The Collection of Antiquities
Honore de Balzac
Part 1 out of 3
Produced by Dagny, and John Bickers
THE COLLECTION OF ANTIQUITIES
HONORE DE BALZAC
To Baron Von Hammer-Purgstall, Member of the Aulic Council, Author
of the History of the Ottoman Empire.
Dear Baron,--You have taken so warm an interest in my long, vast
"History of French Manners in the Nineteenth Century," you have
given me so much encouragement to persevere with my work, that you
have given me a right to associate your name with some portion of
it. Are you not one of the most important representatives of
conscientious, studious Germany? Will not your approval win for me
the approval of others, and protect this attempt of mine? So proud
am I to have gained your good opinion, that I have striven to
deserve it by continuing my labors with the unflagging courage
characteristic of your methods of study, and of that exhaustive
research among documents without which you could never have given
your monumental work to the world of letters. Your sympathy with
such labor as you yourself have bestowed upon the most brilliant
civilization of the East, has often sustained my ardor through
nights of toil given to the details of our modern civilization.
And will not you, whose naive kindliness can only be compared with
that of our own La Fontaine, be glad to know of this?
May this token of my respect for you and your work find you at
Dobling, dear Baron, and put you and yours in mind of one of your
most sincere admirers and friends.
THE COLLECTION OF ANTIQUITIES
There stands a house at a corner of a street, in the middle of a town,
in one of the least important prefectures in France, but the name of
the street and the name of the town must be suppressed here. Every one
will appreciate the motives of this sage reticence demanded by
convention; for if a writer takes upon himself the office of annalist
of his own time, he is bound to touch on many sore subjects. The house
was called the Hotel d'Esgrignon; but let d'Esgrignon be considered a
mere fancy name, neither more nor less connected with real people than
the conventional Belval, Floricour, or Derville of the stage, or the
Adalberts and Mombreuses of romance. After all, the names of the
principal characters will be quite as much disguised; for though in
this history the chronicler would prefer to conceal the facts under a
mass of contradictions, anachronisms, improbabilities, and
absurdities, the truth will out in spite of him. You uproot a
vine-stock, as you imagine, and the stem will send up lusty shoots
after you have ploughed your vineyard over.
The "Hotel d'Esgrignon" was nothing more nor less than the house in
which the old Marquis lived; or, in the style of ancient documents,
Charles Marie Victor Ange Carol, Marquis d'Esgrignon. It was only an
ordinary house, but the townspeople and tradesmen had begun by calling
it the Hotel d'Esgrignon in jest, and ended after a score of years by
giving it that name in earnest.
The name of Carol, or Karawl, as the Thierrys would have spelt it, was
glorious among the names of the most powerful chieftains of the
Northmen who conquered Gaul and established the feudal system there.
Never had Carol bent his head before King or Communes, the Church or
Finance. Intrusted in the days of yore with the keeping of a French
March, the title of marquis in their family meant no shadow of
imaginary office; it had been a post of honor with duties to
discharge. Their fief had always been their domain. Provincial nobles
were they in every sense of the word; they might boast of an unbroken
line of great descent; they had been neglected by the court for two
hundred years; they were lords paramount in the estates of a province
where the people looked up to them with superstitious awe, as to the
image of the Holy Virgin that cures the toothache. The house of
d'Esgrignon, buried in its remote border country, was preserved as the
charred piles of one of Caesar's bridges are maintained intact in a
river bed. For thirteen hundred years the daughters of the house had
been married without a dowry or taken the veil; the younger sons of
every generation had been content with their share of their mother's
dower and gone forth to be captains or bishops; some had made a
marriage at court; one cadet of the house became an admiral, a duke,
and a peer of France, and died without issue. Never would the Marquis
d'Esgrignon of the elder branch accept the title of duke.
"I hold my marquisate as His Majesty holds the realm of France, and on
the same conditions," he told the Constable de Luynes, a very paltry
fellow in his eyes at that time.
You may be sure that d'Esgrignons lost their heads on the scaffold
during the troubles. The old blood showed itself proud and high even
in 1789. The Marquis of that day would not emigrate; he was answerable
for his March. The reverence in which he was held by the countryside
saved his head; but the hatred of the genuine sans-culottes was strong
enough to compel him to pretend to fly, and for a while he lived in
hiding. Then, in the name of the Sovereign People, the d'Esgrignon
lands were dishonored by the District, and the woods sold by the
Nation in spite of the personal protest made by the Marquis, then
turned forty. Mlle. d'Esgrignon, his half-sister, saved some portions
of the fief, thanks to the young steward of the family, who claimed on
her behalf the partage de presuccession, which is to say, the right of
a relative to a portion of the emigre's lands. To Mlle. d'Esgrignon,
therefore, the Republic made over the castle itself and a few farms.
Chesnel [Choisnel], the faithful steward, was obliged to buy in his
own name the church, the parsonage house, the castle gardens, and
other places to which his patron was attached--the Marquis advancing
The slow, swift years of the Terror went by, and the Marquis, whose
character had won the respect of the whole country, decided that he
and his sister ought to return to the castle and improve the property
which Maitre Chesnel--for he was now a notary--had contrived to save
for them out of the wreck. Alas! was not the plundered and dismantled
castle all too vast for a lord of the manor shorn of all his ancient
rights; too large for the landowner whose woods had been sold
piecemeal, until he could scarce draw nine thousand francs of income
from the pickings of his old estates?
It was in the month of October 1800 that Chesnel brought the Marquis
back to the old feudal castle, and saw with deep emotion, almost
beyound his control, his patron standing in the midst of the empty
courtyard, gazing round upon the moat, now filled up with rubbish, and
the castle towers razed to the level of the roof. The descendant of
the Franks looked for the missing Gothic turrets and the picturesque
weather vanes which used to rise above them; and his eyes turned to
the sky, as if asking of heaven the reason of this social upheaval. No
one but Chesnel could understand the profound anguish of the great
d'Esgrignon, now known as Citizen Carol. For a long while the Marquis
stood in silence, drinking in the influences of the place, the ancient
home of his forefathers, with the air that he breathed; then he flung
out a most melancholy exclamation.
