Honore de Balzac
Etext prepared by Dagny, firstname.lastname@example.org
and John Bickers, email@example.com
by HONORE DE BALZAC
Clara Bell and others
To Madame la Princesse Cristina de Belgiojoso, nee Trivulzio.
To know how to sell, to be able to sell, and to sell. People generally
do not suspect how much of the stateliness of Paris is due to these
three aspects of the same problem. The brilliant display of shops as
rich as the salons of the noblesse before 1789; the splendors of cafes
which eclipse, and easily eclipse, the Versailles of our day; the
shop-window illusions, new every morning, nightly destroyed; the grace
and elegance of the young men that come in contact with fair
customers; the piquant faces and costumes of young damsels, who cannot
fail to attract the masculine customer; and (and this especially of
late) the length, the vast spaces, the Babylonish luxury of galleries
where shopkeepers acquire a monopoly of the trade in various articles
by bringing them all together,--all this is as nothing. Everything, so
far, has been done to appeal to a single sense, and that the most
exacting and jaded human faculty, a faculty developed ever since the
days of the Roman Empire, until, in our own times, thanks to the
efforts of the most fastidious civilization the world has yet seen,
its demands are grown limitless. That faculty resides in the "eyes of
Those eyes require illuminations costing a hundred thousand francs,
and many-colored glass palaces a couple of miles long and sixty feet
high; they must have a fairyland at some fourteen theatres every
night, and a succession of panoramas and exhibitions of the triumphs
of art; for them a whole world of suffering and pain, and a universe
of joy, must resolve through the boulevards or stray through the
streets of Paris; for them encyclopaedias of carnival frippery and a
score of illustrated books are brought out every year, to say nothing
of caricatures by the hundred, and vignettes, lithographs, and prints
by the thousand. To please those eyes, fifteen thousand francs' worth
of gas must blaze every night; and, to conclude, for their delectation
the great city yearly spends several millions of francs in opening up
views and planting trees. And even yet this is as nothing--it is only
the material side of the question; in truth, a mere trifle compared
with the expenditure of brain power on the shifts, worthy of Moliere,
invented by some sixty thousand assistants and forty thousand damsels
of the counter, who fasten upon the customer's purse, much as myriads
of Seine whitebait fall upon a chance crust floating down the river.
Gaudissart in the mart is at least the equal of his illustrious
namesake, now become the typical commercial traveler. Take him away
from his shop and his line of business, he is like a collapsed
balloon; only among his bales of merchandise do his faculties return,
much as an actor is sublime only upon the boards. A French shopman is
better educated than his fellows in other European countries; he can
at need talk asphalt, Bal Mabille, polkas, literature, illustrated
books, railways, politics, parliament, and revolution; transplant him,
take away his stage, his yardstick, his artificial graces; he is
foolish beyond belief; but on his own boards, on the tight-rope of the
counter, as he displays a shawl with a speech at his tongue's end, and
his eye on his customer, he puts the great Talleyrand into the shade;
he is a match for a Monrose and a Moliere to boot. Talleyrand in his
own house would have outwitted Gaudissart, but in the shop the parts
would have been reversed.
An incident will illustrate the paradox.
Two charming duchesses were chatting with the above-mentioned great
diplomatist. The ladies wished for a bracelet; they were waiting for
the arrival of a man from a great Parisian jeweler. A Gaudissart
accordingly appeared with three bracelets of marvelous workmanship.
The great ladies hesitated. Choice is a mental lightning flash;
hesitate--there is no more to be said, you are at fault. Inspiration
in matters of taste will not come twice. At last, after about ten
minutes the Prince was called in. He saw the two duchesses confronting
doubt with its thousand facets, unable to decide between the
transcendent merits of two of the trinkets, for the third had been set
aside at once. Without leaving his book, without a glance at the
bracelets, the Prince looked at the jeweler's assistant.
"Which would you choose for your sweetheart?" asked he.
The young man indicated one of the pair.
"In that case, take the other, you will make two women happy," said
the subtlest of modern diplomatists, "and make your sweetheart happy
too, in my name."
