender enough to
bring warmth to a dead heart. She had heard it said that
men of fifty were fond of little girls like Pierrette.

Before the colonel had sown his wild oats and frequented
the Rogrons 1 drawing-room, Sylvie had heard at the Tiph-
aines' parties strange reports of Gouraud and his doings.
Old maids in love have the exaggerated Platonic notions
which girls of twenty are apt to profess ; they have never lost
the hard-and-fast ideas which cling to all who have no expe-
rience of life, nor learned how social forces modify, erode,
and coerce such fine and lofty notions. To Sylvie the idea
of being deceived by her colonel was a thought that hammered
at her brain.

So from the hour, that morning, which every celibate
spends in bed between waking and rising, the old maid had
thought of nothing but herself and Pierrette, and the song
which had roused her by the words, " Mistress Bride." Like
a simpleton, instead of peeping at the lover through the
Venetian shutters, she had opened her window, without


reflecting that Pierrette would hear her. If she had but had
the common wit of a spy, she would have seen Brigaut, and
the fateful drama then begun would not have taken place.

Pierrette, weak as she was, removed the wooden bars
which fastened the kitchen shutters, opened the shutters, and
hooked them back, then she opened the passage door leading
into the garden. She took the various brooms needed for
sweeping the carpet, the dining-room floor, the passage, the
stairs, in short, for cleaning everything with such care and
exactitude as no servant, not even a Dutch one, would give to
her work ; she hated the least reproof. To her, happiness
consisted in seeing Sylvie's little blue eyes, colorless and cold,
with a look not indeed of satisfaction, that they never wore
only calm when she had examined everything with the
owner's eye, the inscrutable glance which sees what escapes
the keenest observer.

By the time Pierrette returned to the kitchen her skin was
moist ; then she put everything in order, lighted the stove so
as to have live charcoal, made the fire in her cousins' rooms,
and put hot water for their toilet, though she had none for
hers. She laid the table for breakfast and lighted the dining-
room stove. For all these various tasks she had to go to the
cellar to fetch brushwood, leaving a cool place to go to a hot
one, or a hot place to go into the cold and damp. These
sudden changes, made with the reckless haste of youth, merely
to avoid a hard word, or to obey some order, aggravated the
state of her health beyond remedy. Pierrette did not know
that she was ill. Still she felt the beginnings of sufferings ;
she had strange longings, and hid them ; a passion for raw
salad, which she devoured in secret. The innocent child had
no idea that this state meant serious disease, and needed the
greatest care. Before Brigaut's arrival, if Neraud, who might
accuse himself of her grandmother's death, had revealed this
mortal peril to the little girl, she would have smiled ; she
found life too bitter not to smile at death. But within these


last few minutes, she, who added to her physical ailments the
Breton home-sickness a moral sickness so well known, that
colonels of regiments reckon on it in the Bretons who serve
in their regiments she loved Provins. The sight of that
gold-colored flower, that song, the presence of the friend of
her childhood, had revived her as a plant long deprived of
water recovers after hours of rain. She wanted to live ; she
did not believe that she had suffered !

She timidly stole into Sylvie's room, lighted the fire, left
the hot-water pot, spoke a few words, went to awake her
guardian, and then ran downstairs to take in the milk, the
bread, and the other provisions supplied by the tradesmen.
She stood for some time on the doorstep, hoping that Brigaut
would have the wit to return ; but Brigaut was already on the
road to Paris. She had dusted the drawing-room and was
busy in the kitchen, when she heard her cousin Sylvie com-
ing downstairs. Mademoiselle Rogron made her appearance
in a Carmelite-gray silk dressing-gown ; on her head a tulle
cap decorated with bows, her false curls put on askew, her
nightdress showing above the wrapper, her feet slipshod in her
slippers. She inspected everything, and came to her little
cousin, who was waiting to know what they would have for

"So there you are, Miss Ladylove ! " said Sylvie to Pier-
rette, in a half-merry, half-mocking tone.

" I beg your pardon, cousin ? "

" You crept into my room like a sneak and out again in the
same way; but you must have known that I should have
something to say to you."


" You have had a serenade this morning like a princess,
neither more nor less."

" A serenade? " exclaimed Pierrette.

