Honore de Balzac
Part 1 out of 3
Etext prepared by John Bickers, email@example.com
and Dagny, firstname.lastname@example.org
by HONORE DE BALZAC
Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley
To Mademoiselle Anna Hanska:
Dear Child,--You, the joy of the household, you, whose pink or
white pelerine flutters in summer among the groves of
Wierzschovnia like a will-o'-the-wisp, followed by the tender eyes
of your father and your mother,--how can I dedicate to /you/ a
story full of melancholy? And yet, ought not sorrows to be spoken
of to a young girl idolized as you are, since the day may come
when your sweet hands will be called to minister to them? It is so
difficult, Anna, to find in the history of our manners and morals
a subject that is worthy of your eyes, that no choice has been
left me; but perhaps you will be made to feel how fortunate your
fate is when you read the story sent to you by
Your old friend,
At the dawn of an October day in 1827 a young fellow about sixteen
years of age, whose clothing proclaimed what modern phraseology so
insolently calls a proletary, was standing in a small square of Lower
Provins. At that early hour he could examine without being observed
the various houses surrounding the open space, which was oblong in
form. The mills along the river were already working; the whirr of
their wheels, repeated by the echoes of the Upper Town in the keen air
and sparkling clearness of the early morning, only intensified the
general silence so that the wheels of a diligence could be heard a
league away along the highroad. The two longest sides of the square,
separated by an avenue of lindens, were built in the simple style
which expresses so well the peaceful and matter-of-fact life of the
bourgeoisie. No signs of commerce were to be seen; on the other hand,
the luxurious porte-cocheres of the rich were few, and those few
turned seldom on their hinges, excepting that of Monsieur Martener, a
physician, whose profession obliged him to keep a cabriolet, and to
use it. A few of the house-fronts were covered by grape vines, others
by roses climbing to the second-story windows, through which they
wafted the fragrance of their scattered bunches. One end of the square
enters the main street of the Lower Town, the gardens of which reach
to the bank of one of the two rivers which water the valley of
Provins. The other end of the square enters a street which runs
parallel to the main street.
At the latter, which was also the quietest end of the square, the
young workman recognized the house of which he was in search, which
showed a front of white stone grooved in lines to represent courses,
windows with closed gray blinds, and slender iron balconies decorated
with rosettes painted yellow. Above the ground floor and the first
floor were three dormer windows projecting from a slate roof; on the
peak of the central one was a new weather-vane. This modern innovation
represented a hunter in the attitude of shooting a hare. The front
door was reached by three stone steps. On one side of this door a
leaden pipe discharged the sink-water into a small street-gutter,
showing the whereabouts of the kitchen. On the other side were two
windows, carefully closed by gray shutters in which were heart-shaped
openings cut to admit the light; these windows seemed to be those of
the dining-room. In the elevation gained by the three steps were vent-
holes to the cellar, closed by painted iron shutters fantastically cut
in open-work. Everything was new. In this repaired and restored house,
the fresh-colored look of which contrasted with the time-worn
exteriors of all the other houses, an observer would instantly
perceive the paltry taste and perfect self-satisfaction of the retired
The young man looked at these details with an expression of pleasure
that seemed to have something rather sad in it; his eyes roved from
the kitchen to the roof, with a motion that showed a deliberate
purpose. The rosy glow of the rising sun fell on a calico curtain at
one of the garret windows, the others being without that luxury. As he
caught sight of it the young fellow's face brightened gaily. He
stepped back a little way, leaned against a linden, and sang, in the
drawling tone peculiar to the west of France, the following Breton
ditty, published by Bruguiere, a composer to whom we are indebted for
many charming melodies. In Brittany, the young villagers sing this
song to all newly-married couples on their wedding-day:--
"We've come to wish you happiness in marriage,
To m'sieur your husband
As well as to you:
"You have just been bound, madam' la mariee,
With bonds of gold
That only death unbinds:
"You will go no more to balls or gay assemblies;
You must stay at home
While we shall go.
"Have you thought well how you are pledged to be
True to your spouse,
And love him like yourself?
"Receive these flowers our hands do now present you;
Alas! your fleeting honors
Will fade as they."
This native air (as sweet as that adapted by Chateaubriand to /Ma
soeur, te souvient-il encore/), sung in this little town of the Brie
district, must have been to the ears of a Breton maiden the touchstone
of imperious memories, so faithfully does it picture the manners and
customs, the surroundings and the heartiness of her noble old land,
where a sort of melancholy reigns, hardly to be defined; caused,
perhaps, by the aspect of life in Brittany, which is deeply touching.
This power of awakening a world of grave and sweet and tender memories
by a familiar and sometimes lively ditty, is the privilege of those
popular songs which are the superstitions of music,--if we may use the
word "superstition" as signifying all that remains after the ruin of a
people, all that survives their revolutions.
As he finished the first couple, the singer, who never took his eyes
from the attic curtain, saw no signs of life. While he sang the
second, the curtain stirred. When the words "Receive these flowers"
were sung, a youthful face appeared; a white hand cautiously opened
the casement, and a girl made a sign with her head to the singer as he
ended with the melancholy thought of the simple verses,--"Alas! your
fleeting honors will fade as they."
To her the young workman suddenly showed, drawing it from within his
jacket, a yellow flower, very common in Brittany, and sometimes to be
found in La Brie (where, however, it is rare),--the furze, or broom.
"Is it really you, Brigaut?" said the girl, in a low voice.
"Yes, Pierrette, yes. I am in Paris. I have started to make my way;
but I'm ready to settle here, near you."
Just then the fastening of a window creaked in a room on the first
floor, directly below Pierrette's attic. The girl showed the utmost
terror, and said to Brigaut, quickly:--
The lad jumped like a frightened frog to a bend in the street caused
by the projection of a mill just where the square opens into the main
thoroughfare; but in spite of his agility his hob-nailed shoes echoed
on the stones with a sound easily distinguished from the music of the
mill, and no doubt heard by the person who opened the window.
That person was a woman. No man would have torn himself from the
comfort of a morning nap to listen to a minstrel in a jacket; none but
a maid awakes to songs of love. Not only was this woman a maid, but
she was an old maid. When she had opened her blinds with the furtive
motion of the bat, she looked in all directions, but saw nothing, and
only heard, faintly, the flying footfalls of the lad. Can there be
anything more dreadful than the matutinal apparition of an ugly old
maid at her window? Of all the grotesque sights which amuse the eyes
of travellers in country towns, that is the most unpleasant. It is too
repulsive to laugh at. This particular old maid, whose ear was so
keen, was denuded of all the adventitious aids, of whatever kind,
which she employed as embellishments; her false front and her
collarette were lacking; she wore that horrible little bag of black
silk on which old women insist on covering their skulls, and it was
now revealed beneath the night-cap which had been pushed aside in
sleep. This rumpled condition gave a menacing expression to the head,
such as painters bestow on witches. The temples, ears, and nape of the
neck, were disclosed in all their withered horror,--the wrinkles being
marked in scarlet lines that contrasted with the would-be white of the
bed-gown which was tied round her neck by a narrow tape. The gaping of
this garment revealed a breast to be likened only to that of an old
peasant woman who cares nothing about her personal ugliness. The
fleshless arm was like a stick on which a bit of stuff was hung. Seen
at her window, this spinster seemed tall from the length and
angularity of her face, which recalled the exaggerated proportions of
certain Swiss heads. The character of their countenance--the features
being marked by a total want of harmony--was that of hardness in the
lines, sharpness in the tones; while an unfeeling spirit, pervading
all, would have filled a physiognomist with disgust. These
characteristics, fully visible at this moment, were usually modified
in public by a sort of commercial smile,--a bourgeois smirk which
mimicked good-humor; so that persons meeting with this old maid might
very well take her for a kindly woman. She owned the house on shares
with her brother. The brother, by-the-bye, was sleeping so tranquilly
in his own chamber that the orchestra of the Opera-house could not
have awakened him, wonderful as its diapason is said to be.
The old maid stretched her neck out of the window, twisted it, and
raised her cold, pale-blue little eyes, with their short lashes set in
lids that were always rather swollen, to the attic window, endeavoring
to see Pierrette. Perceiving the uselessness of that attempt, she
retreated into her room with a movement like that of a tortoise which
draws in its head after protruding it from its carapace. The blinds
were then closed, and the silence of the street was unbroken except by
peasants coming in from the country, or very early persons moving
When there is an old maid in a house, watch-dogs are unnecessary; not
the slightest event can occur that she does not see and comment upon
and pursue to its utmost consequences. The foregoing trifling
circumstance was therefore destined to give rise to grave
suppositions, and to open the way for one of those obscure dramas
which take place in families, and are none the less terrible because
they are secret,--if, indeed, we may apply the word "drama" to such
Pierrette did not go back to bed. To her, Brigaut's arrival was an
immense event. During the night--that Eden of the wretched--she
escaped the vexations and fault-findings she bore during the day. Like
the hero of a ballad, German or Russian, I forget which, her sleep
seemed to her the happy life; her waking hours a bad dream. She had
just had her only pleasurable waking in three years. The memories of
her childhood had sung their melodious ditties in her soul. The first
couplet was heard in a dream; the second made her spring out of bed;
at the third, she doubted her ears,--the sorrowful are all disciples
of Saint Thomas; but when the fourth was sung, standing in her night-
gown with bare feet by the window, she recognized Brigaut, the
companion of her childhood. Ah, yes! it was truly the well-known
square jacket with the bobtails, the pockets of which stuck out at the
hips,--the jacket of blue cloth which is classic in Brittany; there,
too, were the waistcoat of printed cotton, the linen shirt fastened by
a gold heart, the large rolling collar, the earrings, the stout shoes,
the trousers of blue-gray drilling unevenly colored by the various
lengths of the warp,--in short, all those humble, strong, and durable
things which make the apparel of the Breton peasantry. The big buttons
of white horn which fastened the jacket made the girl's heart beat.
When she saw the bunch of broom her eyes filled with tears; then a
dreadful fear drove back into her heart the happy memories that were
budding there. She thought her cousin sleeping in the room beneath her
might have heard the noise she made in jumping out of bed and running
to the window. The fear was just; the old maid was coming, and she
made Brigaut the terrified sign which the lad obeyed without the least
understanding it. Such instinctive submission to a girl's bidding
shows one of those innocent and absolute affections which appear from
century to century on this earth, where they blossom, like the aloes
of Isola Bella, twice or thrice in a hundred years. Whoever had seen
the lad as he ran away would have loved the ingenuous chivalry of his
most ingenuous feeling.
Jacques Brigaut was worthy of Pierrette Lorrain, who was just fifteen.
Two children! Pierrette could not keep from crying as she watched his
flight in the terror her gesture had conveyed to him. Then she sat
down in a shabby armchair placed before a little table above which
hung a mirror. She rested her elbows on the table, put her head in her
hands, and sat thinking for an hour, calling to memory the Marais, the
village of Pen-Hoel, the perilous voyages on a pond in a boat untied
for her from an old willow by little Jacques; then the old faces of
her grandfather and grandmother, the sufferings of her mother, and the
handsome face of Major Brigaut,--in short, the whole of her careless
childhood. It was all a dream, a luminous joy on the gloomy background
of the present.
