Honoré de Balzac.

The Two Brothers online

. (page 1 of 25)
Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe Two Brothers → online text (page 1 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Produced by John Bickers, and Dagny


By Honore De Balzac

Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley


To Monsieur Charles Nodier, member of the French Academy, etc.

Here, my dear Nodier, is a book filled with deeds that are screened from
the action of the laws by the closed doors of domestic life; but as
to which the finger of God, often called chance, supplies the place
of human justice, and in which the moral is none the less striking and
instructive because it is pointed by a scoffer.

To my mind, such deeds contain great lessons for the Family and for
Maternity. We shall some day realize, perhaps too late, the effects
produced by the diminution of paternal authority. That authority, which
formerly ceased only at the death of the father, was the sole human
tribunal before which domestic crimes could be arraigned; kings
themselves, on special occasions, took part in executing its judgments.
However good and tender a mother may be, she cannot fulfil the function
of the patriarchal royalty any more than a woman can take the place of
a king upon the throne. Perhaps I have never drawn a picture that shows
more plainly how essential to European society is the indissoluble
marriage bond, how fatal the results of feminine weakness, how great the
dangers arising from selfish interests when indulged without restraint.
May a society which is based solely on the power of wealth shudder as it
sees the impotence of the law in dealing with the workings of a system
which deifies success, and pardons every means of attaining it. May
it return to the Catholic religion, for the purification of its masses
through the inspiration of religious feeling, and by means of an
education other than that of a lay university.

In the "Scenes from Military Life" so many fine natures, so many high
and noble self-devotions will be set forth, that I may here be allowed
to point out the depraving effect of the necessities of war upon certain
minds who venture to act in domestic life as if upon the field of

You have cast a sagacious glance over the events of our own time; its
philosophy shines, in more than one bitter reflection, through your
elegant pages; you have appreciated, more clearly than other men,
the havoc wrought in the mind of our country by the existence of four
distinct political systems. I cannot, therefore, place this history
under the protection of a more competent authority. Your name may,
perhaps, defend my work against the criticisms that are certain to
follow it, - for where is the patient who keeps silence when the surgeon
lifts the dressing from his wound?

To the pleasure of dedicating this Scene to you, is joined the pride I
feel in thus making known your friendship for one who here subscribes

Your sincere admirer,

De Balzac
Paris, November, 1842.



In 1792 the townspeople of Issoudun enjoyed the services of a physician
named Rouget, whom they held to be a man of consummate malignity. Were
we to believe certain bold tongues, he made his wife extremely unhappy,
although she was the most beautiful woman of the neighborhood. Perhaps,
indeed, she was rather silly. But the prying of friends, the slander of
enemies, and the gossip of acquaintances, had never succeeded in laying
bare the interior of that household. Doctor Rouget was a man of whom we
say in common parlance, "He is not pleasant to deal with." Consequently,
during his lifetime, his townsmen kept silence about him and treated him
civilly. His wife, a demoiselle Descoings, feeble in health during her
girlhood (which was said to be a reason why the doctor married her),
gave birth to a son, and also to a daughter who arrived, unexpectedly,
ten years after her brother, and whose birth took the husband, doctor
though he were, by surprise. This late-comer was named Agathe.

These little facts are so simple, so commonplace, that a writer seems
scarcely justified in placing them in the fore-front of his history; yet
if they are not known, a man of Doctor Rouget's stamp would be thought
a monster, an unnatural father, when, in point of fact, he was only
following out the evil tendencies which many people shelter under
the terrible axiom that "men should have strength of character," - a
masculine phrase that has caused many a woman's misery.