The two fair ladies smiled, and the young shopman took his departure,
delighted with the Prince's present and the implied compliment to his
A woman alights from her splendid carriage before one of the expensive
shops where shawls are sold in the Rue Vivienne. She is not alone;
women almost always go in pairs on these expeditions; always make the
round of half a score of shops before they make up their minds, and
laugh together in the intervals over the little comedies played for
their benefit. Let us see which of the two acts most in character--the
fair customer or the seller, and which has the best of it in such
If you attempt to describe a sale, the central fact of Parisian trade,
you are in duty bound, if you attempt to give the gist of the matter,
to produce a type, and for this purpose a shawl or a chatelaine
costing some three thousand francs is a more exacting purchase than a
length of lawn or dress that costs three hundred. But know, oh foreign
visitors from the Old World and the New (if ever this study of the
physiology of the Invoice should be by you perused), that this
selfsame comedy is played in haberdashers' shops over a barege at two
francs or a printed muslin at four francs the yard.
And you, princess, or simple citizen's wife, whichever you may be, how
should you distrust that good-looking, very young man, with those
frank, innocent eyes, and a cheek like a peach covered with down? He
is dressed almost as well as your--cousin, let us say. His tones are
soft as the woolen stuffs which he spreads before you. There are three
or four more of his like. One has dark eyes, a decided expression, and
an imperial manner of saying, "This is what you wish"; another, that
blue-eyed youth, diffident of manner and meek of speech, prompts the
remark, "Poor boy! he was not born for business"; a third, with light
auburn hair, and laughing tawny eyes, has all the lively humor, and
activity, and gaiety of the South; while the fourth, he of the tawny
red hair and fan-shaped beard, is rough as a communist, with his
portentous cravat, his sternness, his dignity, and curt speech.
These varieties of shopmen, corresponding to the principal types of
feminine customers, are arms, as it were, directed by the head, a
stout personage with a full-blown countenance, a partially bald
forehead, and a chest measure befitting a Ministerialist deputy.
Occasionally this person wears the ribbon of the Legion of Honor in
recognition of the manner in which he supports the dignity of the
French drapers' wand. From the comfortable curves of his figure you
can see that he has a wife and family, a country house, and an account
with the Bank of France. He descends like a deux ex machina, whenever
a tangled problem demands a swift solution. The feminine purchasers
are surrounded on all sides with urbanity, youth, pleasant manners,
smiles, and jests; the most seeming-simple human products of
civilization are here, all sorted in shades to suit all tastes.
Just one word as to the natural effects of architecture, optical
science, and house decoration; one short, decisive, terrible word, of
history made on the spot. The work which contains this instructive
page is sold at number 76 Rue de Richelieu, where above an elegant
shop, all white and gold and crimson velvet, there is an entresol into
which the light pours straight from the Rue de Menars, as into a
painter's studio--clean, clear, even daylight. What idler in the
streets has not beheld the Persian, that Asiatic potentate, ruffling
it above the door at the corner of the Rue de la Bourse and the Rue de
Richelieu, with a message to deliver urbi et orbi, "Here I reign more
tranquilly than at Lahore"? Perhaps but for this immortal analytical
study, archaeologists might begin to puzzle their heads about him five
hundred years hence, and set about writing quartos with plates (like
M. Quatremere's work on Olympian Jove) to prove that Napoleon was
something of a Sofi in the East before he became "Emperor of the
French." Well, the wealthy shop laid siege to the poor little
entresol; and after a bombardment with banknotes, entered and took
possession. The Human Comedy gave way before the comedy of cashmeres.
The Persian sacrificed a diamond or two from his crown to buy that so
necessary daylight; for a ray of sunlight shows the play of the
colors, brings out the charms of a shawl, and doubles its value; 'tis
an irresistible light; literally, a golden ray. From this fact you may
judge how far Paris shops are arranged with a view to effect.