Her beautiful chestnut hair escaped in disorder from her cap, rumpled
in sleep,--a cambric cap with ruffles, which she had made herself. On
each side of her forehead were little ringlets escaping from gray
curl-papers. From the back of her head hung a heavy braid of hair that
was half unplaited. The excessive whiteness of her face betrayed that
terrible malady of girlhood which goes by the name of chlorosis,
deprives the body of its natural colors, destroys the appetite, and
shows a disordered state of the organism. The waxy tones were in all
the visible parts of her flesh. The neck and shoulders explained by
their blanched paleness the wasted arms, flung forward and crossed
upon the table. Her feet seemed enervated, shrunken from illness. Her
night-gown came only to her knees and showed the flaccid muscles, the
blue veins, the impoverished flesh of the legs. The cold, to which she
paid no heed, turned her lips violet, and a sad smile, drawing up the
corners of a sensitive mouth, showed teeth that were white as ivory
and quite small,--pretty, transparent teeth, in keeping with the
delicate ears, the rather sharp but dainty nose, and the general
outline of her face, which, in spite of its roundness, was lovely. All
the animation of this charming face was in the eyes, the iris of
which, brown like Spanish tobacco and flecked with black, shone with
golden reflections round pupils that were brilliant and intense.
Pierrette was made to be gay, but she was sad. Her lost gaiety was
still to be seen in the vivacious forms of the eye, in the ingenuous
grace of her brow, in the smooth curve of her chin. The long eyelashes
lay upon the cheek-bones, made prominent by suffering. The paleness of
her face, which was unnaturally white, made the lines and all the
details infinitely pure. The ear alone was a little masterpiece of
modelling,--in marble, you might say. Pierrette suffered in many ways.
Perhaps you would like to know her history, and this is it.
Pierrette's mother was a Demoiselle Auffray of Provins, half-sister by
the father's side of Madame Rogron, mother of the present owners of
Monsieur Auffray, her husband, had married at the age of eighteen; his
second marriage took place when he was nearly sixty-nine. By the
first, he had an only daughter, very plain, who was married at sixteen
to an innkeeper of Provins named Rogron.
By his second marriage the worthy Auffray had another daughter; but
this one was charming. There was, of course, an enormous difference in
the ages of these daughters; the one by the first marriage was fifty
years old when the second child was born. By this time the eldest,
Madame Rogron, had two grown-up children.
The youngest daughter of the old man was married at eighteen to a man
of her choice, a Breton officer named Lorrain, captain in the Imperial
Guard. Love often makes a man ambitious. The captain, anxious to rise
to a colonelcy, exchanged into a line regiment. While he, then a
major, and his wife enjoyed themselves in Paris on the allowance made
to them by Monsieur and Madame Auffray, or scoured Germany at the beck
and call of the Emperor's battles and truces, old Auffray himself
(formerly a grocer) died, at the age of eighty-eight, without having
found time to make a will. His property was administered by his
daughter, Madame Rogron, and her husband so completely in their own
interests that nothing remained for the old man's widow beyond the
house she lived in on the little square, and a few acres of land. This
widow, the mother of Madame Lorrain, was only thirty-eight at the time
of her husband's death. Like many widows, she came to the unwise
decision of remarrying. She sold the house and land to her step-
daughter, Madame Rogron, and married a young physician named Neraud,
who wasted her whole fortune. She died of grief and misery two years
Thus the share of her father's property which ought to have come to
Madame Lorrain disappeared almost entirely, being reduced to the small
sum of eight thousand francs. Major Lorrain was killed at the battle
of Montereau, leaving his wife, then twenty-one years of age, with a
little daughter of fourteen months, and no other means than the
pension to which she was entitled and an eventual inheritance from her
late husband's parents, Monsieur and Madame Lorrain, retail
shopkeepers at Pen-Hoel, a village in the Vendee, situated in that
part of it which is called the Marais. These Lorrains, grandfather and
grandmother of Pierrette Lorrain, sold wood for building purposes,
slates, tiles, pantiles, pipes, etc. Their business, either from their
own incapacity or through ill-luck, did badly, and gave them scarcely
enough to live on. The failure of the well-known firm of Collinet at
Nantes, caused by the events of 1814 which led to a sudden fall in
colonial products, deprived them of twenty-four thousand francs which
they had just deposited with that house.
The arrival of their daughter-in-law was therefore welcome to them.
Her pension of eight hundred francs was a handsome income at Pen-Hoel.
The eight thousand francs which the widow's half-brother and sister
Rogron sent to her from her father's estate (after a multitude of
legal formalities) were placed by her in the Lorrains' business, they
giving her a mortgage on a little house which they owned at Nantes,
let for three hundred francs, and barely worth ten thousand.
Madame Lorrain the younger, Pierrette's mother, died in 1819. The
child of old Auffray and his young wife was small, delicate, and
weakly; the damp climate of the Marais did not agree with her. But her
husband's family persuaded her, in order to keep her with them, that
in no other quarter of the world could she find a more healthy region.
She was so petted and tenderly cared for that her death, when it came,
brought nothing but honor to the old Lorrains.
Some persons declared that Brigaut, an old Vendeen, one of those men
of iron who served under Charette, under Mercier, under the Marquis de
Montauran, and the Baron du Guenic, in the wars against the Republic,
counted for a good deal in the willingness of the younger Madame
Lorrain to remain in the Marais. If it were so, his soul must have
been a truly loving and devoted one. All Pen-Hoel saw him--he was
called respectfully Major Brigaut, the grade he had held in the
Catholic army--spending his days and his evenings in the Lorrains'
parlor, beside the window of the imperial major. Toward the last, the
curate of Pen-Hoel made certain representations to old Madame Lorrain,
begging her to persuade her daughter-in-law to marry Brigaut, and
promising to have the major appointed justice of peace for the canton
of Pen-Hoel, through the influence of the Vicomte de Kergarouet. The
death of the poor young woman put an end to the matter.
Pierrette was left in charge of her grandparents who owed her four
hundred francs a year, interest on the little property placed in their
hands. This small sum was now applied to her maintenance. The old
people, who were growing less and less fit for business, soon found
themselves confronted by an active and capable competitor, against
whom they said hard things, all the while doing nothing to defeat him.
Major Brigaut, their friend and adviser, died six months after his
friend, the younger Madame Lorrain,--perhaps of grief, perhaps of his
wounds, of which he had received twenty-seven.
Like a sound merchant, the competitor set about ruining his
adversaries in order to get rid of all rivalry. With his connivance,
the Lorrains borrowed money on notes, which they were unable to meet,
and which drove them in their old days into bankruptcy. Pierrette's
claim upon the house in Nantes was superseded by the legal rights of
her grandmother, who enforced them to secure the daily bread of her
poor husband. The house was sold for nine thousand five hundred
francs, of which one thousand five hundred went for costs. The
remaining eight thousand came to Madame Lorain, who lived upon the
income of them in a sort of almshouse at Nantes, like that of Sainte-
Perine in Paris, called Saint-Jacques, where the two old people had
bed and board for a humble payment.
As it was impossible to keep Pierrette, their ruined little
granddaughter, with them, the old Lorrains bethought themselves of her
uncle and aunt Rogron, in Provins, to whom they wrote. These Rogrons
were dead. The letter might, therefore, have easily been lost; but if
anything here below can take the place of Providence, it is the post.
Postal spirit, incomparably above public spirit, exceeds in brilliancy
of resource and invention the ablest romance-writers. When the post
gets hold of a letter, worth, to it, from three to ten sous, and does
not immediately know where to find the person to whom that letter is
addressed, it displays a financial anxiety only to be met with in very
pertinacious creditors. The post goes and comes and ferrets through
all the eighty-six departments. Difficulties only arouse the genius of
the clerks, who may really be called men-of-letters, and who set about
to search for that unknown human being with as much ardor as the
mathematicians of the Bureau give to longitudes. They literally
ransack the whole kingdom. At the first ray of hope all the post-
offices in Paris are alert. Sometimes the receiver of a missing letter
is amazed at the network of scrawled directions which covers both back
and front of the missive,--glorious vouchers for the administrative
persistency with which the post has been at work. If a man undertook
what the post accomplishes, he would lose ten thousand francs in
travel, time, and money, to recover ten sous. The letter of the old
Lorrains, addressed to Monsieur Rogron of Provins (who had then been
dead a year) was conveyed by the post in due time to Monsieur Rogron,
son of the deceased, a mercer in the rue Saint-Denis in Paris. And
this is where the postal spirit obtains its greatest triumph. An heir
is always more or less anxious to know if he has picked up every scrap
of his inheritance, if he has not overlooked a credit, or a trunk of
old clothes. The Treasury knows that. A letter addressed to the late
Rogron at Provins was certain to pique the curiosity of Rogron, Jr.,
or Mademoiselle Rogron, the heirs in Paris. Out of that human interest
the Treasury was able to earn sixty centimes.
These Rogrons, toward whom the old Lorrains, though dreading to part
with their dear little granddaughter, stretched their supplicating
hands, became, in this way, and most unexpectedly, the masters of
Pierrette's destiny. It is therefore indispensable to explain both
their antecedents and their character.
Pere Rogron, that innkeeper of Provins to whom old Auffray had married
his daughter by his first wife, was an individual with an inflamed
face, a veiny nose, and cheeks on which Bacchus had drawn his scarlet
and bulbous vine-marks. Though short, fat, and pot-bellied, with stout
legs and thick hands, he was gifted with the shrewdness of the Swiss
innkeepers, whom he resembled. Certainly he was not handsome, and his
wife looked like him. Never was a couple better matched. Rogron liked
good living and to be waited upon by pretty girls. He belonged to the
class of egoists whose behavior is brutal; he gave way to his vices
and did their will openly in the face of Israel. Grasping, selfish,
without decency, and always gratifying his own fancies, he devoured
his earnings until the day when his teeth failed him. Selfishness
stayed by him. In his old days he sold his inn, collected (as we have
seen) all he could of his late father-in-law's property, and went to
live in the little house in the square of Provins, bought for a trifle
from the widow of old Auffray, Pierrette's grandmother.
Rogron and his wife had about two thousand francs a year from twenty-
seven lots of land in the neighborhood of Provins, and from the sale
of their inn for twenty thousand. Old Auffray's house, though out of
repair, was inhabited just as it was by the Rogrons,--old rats like
wrack and ruin. Rogron himself took to horticulture and spent his
savings in enlarging the garden; he carried it to the river's edge
between two walls and built a sort of stone embankment across the end,
where aquatic nature, left to herself, displayed the charms of her
In the early years of their marriage the Rogrons had a son and a
daughter, both hideous; for such human beings degenerate. Put out to
nurse at a low price, these luckless children came home in due time,
after the worst of village training,--allowed to cry for hours after
their wet-nurse, who worked in the fields, leaving them shut up to
scream for her in one of those damp, dark, low rooms which serve as
homes for the French peasantry. Treated thus, the features of the
children coarsened; their voices grew harsh; they mortified their
mother's vanity, and that made her strive to correct their bad habits
by a sternness which the severity of their father converted through
comparison to kindness. As a general thing, they were left to run
loose about the stables and courtyards of the inn, or the streets of
the town; sometimes they were whipped; sometimes they were sent, to
get rid of them, to their grandfather Auffray, who did not like them.
The injustice the Rogrons declared the old man did to their children,
justified them to their own minds in taking the greater part of "the
old scoundrel's" property. However, Rogron did send his son to school,
and did buy him a man, one of his own cartmen, to save him from the
conscription. As soon as his daughter, Sylvie, was thirteen, he sent
her to Paris, to make her way as apprentice in a shop. Two years later
he despatched his son, Jerome-Denis, to the same career. When his
friends the carriers and those who frequented the inn, asked him what
he meant to do with his children, Pere Rogron explained his system
with a conciseness which, in view of that of most fathers, had the
merit of frankness.