"A serenade!" echoed Sylvie, mimicking her. "And
you have a lover."


" Cousin, what do you mean by a lover?" Sylvie evaded
the question, and said

" Do you dare to say, mademoiselle, that a man did not
come under our windows and talk to you of marriage ? "

Persecution had taught Pierrette the cunning indispens-
able to slaves ; she boldly replied, " I do not know what you
mean ' '

" Dog " added the old maid, in vinegar tones.

" Cousin," said Pierrette humbly.

" And you did not get up, I suppose, and did not go bare-
foot to your window? Enough to give you some bad illness.
Well, catch it, and serve you right ! And I suppose you did
not talk to your lover ? "

" No, cousin."

" I knew you had a great many faults, but I did not know
you told lies. Think of what you are about, mademoiselle.
You will have to tell your cousin Denis and me all about the
scene of this morning, and explain it, too; otherwise your
guardian will have to take strong measures."

The old maid, devoured by jealousy and curiosity, was
trying intimidation. Pierrette did as all people must who
are enduring beyond their strength she kept silent. Silence
is to all creatures thus attacked the only means of salvation ;
it fatigues the Cossack charges of the envious, the enemy's
savage rushes ; it results in a crushing and complete victory.
What is more complete than silence ? It is final. Is it not
one of the modes of the Infinite ?

Sylvie looked stealthily at Pierrette. The child colored ;
but instead of flushing all over, the red lay in patches on her
cheeks, in burning spots of symptomatic hue. On seeing
these signals of ill-health, a mother would at once have
changed her note ; she would have taken the child on her
knee, have questioned her, have acquired long since a thou-
sand proofs of Pierrette's perfect and beautiful innocence,
have suspected her weakness, and understood that the blood


and humors diverted from their course were thrown back on
the lungs after disturbing the digestive functions. Those
eloquent scarlet patches would have warned her of imminent
and mortal danger. But an old maid to whom the feelings
that guard the family, the needs of childhood, the care re-
quired in early womanhood were all unknown could have
none of the indulgence and the pity that are inspired by the
thousand incidents of married and maternal life. The suffer-
ings of misery, instead of softening her heart, had made it

"She blushes she has done wrong!" thought Sylvie.
So Pierrette's silence received the worst construction.

"Pierrette," said she, "before your cousin Denis comes
down we will have a little talk. Come," she went on in a
milder tone. " Shut the door to the street. If any one
comes, they will ring ; we shall hear. ' '

In spite of the damp fog rising from the river, Sylvie led
Pierrette along the graveled path that zigzagged between the
grass-plots, to the edge of the terrace built in a so-called
picturesque style of broken rock-work planted with flags and
other water-plants. The old cousin now changed her tactics ;
she would try to catch Pierrette by gentleness. The hyena
would play the cat.

"Pierrette," said she, "you are no longer a child; you
will soon set foot in your fifteenth year, and it would not be
at all astonishing if you had a lover."

" But, cousin," said Pierrette, raising her eyes of angelic
sweetness to her cousin's cold, sour face, for Sylvie had put
on her saleswoman expression, " what is a lover? "

It was impossible to Sylvie to define to her brother's ward
with accuracy and decency what she meant by a lover ; instead
of regarding the question as the result of adorable innocence,
she treated it as mendacious.

" A lover, Pierrette, is a man who loves you and wishes to
marry you."


"Ah!" said Pierrette. "In Brittany when two persons
are agreed, we call the young man a suitor."

"Well, understand that there is not the smallest harm in
confessing your feeling for a man, my child. The harm is
in secrecy. Have you, do you think, taken the fancy of any
man who comes here ? "

"I do not think so."

" You do not love one of them ? "

"No one."

" Quite sure?"

" Quite sure."

" Look me in the face, Pierrette."

Pierrette looked at her cousin.

" And yet a man spoke to you from the square this morn-

Pierrette looked down.

"You went to your window, you opened it, and spoke to

" No, cousin ; I wanted to see what the weather was like,
and I saw a countryman on the square."

" Pierrette, since your first communion you have improved
greatly, you are obedient and pious, you love your relations
and God ; I am pleased with you, but I have never told you
so for fear of inflaming your pride."