"Chesnel," he said, "we will come back again some day when the
troubles are over; I could not bring myself to live here until the
edict of pacification has been published; /they/ will not allow me to
set my scutcheon on the wall."
He waved his hand toward the castle, mounted his horse, and rode back
beside his sister, who had driven over in the notary's shabby
The Hotel d'Esgrignon in the town had been demolished; a couple of
factories now stood on the site of the aristocrat's house. So Maitre
Chesnel spent the Marquis' last bag of louis on the purchase of the
old-fashioned building in the square, with its gables, weather-vane,
turret, and dovecote. Once it had been the courthouse of the
bailiwick, and subsequently the presidial; it had belonged to the
d'Esgrignons from generation to generation; and now, in consideration
of five hundred louis d'or, the present owner made it over with the
title given by the Nation to its rightful lord. And so, half in jest,
half in earnest, the old house was christened the Hotel d'Esgrignon.
In 1800 little or no difficulty was made over erasing names from the
fatal list, and some few emigres began to return. Among the very first
nobles to come back to the old town were the Baron de Nouastre and his
daughter. They were completely ruined. M. d'Esgrignon generously
offered them the shelter of his roof; and in his house, two months
later, the Baron died, worn out with grief. The Nouastres came of
the best blood in the province; Mlle. de Nouastre was a girl of
two-and-twenty; the Marquis d'Esgrignon married her to continue his
line. But she died in childbirth, a victim to the unskilfulness of her
physician, leaving, most fortunately, a son to bear the name of the
d'Esgrignons. The old Marquis--he was but fifty-three, but adversity
and sharp distress had added months to every year--the poor old
Marquis saw the death of the loveliest of human creatures, a noble
woman in whom the charm of the feminine figures of the sixteenth
century lived again, a charm now lost save to men's imaginations. With
her death the joy died out of his old age. It was one of those
terrible shocks which reverberate through every moment of the years
that follow. For a few moments he stood beside the bed where his wife
lay, with her hands folded like a saint, then he kissed her on the
forehead, turned away, drew out his watch, broke the mainspring, and
hung it up beside the hearth. It was eleven o'clock in the morning.
"Mlle. d'Esgrignon," he said, "let us pray God that this hour may not
prove fatal yet again to our house. My uncle the archbishop was
murdered at this hour; at this hour also my father died----"
He knelt down beside the bed and buried his face in the coverlet; his
sister did the same, in another moment they both rose to their feet.
Mlle. d'Esgrignon burst into tears; but the old Marquis looked with
dry eyes at the child, round the room, and again on his dead wife. To
the stubbornness of the Frank he united the fortitude of a Christian.
These things came to pass in the second year of the nineteenth
century. Mlle. d'Esgrignon was then twenty-seven years of age. She was
a beautiful woman. An ex-contractor for forage to the armies of the
Republic, a man of the district, with an income of six thousand
francs, persuaded Chesnel to carry a proposal of marriage to the lady.
The Marquis and his sister were alike indignant with such presumption
in their man of business, and Chesnel was almost heartbroken; he could
not forgive himself for yielding to the Sieur du Croisier's [du
Bousquier] blandishments. The Marquis' manner with his old servant
changed somewhat; never again was there quite the old affectionate
kindliness, which might almost have been taken for friendship. From
that time forth the Marquis was grateful, and his magnanimous and
sincere gratitude continually wounded the poor notary's feelings. To
some sublime natures gratitude seems an excessive payment; they would
rather have that sweet equality of feeling which springs from similar
ways of thought, and the blending of two spirits by their own choice
and will. And Maitre Chesnel had known the delights of such high
friendship; the Marquis had raised him to his own level. The old noble
looked on the good notary as something more than a servant, something
less than a child; he was the voluntary liege man of the house, a serf
bound to his lord by all the ties of affection. There was no balancing
of obligations; the sincere affection on either side put them out of
In the eyes of the Marquis, Chesnel's official dignity was as nothing;
his old servitor was merely disguised as a notary. As for Chesnel, the
Marquis was now, as always, a being of a divine race; he believed in
nobility; he did not blush to remember that his father had thrown open
the doors of the salon to announce that "My Lord Marquis is served."
His devotion to the fallen house was due not so much to his creed as
to egoism; he looked on himself as one of the family. So his vexation
was intense. Once he had ventured to allude to his mistake in spite
of the Marquis' prohibition, and the old noble answered gravely
--"Chesnel, before the troubles you would not have permitted yourself
to entertain such injurious suppositions. What can these new doctrines
be if they have spoiled /you/?"
Maitre Chesnel had gained the confidence of the whole town; people
looked up to him; his high integrity and considerable fortune
contributed to make him a person of importance. From that time forth
he felt a very decided aversion for the Sieur du Crosier; and though
there was little rancor in his composition, he set others against the
sometime forage-contractor. Du Croisier, on the other hand, was a man
to bear a grudge and nurse a vengeance for a score of years. He hated
Chesnel and the d'Esgrignon family with the smothered, all-absorbing
hate only to be found in a country town. His rebuff had simply ruined
him with the malicious provincials among whom he had come to live,
thinking to rule over them. It was so real a disaster that he was not
long in feeling the consequences of it. He betook himself in
desperation to a wealthy old maid, and met with a second refusal. Thus
failed the ambitious schemes with which he had started. He had lost
his hope of a marriage with Mlle. d'Esgrignon, which would have opened
the Faubourg Saint-Germain of the province to him; and after the
second rejection, his credit fell away to such an extent that it was
almost as much as he could do to keep his position in the second rank.
In 1805, M. de la Roche-Guyon, the oldest son of an ancient family
which had previously intermarried with the d'Esgrignons, made
proposals in form through Maitre Chesnel for Mlle. Marie Armande Clair
d'Esgrignon. She declined to hear the notary.
"You must have guessed before now that I am a mother, dear Chesnel,"
she said; she had just put her nephew, a fine little boy of five, to
The old Marquis rose and went up to his sister, but just returned from
the cradle; he kissed her hand reverently, and as he sat down again,
found words to say:
"My sister, you are a d'Esgrignon."
A quiver ran through the noble girl; the tears stood in her eyes. M.
d'Esgrignon, the father of the present Marquis, had married a second
wife, the daughter of a farmer of taxes ennobled by Louis XIV. It was
a shocking mesalliance in the eyes of his family, but fortunately of
no importance, since a daughter was the one child of the marriage.