"When they are old enough to understand me I shall give 'em a kick and
say: 'Go and make your own way in the world!'" he replied, emptying
his glass and wiping his lips with the back of his hand. Then he
winked at his questioner with a knowing look. "Hey! hey! they are no
greater fools than I was," he added. "My father gave me three kicks; I
shall only give them one; he put one louis into my hand; I shall put
ten in theirs, therefore they'll be better off than I was. That's the
way to do. After I'm gone, what's left will be theirs. The notaries
can find them and give it to them. What nonsense to bother one's self
about children. Mine owe me their life. I've fed them, and I don't ask
anything from them,--I call that quits, hey, neighbor? I began as a
cartman, but that didn't prevent me marrying the daughter of that old
Sylvie Rogron was sent (with six hundred francs for her board) as
apprentice to certain shopkeepers originally from Provins and now
settled in Paris in the rue Saint-Denis. Two years later she was "at
par," as they say; she earned her own living; at any rate her parents
paid nothing for her. That is what is called being "at par" in the rue
Saint-Denis. Sylvie had a salary of four hundred francs. At nineteen
years of age she was independent. At twenty, she was the second
demoiselle in the Maison Julliard, wholesale silk dealers at the
"Chinese Worm" rue Saint-Denis. The history of the sister was that of
the brother. Young Jerome-Denis Rogron entered the establishment of
one of the largest wholesale mercers in the same street, the Maison
Guepin, at the "Three Distaffs." When Sylvie Rogron, aged twenty-one,
had risen to be forewoman at a thousand francs a year Jerome-Denis,
with even better luck, was head-clerk at eighteen, with a salary of
twelve hundred francs.
Brother and sister met on Sundays and fete-days, which they passed in
economical amusements; they dined out of Paris, and went to Saint-
Cloud, Meudon, Belleville, or Vincennes. Towards the close of the year
1815 they clubbed their savings, amounting to about twenty thousand
francs, earned by the sweat of their brows, and bought of Madame
Guenee the property and good-will of her celebrated shop, the "Family
Sister," one of the largest retail establishments in the quarter.
Sylvie kept the books and did the writing. Jerome-Denis was master and
head-clerk both. In 1821, after five years' experience, competition
became so fierce that it was all the brother and sister could do to
carry on the business and maintain its reputation.
Though Sylvie was at this time scarcely forty, her natural ugliness,
combined with hard work and a certain crabbed look (caused as much by
the conformation of her features as by her cares), made her seem like
a woman of fifty. At thirty-eight Jerome Rogron presented to the eyes
of his customers the silliest face that ever looked over a counter.
His retreating forehead, flattened by fatigue, was marked by three
long wrinkles. His grizzled hair, cut close, expressed in some
indefinable way the stupidity of a cold-blooded animal. The glance of
his bluish eyes had neither flame nor thought in it. His round, flat
face excited no sympathy, nor even a laugh on the lips of those who
might be examining the varieties of the Parisian species; on the
contrary, it saddened them. He was, like his father, short and fat,
but his figure lacked the latter's brutal obesity, and showed,
instead, an almost ridiculous debility. His father's high color was
changed in him to the livid flabbiness peculiar to persons who live in
close back-shops, or in those railed cages called counting-rooms,
forever tying up bundles, receiving and making change, snarling at the
clerks, and repeating the same old speeches to customers.
The small amount of brains possessed by the brother and sister had
been wholly absorbed in maintaining their business, in getting and
keeping money, and in learning the special laws and usages of the
Parisian market. Thread, needles, ribbons, pins, buttons, tailors'
furnishings, in short, the enormous quantity of things which go to
make up a mercer's stock, had taken all their capacity. Outside of
their business they knew absolutely nothing; they were even ignorant
of Paris. To them the great city was merely a region spreading around
the Rue Saint-Denis. Their narrow natures could see no field except
the shop. They were clever enough in nagging their clerks and their
young women and in proving them to blame. Their happiness lay in
seeing all hands busy at the counters, exhibiting the merchandise, and
folding it up again. When they heard the six or eight voices of the
young men and women glibly gabbling the consecrated phrases by which
clerks reply to the remarks of customers, the day was fine to them,
the weather beautiful! But on the really fine days, when the blue of
the heavens brightened all Paris, and the Parisians walked about to
enjoy themselves and cared for no "goods" but those they carried on
their back, the day was overcast to the Rogrons. "Bad weather for
sales," said that pair of imbeciles.
The skill with which Rogron could tie up a parcel made him an object
of admiration to all his apprentices. He could fold and tie and see
all that happened in the street and in the farthest recesses of the
shop by the time he handed the parcel to his customer with a "Here it
is, madame; /nothing else/ to-day?" But the poor fool would have been
ruined without his sister. Sylvie had common-sense and a genius for
trade. She advised her brother in their purchases and would pitilessly
send him to remote parts of France to save a trifle of cost. The
shrewdness which all women more or less possess, not being employed in
the service of her heart, had drifted into that of speculation. A
business to pay for,--that thought was the mainspring which kept the
machine going and gave it an infernal activity.
Rogron was really only head-clerk; he understood nothing of his
business as a whole; self-interest, that great motor of the mind, had
failed in his case to instruct him. He was often aghast when his
sister ordered some article to be sold below cost, foreseeing the end
of its fashion; later he admired her idiotically for her cleverness.
He reasoned neither ill nor well; he was simply incapable of reasoning
at all; but he had the sense to subordinate himself to his sister, and
he did so from a consideration that was outside of the business. "She
is my elder," he said. Perhaps an existence like his, always solitary,
reduced to the satisfaction of mere needs, deprived of money and all
pleasures in youth, may explain to physiologists and thinkers the
clownish expression of the face, the feebleness of mind, the vacant
silliness of the man. His sister had steadily prevented him from
marrying, afraid perhaps to lose her power over him, and seeing only a
source of expense and injury in some woman who would certainly be
younger and undoubtedly less ugly than herself.
Silliness has two ways of comporting itself; it talks, or is silent.
Silent silliness can be borne; but Rogron's silliness was loquacious.
The man had a habit of chattering to his clerks, explaining the
minutiae of the business, and ornamenting his talk with those flat
jokes which may be called the "chaff" of shopkeeping. Rogron, listened
to, of course, by his subordinates and perfectly satisfied with
himself, had come at last into possession of a phraseology of his own.
This chatterer believed himself an orator. The necessity of explaining
to customers what they want, of guessing at their desires, and giving
them desires for what they do not want, exercises the tongue of all
retail shopkeepers. The petty dealer acquires the faculty of uttering
words and sentences in which there is absolutely no meaning, but which
have a marked success. He explains to his customers matters of
manufacture that they know nothing of; that alone gives him a passing
superiority over them; but take him away from his thousand and one
explanations about his thousand and one articles, and he is,
relatively to thought, like a fish out of water in the sun.
Rogron and Sylvie, two mechanisms baptized by mistake, did not
possess, latent or active, the feelings which give life to the heart.
Their natures were shrivelled and harsh, hardened by toil, by
privation, by the remembrance of their sufferings during a long and
cruel apprenticeship to life. Neither of them complained of their
trials. They were not so much implacable as impracticable in their
dealings with others in misfortune. To them, virtue, honor, loyalty,
all human sentiments consisted solely in the payment of their bills.
Irritable and irritating, without feelings, and sordid in their
economy, the brother and sister bore a dreadful reputation among the
other merchants of the rue Saint-Denis. Had it not been for their
connection with Provins, where they went three or four times a year,
when they could close the shop for a day or two, they would have had
no clerks or young women. But old Rogron, their father, sent them all
the unfortunate young people of his neighborhood, whose parents wished
to start them in business in Paris. He obtained these apprentices by
boasting, out of vanity, of his son's success. Parents, attracted by
the prospect of their children being well-trained and closely watched,
and also, by the hope of their succeeding, eventually, to the
business, sent whichever child was most in the way at home to the care
of the brother and sister. But no sooner had the clerks or the young
women found a way of escape from that dreadful establishment than they
fled, with rejoicings that increased the already bad name of the
Rogrons. New victims were supplied yearly by the indefatigable old
From the time she was fifteen, Sylvie Rogron, trained to the simpering
of a saleswoman, had two faces,--the amiable face of the seller, the
natural face of a sour spinster. Her acquired countenance was a
marvellous bit of mimicry. She was all smiles. Her voice, soft and
wheedling, gave a commercial charm to business. Her real face was that
we have already seen projecting from the half-opened blinds; the mere
sight of her would have put to flight the most resolute Cossack of
1815, much as that horde were said to like all kinds of Frenchwomen.
When the letter from the Lorrains reached the brother and sister, they
were in mourning for their father, from whom they inherited the house
which had been as good as stolen from Pierrette's grandmother, also
certain lands bought by their father, and certain moneys acquired by
usurious loans and mortgages to the peasantry, whose bits of ground
the old drunkard expected to possess. The yearly taking of stock was
just over. The price of the "Family Sister" had, at last, been paid in
full. The Rogrons owned about sixty thousand francs' worth of
merchandise, forty thousand in a bank or in their cash-box, and the
value of their business. Sitting on a bench covered with striped-green
Utrecht velvet placed in a square recess just behind their private
counter (the counter of their forewoman being similar and directly
opposite) the brother and sister consulted as to what they should do.
All retail shopkeepers aspire to become members of the bourgeoisie. By
selling the good-will of their business, the pair would have over a
hundred and fifty thousand francs, not counting the inheritance from
their father. By placing their present available property in the
public Funds, they would each obtain about four thousand francs a
year, and by taking the proceeds of their business, when sold, they
could repair and improve the house they inherited from their father,
which would thus be a good investment. They could then go and live in
a house of their own in Provins. Their forewoman was the daughter of a
rich farmer at Donnemarie, burdened with nine children, to whom he had
endeavored to give a good start in life, being aware that at his death
his property, divided into nine parts, would be but little for any one
of them. In five years, however, the man had lost seven children,--a
fact which made the forewoman so interesting that Rogron had tried,
unsuccessfully, to get her to marry him; but she showed an aversion
for her master which baffled his manoeuvres. Besides, Mademoiselle
Sylvie was not in favor of the match; in fact, she steadily opposed
her brother's marriage, and sought, instead, to make the shrewd young
woman their successor.
No passing observer can form the least idea of the cryptogramic
existence of a certain class of shopkeepers; he looks at them and asks
himself, "On what, and why, do they live? whence have they come? where
do they go?" He is lost in such questions, but finds no answer to
them. To discover the false seed of poesy which lies in those heads
and fructifies in those lives, it is necessary to dig into them; and
when we do that we soon come to a thin subsoil beneath the surface.
The Parisian shopkeeper nurtures his soul on some hope or other, more
or less attainable, without which he would doubtless perish. One
dreams of building or managing a theatre; another longs for the honors
of mayoralty; this one desires a country-house, ten miles from Paris
with a so-called "park," which he will adorn with statues of tinted
plaster and fountains which squirt mere threads of water, but on which
he will spend a mint of money; others, again, dream of distinction and
a high grade in the National Guard. Provins, that terrestrial
paradise, filled the brother and sister with the fanatical longings
which all the lovely towns of France inspire in their inhabitants. Let
us say it to the glory of La Champagne, this love is warranted.
Provins, one of the most charming towns in all France, rivals
Frangistan and the valley of Cashmere; not only does it contain the
poesy of Saadi, the Persian Homer, but it offers many pharmaceutical
treasures to medical science. The crusades brought roses from Jericho
to this enchanting valley, where by chance they gained new charms
while losing none of their colors. The Provins roses are known the
world over. But Provins is not only the French Persia, it is also
Baden, Aix, Cheltenham,--for it has medicinal springs. This was the
spot which appeared from time to time before the eyes of the two
shopkeepers in the muddy regions of Saint-Denis.