The horrible woman mistook the dejection, the submission,
the silence of wretchedness for virtues ! One of the sweetest
things that brings comfort to the sufferer, to martyrs, to artists,
in the midst of the Divine wrath roused in them by envy and
hatred, is to meet with praise from some quarter whence they
have always had blame and bad faith. So Pierrette looked up
at her cousin with attentive eyes, and felt ready to forgive her
all the pain she had caused her.

" But if it is all mere hypocrisy, if I am to find in you a
serpent I have cherished in my bosom, you would be an in-
famous, a horrible creature ! "


" I do not think I have anything to blame myself for,"
said Pierrette, feeling a dreadful pang at her heart on this
sudden transition from unexpected praise to the terrible accent
of the hyena.

" You know that lying is a mortal sin ? "

"Yes, cousin."

" Well, then, you stand before God ! " said the old maid,
pointing with a solemn gesture to the gardens and the sky.
" Swear to me that you do not know that countryman."

" I will not swear," said Pierrette.

" Ah ! he was not a countryman ! Little viper ! "

Pierrette fled across the garden like a startled fawn, appalled
by this moral dilemma. Her cousin called to her in an awful

" The bell," she replied.

" What a sly little wretch ! " said Sylvie to herself. " She
has a perverse nature, and I am sure now that the little ser-
pent has twisted herself round the colonel. She has heard us
say that he is a baron. A baroness, indeed ! Little fool !
Oh ! I will be rid of her by placing her as an apprentice, and
pretty soon too ! "

Sylvie was so lost in thought that she did not see her brother
coming down the walk and contemplating the mischief done
by the frost to his dahlias.

"Well, Sylvie, what are you thinking about there? I
thought you were looking at the fishes ; sometimes they jump
out of the water."

"No," said she.

" Well, how did you sleep ? " and he proceeded to tell her
his dreams of the past night. " Do you not think that my
face looks patchy?" a favorite word with the Rogrcns. Since
Rogron had loved nay, we will not profane the word had
desired Mademoiselle de Chargeboeuf, he had been very anx-
ious about his appearance and himself.

At this moment Pierrette came down the steps and called


to them that breakfast was ready. On seeing her little cousin,
Sylvie's complexion turned green and yellow ; all her bile
rose. She examined the passage, and said that Pierrette
ought to have polished it with foot-brushes.

" I will polish it if you wish," replied the angel, not know-
ing how injurious this form of labor is to a young girl.

The dining-room was above blame. Sylvie sat down, and
all through breakfast affected to want things that she never
would have thought of in a calmer frame of mind, seeking for
them simply to make Pierrette rise to fetch them, and always
just as the poor child was beginning to eat. But mere nag-
ging was not enough ; she sought some subject for fault-find-
ing, and fumed with internal rage at finding none. If they
had been eating eggs, she would certainly have complained
of the boiling of hers. She hardly replied to her brother's
silly talk, and yet she looked only at him ; her eyes avoided
Pierrette, who was keenly aware of this behavior.

Pierrette brought in the coffee for her cousins in a large
silver cup, which served to heat the milk in, mixed with
cream, in a saucepan of hot water. The brother and sister
then added, to their taste, the black coffee which was made
by Sylvie. When she had carefully prepared this dainty,
Sylvie detected in it a faint cloud of coffee dust; she carefully
skimmed it off the tawny mixture and looked at it, leaning
over to examine it more minutely. Then the storm burst.

"What is the matter? " asked Rogron.

" The matter ! Miss, here, has put ashes in my coffee.
Ashes in coffee are so nice ! Well, well ! It is not astonish-
ing ; no one can do two things at once. Much she was
thinking of the coffee ! A blackbird might have flown
through the kitchen, and she would not have heeded it this
morning ! How should she see the ashes flying ? And then
only her cousin's ! Much she cares about it ! "

She went on in this way, while she elaborately laid on the
edge of her plate some fine coffee that had passed through


the filter, mixed with some grains of sugar that had not

" But, cousin, that is coffee," said Pierrette.

"So I am a liar now?" exclaimed Sylvie, looking at Pier-
rette, and scorching her by a fearful flash that her eyes could
dart when she was angry.

These temperaments, which passion has never exhausted,
have at command a great supply of the vital fluid. This

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe celibates and other stories → online text (page 8 of 31)