The Descoings, father-in-law and mother-in-law of the doctor, were
commission merchants in the wool-trade, and did a double business by
selling for the producers and buying for the manufacturers of the golden
fleeces of Berry; thus pocketing a commission on both sides. In this way
they grew rich and miserly - the outcome of many such lives. Descoings
the son, younger brother of Madame Rouget, did not like Issoudun. He
went to seek his fortune in Paris, where he set up as a grocer in the
rue Saint-Honore. That step led to his ruin. But nothing could have
hindered it: a grocer is drawn to his business by an attracting force
quite equal to the repelling force which drives artists away from it.
We do not sufficiently study the social potentialities which make up
the various vocations of life. It would be interesting to know what
determines one man to be a stationer rather than a baker; since, in our
day, sons are not compelled to follow the calling of their fathers,
as they were among the Egyptians. In this instance, love decided the
vocation of Descoings. He said to himself, "I, too, will be a grocer!"
and in the same breath he said (also to himself) some other things
regarding his employer, - a beautiful creature, with whom he had fallen
desperately in love. Without other help than patience and the trifling
sum of money his father and mother sent him, he married the widow of his
predecessor, Monsieur Bixiou.

In 1792 Descoings was thought to be doing an excellent business. At that
time, the old Descoings were still living. They had retired from the
wool-trade, and were employing their capital in buying up the forfeited
estates, - another golden fleece! Their son-in-law Doctor Rouget, who,
about this time, felt pretty sure that he should soon have to mourn for
the death of his wife, sent his daughter to Paris to the care of his
brother-in-law, partly to let her see the capital, but still more to
carry out an artful scheme of his own. Descoings had no children. Madame
Descoings, twelve years older than her husband, was in good health,
but as fat as a thrush after harvest; and the canny Rouget knew enough
professionally to be certain that Monsieur and Madame Descoings,
contrary to the moral of fairy tales, would live happy ever after
without having any children. The pair might therefore become attached to

That young girl, the handsomest maiden in Issoudun, did not resemble
either father or mother. Her birth had caused a lasting breach between
Doctor Rouget and his intimate friend Monsieur Lousteau, a former
sub-delegate who had lately removed from the town. When a family
expatriates itself, the natives of a place as attractive as Issoudun
have a right to inquire into the reasons of so surprising a step. It was
said by certain sharp tongues that Doctor Rouget, a vindictive man, had
been heard to exclaim that Monsieur Lousteau should die by his hand.
Uttered by a physician, this declaration had the force of a cannon-ball.
When the National Assembly suppressed the sub-delegates, Lousteau
and his family left Issoudun, and never returned there. After their
departure Madame Rouget spent most of her time with the sister of the
late sub-delegate, Madame Hochon, who was the godmother of her daughter,
and the only person to whom she confided her griefs. The little that the
good town of Issoudun ever really knew of the beautiful Madame Rouget
was told by Madame Hochon, - though not until after the doctor's death.

The first words of Madame Rouget, when informed by her husband that
he meant to send Agathe to Paris, were: "I shall never see my daughter

"And she was right," said the worthy Madame Hochon.

After this, the poor mother grew as yellow as a quince, and her
appearance did not contradict the tongues of those who declared that
Doctor Rouget was killing her by inches. The behavior of her booby of a
son must have added to the misery of the poor woman so unjustly accused.
Not restrained, possibly encouraged by his father, the young fellow, who
was in every way stupid, paid her neither the attentions nor the respect
which a son owes to a mother. Jean-Jacques Rouget was like his father,
especially on the latter's worst side; and the doctor at his best was
far from satisfactory, either morally or physically.

The arrival of the charming Agathe Rouget did not bring happiness to her
uncle Descoings; for in the same week (or rather, we should say decade,
for the Republic had then been proclaimed) he was imprisoned on a
hint from Robespierre given to Fouquier-Tinville. Descoings, who was
imprudent enough to think the famine fictitious, had the additional
folly, under the impression that opinions were free, to express that
opinion to several of his male and female customers as he served them
in the grocery. The citoyenne Duplay, wife of a cabinet-maker with whom
Robespierre lodged, and who looked after the affairs of that eminent
citizen, patronized, unfortunately, the Descoings establishment. She
considered the opinions of the grocer insulting to Maximilian the First.
Already displeased with the manners of Descoings, this illustrious
"tricoteuse" of the Jacobin club regarded the beauty of his wife as a
kind of aristocracy. She infused a venom of her own into the grocer's
remarks when she repeated them to her good and gentle master, and
the poor man was speedily arrested on the well-worn charge of