After crossing the gray plains which lie between La Ferte-Gaucher and
Provins, a desert and yet productive, a desert of wheat, you reach a
hill. Suddenly you behold at your feet a town watered by two rivers;
at the feet of the rock on which you stand stretches a verdant valley,
full of enchanting lines and fugitive horizons. If you come from Paris
you will pass through the whole length of Provins on the everlasting
highroad of France, which here skirts the hillside and is encumbered
with beggars and blind men, who will follow you with their pitiful
voices while you try to examine the unexpected picturesqueness of the
region. If you come from Troyes you will approach the town on the
valley side. The chateau, the old town, and its former ramparts are
terraced on the hillside, the new town is below. They go by the names
of Upper and Lower Provins. The upper is an airy town with steep
streets commanding fine views, surrounded by sunken road-ways and
ravines filled with chestnut trees which gash the sides of the hill
with their deep gulleys. The upper town is silent, clean, solemn,
surmounted by the imposing ruins of the old chateau. The lower is a
town of mills, watered by the Voulzie and the Durtain, two rivers of
Brie, narrow, sluggish, and deep; a town of inns, shops, retired
merchants; filled with diligences, travelling-carriages, and waggons.
The two towns, or rather this town with its historical memories, its
melancholy ruins, the gaiety of its valley, the romantic charm of its
ravines filled with tangled shrubbery and wildflowers, its rivers
banked with gardens, excites the love of all its children, who do as
the Auvergnats, the Savoyards, in fact, all French folks do, namely,
leave Provins to make their fortunes, and always return. "Die in one's
form," the proverb made for hares and faithful souls, seems also the
motto of a Provins native.
Thus the two Rogrons thought constantly of their dear Provins. While
Jerome sold his thread he saw the Upper town; as he piled up the cards
on which were buttons he contemplated the valley; when he rolled and
unrolled his ribbons he followed the shining rivers. Looking up at his
shelves he saw the ravines where he had often escaped his father's
anger and gone a-nutting or gathering blackberries. But the little
square in the Lower town was the chief object of his thoughts; he
imagined how he could improve his house: he dreamed of a new front,
new bedrooms, a salon, a billiard-room, a dining-room, and the kitchen
garden out of which he would make an English pleasure-ground, with
lawns, grottos, fountains, and statuary. The bedrooms at present
occupied by the brother and sister, on the second floor of a house
with three windows front and six storeys high in the rue Saint-Denis,
were furnished with the merest necessaries, yet no one in Paris had
finer furniture than they--in fancy. When Jerome walked the streets he
stopped short, struck with admiration at the handsome things in the
upholsterers' windows, and at the draperies he coveted for his house.
When he came home he would say to his sister: "I found in such a shop,
such and such a piece of furniture that will just do for the salon."
The next day he would buy another piece, and another, and so on. He
rejected, the following month, the articles of the months before. The
Budget itself, could not have paid for his architectural schemes. He
wanted everything he saw, but abandoned each thing for the last thing.
When he saw the balconies of new houses, when he studied external
ornamentation, he thought all such things, mouldings, carvings, etc.,
out of place in Paris. "Ah!" he would say, "those fine things would
look much better at Provins." When he stood on his doorstep leaning
against the lintel, digesting his morning meal, with a vacant eye, the
mercer was gazing at the house of his fancy gilded by the sun of his
dream; he walked in his garden; he heard the jet from his fountain
falling in pearly drops upon a slab of limestone; he played on his own
billiard-table; he gathered his own flowers.
Sylvie, on the other hand, was thinking so deeply, pen in hand, that
she forgot to scold the clerks; she was receiving the bourgeoisie of
Provins, she was looking at herself in the mirrors of her salon, and
admiring the beauties of a marvellous cap. The brother and sister
began to think the atmosphere of the rue Saint-Denis unhealthy, and
the smell of the mud in the markets made them long for the fragrance
of the Provins roses. They were the victims of a genuine nostalgia,
and also of a monomania, frustrated at present by the necessity of
selling their tapes and bobbins before they could leave Paris. The
promised land of the valley of Provins attracted these Hebrews all the
more because they had really suffered, and for a long time, as they
crossed breathlessly the sandy wastes of a mercer's business.
The Lorrains' letter reached them in the midst of meditations inspired
by this glorious future. They knew scarcely anything about their
cousin, Pierrette Lorrain. Their father got possession of the Auffray
property after they left home, and the old man said little to any one
of his business affairs. They hardly remembered their aunt Lorrain. It
took an hour of genealogical discussion before they made her out to be
the younger sister of their own mother by the second marriage of their
grandfather Auffray. It immediately struck them that this second
marriage had been fatally injurious to their interests by dividing the
Auffray property between two daughters. In times past they had heard
their father, who was given to sneering, complain of it.
The brother and sister considered the application of the Lorrains from
the point of view of such reminiscences, which were not at all
favorable for Pierrette. To take charge of an orphan, a girl, a
cousin, who might become their legal heir in case neither of them
married,--this was a matter that needed discussion. The question was
considered and debated under all its aspects. In the first place, they
had never seen Pierrette. Then, what a trouble it would be to have a
young girl to look after. Wouldn't it commit them to some obligations
towards her? Could they send the girl away if they did not like her?
Besides, wouldn't they have to marry her? and if Jerome found a yoke-
mate among the heiresses of Provins they ought to keep all their
property for his children. A yokemate for Jerome, according to Sylvie,
meant a stupid, rich and ugly girl who would let herself be governed.
They decided to refuse the Lorrain request. Sylvie agreed to write the
answer. Business being rather urgent just then she delayed writing,
and the forewoman coming forward with an offer for the stock and good-
will of the "Family Sister," which the brother and sister accepted,
the matter went entirely out of the old maid's mind.
Sylvie Rogron and her brother departed for Provins four years before
the time when the coming of Brigaut threw such excitement into
Pierrette's life. But the doings of the pair after their arrival at
Provins are as necessary to relate as their life in Paris; for Provins
was destined to be not less fatal to Pierrette than the commercial
antecedents of her cousins!
PATHOLOGY OF RETIRED MERCERS
When the petty shopkeeper who has come to Paris from the provinces
returns to the provinces from Paris he brings with him a few ideas;
then he loses them in the habits and ways of provincial life into
which he plunges, and his reforming notions leave him. From this there
do result, however, certain trifling, slow, successive changes by
which Paris scratches the surface of the provincial towns. This
process marks the transition of the ex-shopkeeper into the substantial
bourgeois, but it acts like an illness upon him. No retail shopkeeper
can pass with impunity from his perpetual chatter into dead silence,
from his Parisian activity to the stillness of provincial life. When
these worthy persons have laid by property they spend a portion of it
on some desire over which they have long brooded and into which they
now turn their remaining impulses, no longer restrained by force of
will. Those who have not been nursing a fixed idea either travel or
rush into the political interests of their municipality. Others take
to hunting or fishing and torment their farmers or tenants; others
again become usurers or stock-jobbers. As for the scheme of the
Rogrons, brother and sister, we know what that was; they had to
satisfy an imperious desire to handle the trowel and remodel their old
house into a charming new one.
This fixed idea produced upon the square of Lower Provins the front of
the building which Brigaut had been examining; also the interior
arrangements of the house and its handsome furniture. The contractor
did not drive a nail without consulting the owners, without requiring
them to sign the plans and specifications, without explaining to them
at full length and in every detail the nature of each article under
discussion, where it was manufactured, and what were its various
prices. As to the choicer things, each, they were told, had been used
by Monsieur Tiphaine, or Madame Julliard, or Monsieur the mayor, the
notables of the place. The idea of having things done as the rich
bourgeois of Provins did them carried the day for the contractor.
"Oh, if Monsieur Garceland has it in his house, put it in," said
Mademoiselle Rogron. "It must be all right; his taste is good."
"Sylvie, see, he wants us to have ovolos in the cornice of the
"Do you call those ovolos?"
"What an odd name! I never heard it before."
"But you have seen the thing?"
"Do you understand Latin?"
"Well, it means eggs--from the Latin /ovum/."
"What queer fellows you are, you architects!" cried Rogron. "It is
stepping on egg-shells to deal with you."
"Shall we paint the corridor?" asked the builder.
"Good heavens, no!" cried Sylvie. "That would be five hundred francs
"Oh, but the salon and the staircase are too pretty not to have the
corridor decorated too," said the man. "That little Madame Lesourd had
hers painted last year."
"And now, her husband, as king's attorney, is obliged to leave
"Ah, he'll be chief justice some of these days," said the builder.
"How about Monsieur Tiphaine?"
"Monsieur Tiphaine? he's got a pretty wife and is sure to get on.
He'll go to Paris. Shall we paint the corridor?"
"Yes, yes," said Rogron. "The Lesourds must be made to see that we are
as good as they."
The first year after the Rogrons returned to Provins was entirely
taken up by such discussions, by the pleasure of watching the workmen,
by the surprise occasioned to the townspeople and the replies to
questions of all kinds which resulted therefrom, and also by the
attempts made by Sylvie and her brother to be socially intimate with
the principal families of Provins.
The Rogrons had never gone into any society; they had never left their
shop, knowing absolutely no one in Paris, and now they were athirst
for the pleasures of social life. On their arrival in Provins they
found their former masters in Paris (long since returned to the
provinces), Monsieur and Madame Julliard, lately of the "Chinese
Worm," their children and grandchildren; the Guepin family, or rather
the Guepin clan, the youngest scion of which now kept the "Three
Distaffs"; and thirdly, Madame Guenee from whom they had purchased the
"Family Sister," and whose three daughters were married and settled in
Provins. These three races, Julliard, Guepin, and Guenee, had spread
through the town like dog-grass through a lawn. The mayor, Monsieur
Garceland, was the son-in-law of Monsieur Guepin; the curate, Abbe
Peroux, was own brother to Madame Julliard; the judge, Monsieur
Tiphaine junior, was brother to Madame Guenee, who signed herself
The queen of the town was the beautiful Madame Tiphaine junior, only
daughter of Madame Roguin, the rich wife of a former notary in Paris,
whose name was never mentioned. Clever, delicate, and pretty, married
in the provinces to please her mother, who for special reasons did not
want her with her, and took her from a convent only a few days before
the wedding, Melanie Tiphaine considered herself an exile in Provins,
where she behaved to admiration. Handsomely dowered, she still had
hopes. As for Monsieur Tiphaine, his old father had made to his eldest
daughter Madame Guenee such advances on her inheritance that an estate
worth eight thousand francs a year, situated within fifteen miles of
Provins, was to come wholly to him. Consequently the Tiphaines would
possess, sooner or later, some forty thousand francs a year, and were
not "badly off," as they say. The one overwhelming desire of the
beautiful Madame Tiphaine was to get Monsieur Tiphaine elected deputy.
As deputy he would become a judge in Paris; and she was firmly
resolved to push him up into the Royal courts. For these reasons she
tickled all vanities and strove to please all parties; and--what is
far more difficult--she succeeded. Twice a week she received the
bourgeoisie of Provins at her house in the Upper town. This
intelligent young woman of twenty had not as yet made a single blunder
or misstep on the slippery path she had taken. She gratified
everybody's self-love, and petted their hobbies; serious with the
serious, a girl with girls, instinctively a mother with mothers, gay
with young wives and disposed to help them, gracious to all,--in
short, a pearl, a treasure, the pride of Provins. She had never yet
said a word of her intentions and wishes, but all the electors of
Provins were awaiting the time when their dear Monsieur Tiphaine had
reached the required age for nomination. Every man in the place,
certain of his own talents, regarded the future deputy as his
particular friend, his protector. Of course, Monsieur Tiphaine would
attain to honors; he would be Keeper of the Seals, and then, what
wouldn't he do for Provins!