Armande knew this. Kind as her brother had always been, he looked on
her as a stranger in blood. And this speech of his had just recognized
her as one of the family.
And was not her answer the worthy crown of eleven years of her noble
life? Her every action since she came of age had borne the stamp of
the purest devotion; love for her brother was a sort of religion with
"I shall die Mlle. d'Esgrignon," she said simply, turning to the
"For you there could be no fairer title," returned Chesnel, meaning to
convey a compliment. Poor Mlle. d'Esgrignon reddened.
"You have blundered, Chesnel," said the Marquis, flattered by the
steward's words, but vexed that his sister had been hurt. "A
d'Esgrignon may marry a Montmorency; their descent is not so pure as
ours. The d'Esgrignons bear or, two bends, gules," he continued, "and
nothing during nine hundred years has changed their scutcheon; as it
was at first, so it is to-day. Hence our device, Cil est nostre, taken
at a tournament in the reign of Philip Augustus, with the supporters,
a knight in armor or on the right, and a lion gules on the left."
"I do not remember that any woman I have ever met has struck my
imagination as Mlle. d'Esgrignon did," said Emile Blondet, to whom
contemporary literature is indebted for this history among other
things. "Truth to tell, I was a boy, a mere child at the time, and
perhaps my memory-pictures of her owe something of their vivid color
to a boy's natural turn for the marvelous.
"If I was playing with other children on the Parade, and she came to
walk there with her nephew Victurnien, the sight of her in the
distance thrilled me with very much the effect of galvanism on a dead
body. Child as I was, I felt as though new life had been given me.
"Mlle. Armande had hair of tawny gold; there was a delicate fine down
on her cheek, with a silver gleam upon it which I loved to catch,
putting myself so that I could see the outlines of her face lit up by
the daylight, and feel the fascination of those dreamy emerald eyes,
which sent a flash of fire through me whenever they fell upon my face.
I used to pretend to roll on the grass before her in our games, only
to try to reach her little feet, and admire them on a closer view. The
soft whiteness of her skin, her delicate features, the clearly cut
lines of her forehead, the grace of her slender figure, took me with a
sense of surprise, while as yet I did not know that her shape was
graceful, nor her brows beautiful, nor the outline of her face a
perfect oval. I admired as children pray at that age, without too
clearly understanding why they pray. When my piercing gaze attracted
her notice, when she asked me (in that musical voice of hers, with
more volume in it, as it seemed to me, than all other voices), 'What
are you doing little one? Why do you look at me?'--I used to come
nearer and wriggle and bite my finger-nails, and redden and say, 'I do
not know.' And if she chanced to stroke my hair with her white hand,
and ask me how old I was, I would run away and call from a distance,
Every princess and fairy of my visions, as I read the Arabian Nights,
looked and walked like Mlle. d'Esgrignon; and afterwards, when my
drawing-master gave me heads from the antique to copy, I noticed that
their hair was braided like Mlle. d'Esgrignon's. Still later, when the
foolish fancies had vanished one by one, Mlle. Armande remained
vaguely in my memory as a type; that Mlle. Armande for whom men made
way respectfully, following the tall brown-robed figure with their
eyes along the Parade and out of sight. Her exquisitely graceful form,
the rounded curves sometimes revealed by a chance gust of wind, and
always visible to my eyes in spite of the ample folds of stuff,
revisited my young man's dreams. Later yet, when I came to think
seriously over certain mysteries of human thought, it seemed to me
that the feeling of reverence was first inspired in me by something
expressed in Mlle. d'Esgrignon's face and bearing. The wonderful calm
of her face, the suppressed passion in it, the dignity of her
movements, the saintly life of duties fulfilled,--all this touched and
awed me. Children are more susceptible than people imagine to the
subtle influences of ideas; they never make game of real dignity; they
feel the charm of real graciousness, and beauty attracts them, for
childhood itself is beautiful, and there are mysterious ties between
things of the same nature.
"Mlle. d'Esgrignon was one of my religions. To this day I can never
climb the staircase of some old manor-house but my foolish imagination
must needs picture Mlle. Armande standing there, like the spirit of
feudalism. I can never read old chronicles but she appears before my
eyes in the shape of some famous woman of old times; she is Agnes
Sorel, Marie Touchet, Gabrielle; and I lend her all the love that was
lost in her heart, all the love that she never expressed. The angel
shape seen in glimpses through the haze of childish fancies visits me
now sometimes across the mists of dreams."
Keep this portrait in mind; it is a faithful picture and sketch of
character. Mlle. d'Esgrignon is one of the most instructive figures in
this story; she affords an example of the mischief that may be done by
the purest goodness for lack of intelligence.
Two-thirds of the emigres returned to France during 1804 and 1805, and
almost every exile from the Marquis d'Esgrignon's province came back
to the land of his fathers. There were certainly defections. Men of
good birth entered the service of Napoleon, and went into the army or
held places at the Imperial court, and others made alliances with the
upstart families. All those who cast in their lots with the Empire
retrieved their fortunes and recovered their estates, thanks to the
Emperor's munificence; and these for the most part went to Paris and
stayed there. But some eight or nine families still remained true to
the proscribed noblesse and loyal to the fallen monarchy. The La
Roche-Guyons, Nouastres, Verneuils, Casterans, Troisvilles, and the
rest were some of them rich, some of them poor; but money, more or
less, scarcely counted for anything among them. They took an
antiquarian view of themselves; for them the age and preservation of
the pedigree was the one all-important matter; precisely as, for an
amateur, the weight of metal in a coin is a small matter in comparison
with clean lettering, a flawless stamp, and high antiquity. Of these
families, the Marquis d'Esgrignon was the acknowledged head. His house
became their cenacle. There His Majesty, Emperor and King, was never
anything but "M. de Bonaparte"; there "the King" meant Louis XVIII.,
then at Mittau; there the Department was still the Province, and the
prefecture the intendance.