But to return to the young assistants, to the beribboned man of forty
whom the King of the French receives at his table, to the red-bearded
head of the department with his autocrat's air. Week by week these
meritus Gaudissarts are brought in contact with whims past counting;
they know every vibration of the cashmere chord in the heart of woman.
No one, be she lady or lorette, a young mother of a family, a
respectable tradesman's wife, a woman of easy virtue, a duchess or a
brazen-fronted ballet-dancer, an innocent young girl or a too innocent
foreigner, can appear in the shop, but she is watched from the moment
when she first lays her fingers upon the door-handle. Her measure is
taken at a glance by seven or eight men that stand, in the windows, at
the counter, by the door, in a corner, in the middle of the shop,
meditating, to all appearance, on the joys of a bacchanalian Sunday
holiday. As you look at them, you ask yourself involuntarily, "What
can they be thinking about?" Well, in the space of one second, a
woman's purse, wishes, intentions, and whims are ransacked more
thoroughly than a traveling carriage at a frontier in an hour and
three-quarters. Nothing is lost on these intelligent rogues. As they
stand, solemn as noble fathers on the stage, they take in all the
details of a fair customer's dress; an invisible speck of mud on a
little shoe, an antiquated hat-brim, soiled or ill-judged bonnet-
strings, the fashion of the dress, the age of a pair of gloves. They
can tell whether the gown was cut by the intelligent scissors of a
Victorine IV.; they know a modish gewgaw or a trinket from Froment-
Meurice. Nothing, in short, which can reveal a woman's quality,
fortune, or character passes unremarked.
Tremble before them. Never was the Sanhedrim of Gaudissarts, with
their chief at their head, known to make a mistake. And, moreover,
they communicate their conclusions to one another with telegraphic
speed, in a glance, a smile, the movement of a muscle, a twitch of the
lip. If you watch them, you are reminded of the sudden outbreak of
light along the Champs-Elysees at dusk; one gas-jet does not succeed
another more swiftly than an idea flashes from one shopman's eyes to
At once, if the lady is English, the dark, mysterious, portentous
Gaudissart advances like a romantic character out of one of Byron's
If she is a city madam, the oldest is put forward. He brings out a
hundred shawls in fifteen minutes; he turns her head with colors and
patterns; every shawl that he shows her is like a circle described by
a kite wheeling round a hapless rabbit, till at the end of half an
hour, when her head is swimming and she is utterly incapable of making
a decision for herself, the good lady, meeting with a flattering
response to all her ideas, refers the question to the assistant, who
promptly leaves her on the horns of a dilemma between two equally
"This, madame, is very becoming--apple-green, the color of the season;
still, fashions change; while as for this other black-and-white shawl
(an opportunity not to be missed), you will never see the end of it,
and it will go with any dress."
This is the A B C of the trade.
"You would not believe how much eloquence is wanted in that beastly
line," the head Gaudissart of this particular establishment remarked
quite lately to two acquaintances (Duronceret and Bixiou) who had come
trusting in his judgment to buy a shawl. "Look here; you are artists
and discreet, I can tell you about the governor's tricks, and of all
the men I ever saw, he is the cleverest. I do not mean as a
manufacturer, there M. Fritot is first; but as a salesman. He
discovered the 'Selim shawl,' AN ABSOLUTELY UNSALABLE article, yet we
never bring it out but we sell it. We keep always a shawl worth five
or six hundred francs in a cedar-wood box, perfectly plain outside,
but lined with satin. It is one of the shawls that Selim sent to the
Emperor Napoleon. It is our Imperial Guard; it is brought to the front
whenever the day is almost lost; il se vend et ne meurt pas--it sells
its life dearly time after time."
As he spoke, an Englishwoman stepped from her jobbed carriage and
appeared in all the glory of that phlegmatic humor peculiar to Britain
and to all its products which make believe they are alive. The
apparition put you in mind of the Commandant's statue in Don Juan, it
walked along, jerkily by fits and starts, in an awkward fashion
invented in London, and cultivated in every family with patriotic
"An Englishwoman!" he continued for Bixiou's ear. "An Englishwoman is
our Waterloo. There are women who slip through our fingers like eels;
we catch them on the staircase. There are lorettes who chaff us, we
join in the laugh, we have a hold on them because we give credit.