Such were the pleasant means by which Madame Tiphaine had come to rule
over the little town. Madame Guenee, Monsieur Tiphaine's sister, after
having married her eldest daughter to Monsieur Lesourd, prosecuting
attorney, her second to Monsieur Martener, the doctor, and the third
to Monsieur Auffray, the notary, had herself married Monsieur
Galardon, the collector. Mother and daughters all considered Monsieur
Tiphaine as the richest and ablest man in the family. The prosecuting
attorney had the strongest interest in sending his uncle to Paris,
expecting to step into his shoes as judge of the local court of
Provins. The four ladies formed a sort of court round Madame Tiphaine,
whose ideas and advice they followed on all occasions. Monsieur
Julliard, the eldest son of the old merchant, who had married the only
daughter of a rich farmer, set up a sudden, secret, and disinterested
passion for Madame Tiphaine, that angel descended from the Parisian
skies. The clever Melanie, too clever to involve herself with
Julliard, but quite capable of keeping him in the condition of Amadis
and making the most of his folly, advised him to start a journal,
intending herself to play the part of Egeria. For the last two years,
therefore, Julliard, possessed by his romantic passion, had published
the said newspaper, called the "Bee-hive," which contained articles
literary, archaeological, and medical, written in the family. The
advertisements paid expenses. The subscriptions, two hundred in all,
made the profits. Every now and then melancholy verses, totally
incomprehensible in La Brie, appeared, addressed, "TO HER!!!" with
three exclamation marks. The clan Julliard was thus united to the
other clans, and the salon of Madame Tiphaine became, naturally, the
first in the town. The few aristocrats who lived in Provins were, of
course, apart, and formed a single salon in the Upper town, at the
house of the old Comtesse de Breautey.
During the first six months of their transplantation, the Rogrons,
favored by their former acquaintance with several of these people,
were received, first by Madame Julliard the elder, and by the former
Madame Guenee, now Madame Galardon (from whom they had bought their
business), and next, after a good deal of difficulty, by Madame
Tiphaine. All parties wished to study the Rogrons before admitting
them. It was difficult, of course, to keep out merchants of the rue
Saint-Denis, originally from Provins, who had returned to the town to
spend their fortunes. Still, the object of all society is to
amalgamate persons of equal wealth, education, manners, customs,
accomplishments, and character. Now the Guepins, Guenees, and
Julliards had a better position among the bourgeoisie than the
Rogrons, whose father had been held in contempt on account of his
private life, and his conduct in the matter of the Auffray property,--
the facts of which were known to the notary Auffray, Madame Galardon's
In the social life of these people, to which Madame Tiphaine had given
a certain tone of elegance, all was homogeneous; the component parts
understood each other, knew each other's characters, and behaved and
conversed in a manner that was agreeable to all. The Rogrons flattered
themselves that being received by Monsieur Garceland, the mayor, they
would soon be on good terms with all the best families in the town.
Sylvie applied herself to learn boston. Rogron, incapable of playing a
game, twirled his thumbs and had nothing to say except to discourse on
his new house. Words seemed to choke him; he would get up, try to
speak, become frightened, and sit down again, with comical distortion
of the lips. Sylvie naively betrayed her natural self at cards. Sharp,
irritable, whining when she lost, insolent when she won, nagging and
quarrelsome, she annoyed her partners as much as her adversaries, and
became the scourge of society. And yet, possessed by a silly,
unconcealed ambition, Rogron and his sister were bent on playing a
part in the society of a little town already in possession of a close
corporation of twelve allied families. Allowing that the restoration
of their house had cost them thirty thousand francs, the brother and
sister possessed between them at least ten thousand francs a year.
This they considered wealth, and with it they endeavored to impress
society, which immediately took the measure of their vulgarity, crass
ignorance, and foolish envy. On the evening when they were presented
to the beautiful Madame Tiphaine, who had already eyed them at Madame
Garceland's and at Madame Julliard the elder's, the queen of the town
remarked to Julliard junior, who stayed a few moments after the rest
of the company to talk with her and her husband:--
"You all seem to be taken with those Rogrons."
"No, no," said Amadis, "they bore my mother and annoy my wife. When
Mademoiselle Sylvie was apprenticed, thirty years ago, to my father,
none of them could endure her."
"I have a great mind," said Madame Tiphaine, putting her pretty foot
on the bar of the fender, "to make it understood that my salon is not
Julliard raised his eyes to the ceiling, as if to say, "Good heavens?
what wit, what intellect!"
"I wish my society to be select; and it certainly will not be if I
admit those Rogrons."
"They have neither heart, nor mind, nor manners"; said Monsieur
Tiphaine. "If, after selling thread for twenty years, as my sister did
"Your sister, my dear," said his wife in a parenthesis, "cannot be out
of place in any salon."
"--if," he continued, "people are stupid enough not to throw off the
shop and polish their manners, if they don't know any better than to
mistake the Counts of Champagne for the /accounts/ of a wine-shop, as
Rogron did this evening, they had better, in my opinion, stay at
"They are simply impudent," said Julliard. "To hear them talk you
would suppose there was no other handsome house in Provins but theirs.
They want to crush us; and after all, they have hardly enough to live
"If it was only the brother," said Madame Tiphaine, "one might put up
with him; he is not so aggressive. Give him a Chinese puzzle and he
will stay in a corner quietly enough; it would take him a whole winter
to find it out. But Mademoiselle Sylvie, with that voice like a hoarse
hyena and those lobster-claws of hands! Don't repeat all this,
When Julliard had departed the little woman said to her husband:--
"I have aborigines enough whom I am forced to receive; these two will
fairly kill me. With your permission, I shall deprive myself of their
"You are mistress in your own house," replied he; "but that will make
enemies. The Rogrons will fling themselves into the opposition, which
hitherto has had no real strength in Provins. That Rogron is already
intimate with Baron Gouraud and the lawyer Vinet."
"Then," said Melanie, laughing, "they will do you some service. Where
there are no opponents, there is no triumph. A liberal conspiracy, an
illegal cabal, a struggle of any kind, will bring you into the
The justice looked at his young wife with a sort of alarmed
The next day it was whispered about that the Rogrons had not
altogether succeeded in Madame Tiphaine's salon. That lady's speech
about an inn was immensely admired. It was a whole month before she
returned Mademoiselle Sylvie's visit. Insolence of this kind is very
much noticed in the provinces.
During the evening which Sylvie had spent at Madame Tiphaine's a
disagreeable scene occurred between herself and old Madame Julliard
while playing boston, apropos of a trick which Sylvie declared the old
lady had made her lose on purpose; for the old maid, who liked to trip
others, could never endure the same game on herself. The next time she
was invited out the mistress took care to make up the card-tables
before she arrived; so that Sylvie was reduced to wandering from table
to table as an onlooker, the players glancing at her with scornful
eyes. At Madame Julliard senior's house, they played whist, a game
Sylvie did not know.
The old maid at last understood that she was under a ban; but she had
no conception of the reason of it. She fancied herself an object of
jealousy to all these persons. After a time she and her brother
received no invitations, but they still persisted in paying evening
visits. Satirical persons made fun of them,--not spitefully, but
amusingly; inveigling them to talk absurdly about the eggs in their
cornice, and their wonderful cellar of wine, the like of which was not
Before long the Rogron house was completely finished, and the brother
and sister then resolved to give several sumptuous dinners, as much to
return the civilities they had received as to exhibit their luxury.
The invited guests accepted from curiosity only. The first dinner was
given to the leading personages of the town; to Monsieur and Madame
Tiphaine, with whom, however the Rogrons had never dined; to Monsieur
and Madame Julliard, senior and junior; to Monsieur Lesourd, Monsieur
le cure, and Monsieur and Madame Galardon. It was one of those
interminable provincial dinners, where you sit at table from five to
nine o'clock. Madame Tiphaine had introduced into Provins the Parisian
custom of taking leave as soon as coffee had been served. On this
occasion she had company at home and was anxious to get away. The
Rogrons accompanied her husband and herself to the street door, and
when they returned to the salon, disconcerted at not being able to
keep their chief guests, the rest of the party were preparing to
imitate Madame Tiphaine's fashion with cruel provincial promptness.
"They won't see our salon lighted up," said Sylvie, "and that's the
show of the house."
The Rogrons had counted on surprising their guests. It was the first
time any one had been admitted to the now celebrated house, and the
company assembled at Madame Tiphaine's was eagerly awaiting her
opinion of the marvels of the "Rogron palace."
"Well!" cried little Madame Martener, "you've seen the Louvre; tell us
all about it."
"All? Well, it would be like the dinner,--not much."
"But do describe it."
"Well, to begin with, that front door, the gilded grating of which we
have all admired," said Madame Tiphaine, "opens upon a long corridor
which divides the house unequally; on the right side there is one
window, on the other, two. At the garden end, the corridor opens with
a glass door upon a portico with steps to the lawn, where there's a
sun dial and a plaster statue of Spartacus, painted to imitate bronze.
Behind the kitchen, the builder has put the staircase, and a sort of
larder which we are spared the sight of. The staircase, painted to
imitate black marble with yellow veins, turns upon itself like those
you see in cafes leading from the ground-floor to the entresol. The
balustrade, of walnut with brass ornaments and dangerously slight, was
pointed out to us as one of the seven wonders of the world. The cellar
stairs run under it. On the other side of the corridor is the dining-
room, which communicates by folding-doors with a salon of equal size,
the windows of which look on the garden."
"Dear me, is there no ante-chamber?" asked Madame Auffray.
"The corridor, full of draughts, answers for an ante-chamber," replied
Madame Tiphaine. "Our friends have had, they assured us, the eminently
national, liberal, constitutional, and patriotic feeling to use none
but French woods in the house; so the floor in the dining-room is
chestnut, the sideboards, tables, and chairs, of the same. White
calico window-curtains, with red borders, are held back by vulgar red
straps; these magnificent draperies run on wooden curtain rods ending
in brass lion's-paws. Above one of the sideboards hangs a dial
suspended by a sort of napkin in gilded bronze,--an idea that seemed
to please the Rogrons hugely. They tried to make me admire the
invention; all I could manage to say was that if it was ever proper to
wrap a napkin round a dial it was certainly in a dining-room. On the
sideboard were two huge lamps like those on the counter of a
restaurant. Above the other sideboard hung a barometer, excessively
ornate, which seems to play a great part in their existence; Rogron
gazed at it as he might at his future wife. Between the two windows is
a white porcelain stove in a niche overloaded with ornament. The walls
glow with a magnificent paper, crimson and gold, such as you see in
the same restaurants, where, no doubt, the Rogrons chose it. Dinner
was served on white and gold china, with a dessert service of light
blue with green flowers, but they showed us another service in
earthenware for everyday use. Opposite to each sideboard was a large
cupboard containing linen. All was clean, new, and horribly sharp in
tone. However, I admit the dining-room; it has some character, though
disagreeable; it represents that of the masters of the house. But
there is no enduring the five engravings that hang on the walls; the
Minister of the Interior ought really to frame a law against them. One
was Poniatowski jumping into the Elster; the others, Napoleon pointing
a cannon, the defence at Clichy, and the two Mazepas, all in gilt
frames of the vulgarest description,--fit to carry off the prize of
disgust. Oh! how much I prefer Madame Julliard's pastels of fruit,
those excellent Louis XV. pastels, which are in keeping with the old
dining-room and its gray panels,--defaced by age, it is true, but they
possess the true provincial characteristics that go well with old
family silver, precious china, and our simple habits. The provinces
are provinces; they are only ridiculous when they mimic Paris. I
prefer this old salon of my husband's forefathers, with its heavy
curtains of green and white damask, the Louis XV. mantelpiece, the
twisted pier-glasses, the old mirrors with their beaded mouldings, and
the venerable card tables. Yes, I prefer my old Sevres vases in royal
blue, mounted on copper, my clock with those impossible flowers, that
rococco chandelier, and the tapestried furniture, to all the finery of
the Rogron salon."