The Marquis was honored among them for his admirable behavior, his
loyalty as a noble, his undaunted courage; even as he was respected
throughout the town for his misfortunes, his fortitude, his steadfast
adherence to his political convictions. The man so admirable in
adversity was invested with all the majesty of ruined greatness. His
chivalrous fair-mindedness was so well known, that litigants many a
time had referred their disputes to him for arbitration. All gently
bred Imperalists and the authorities themselves showed as much
indulgence for his prejudices as respect for his personal character;
but there was another and a large section of the new society which was
destined to be known after the Restoration as the Liberal party; and
these, with du Croisier as their unacknowledged head, laughed at an
aristocratic oasis which nobody might enter without proof of
irreproachable descent. Their animosity was all the more bitter
because honest country squires and the higher officials, with a good
many worthy folk in the town, were of the opinion that all the best
society thereof was to be found in the Marquis d'Esgrignon's salon.
The prefect himself, the Emperor's chamberlain, made overtures to the
d'Esgrignons, humbly sending his wife (a Grandlieu) as ambassadress.
Wherefore, those excluded from the miniature provincial Faubourg
Saint-Germain nicknamed the salon "The Collection of Antiquities," and
called the Marquis himself "M. Carol." The receiver of taxes, for
instance, addressed his applications to "M. Carol (ci-devant des
Grignons)," maliciously adopting the obsolete way of spelling.
"For my own part," said Emile Blondet, "if I try to recall my
childhood memories, I remember that the nickname of 'Collection of
Antiquities' always made me laugh, in spite of my respect--my love, I
ought to say--for Mlle. d'Esgrignon. The Hotel d'Esgrignon stood at
the angle of two of the busiest thoroughfares in the town, and not
five hundred paces away from the market place. Two of the drawing-room
windows looked upon the street and two upon the square; the room was
like a glass cage, every one who came past could look through it from
side to side. I was only a boy of twelve at the time, but I thought,
even then, that the salon was one of those rare curiosities which
seem, when you come to think of them afterwards, to lie just on the
borderland between reality and dreams, so that you can scarcely tell
to which side they most belong.
"The room, the ancient Hall of Audience, stood above a row of cellars
with grated air-holes, once the prison cells of the old court-house,
now converted into a kitchen. I do not know that the magnificent lofty
chimney-piece of the Louvre, with its marvelous carving, seemed more
wonderful to me than the vast open hearth of the salon d'Esgrignon
when I saw it for the first time. It was covered like a melon with a
network of tracery. Over it stood an equestrian portrait of Henri
III., under whom the ancient duchy of appanage reverted to the crown;
it was a great picture executed in low relief, and set in a carved and
gilded frame. The ceiling spaces between the chestnut cross-beams in
the fine old roof were decorated with scroll-work patterns; there was
a little faded gilding still left along the angles. The walls were
covered with Flemish tapestry, six scenes from the Judgment of
Solomon, framed in golden garlands, with satyrs and cupids playing
among the leaves. The parquet floor had been laid down by the present
Marquis, and Chesnel had picked up the furniture at sales of the
wreckage of old chateaux between 1793 and 1795; so that there were
Louis Quatorze consoles, tables, clock-cases, andirons, candle-sconces
and tapestry-covered chairs, which marvelously completed a stately
room, large out of all proportion to the house. Luckily, however,
there was an equally lofty ante-chamber, the ancient Salle des Pas
Perdus of the presidial, which communicated likewise with the
magistrate's deliberating chamber, used by the d'Esgrignons as a
"Beneath the old paneling, amid the threadbare braveries of a bygone
day, some eight or ten dowagers were drawn up in state in a quavering
line; some with palsied heads, others dark and shriveled like mummies;
some erect and stiff, others bowed and bent, but all of them tricked
out in more or less fantastic costumes as far as possible removed from
the fashion of the day, with be-ribboned caps above their curled and
powdered 'heads,' and old discolored lace. No painter however earnest,
no caricature however wild, ever caught the haunting fascination of
those aged women; they come back to me in dreams; their puckered faces
shape themselves in my memory whenever I meet an old woman who puts me
in mind of them by some faint resemblance of dress or feature. And
whether it is that misfortune has initiated me into the secrets of
irremediable and overwhelming disaster; whether that I have come to
understand the whole range of human feelings, and, best of all, the
thoughts of Old Age and Regret; whatever the reason, nowhere and never
again have I seen among the living or in the faces of the dying the
wan look of certain gray eyes that I remember, nor the dreadful
brightness of others that were black.
"Neither Hoffmann nor Maturin, the two weirdest imaginations of our
time, ever gave me such a thrill of terror as I used to feel when I
watched the automaton movements of those bodies sheathed in whalebone.
The paint on actors' faces never caused me a shock; I could see below
it the rouge in grain, the rouge de naissance, to quote a comrade at
least as malicious as I can be. Years had leveled those women's faces,
and at the same time furrowed them with wrinkles, till they looked
like the heads on wooden nutcrackers carved in Germany. Peeping
in through the window-panes, I gazed at the battered bodies, and
ill-jointed limbs (how they were fastened together, and, indeed,
their whole anatomy was a mystery I never attempted to explain); I saw
the lantern jaws, the protuberant bones, the abnormal development of
the hips; and the movements of these figures as they came and went
seemed to me no whit less extraordinary than their sepulchral
immobility as they sat round the card-tables.
"The men looked gray and faded like the ancient tapestries on the
wall, in dress they were much more like the men of the day, but even
they were not altogether convincingly alive. Their white hair, their
withered waxen-hued faces, their devastated foreheads and pale eyes,
revealed their kinship to the women, and neutralized any effects of
reality borrowed from their costume.
"The very certainty of finding all these folk seated at or among the
tables every day at the same hours invested them at length in my eyes
with a sort of spectacular interest as it were; there was something
theatrical, something unearthly about them.
"Whenever, in after times, I have gone through museums of old
furniture in Paris, London, Munich, or Vienna, with the gray-headed
custodian who shows you the splendors of time past, I have peopled the
rooms with figures from the Collection of Antiquities. Often, as
little schoolboys of eight or ten we used to propose to go and take a
look at the curiosities in their glass cage, for the fun of the thing.