No sooner was he put in prison, than his wife set to work to obtain his
release. But the steps she took were so ill-judged that any one hearing
her talk to the arbiters of his fate might have thought that she was in
reality seeking to get rid of him. Madame Descoings knew Bridau, one
of the secretaries of Roland, then minister of the interior, - the
right-hand man of all the ministers who succeeded each other in
that office. She put Bridau on the war-path to save her grocer. That
incorruptible official - one of the virtuous dupes who are always
admirably disinterested - was careful not to corrupt the men on whom
the fate of the poor grocer depended; on the contrary, he endeavored to
enlighten them. Enlighten people in those days! As well might he have
begged them to bring back the Bourbons. The Girondist minister, who was
then contending against Robespierre, said to his secretary, "Why do you
meddle in the matter?" and all others to whom the worthy Bridau appealed
made the same atrocious reply: "Why do you meddle?" Bridau then sagely
advised Madame Descoings to keep quiet and await events. But instead of
conciliating Robespierre's housekeeper, she fretted and fumed against
that informer, and even complained to a member of the Convention,
who, trembling for himself, replied hastily, "I will speak of it to
Robespierre." The handsome petitioner put faith in this promise, which
the other carefully forgot. A few loaves of sugar, or a bottle or two of
good liqueur, given to the citoyenne Duplay would have saved Descoings.

This little mishap proves that in revolutionary times it is quite
as dangerous to employ honest men as scoundrels; we should rely on
ourselves alone. Descoings perished; but he had the glory of going to
the scaffold with Andre Chenier. There, no doubt, grocery and poetry
embraced for the first time in the flesh; although they have, and ever
have had, intimate secret relations. The death of Descoings produced far
more sensation than that of Andre Chenier. It has taken thirty years to
prove to France that she lost more by the death of Chenier than by that
of Descoings.

This act of Robespierre led to one good result: the terrified grocers
let politics alone until 1830. Descoings's shop was not a hundred yards
from Robespierre's lodging. His successor was scarcely more fortunate
than himself. Cesar Birotteau, the celebrated perfumer of the "Queen
of Roses," bought the premises; but, as if the scaffold had left some
inexplicable contagion behind it, the inventor of the "Paste of Sultans"
and the "Carminative Balm" came to his ruin in that very shop. The
solution of the problem here suggested belongs to the realm of occult

During the visits which Roland's secretary paid to the unfortunate
Madame Descoings, he was struck with the cold, calm, innocent beauty
of Agathe Rouget. While consoling the widow, who, however, was too
inconsolable to carry on the business of her second deceased husband, he
married the charming girl, with the consent of her father, who hastened
to give his approval to the match. Doctor Rouget, delighted to hear that
matters were going beyond his expectations, - for his wife, on the death
of her brother, had become sole heiress of the Descoings, - rushed to
Paris, not so much to be present at the wedding as to see that the
marriage contract was drawn to suit him. The ardent and disinterested
love of citizen Bridau gave carte blanche to the perfidious doctor, who
made the most of his son-in-law's blindness, as the following history
will show.

Madame Rouget, or, to speak more correctly, the doctor, inherited all
the property, landed and personal, of Monsieur and Madame Descoings the
elder, who died within two years of each other; and soon after that,
Rouget got the better, as we may say, of his wife, for she died at the
beginning of the year 1799. So he had vineyards and he bought farms, he
owned iron-works and he sold fleeces. His well-beloved son was stupidly
incapable of doing anything; but the father destined him for the state
in life of a land proprietor and allowed him to grow up in wealth and
silliness, certain that the lad would know as much as the wisest if he
simply let himself live and die. After 1799, the cipherers of Issoudun
put, at the very least, thirty thousand francs' income to the doctor's
credit. From the time of his wife's death he led a debauched life,
though he regulated it, so to speak, and kept it within the closed doors
of his own house. This man, endowed with "strength of character," died
in 1805, and God only knows what the townspeople of Issoudun said about
him then, and how many anecdotes they related of his horrible private
life. Jean-Jacques Rouget, whom his father, recognizing his stupidity,
had latterly treated with severity, remained a bachelor for certain
reasons, the explanation of which will form an important part of this
history. His celibacy was partly his father's fault, as we shall see

Meantime, it is well to inquire into the results of the secret vengeance
the doctor took on a daughter whom he did not recognize as his own, but
who, you must understand at once, was legitimately his. Not a person in
Issoudun had noticed one of those capricious facts that make the whole
subject of generation a vast abyss in which science flounders. Agathe
bore a strong likeness to the mother of Doctor Rouget. Just as gout
is said to skip a generation and pass from grandfather to grandson,
resemblances not uncommonly follow the same course.