"What is the salon like?" said Monsieur Martener, delighted with the
praise the handsome Parisian bestowed so adroitly on the provinces.
"As for the salon, it is all red,--the red Mademoiselle Sylvie turns
when she loses at cards."
"Sylvan-red," said Monsieur Tiphaine, whose sparkling saying long
remained in the vocabulary of Provins.
"Window-curtains, red; furniture, red; mantelpiece, red, veined
yellow, candelabra and clock ditto mounted on bronze, common and heavy
in design,--Roman standards with Greek foliage! Above the clock is
that inevitable good-natured lion which looks at you with a simper,
the lion of ornamentation, with a big ball under his feet, symbol of
the decorative lion, who passes his life holding a black ball,--
exactly like a deputy of the Left. Perhaps it is meant as a
constitutional myth. The face of the clock is curious. The glass over
the chimney is framed in that new fashion of applied mouldings which
is so trumpery and vulgar. From the ceiling hangs a chandelier
carefully wrapped in green muslin, and rightly too, for it is in the
worst taste, the sharpest tint of bronze with hideous ornaments. The
walls are covered with a red flock paper to imitate velvet enclosed in
panels, each panel decorated with a chromo-lithograph in one of those
frames festooned with stucco flowers to represent wood-carving. The
furniture, in cashmere and elm-wood, consists, with classic
uniformity, of two sofas, two easy-chairs, two armchairs, and six
common chairs. A vase in alabaster, called a la Medicis, kept under
glass stands on a table between the windows; before the windows, which
are draped with magnificent red silk curtains and lace curtains under
them, are card-tables. The carpet is Aubusson, and you may be sure the
Rogrons did not fail to lay hands on that most vulgar of patterns,
large flowers on a red ground. The room looks as if no one ever lived
there; there are no books, no engravings, none of those little knick-
knacks we all have lying about," added Madame Tiphaine, glancing at
her own table covered with fashionable trifles, albums, and little
presents given to her by friends; "and there are no flowers,--it is
all cold and barren, like Mademoiselle Sylvie herself. Buffon says the
style is the man, and certainly salons have styles of their own."
From this sketch everybody can see the sort of house the brother and
sister lived in, though they can never imagine the absurdities into
which a clever builder dragged the ignorant pair,--new inventions,
fantastic ornaments, a system for preventing smoky chimneys, another
for preventing damp walls; painted marquetry panels on the staircase,
colored glass, superfine locks,--in short, all those vulgarities which
make a house expensive and gratify the bourgeois taste.
No one chose to visit the Rogrons, whose social plans thus came to
nothing. Their invitations were refused under various excuses,--the
evenings were already engaged to Madame Garceland and the other ladies
of the Provins world. The Rogrons had supposed that all that was
required to gain a position in society was to give a few dinners. But
no one any longer accepted them, except a few young men who went to
make fun of their host and hostess, and certain diners-out who went
Frightened at the loss of forty thousand francs swallowed up without
profit in what she called her "dear house," Sylvie now set to work to
recover it by economy. She gave no more dinners, which had cost her
forty or fifty francs without the wines, and did not fulfil her social
hopes, hopes that are as hard to realize in the provinces as in Paris.
She sent away her cook, took a country-girl to do the menial work, and
did her own cooking, as she said, "for pleasure."
Fourteen months after their return to Provins, the brother and sister
had fallen into a solitary and wholly unoccupied condition. Their
banishment from society roused in Sylvie's heart a dreadful hatred
against the Tiphaines, Julliards and all the other members of the
social world of Provins, which she called "the clique," and with whom
her personal relations became extremely cold. She would gladly have
set up a rival clique, but the lesser bourgeoisie was made up of
either small shopkeepers who were only free on Sundays and fete-days,
or smirched individuals like the lawyer Vinet and Doctor Neraud, and
wholly inadmissible Bonapartists like Baron Gouraud, with whom,
however, Rogron thoughtlessly allied himself, though the upper
bourgeoisie had warned him against them.
The brother and sister were, therefore, forced to sit by the fire of
the stove in the dining-room, talking over their former business,
trying to recall the faces of their customers and other matters they
had intended to forget. By the end of the second winter ennui weighed
heavily on them. They did not know how to get through each day;
sometimes as they went to bed the words escaped them, "There's another
over!" They dragged out the morning by staying in bed, and dressing
slowly. Rogron shaved himself every day, examined his face, consulted
his sister on any changes he thought he saw there, argued with the
servant about the temperature of his hot water, wandered into the
garden, looked to see if the shrubs were budding, sat at the edge of
the water where he had built himself a kiosk, examined the joinery of
his house,--had it sprung? had the walls settled, the panels cracked?
or he would come in fretting about a sick hen, and complaining to his
sister, who was nagging the servant as she set the table, of the
dampness which was coming out in spots upon the plaster. The barometer
was Rogron's most useful bit of property. He consulted it at all
hours, tapped it familiarly like a friend, saying: "Vile weather!" to
which his sister would reply, "Pooh! it is only seasonable." If any
one called to see him the excellence of that instrument was his chief
topic of conversation.
Breakfast took up some little time; with what deliberation those two
human beings masticated their food! Their digestions were perfect;
cancer of the stomach was not to be dreaded by them. They managed to
get along till twelve o'clock by reading the "Bee-hive" and the
"Constitutionnel." The cost of subscribing to the Parisian paper was
shared by Vinet the lawyer, and Baron Gouraud. Rogron himself carried
the paper to Gouraud, who had been a colonel and lived on the square,
and whose long yarns were Rogron's delight; the latter sometimes
puzzled over the warnings he had received, and asked himself how such
a lively companion could be dangerous. He was fool enough to tell the
colonel he had been warned against him, and to repeat all the "clique"
had said. God knows how the colonel, who feared no one, and was
equally to be dreaded with pistols or a sword, gave tongue about
Madame Tiphaine and her Amadis, and the ministerialists of the Upper
town, persons capable of any villany to get places, and who counted
the votes at elections to suit themselves, etc.
About two o'clock Rogron started for a little walk. He was quite happy
if some shopkeeper standing on the threshold of his door would stop
him and say, "Well, pere Rogron, how goes it with /you/?" Then he
would talk, and ask for news, and gather all the gossip of the town.
He usually went as far as the Upper town, sometimes to the ravines,
according to the weather. Occasionally he would meet old men taking
their walks abroad like himself. Such meetings were joyful events to
him. There happened to be in Provins a few men weary of Parisian life,
quiet scholars who lived with their books. Fancy the bewilderment of
the ignorant Rogron when he heard a deputy-judge named Desfondrilles,
more of an archaeologist than a magistrate, saying to old Monsieur
Martener, a really learned man, as he pointed to the valley:--
"Explain to me why the idlers of Europe go to Spa instead of coming to
Provins, when the springs here have a superior curative value
recognized by the French faculty,--a potential worthy of the medicinal
properties of our roses."
"That is one of the caprices of caprice," said the old gentleman.
"Bordeaux wine was unknown a hundred years ago. Marechal de Richelieu,
one of the noted men of the last century, the French Alcibiades, was
appointed governor of Guyenne. His lungs were diseased, and, heaven
knows why! the wine of the country did him good and he recovered.
Bordeaux instantly made a hundred millions; the marshal widened its
territory to Angouleme, to Cahors,--in short, to over a hundred miles
of circumference! it is hard to tell where the Bordeaux vineyards end.
And yet they haven't erected an equestrian statue to the marshal in
"Ah! if anything of that kind happens to Provins," said Monsieur
Desfondrilles, "let us hope that somewhere in the Upper or Lower town
they will set up a bas-relief of the head of Monsieur Opoix, the
re-discoverer of the mineral waters of Provins."
"My dear friend, the revival of Provins is impossible," replied
Monsieur Martener; "the town was made bankrupt long ago."
"What!" cried Rogron, opening his eyes very wide.
"It was once a capital, holding its own against Paris in the twelfth
century, when the Comtes de Champagne held their court here, just as
King Rene held his in Provence," replied the man of learning; "for in
those days civilization, gaiety, poesy, elegance, and women, in short
all social splendors, were not found exclusively in Paris. It is as
difficult for towns and cities as it is for commercial houses to
recover from ruin. Nothing is left to us of the old Provins but the
fragrance of our historical glory and that of our roses,--and a sub-
"Ah! what mightn't France be if she had only preserved her feudal
capitals!" said Desfondrilles. "Can sub-prefects replace the poetic,
gallant, warlike race of the Thibaults who made Provins what Ferrara
was to Italy, Weimar to Germany,--what Munich is trying to be to-day."
"Was Provins ever a capital?" asked Rogron.
"Why! where do you come from?" exclaimed the archaeologist. "Don't you
know," he added, striking the ground of the Upper town where they
stood with his cane, "don't you know that the whole of this part of
Provins is built on catacombs?"
"Yes, catacombs, the extent and height of which are yet undiscovered.
They are like the naves of cathedrals, and there are pillars in them."
"Monsieur is writing a great archaeological work to explain these
strange constructions," interposed Monsieur Martener, seeing that the
deputy-judge was about to mount his hobby.
Rogron came home much comforted to know that his house was in the
valley. The crypts of Provins kept him occupied for a week in
explorations, and gave a topic of conversation to the unhappy
celibates for many evenings.
In the course of these ramblings Rogron picked up various bits of
information about Provins, its inhabitants, their marriages, together
with stale political news; all of which he narrated to his sister.
Scores of times in his walks he would stop and say,--often to the same
person on the same day,--"Well, what's the news?" When he reached home
he would fling himself on the sofa like a man exhausted with labor,
whereas he was only worn out with the burden of his own dulness.
Dinner came at last, after he had gone twenty times to the kitchen and
back, compared the clocks, and opened and shut all the doors of the
house. So long as the brother and sister could spend their evenings in
paying visits they managed to get along till bedtime; but after they
were compelled to stay at home those evenings became like a parching
desert. Sometimes persons passing through the quiet little square
would hear unearthly noises as though the brother were throttling the
sister; a moment's listening would show that they were only yawning.
These two human mechanisms, having nothing to grind between their
rusty wheels, were creaking and grating at each other. The brother
talked of marrying, but only in despair. He felt old and weary; the
thought of a woman frightened him. Sylvie, who began to see the
necessity of having a third person in the home, suddenly remembered
the little cousin, about whom no one in Provins had yet inquired, the
friends of Madame Lorrain probably supposing that mother and child
were both dead.
Sylvie Rogron never lost anything; she was too thoroughly an old maid
even to mislay the smallest article; but she pretended to have
suddenly found the Lorrains' letter, so as to mention Pierrette
naturally to her brother, who was greatly pleased at the possibility
of having a little girl in the house. Sylvie replied to Madame
Lorrain's letter half affectionately, half commercially, as one may
say, explaining the delay by their change of abode and the settlement
of their affairs. She seemed desirous of receiving her little cousin,
and hinted that Pierrette would perhaps inherit twelve thousand francs
a year if her brother Jerome did not marry.