There are sphinx-like foreign ladies; we take a quantity of shawls to
their houses, and arrive at an understanding by flattery; but an
Englishwoman!--you might as well attack the bronze statue of Louis
Quatorze! That sort of woman turns shopping into an occupation, an
amusement. She quizzes us, forsooth!"
The romantic assistant came to the front.
"Does madame wish for real Indian shawls or French, something
"I will see." (Je veraie.)
"How much would madame propose----"
"I will see."
The shopman went in quest of shawls to spread upon the mantle-stand,
giving his colleagues a significant glance. "What a bore!" he said
plainly, with an almost imperceptible shrug of the shoulders.
"These are our best quality in Indian red, blue, and pale orange--all
at ten thousand francs. Here are shawls at five thousand francs, and
others at three."
The Englishwoman took up her eyeglass and looked round the room with
gloomy indifference; then she submitted the three stands to the same
scrutiny, and made no sign.
"Have you any more?" (Havaivod'hote?) demanded she.
"Yes, madame. But perhaps madame has not quite decided to take a
"Oh, quite decided" (trei-deycidai).
The young man went in search of cheaper wares. These he spread out
solemnly as if they were things of price, saying by his manner, "Pay
attention to all this magnificence!"
"These are much more expensive," said he. "They have never been worn;
they have come by courier direct from the manufacturers at Lahore."
"Oh! I see," said she; "they are much more like the thing I want."
The shopman kept his countenance in spite of inward irritation, which
communicated itself to Duronceret and Bixiou. The Englishwoman, cool
as a cucumber, appeared to rejoice in her phlegmatic humor.
"What price?" she asked, indicating a sky-blue shawl covered with a
pattern of birds nestling in pagodas.
"Seven thousand francs."
She took it up, wrapped it about her shoulders, looked in the glass,
and handed it back again.
"No, I do not like it at all." (Je n'ame pouinte.)
A long quarter of an hour went by in trying on other shawls; to no
"This is all we have, madame," said the assistant, glancing at the
master as he spoke.
"Madame is fastidious, like all persons of taste," said the head of
the establishment, coming forward with that tradesman's suavity in
which pomposity is agreeably blended with subservience. The
Englishwoman took up her eyeglass and scanned the manufacturer from
head to foot, unwilling to understand that the man before her was
eligible for Parliament and dined at the Tuileries.
"I have only one shawl left," he continued, "but I never show it. It
is not to everybody's taste; it is quite out of the common. I was
thinking of giving it to my wife. We have had it in stock since 1805;
it belonged to the Empress Josephine."
"Let me see it, monsieur."
"Go for it," said the master, turning to a shopman. "It is at my
"I should be very much pleased to see it," said the English lady.
This was a triumph. The splenetic dame was apparently on the point of
going. She made as though she saw nothing but the shawls; but all the
while she furtively watched the shopmen and the two customers,
sheltering her eyes behind the rims of her eyeglasses.
"It cost sixty thousand francs in Turkey, madame."
"It is one of seven shawls which Selim sent, before his fall, to the
Emperor Napoleon. The Empress Josephine, a Creole, as you know, my
lady, and very capricious in her tastes, exchanged this one for
another brought by the Turkish ambassador, and purchased by my
predecessor; but I have never seen the money back. Our ladies in
France are not rich enough; it is not as it is in England. The shawl
is worth seven thousand francs; and taking interest and compound
interest altogether, it makes up fourteen or fifteen thousand by
"How does it make up?" asked the Englishwoman.
"Here it is, madame."
With precautions, which a custodian of the Dresden Grune Gewolbe might
have admired, he took out an infinitesimal key and opened a square
cedar-wood box. The Englishwoman was much impressed with its shape and
plainness. From that box, lined with black satin, he drew a shawl
worth about fifteen hundred francs, a black pattern on a golden-yellow
ground, of which the startling color was only surpassed by the
surprising efforts of the Indian imagination.