In like manner, the eldest of Agathe's children, who physically
resembled his mother, had the moral qualities of his grandfather, Doctor
Rouget. We will leave the solution of this problem to the twentieth
century, with a fine collection of microscopic animalculae; our
descendants may perhaps write as much nonsense as the scientific schools
of the nineteenth century have uttered on this mysterious and perplexing

Agathe Rouget attracted the admiration of everyone by a face destined,
like that of Mary, the mother of our Lord, to continue ever virgin, even
after marriage. Her portrait, still to be seen in the atelier of Bridau,
shows a perfect oval and a clear whiteness of complexion, without the
faintest tinge of color, in spite of her golden hair. More than one
artist, looking at the pure brow, the discreet, composed mouth, the
delicate nose, the small ears, the long lashes, and the dark-blue eyes
filled with tenderness, - in short, at the whole countenance expressive
of placidity, - has asked the great artist, "Is that a copy of a
Raphael?" No man ever acted under a truer inspiration than the
minister's secretary when he married this young girl. Agathe was an
embodiment of the ideal housekeeper brought up in the provinces and
never parted from her mother. Pious, though far from sanctimonious, she
had no other education than that given to women by the Church. Judged,
by ordinary standards, she was an accomplished wife, yet her ignorance
of life paved the way for great misfortunes. The epitaph on the Roman
matron, "She did needlework and kept the house," gives a faithful
picture of her simple, pure, and tranquil existence.

Under the Consulate, Bridau attached himself fanatically to Napoleon,
who placed him at the head of a department in the ministry of the
interior in 1804, a year before the death of Doctor Rouget. With a
salary of twelve thousand francs and very handsome emoluments, Bridau
was quite indifferent to the scandalous settlement of the property at
Issoudun, by which Agathe was deprived of her rightful inheritance. Six
months before Doctor Rouget's death he had sold one-half of his property
to his son, to whom the other half was bequeathed as a gift, and also in
accordance with his rights as heir. An advance of fifty thousand
francs on her inheritance, made to Agathe at the time of her marriage,
represented her share of the property of her father and mother.

Bridau idolized the Emperor, and served him with the devotion of a
Mohammedan for his prophet; striving to carry out the vast conceptions
of the modern demi-god, who, finding the whole fabric of France
destroyed, went to work to reconstruct everything. The new official
never showed fatigue, never cried "Enough." Projects, reports, notes,
studies, he accepted all, even the hardest labors, happy in the
consciousness of aiding his Emperor. He loved him as a man, he adored
him as a sovereign, and he would never allow the least criticism of his
acts or his purposes.

From 1804 to 1808, the Bridaus lived in a handsome suite of rooms on the
Quai Voltaire, a few steps from the ministry of the interior and close
to the Tuileries. A cook and footman were the only servants of the
household during this period of Madame Bridau's grandeur. Agathe, early
afoot, went to market with her cook. While the latter did the rooms, she
prepared the breakfast. Bridau never went to the ministry before
eleven o'clock. As long as their union lasted, his wife took the same
unwearying pleasure in preparing for him an exquisite breakfast, the
only meal he really enjoyed. At all seasons and in all weathers, Agathe
watched her husband from the window as he walked toward his office, and
never drew in her head until she had seen him turn the corner of the rue
du Bac. Then she cleared the breakfast-table herself, gave an eye to the
arrangement of the rooms, dressed for the day, played with her children
and took them to walk, or received the visits of friends; all the
while waiting in spirit for Bridau's return. If her husband brought him
important business that had to be attended to, she would station herself
close to the writing-table in his study, silent as a statue, knitting
while he wrote, sitting up as late as he did, and going to bed only a
few moments before him. Occasionally, the pair went to some theatre,
occupying one of the ministerial boxes. On those days, they dined at
a restaurant, and the gay scenes of that establishment never ceased to
give Madame Bridau the same lively pleasure they afford to provincials
who are new to Paris. Agathe, who was obliged to accept the formal
dinners sometimes given to the head of a department in a ministry, paid
due attention to the luxurious requirements of the then mode of dress,
but she took off the rich apparel with delight when she returned home,
and resumed the simple garb of a provincial. One day in the week,
Thursday, Bridau received his friends, and he also gave a grand ball,
annually, on Shrove Tuesday.