Perhaps it is necessary to have been, like Nebuchadnezzar, something
of a wild beast, and shut up in a cage at the Jardin des Plantes
without other prey than the butcher's meat doled out by the keeper, or
a retired merchant deprived of the joys of tormenting his clerks, to
understand the impatience with which the brother and sister awaited
the arrival of their cousin Lorrain. Three days after the letter had
gone, the pair were already asking themselves when she would get
Sylvie perceived in her spurious benevolence towards her poor cousin a
means of recovering her position in the social world of Provins. She
accordingly went to call on Madame Tiphaine, of whose reprobation she
was conscious, in order to impart the fact of Pierrette's approaching
arrival,--deploring the girl's unfortunate position, and posing
herself as being only too happy to succor her and give her a position
as daughter and future heiress.
"You have been rather long in discovering her," said Madame Tiphaine,
with a touch of sarcasm.
A few words said in a low voice by Madame Garceland, while the cards
were being dealt, recalled to the minds of those who heard her the
shameful conduct of old Rogron about the Auffray property; the notary
explained the iniquity.
"Where is the little girl now?" asked Monsieur Tiphaine, politely.
"In Brittany," said Rogron.
"Brittany is a large place," remarked Monsieur Lesourd.
"Her grandfather and grandmother Lorrain wrote to us--when was that,
my dear?" said Rogron addressing his sister.
Sylvie, who was just then asking Madame Garceland where she had bought
the stuff for her gown, answered hastily, without thinking of the
effect of her words:--
"Before we sold the business."
"And have you only just answered the letter, mademoiselle?" asked the
Sylvie turned as red as a live coal.
"We wrote to the Institution of Saint-Jacques," remarked Rogron.
"That is a sort of hospital or almshouse for old people," said
Monsieur Desfondrilles, who knew Nantes. "She can't be there; they
receive no one under sixty."
"She is there, with her grandmother Lorrain," said Rogron.
"Her mother had a little fortune, the eight thousand francs which your
father--no, I mean of course your grandfather--left to her," said the
notary, making the blunder intentionally.
"Ah!" said Rogron, stupidly, not understanding the notary's sarcasm.
"Then you know nothing about your cousin's position or means?" asked
"If Monsieur Rogron had known it," said the deputy-judge, "he would
never have left her all this time in an establishment of that kind. I
remember now that a house in Nantes belonging to Monsieur and Madame
Lorrain was sold under an order of the court, and that Mademoiselle
Lorrain's claim was swallowed up. I know this, for I was commissioner
at the time."
The notary spoke of Colonel Lorrain, who, had he lived, would have
been much amazed to know that his daughter was in such an institution.
The Rogrons beat a retreat, saying to each other that the world was
very malicious. Sylvie perceived that the news of her benevolence had
missed its effect,--in fact, she had lost ground in all minds; and she
felt that henceforth she was forbidden to attempt an intimacy with the
upper class of Provins. After this evening the Rogrons no longer
concealed their hatred of that class and all its adherents. The
brother told the sister the scandals that Colonel Gouraud and the
lawyer Vinet had put into his head about the Tiphaines, the Guenees,
the Garcelands, the Julliards, and others:--
"I declare, Sylvie, I don't see why Madame Tiphaine should turn up her
nose at shopkeeping in the rue Saint-Denis; it is more honest than
what she comes from. Madame Roguin, her mother, is cousin to those
Guillaumes of the 'Cat-playing-ball' who gave up the business to
Joseph Lebas, their son-in-law. Her father is that Roguin who failed
in 1819, and ruined the house of Cesar Birotteau. Madame Tiphaine's
fortune was stolen,--for what else are you to call it when a notary's
wife who is very rich lets her husband make a fraudulent bankruptcy?
Fine doings! and she marries her daughter in Provins to get her out of
the way,--all on account of her own relations with du Tillet. And such
people set up to be proud! Well, well, that's the world!"
On the day when Jerome Rogron and his sister began to declaim against
"the clique" they were, without being aware of it, on the road to
having a society of their own; their house was to become a rendezvous
for other interests seeking a centre,--those of the hitherto floating
elements of the liberal party in Provins. And this is how it came
about: The launch of the Rogrons in society had been watched with
great curiosity by Colonel Gouraud and the lawyer Vinet, two men drawn
together, first by their ostracism, next by their opinions. They both
professed patriotism and for the same reason,--they wished to become
of consequence. The Liberals in Provins were, so far, confined to one
old soldier who kept a cafe, an innkeeper, Monsieur Cournant a notary,
Doctor Neraud, and a few stray persons, mostly farmers or those who
had bought lands of the public domain.
The colonel and the lawyer, delighted to lay hands on a fool whose
money would be useful to their schemes, and who might himself, in
certain cases, be made to bell the cat, while his house would serve as
a meeting-ground for the scattered elements of the party, made the
most of the Rogrons' ill-will against the upper classes of the place.
The three had already a slight tie in their united subscription to the
"Constitutionnel"; it would certainly not be difficult for the colonel
to make a Liberal of the ex-mercer, though Rogron knew so little of
politics that he was capable of regarding the exploits of Sergeant
Mercier as those of a brother shopkeeper.
The expected arrival of Pierrette brought to sudden fruition the
selfish ideas of the two men, inspired as they were by the folly and
ignorance of the celibates. Seeing that Sylvie had lost all chance of
establishing herself in the good society of the place, an afterthought
came to the colonel. Old soldiers have seen so many horrors in all
lands, so many grinning corpses on battle-fields, that no
physiognomies repel them; and Gouraud began to cast his eyes on the
old maid's fortune. This imperial colonel, a short, fat man, wore
enormous rings in ears that were bushy with tufts of hair. His sparse
and grizzled whiskers were called in 1799 "fins." His jolly red face
was rather discolored, like those of all who had lived to tell of the
Beresina. The lower half of his big, pointed stomach marked the
straight line which characterizes a cavalry officer. Gouraud had
commanded the Second Hussars. His gray moustache hid a huge blustering
mouth,--if we may use a term which alone describes that gulf. He did
not eat his food, he engulfed it. A sabre cut had slit his nose, by
which his speech was made thick and very nasal, like that attributed
to Capuchins. His hands, which were short and broad, were of the kind
that make women say: "You have the hands of a rascal." His legs seemed
slender for his torso. In that fat and active body an absolutely
lawless spirit disported itself, and a thorough experience of the
things of life, together with a profound contempt for social
convention, lay hidden beneath the apparent indifference of a soldier.
Colonel Gouraud wore the cross of an officer of the Legion of honor,
and his emoluments from that, together with his salary as a retired
officer, gave him in all about three thousand francs a year.
The lawyer, tall and thin, had liberal opinions in place of talent,
and his only revenue was the meagre profits of his office. In Provins
lawyers plead their own cases. The court was unfavorable to Vinet on
account of his opinions; consequently, even the farmers who were
Liberals, when it came to lawsuits preferred to employ some lawyer who
was more congenial to the judges. Vinet was regarded with disfavor in
other ways. He was said to have seduced a rich girl in the
neighborhood of Coulommiers, and thus have forced her parents to marry
her to him. Madame Vinet was a Chargeboeuf, an old and noble family of
La Brie, whose name comes from the exploit of a squire during the
expedition of Saint Louis to Egypt. She incurred the displeasure of
her father and mother, who arranged, unknown to Vinet, to leave their
entire fortune to their son, doubtless charging him privately, to pay
over a portion of it to his sister's children.
Thus the first bold effort of the ambitious man was a failure. Pursued
by poverty, and ashamed not to give his wife the means of making a
suitable appearance, he had made desperate efforts to enter public
life, but the Chargeboeuf family refused him their influence. These
Royalists disapproved, on moral grounds, of his forced marriage;
besides, he was named Vinet, and how could they be expected to protect
a plebian? Thus he was driven from branch to branch when he tried to
get some good out of his marriage. Repulsed by every one, filled with
hatred for the family of his wife, for the government which denied him
a place, for the social world of Provins, which refused to admit him,
Vinet submitted to his fate; but his gall increased. He became a
Liberal in the belief that his fortune might yet be made by the
triumph of the opposition, and he lived in a miserable little house in
the Upper town from which his wife seldom issued. Madame Vinet had
found no one to defend her since her marriage except an old Madame de
Chargeboeuf, a widow with one daughter, who lived at Troyes. The
unfortunate young woman, destined for better things, was absolutely
alone in her home with a single child.
There are some kinds of poverty which may be nobly accepted and gaily
borne; but Vinet, devoured by ambition, and feeling himself guilty
towards his wife, was full of darkling rage; his conscience grew
elastic; and he finally came to think any means of success
permissible. His young face changed. Persons about the courts were
sometimes frightened as they looked at his viperish, flat head, his
slit mouth, his eyes gleaming through glasses, and heard his sharp,
persistent voice which rasped their nerves. His muddy skin, with its
sickly tones of green and yellow, expressed the jaundice of his balked
ambition, his perpetual disappointments and his hidden wretchedness.
He could talk and argue; he was well-informed and shrewd, and was not
without smartness and metaphor. Accustomed to look at everything from
the standpoint of his own success, he was well fitted for a
politician. A man who shrinks from nothing so long as it is legal, is
strong; and Vinet's strength lay there.
This future athlete of parliamentary debate, who was destined to share
in proclaiming the dynasty of the house of Orleans had a terrible
influence on Pierrette's fate. At the present moment he was bent on
making for himself a weapon by founding a newspaper at Provins. After
studying the Rogrons at a distance (the colonel aiding him) he had
come to the conclusion that the brother might be made useful. This
time he was not mistaken; his days of poverty were over, after seven
wretched years, when even his daily bread was sometimes lacking. The
day when Gouraud told him in the little square that the Rogrons had
finally quarrelled with the bourgeois aristocracy of the Upper town,
he nudged the colonel in the ribs significantly, and said, with a
"One woman or another--handsome or ugly--/you/ don't care; marry
Mademoiselle Rogron and we can organize something at once."
"I have been thinking of it," replied Gouraud, "but the fact is they
have sent for the daughter of Colonel Lorrain, and she's their next of
"You can get them to make a will in your favor. Ha! you would get a
very comfortable house."
"As for the little girl--well, well, let's see her," said the colonel,
with a leering and thoroughly wicked look, which proved to a man of
Vinet's quality how little respect the old trooper could feel for any
After her grandfather and grandmother entered the sort of hospital in
which they sadly expected to end their days, Pierrette, being young
and proud, suffered so terribly at living there on charity that she
was thankful when she heard she had rich relations. When Brigaut, the
son of her mother's friend the major, and the companion of her
childhood, who was learning his trade as a cabinet-maker at Nantes,
heard of her departure he offered her the money to pay her way to
Paris in the diligence,--sixty francs, the total of his /pour-boires/
as an apprentice, slowly amassed, and accepted by Pierrette with the
sublime indifference of true affection, showing that in a like case
she herself would be affronted by thanks.
Brigaut was in the habit of going every Sunday to Saint-Jacques to
play with Pierrette and try to console her. The vigorous young workman
knew the dear delight of bestowing a complete and devoted protection
on an object involuntarily chosen by his heart. More than once he and
Pierrette, sitting on Sundays in a corner of the garden, had
embroidered the veil of the future with their youthful projects; the
apprentice, armed with his plane, scoured the world to make their
fortune, while Pierrette waited.
In October, 1824, when the child had completed her eleventh year, she
was entrusted by the two old people and by Brigaut, all three
sorrowfully sad, to the conductor of the diligence from Nantes to
Paris, with an entreaty to put her safely on the diligence from Paris
to Provins and to take good care of her. Poor Brigaut! he ran like a
dog after the coach looking at his dear Pierrette as long as he was
able. In spite of her signs he ran over three miles, and when at last
he was exhausted his eyes, wet with tears, still followed her. She,
too, was crying when she saw him no longer running by her, and putting
her head out of the window she watched him, standing stock-still and
looking after her, as the lumbering vehicle disappeared.