But as soon as I caught sight of Mlle. Armande's sweet face, I used to
tremble; and there was a trace of jealousy in my admiration for the
lovely child Victurnien, who belonged, as we all instinctively felt,
to a different and higher order of being from our own. It struck me as
something indescribably strange that the young fresh creature should
be there in that cemetery awakened before the time. We could not have
explained our thoughts to ourselves, yet we felt that we were
bourgeois and insignificant in the presence of that proud court."
The disasters of 1813 and 1814, which brought about the downfall of
Napoleon, gave new life to the Collection of Antiquities, and what was
more than life, the hope of recovering their past importance; but the
events of 1815, the troubles of the foreign occupation, and the
vacillating policy of the Government until the fall of M. Decazes, all
contributed to defer the fulfilment of the expectations of the
personages so vividly described by Blondet. This story, therefore,
only begins to shape itself in 1822.
In 1822 the Marquis d'Esgrignon's fortunes had not improved in spite
of the changes worked by the Restoration in the condition of emigres.
Of all the nobles hardly hit by Revolutionary legislation, his case
was the hardest. Like other great families, the d'Esgrignons before
1789 derived the greater part of their income from their rights as
lords of the manor in the shape of dues paid by those who held of
them; and, naturally, the old seigneurs had reduced the size of the
holdings in order to swell the amounts paid in quit-rents and heriots.
Families in this position were hopelessly ruined. They were not
affected by the ordinance by which Louis XVIII. put the emigres into
possession of such of their lands as had not been sold; and at a later
date it was impossible that the law of indemnity should indemnify
them. Their suppressed rights, as everybody knows, were revived in the
shape of a land tax known by the very name of domaines, but the money
went into the coffers of the State.
The Marquis by his position belonged to that small section of the
Royalist party which would hear of no kind of compromise with those
whom they styled, not Revolutionaries, but revolted subjects, or, in
more parliamentary language, they had no dealings with Liberals or
Constitutionnels. Such Royalists, nicknamed Ultras by the opposition,
took for leaders and heroes those courageous orators of the Right, who
from the very beginning attempted, with M. de Polignac, to protest
against the charter granted by Louis XVIII. This they regarded as an
ill-advised edict extorted from the Crown by the necessity of the
moment, only to be annulled later on. And, therefore, so far from
co-operating with the King to bring about a new condition of things,
the Marquis d'Esgrignon stood aloof, an upholder of the straitest sect
of the Right in politics, until such time as his vast fortune should
be restored to him. Nor did he so much as admit the thought of the
indemnity which filled the minds of the Villele ministry, and formed a
part of a design of strengthening the Crown by putting an end to those
fatal distinctions of ownership which still lingered on in spite of
The miracles of the Restoration of 1814, the still greater miracle of
Napoleon's return in 1815, the portents of a second flight of the
Bourbons, and a second reinstatement (that almost fabulous phase of
contemporary history), all these things took the Marquis by
surprise at the age of sixty-seven. At that time of life, the most
high-spirited men of their age were not so much vanquished as worn out
in the struggle with the Revolution; their activity, in their remote
provincial retreats, had turned into a passionately held and immovable
conviction; and almost all of them were shut in by the enervating,
easy round of daily life in the country. Could worse luck befall a
political party than this--to be represented by old men at a time when
its ideas are already stigmatized as old-fashioned?
When the legitimate sovereign appeared to be firmly seated on the
throne again in 1818, the Marquis asked himself what a man of seventy
should do at court; and what duties, what office he could discharge
there? The noble and high-minded d'Esgrignon was fain to be content
with the triumph of the Monarchy and Religion, while he waited for the
results of that unhoped-for, indecisive victory, which proved to be
simply an armistice. He continued as before, lord-paramount of his
salon, so felicitously named the Collection of Antiquities.
But when the victors of 1793 became the vanquished in their turn, the
nickname given at first in jest began to be used in bitter earnest.
The town was no more free than other country towns from the hatreds
and jealousies bred of party spirit. Du Croisier, contrary to all
expectation, married the old maid who had refused him at first;
carrying her off from his rival, the darling of the aristocratic
quarter, a certain Chevalier whose illustrious name will be
sufficiently hidden by suppressing it altogether, in accordance with
the usage formerly adopted in the place itself, where he was known by
his title only. He was "the Chevalier" in the town, as the Comte
d'Artois was "Monsieur" at court. Now, not only had that marriage
produced a war after the provincial manner, in which all weapons are
fair; it had hastened the separation of the great and little noblesse,
of the aristocratic and bourgeois social elements, which had been
united for a little space by the heavy weight of Napoleonic rule.
After the pressure was removed, there followed that sudden revival of
class divisions which did so much harm to the country.
The most national of all sentiments in France is vanity. The wounded
vanity of the many induced a thirst for Equality; though, as the most
ardent innovator will some day discover, Equality is an impossibility.
The Royalists pricked the Liberals in the most sensitive spots, and
this happened specially in the provinces, where either party accused
the other of unspeakable atrocities. In those days the blackest deeds
were done in politics, to secure public opinion on one side or the
other, to catch the votes of that public of fools which holds up hands
for those that are clever enough to serve out weapons to them.
Individuals are identified with their political opinions, and
opponents in public life forthwith became private enemies. It is very
difficult in a country town to avoid a man-to-man conflict of this
kind over interests or questions which in Paris appear in a more
general and theoretical form, with the result that political
combatants also rise to a higher level; M. Laffitte, for example, or
M. Casimir-Perier can respect M. de Villele or M. de Payronnet as a
man. M. Laffitte, who drew the fire on the Ministry, would have given
them an asylum in his house if they had fled thither on the 29th of
July 1830. Benjamin Constant sent a copy of his work on Religion to
the Vicomte de Chateaubriand, with a flattering letter acknowledging
benefits received from the former Minister. At Paris men are systems,
whereas in the provinces systems are identified with men; men,
moreover, with restless passions, who must always confront one
another, always spy upon each other in private life, and pull their
opponents' speeches to pieces, and live generally like two duelists
on the watch for a chance to thrust six inches of steel between an
antagonist's ribs. Each must do his best to get under his enemy's
guard, and a political hatred becomes as all-absorbing as a duel to
the death. Epigram and slander are used against individuals to bring
the party into discredit.