These few words contain the whole history of their conjugal life, which
had but three events; the births of two children, born three years
apart, and the death of Bridau, who died in 1808, killed by overwork
at the very moment when the Emperor was about to appoint him
director-general, count, and councillor of state. At this period of
his reign, Napoleon was particularly absorbed in the affairs of the
interior; he overwhelmed Bridau with work, and finally wrecked the
health of that dauntless bureaucrat. The Emperor, of whom Bridau had
never asked a favor, made inquiries into his habits and fortune. Finding
that this devoted servant literally had nothing but his situation,
Napoleon recognized him as one of the incorruptible natures which raised
the character of his government and gave moral weight to it, and he
wished to surprise him by the gift of some distinguished reward. But the
effort to complete a certain work, involving immense labor, before
the departure of the Emperor for Spain caused the death of the devoted
servant, who was seized with an inflammatory fever. When the Emperor,
who remained in Paris for a few days after his return to prepare for the
campaign of 1809, was told of Bridau's death he said: "There are men
who can never be replaced." Struck by the spectacle of a devotion which
could receive none of the brilliant recognitions that reward a soldier,
the Emperor resolved to create an order to requite civil services, just
as he had already created the Legion of honor to reward the military.
The impression he received from the death of Bridau led him to plan
the order of the Reunion. He had not time, however, to mature this
aristocratic scheme, the recollection of which is now so completely
effaced that many of my readers may ask what were its insignia: the
order was worn with a blue ribbon. The Emperor called it the Reunion,
under the idea of uniting the order of the Golden Fleece of Spain with
the order of the Golden Fleece of Austria. "Providence," said a Prussian
diplomatist, "took care to frustrate the profanation."

After Bridau's death the Emperor inquired into the circumstances of his
widow. Her two sons each received a scholarship in the Imperial Lyceum,
and the Emperor paid the whole costs of their education from his
privy purse. He gave Madame Bridau a pension of four thousand francs,
intending, no doubt, to advance the fortune of her sons in future years.

From the time of her marriage to the death of her husband, Agathe had
held no communication with Issoudun. She lost her mother just as she was
on the point of giving birth to her youngest son, and when her father,
who, as she well knew, loved her little, died, the coronation of the
Emperor was at hand, and that event gave Bridau so much additional work
that she was unwilling to leave him. Her brother, Jean-Jacques Rouget,
had not written to her since she left Issoudun. Though grieved by the
tacit repudiation of her family, Agathe had come to think seldom of
those who never thought of her. Once a year she received a letter from
her godmother, Madame Hochon, to whom she replied with commonplaces,
paying no heed to the advice which that pious and excellent woman gave
to her, disguised in cautious words.

Some time before the death of Doctor Rouget, Madame Hochon had written
to her goddaughter warning her that she would get nothing from her
father's estate unless she gave a power of attorney to Monsieur Hochon.
Agathe was very reluctant to harass her brother. Whether it were that
Bridau thought the spoliation of his wife in accordance with the laws
and customs of Berry, or that, high-minded as he was, he shared the
magnanimity of his wife, certain it is that he would not listen to
Roguin, his notary, who advised him to take advantage of his ministerial
position to contest the deeds by which the father had deprived the
daughter of her legitimate inheritance. Husband and wife thus tacitly
sanctioned what was done at Issoudun. Nevertheless, Roguin had forced
Bridau to reflect upon the future interests of his wife which were thus
compromised. He saw that if he died before her, Agathe would be left
without property, and this led him to look into his own affairs. He

Online LibraryHonoré de BalzacThe Two Brothers → online text (page 1 of 25)