The Lorrains and Brigaut knew so little of life that the girl had not
a penny when she arrived in Paris. The conductor, to whom she had
mentioned her rich friends, paid her expenses at the hotel, and made
the conductor of the Provins diligence pay him, telling him to take
good care of the girl and to see that the charges were paid by the
family, exactly as though she were a case of goods. Four days after
her departure from Nantes, about nine o'clock of a Monday night, a
kind old conductor of the Messageries-royales, took Pierrette by the
hand, and while the porters were discharging in the Grand'Rue the
packages and passengers for Provins, he led the little girl, whose
only baggage was a bundle containing two dresses, two chemises, and
two pairs of stockings, to Mademoiselle Rogron's house, which was
pointed out to him by the director at the coach office.
"Good-evening, mademoiselle and the rest of the company. I've brought
you a cousin, and here she is; and a nice little girl too, upon my
word. You have forty-seven francs to pay me, and sign my book."
Mademoiselle Sylvie and her brother were dumb with pleasure and
"Excuse me," said the conductor, "the coach is waiting. Sign my book
and pay me forty-seven francs, sixty centimes, and whatever you please
for myself and the conductor from Nantes; we've taken care of the
little girl as if she were our own; and paid for her beds and her
food, also her fare to Provins, and other little things."
"Forty-seven francs, twelve sous!" said Sylvie.
"You are not going to dispute it?" cried the man.
"Where's the bill?" said Rogron.
"Bill! look at the book."
"Stop talking, and pay him," said Sylvie, "You see there's nothing
else to be done."
Rogron went to get the money, and gave the man forty-seven francs,
"And nothing for my comrade and me?" said the conductor.
Sylvie took two francs from the depths of the old velvet bag which
held her keys.
"Thank you, no," said the man; "keep 'em yourself. We would rather
care for the little one for her own sake." He picked up his book and
departed, saying to the servant-girl: "What a pair! it seems there are
crocodiles out of Egypt!"
"Such men are always brutal," said Sylvie, who overhead the words.
"They took good care of the little girl, anyhow," said Adele with her
hands on her hips.
"We don't have to live with him," remarked Rogron.
"Where's the little one to sleep?" asked Adele.
Such was the arrival of Pierrette Lorrain in the home of her cousins,
who gazed at her with stolid eyes; she was tossed to them like a
package, with no intermediate state between the wretched chamber at
Saint-Jacques and the dining-room of her cousins, which seemed to her
a palace. She was shy and speechless. To all other eyes than those of
the Rogrons the little Breton girl would have seemed enchanting as she
stood there in her petticoat of coarse blue flannel, with a pink
cambric apron, thick shoes, blue stockings, and a white kerchief, her
hands being covered by red worsted mittens edged with white, bought
for her by the conductor. Her dainty Breton cap (which had been washed
in Paris, for the journey from Nantes had rumpled it) was like a halo
round her happy little face. This national cap, of the finest lawn,
trimmed with stiffened lace pleated in flat folds, deserves
description, it was so dainty and simple. The light coming through the
texture and the lace produced a partial shadow, the soft shadow of a
light upon the skin, which gave her the virginal grace that all
painters seek and Leopold Robert found for the Raffaelesque face of
the woman who holds a child in his picture of "The Gleaners." Beneath
this fluted frame of light sparkled a white and rosy and artless face,
glowing with vigorous health. The warmth of the room brought the blood
to the cheeks, to the tips of the pretty ears, to the lips and the end
of the delicate nose, making the natural white of the complexion
"Well, are you not going to say anything? I am your cousin Sylvie, and
that is your cousin Rogron."
"Do you want something to eat?" asked Rogron.
"When did you leave Nantes?" asked Sylvie.
"Is she dumb?" said Rogron.
"Poor little dear, she has hardly any clothes," cried Adele, who had
opened the child's bundle, tied up in a handkerchief of the old
"Kiss your cousin," said Sylvie.
Pierrette kissed Rogron.
"Kiss your cousin," said Rogron.
Pierrette kissed Sylvie.
"She is tired out with her journey, poor little thing; she wants to go
to sleep," said Adele.
Pierrette was overcome with a sudden and invincible aversion for her
two relatives,--a feeling that no one had ever before excited in her.
Sylvie and the maid took her up to bed in the room where Brigaut
afterwards noticed the white cotton curtain. In it was a little bed
with a pole painted blue, from which hung a calico curtain; a walnut
bureau without a marble top, a small table, a looking-glass, a very
common night-table without a door, and three chairs completed the
furniture of the room. The walls, which sloped in front, were hung
with a shabby paper, blue with black flowers. The tiled floor, stained
red and polished, was icy to the feet. There was no carpet except for
a strip at the bedside. The mantelpiece of common marble was adorned
by a mirror, two candelabra in copper-gilt, and a vulgar alabaster cup
in which two pigeons, forming handles, were drinking.
"You will be comfortable here, my little girl?" said Sylvie.
"Oh, it's beautiful!" said the child, in her silvery voice.
"She's not difficult to please," muttered the stout servant. "Sha'n't
I warm her bed?" she asked.
"Yes," said Sylvie, "the sheets may be damp."
Adele brought one of her own night-caps when she returned with the
warming-pan, and Pierrette, who had never slept in anything but the
coarsest linen sheets, was amazed at the fineness and softness of the
cotton ones. When she was fairly in bed and tucked up, Adele, going
downstairs with Sylvie, could not refrain from saying, "All she has
isn't worth three francs, mademoiselle."
Ever since her economical regime began, Sylvie had compelled the maid
to sit in the dining-room so that one fire and one lamp could do for
all; except when Colonel Gouraud and Vinet came, on which occasions
Adele was sent to the kitchen.
Pierrette's arrival enlivened the rest of the evening.
"We must get her some clothes to-morrow," said Sylvie; "she has
"No shoes but those she had on, which weigh a pound," said Adele.
"That's always so, in their part of the country," remarked Rogron.
"How she looked at her room! though it really isn't handsome enough
for a cousin of yours, mademoiselle."
"It is good enough; hold your tongue," said Sylvie.
"Gracious, what chemises! coarse enough to scratch her skin off; not a
thing can she use here," said Adele, emptying the bundle.
Master, mistress, and servant were busy till past ten o'clock,
deciding what cambric they should buy for the new chemises, how many
pairs of stockings, how many under-petticoats, and what material, and
in reckoning up the whole cost of Pierrette's outfit.
"You won't get off under three hundred francs," said Rogron, who could
remember the different prices, and add them up from his former shop-
"Three hundred francs!" cried Sylvie.
"Yes, three hundred. Add it up."
The brother and sister went over the calculation once more, and found
the cost would be fully three hundred francs, not counting the making.
"Three hundred francs at one stroke!" said Sylvie to herself as she
got into bed.
Pierrette was one of those children of love whom love endows with its
tenderness, its vivacity, its gaiety, its nobility, its devotion.
Nothing had so far disturbed or wounded a heart that was delicate as
that of a fawn, but which was now painfully repressed by the cold
greeting of her cousins. If Brittany had been full of outward misery,
at least it was full of love. The old Lorrains were the most incapable
of merchants, but they were also the most loving, frank, caressing, of
friends, like all who are incautious and free from calculation. Their
little granddaughter had received no other education at Pen-Hoel than
that of nature. Pierrette went where she liked, in a boat on the pond,
or roaming the village and the fields with Jacques Brigaut, her
comrade, exactly as Paul and Virginia might have done. Petted by
everybody, free as air, they gaily chased the joys of childhood. In
summer they ran to watch the fishing, they caught the many-colored
insects, they gathered flowers, they gardened; in winter they made
slides, they built snow-men or huts, or pelted each other with
snowballs. Welcomed by all, they met with smiles wherever they went.
When the time came to begin their education, disasters came, too.
Jacques, left without means at the death of his father, was
apprenticed by his relatives to a cabinet-maker, and fed by charity,
as Pierrette was soon to be at Saint-Jacques. Until the little girl
was taken with her grandparents to that asylum, she had known nothing
but fond caresses and protection from every one. Accustomed to confide
in so much love, the little darling missed in these rich relatives, so
eagerly desired, the kindly looks and ways which all the world, even
strangers and the conductors of the coaches, had bestowed upon her.
Her bewilderment, already great, was increased by the moral atmosphere
she had entered. The heart turns suddenly cold or hot like the body.
The poor child wanted to cry, without knowing why; but being very
tired she went to sleep.
The next morning, Pierrette being, like all country children,
accustomed to get up early, was awake two hours before the cook. She
dressed herself, stepping on tiptoe about her room, looked out at the
little square, started to go downstairs and was struck with amazement
by the beauties of the staircase. She stopped to examine all its
details: the painted walls, the brasses, the various ornamentations,
the window fixtures. Then she went down to the garden-door, but was
unable to open it, and returned to her room to wait until Adele should
be stirring. As soon as the woman went to the kitchen Pierrette flew
to the garden and took possession of it, ran to the river, was amazed
at the kiosk, and sat down in it; truly, she had enough to see and to
wonder at until her cousins were up. At breakfast Sylvie said to
"Was it you, little one, who was trotting over my head by daybreak,
and making that racket on the stairs? You woke me so that I couldn't
go to sleep again. You must be very good and quiet, and amuse yourself
without noise. Your cousin doesn't like noise."
"And you must wipe your feet," said Rogron. "You went into the kiosk
with your dirty shoes, and they've tracked all over the floor. Your
cousin likes cleanliness. A great girl like you ought to be clean.
Weren't you clean in Brittany? But I recollect when I went down there
to buy thread it was pitiable to see the folks,--they were like
savages. At any rate she has a good appetite," added Rogron, looking
at his sister; "one would think she hadn't eaten anything for days."
Thus, from the very start Pierrette was hurt by the remarks of her two
cousins,--hurt, she knew not why. Her straightforward, open nature,
hitherto left to itself, was not given to reflection. Incapable of
thinking that her cousins were hard, she was fated to find it out
slowly through suffering. After breakfast the brother and sister,
pleased with Pierrette's astonishment at the house and anxious to
enjoy it, took her to the salon to show her its splendors and teach
her not to touch them. Many celibates, driven by loneliness and the
moral necessity of caring for something, substitute factitious
affections for natural ones; they love dogs, cats, canaries, servants,
or their confessor. Rogron and Sylvie had come to the pass of loving
immoderately their house and furniture, which had cost them so dear.
Sylvie began by helping Adele in the mornings to dust and arrange the
furniture, under pretence that she did not know how to keep it looking
as good as new. This dusting was soon a desired occupation to her, and
the furniture, instead of losing its value in her eyes, became ever
more precious. To use things without hurting them or soiling them or
scratching the woodwork or clouding the varnish, that was the problem
which soon became the mania of the old maid's life. Sylvie had a
closet full of bits of wool, wax, varnish, and brushes, which she had
learned to use with the dexterity of a cabinet-maker; she had her
feather dusters and her dusting-cloths; and she rubbed away without
fear of hurting herself,--she was so strong. The glance of her cold
blue eyes, hard as steel, was forever roving over the furniture and
under it, and you could as soon have found a tender spot in her heart
as a bit of fluff under the sofa.
After the remarks made at Madame Tiphaine's, Sylvie dared not flinch
from the three hundred francs for Pierrette's clothes. During the
first week her time was wholly taken up, and Pierrette's too, by
frocks to order and try on, chemises and petticoats to cut out and
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