In such warfare as this, waged ceremoniously and without rancor on the
side of the Antiquities, while du Croisier's faction went so far as to
use the poisoned weapons of savages--in this warfare the advantages of
wit and delicate irony lay on the side of the nobles. But it should
never be forgotten that the wounds made by the tongue and the eyes, by
gibe or slight, are the last of all to heal. When the Chevalier turned
his back on mixed society and entrenched himself on the Mons Sacer of
the aristocracy, his witticisms thenceforward were directed at du
Croisier's salon; he stirred up the fires of war, not knowing how far
the spirit of revenge was to urge the rival faction. None but purists
and loyal gentlemen and women sure one of another entered the Hotel
d'Esgrignon; they committed no indiscretions of any kind; they had
their ideas, true or false, good or bad, noble or trivial, but there
was nothing to laugh at in all this. If the Liberals meant to make the
nobles ridiculous, they were obliged to fasten on the political
actions of their opponents; while the intermediate party, composed of
officials and others who paid court to the higher powers, kept the
nobles informed of all that was done and said in the Liberal camp, and
much of it was abundantly laughable. Du Croisier's adherents smarted
under a sense of inferiority, which increased their thirst for
In 1822, du Croisier put himself at the head of the manufacturing
interest of the province, as the Marquis d'Esgrignon headed the
noblesse. Each represented his party. But du Croisier, instead of
giving himself out frankly for a man of the extreme Left, ostensibly
adopted the opinions formulated at a later date by the 221 deputies.
By taking up this position, he could keep in touch with the
magistrates and local officials and the capitalists of the department.
Du Croisier's salon, a power at least equal to the salon d'Esgrignon,
larger numerically, as well as younger and more energetic, made itself
felt all over the countryside; the Collection of Antiquities, on the
other hand, remained inert, a passive appendage, as it were, of a
central authority which was often embarrassed by its own partisans;
for not merely did they encourage the Government in a mistaken policy,
but some of its most fatal blunders were made in consequence of the
pressure brought to bear upon it by the Conservative party.
The Liberals, so far, had never contrived to carry their candidate.
The department declined to obey their command knowing that du
Croisier, if elected, would take his place on the Left Centre benches,
and as far as possible to the Left. Du Croisier was in correspondence
with the Brothers Keller, the bankers, the oldest of whom shone
conspicuous among "the nineteen deputies of the Left," that phalanx
made famous by the efforts of the entire Liberal press. This same M.
Keller, moreover, was related by marriage to the Comte de Gondreville,
a Constitutional peer who remained in favor with Louis XVIII. For
these reasons, the Constitutional Opposition (as distinct from the
Liberal party) was always prepared to vote at the last moment, not for
the candidate whom they professed to support, but for du Croisier, if
that worthy could succeed in gaining a sufficient number of Royalist
votes; but at every election du Croisier was regularly thrown out by
the Royalists. The leaders of that party, taking their tone from the
Marquis d'Esgrignon, had pretty thoroughly fathomed and gauged their
man; and with each defeat, du Croisier and his party waxed more
bitter. Nothing so effectually stirs up strife as the failure of some
snare set with elaborate pains.
In 1822 there seemed to be a lull in hostilities which had been kept
up with great spirit during the first four years of the Restoration.
The salon du Croisier and the salon d'Esgrignon, having measured their
strength and weakness, were in all probability waiting for
opportunity, that Providence of party strife. Ordinary persons were
content with the surface quiet which deceived the Government; but
those who knew du Croisier better, were well aware that the passion of
revenge in him, as in all men whose whole life consists in mental
activity, is implacable, especially when political ambitions are
involved. About this time du Croisier, who used to turn white and red
at the bare mention of d'Esgrignon or the Chevalier, and shuddered at
the name of the Collection of Antiquities, chose to wear the impassive
countenance of a savage. He smiled upon his enemies, hating them but
the more deeply, watching them the more narrowly from hour to hour.
One of his own party, who seconded him in these calculations of cold
wrath, was the President of the Tribunal, M. du Ronceret, a little
country squire, who had vainly endeavored to gain admittance among the
The d'Esgrignons' little fortune, carefully administered by Maitre
Chesnel, was barely sufficient for the worthy Marquis' needs; for
though he lived without the slightest ostentation, he also lived like
a noble. The governor found by his Lordship the Bishop for the hope of
the house, the young Comte Victurnien d'Esgrignon, was an elderly
Oratorian who must be paid a certain salary, although he lived with
the family. The wages of a cook, a waiting-woman for Mlle. Armande, an
old valet for M. le Marquis, and a couple of other servants, together
with the daily expenses of the household, and the cost of an education
for which nothing was spared, absorbed the whole family income, in
spite of Mlle. Armande's economies, in spite of Chesnel's careful
management, and the servants' affection. As yet, Chesnel had not been
able to set about repairs at the ruined castle; he was waiting till
the leases fell in to raise the rent of the farms, for rents had been
rising lately, partly on account of improved methods of agriculture,
partly by the fall in the value of money, of which the landlord would
get the benefit at the expiration of leases granted in 1809.
The Marquis himself knew nothing of the details of the management of
the house or of his property. He would have been thunderstruck if he
had been told of the excessive precautions needed "to make both ends
of the year meet in December," to use the housewife's saying, and he
was so near the end of his life, that every one shrank from opening
his eyes. The Marquis and his adherents believed that a House, to
which no one at Court or in the Government gave a thought, a House
that was never heard of beyond the gates of the town, save here and
there in the same department, was about to revive its ancient
greatness, to shine forth in all its glory. The d'Esgrignons' line
should appear with renewed lustre in the person of Victurnien, just as
the despoiled nobles came into their own again, and the handsome heir
to a great estate would be in a position to go to Court, enter the
King's service, and marry (as other d'Esgrignons had done before him)
a Navarreins, a Cadignan, a d'Uxelles, a Beausant, a Blamont-Chauvry;
a wife, in short, who should unite all the distinctions of birth and
beauty, wit and wealth, and character.