"Splendid," said the lady, in a mixture of French and English, "it is
really handsome. Just my ideal" (ideol) "of a shawl; it is very
magnificent." The rest was lost in a madonna's pose assumed for the
purpose of displaying a pair of frigid eyes which she believed to be
"It was a great favorite with the Emperor Napoleon; he took----"
"A great favorite," repeated she with her English accent. Then she
arranged the shawl about her shoulders and looked at herself in the
glass. The proprietor took it to the light, gathered it up in his
hands, smoothed it out, showed the gloss on it, played on it as Liszt
plays on the pianoforte keys.
"It is very fine; beautiful, sweet!" said the lady, as composedly as
Duronceret, Bixiou, and the shopmen exchanged amused glances. "The
shawl is sold," they thought.
"Well, madame?" inquired the proprietor, as the Englishwoman appeared
to be absorbed in meditations infinitely prolonged.
"Decidedly," said she; "I would rather have a carriage" (une voteure).
All the assistants, listening with silent rapt attention, started as
one man, as if an electric shock had gone through them.
"I have a very handsome one, madame," said the proprietor with
unshaken composure; "it belonged to a Russian princess, the Princess
Narzicof; she left it with me in payment for goods received. If madame
would like to see it, she would be astonished. It is new; it has not
been in use altogether for ten days; there is not its like in Paris."
The shopmen's amazement was suppressed by profound admiration.
"I am quite willing."
"If madame will keep the shawl," suggested the proprietor, "she can
try the effect in the carriage." And he went for his hat and gloves.
"How will this end?" asked the head assistant, as he watched his
employer offer an arm to the English lady and go down with her to the
By this time the thing had come to be as exciting as the last chapter
of a novel for Duronceret and Bixiou, even without the additional
interest attached to all contests, however trifling, between England
Twenty minutes later the proprietor returned.
"Go to the Hotel Lawson (here is the card, 'Mrs. Noswell'), and take
an invoice that I will give you. There are six thousand francs to
"How did you do it?" asked Duronceret, bowing before the king of
"Oh, I saw what she was, an eccentric woman that loves to be
conspicuous. As soon as she saw that every one stared at her, she
said, 'Keep your carriage, monsieur, my mind is made up; I will take
the shawl.' While M. Bigorneau (indicating the romantic-looking
assistant) was serving, I watched her carefully; she kept one eye on
you all the time to see what you thought of her; she was thinking more
about you than of the shawls. Englishwomen are peculiar in their
DISTASTE (for one cannot call it taste); they do not know what they
want; they make up their minds to be guided by circumstances at the
time, and not by their own choice. I saw the kind of woman at once,
tired of her husband, tired of her brats, regretfully virtuous,
craving excitement, always posing as a weeping willow. . . ."
These were his very words.
Which proves that in all other countries of the world a shopkeeper is
a shopkeeper; while in France, and in Paris more particularly, he is a
student from a College Royal, a well-read man with a taste for art, or
angling, or the theatre, and consumed, it may be, with a desire to be
M. Cunin-Gridaine's successor, or a colonel of the National Guard, or
a member of the General Council of the Seine, or a referee in the
"M. Adolphe," said the mistress of the establishment, addressing the
slight fair-haired assistant, "go to the joiner and order another
"And now," remarked the shopman who had assisted Duronceret and Bixiou
to choose a shawl for Mme. Schontz, "NOW we will go through our old
stock to find another Selim shawl."
PARIS, November 1844.
The following personages appear in other stories of the Human Comedy.
A Bachelor's Establishment
The Government Clerks
Scenes from a Courtesan's Life
The Firm of Nucingen
The Muse of the Department
The Member for Arcis
A Man of Business
The Unconscious Humorists
Ronceret, Fabien-Felicien du (or Duronceret)
Jealousies of a Country Town
Talleyrand-Perigord, Charles-Maurice de
The Gondreville Mystery
Letters of Two Brides
Letters of Two Brides
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