The intimates who came to play their game of cards of an evening--the
Troisvilles (pronounced Treville), the La Roche-Guyons, the Casterans
(pronounced Cateran), and the Duc de Verneuil--had all so long been
accustomed to look up to the Marquis as a person of immense
consequence, that they encouraged him in such notions as these. They
were perfectly sincere in their belief; and indeed, it would have been
well founded if they could have wiped out the history of the last
forty years. But the most honorable and undoubted sanctions of right,
such as Louis XVIII. had tried to set on record when he dated the
Charter from the one-and-twentieth year of his reign, only exist when
ratified by the general consent. The d'Esgrignons not only lacked the
very rudiments of the language of latter-day politics, to wit, money,
the great modern /relief/, or sufficient rehabilitation of nobility;
but, in their case, too, "historical continuity" was lacking, and that
is a kind of renown which tells quite as much at Court as on the
battlefield, in diplomatic circles as in Parliament, with a book, or
in connection with an adventure; it is, as it were, a sacred ampulla
poured upon the heads of each successive generation. Whereas a noble
family, inactive and forgotten, is very much in the position of a
hard-featured, poverty-stricken, simple-minded, and virtuous maid,
these qualifications being the four cardinal points of misfortune. The
marriage of a daughter of the Troisvilles with General Montcornet, so
far from opening the eyes of the Antiquities, very nearly brought
about a rupture between the Troisvilles and the salon d'Esgrignon, the
latter declaring that the Troisvilles were mixing themselves up with
all sorts of people.
There was one, and one only, among all these folk who did not share
their illusions. And that one, needless to say, was Chesnel the
notary. Although his devotion, sufficiently proved already, was simply
unbounded for the great house now reduced to three persons; although
he accepted all their ideas, and thought them nothing less than right,
he had too much common sense, he was too good a man of business to
more than half the families in the department, to miss the
significance of the great changes that were taking place in people's
minds, or to be blind to the different conditions brought about by
industrial development and modern manners. He had watched the
Revolution pass through the violent phase of 1793, when men, women,
and children wore arms, and heads fell on the scaffold, and victories
were won in pitched battles with Europe; and now he saw the same
forces quietly at work in men's minds, in the shape of ideas which
sanctioned the issues. The soil had been cleared, the seed sown, and
now came the harvest. To his thinking, the Revolution had formed the
mind of the younger generation; he touched the hard facts, and knew
that although there were countless unhealed wounds, what had been done
was past recall. The death of a king on the scaffold, the protracted
agony of a queen, the division of the nobles' lands, in his eyes were
so many binding contracts; and where so many vested interests were
involved, it was not likely that those concerned would allow them to
be attacked. Chesnel saw clearly. His fanatical attachment to the
d'Esgrignons was whole-hearted, but it was not blind, and it was all
the fairer for this. The young monk's faith that sees heaven laid open
and beholds the angels, is something far below the power of the old
monk who points them out to him. The ex-steward was like the old monk;
he would have given his life to defend a worm-eaten shrine.
He tried to explain the "innovations" to his old master, using a
thousand tactful precautions; sometimes speaking jestingly, sometimes
affecting surprise or sorrow over this or that; but he always met the
same prophetic smile on the Marquis' lips, the same fixed conviction
in the Marquis' mind, that these follies would go by like others.
Events contributed in a way which has escaped attention to assist such
noble champions of forlorn hope to cling to their superstitions. What
could Chesnel do when the old Marquis said, with a lordly gesture,
"God swept away Bonaparte with his armies, his new great vassals, his
crowned kings, and his vast conceptions! God will deliver us from the
rest." And Chesnel hung his head sadly, and did not dare to answer,
"It cannot be God's will to sweep away France." Yet both of them were
grand figures; the one, standing out against the torrent of facts like
an ancient block of lichen-covered granite, still upright in the
depths of an Alpine gorge; the other, watching the course of the flood
to turn it to account. Then the good gray-headed notary would groan
over the irreparable havoc which the superstitions were sure to work
in the mind, the habits, and ideas of the Comte Victurnien
Idolized by his father, idolized by his aunt, the young heir was a
spoilt child in every sense of the word; but still a spoilt child who
justified paternal and maternal illusions. Maternal, be it said, for
Victurnien's aunt was truly a mother to him; and yet, however careful
and tender she may be that never bore a child, there is something
lacking in her motherhood. A mother's second sight cannot be acquired.
An aunt, bound to her nursling by ties of such pure affection as
united Mlle. Armande to Victurnien, may love as much as a mother
might; may be as careful, as kind, as tender, as indulgent, but she
lacks the mother's instinctive knowledge when and how to be severe;
she has no sudden warnings, none of the uneasy presentiments of the
mother's heart; for a mother, bound to her child from the beginnings
of life by all the fibres of her being, still is conscious of the
communication, still vibrates with the shock of every trouble, and
thrills with every joy in the child's life as if it were her own. If
Nature has made of woman, physically speaking, a neutral ground, it
has not been forbidden to her, under certain conditions, to identify
herself completely with her offspring. When she has not merely given
life, but given of her whole life, you behold that wonderful,
unexplained, and inexplicable thing--the love of a woman for one of
her children above the others. The outcome of this story is one more
proof of a proven truth--a mother's place cannot be filled. A mother
foresees danger long before a Mlle. Armande can admit the possibility
of it, even if the mischief is done. The one prevents the evil, the
other remedies it. And besides, in the maiden's motherhood there is an
element of blind adoration, she cannot bring herself to scold a
A practical knowledge of life, and the experience of business, had
taught the old notary a habit of distrustful clear-sighted observation
something akin to the mother's instinct. But Chesnel counted for so
little in the house (especially since he had fallen into something
like disgrace over that unlucky project of a marriage between a
d'Esgrignon and a du Croisier), that he had made up his mind to adhere
blindly in future to the family doctrines. He was a common soldier,
faithful to his post, and ready to give his life; it was never likely
that they would take his advice, even in the height of the storm;
unless chance should bring him, like the King's bedesman in The
Antiquary, to the edge of the sea, when the old baronet and his
daughter were caught by the high tide.
Du Croisier caught a glimpse of his revenge in the anomalous education
given to the lad. He hoped, to quote the expressive words of the
author quoted above, "to drown the lamb in its mother's milk." /This/
was the hope which had produced his taciturn resignation and brought
that savage smile on his lips.
The young Comte Victurnien was taught to believe in his own supremacy
as soon as an idea could enter his head. All the great nobles of the
realm were his peers, his one superior was the King, and the rest of
mankind were his inferiors, people with whom he had nothing in common,
towards whom he had no duties. They were defeated and conquered
enemies, whom he need not take into account for a moment; their
opinions could not affect a noble, and they all owed him respect.
Unluckily, with the rigorous logic of youth, which leads children and
young people to proceed to extremes whether good or bad, Victurnien
pushed these conclusions to their utmost consequences. His own
external advantages, moreover, confirmed him in his beliefs. He had
been extraordinarily beautiful as a child; he became as accomplished a
young man as any father could wish.
He was of average height, but well proportioned, slender, and almost
delicate-looking, but muscular. He had the brilliant blue eyes of the
d'Esgrignons, the finely-moulded aquiline nose, the perfect oval of
the face, the auburn hair, the white skin, and the graceful gait of
his family; he had their delicate extremities, their long taper
fingers with the inward curve, and that peculiar distinction of
shapeliness of the wrist and instep, that supple felicity of line,
which is as sure a sign of race in men as in horses. Adroit and alert
in all bodily exercises, and an excellent shot, he handled arms like a
St. George, he was a paladin on horseback. In short, he gratified the
pride which parents take in their children's appearance; a pride
founded, for that matter, on a just idea of the enormous influence
exercised by physical beauty. Personal beauty has this in common with
noble birth; it cannot be acquired afterwards; it is everywhere
recognized, and often is more valued than either brains or money;
beauty has only to appear and triumph; nobody asks more of beauty than
that it should simply exist.
Fate had endowed Victurnien, over and above the privileges of good
looks and noble birth, with a high spirit, a wonderful aptitude of
comprehension, and a good memory. His education, therefore, had been
complete. He knew a good deal more than is usually known by young
provincial nobles, who develop into highly-distinguished sportsmen,
owners of land, and consumers of tobacco; and are apt to treat art,
sciences, letters, poetry, or anything offensively above their
intellects, cavalierly enough. Such gifts of nature and education
surely would one day realize the Marquis d'Esgrignon's ambitions; he
already saw his son a Marshal of France if Victurnien's tastes were
for the army; an ambassador if diplomacy held any attractions for him;
a cabinet minister if that career seemed good in his eyes; every place
in the state belonged to Victurnien. And, most gratifying thought of
all for a father, the young Count would have made his way in the world
by his own merits even if he had not been a d'Esgrignon.
All through his happy childhood and golden youth, Victurnien had never
met with opposition to his wishes. He had been the king of the house;
no one curbed the little prince's will; and naturally he grew up
insolent and audacious, selfish as a prince, self-willed as the most
high-spirited cardinal of the Middle Ages,--defects of character which
any one might guess from his qualities, essentially those of the
The Chevalier was a man of the good old times when the Gray Musketeers
were the terror of the Paris theatres, when they horsewhipped the
watch and drubbed servers of writs, and played a host of page's
pranks, at which Majesty was wont to smile so long as they were
amusing. This charming deceiver and hero of the ruelles had no small
share in bringing about the disasters which afterwards befell. The
amiable old gentleman, with nobody to understand him, was not a little
pleased to find a budding Faublas, who looked the part to admiration,
and put him in mind of his own young days. So, making no allowance for
the difference of the times, he sowed the maxims of a roue of the
Encyclopaedic period broadcast in the boy's mind. He told wicked
anecdotes of the reign of His Majesty Louis XV.; he glorified the
manners and customs of the year 1750; he told of the orgies in petites
maisons, the follies of courtesans, the capital tricks played on
creditors, the manners, in short, which furnished forth Dancourt's
comedies and Beaumarchais' epigrams. And unfortunately, the corruption
lurking beneath the utmost polish tricked itself out in Voltairean
wit. If the Chevalier went rather too far at times, he always added as
a corrective that a man must always behave himself like a gentleman.
Of all this discourse, Victurnien comprehended just so much as
flattered his passions. From the first he saw his old father laughing
with the Chevalier. The two elderly men considered that the pride of a
d'Esgrignon was a sufficient safeguard against anything unbefitting;
as for a dishonorable action, no one in the house imagined that a
d'Esgrignon could be guilty of it. /Honor/, the great principle of
Monarchy, was planted firm like a beacon in the hearts of the family;
it lighted up the least action, it kindled the least thought of a
d'Esgrignon. "A d'Esgrignon ought not to permit himself to do such and
such a thing; he bears a name which pledges him to make a future
worthy of the past"--a noble teaching which should have been
sufficient in itself to keep alive the tradition of noblesse--had
been, as it were, the burden of Victurnien's cradle song. He heard
them from the old Marquis, from Mlle. Armande, from Chesnel, from the
intimates of the house. And so it came to pass that good and evil met,
and in equal forces, in the boy's soul.
At the age of eighteen, Victurnien went into society. He noticed some
slight discrepancies between the outer world of the town and the inner
world of the Hotel d'Esgrignon, but he in no wise tried to seek the
causes of them. And, indeed, the causes were to be found in Paris. He
had yet to learn that the men who spoke their minds out so boldly in
evening talk with his father, were extremely careful of what they said
in the presence of the hostile persons with whom their interests
compelled them to mingle. His own father had won the right of freedom
of speech. Nobody dreamed of contradicting an old man of seventy, and
besides, every one was willing to overlook fidelity to the old order
of things in a man who had been violently despoiled.
Victurnien was deceived by appearances, and his behavior set up the
backs of the townspeople. In his impetuous way he tried to carry
matters with too high a hand over some difficulties in the way of
sport, which ended in formidable lawsuits, hushed up by Chesnel for
money paid down. Nobody dared to tell the Marquis of these things. You
may judge of his astonishment if he had heard that his son had been
prosecuted for shooting over his lands, his domains, his covers, under
the reign of a son of St. Louis! People were too much afraid of the
possible consequences to tell him about such trifles, Chesnel said.
The young Count indulged in other escapades in the town. These the
Chevalier regarded as "amourettes," but they cost Chesnel something
considerable in portions for forsaken damsels seduced under imprudent
promises of marriage: yet other cases there were which came under an
article of the Code as to the abduction of minors; and but for
Chesnel's timely intervention, the new law would have been allowed to
take its brutal course, and it is hard to say where the Count might
have ended. Victurnien grew the bolder for these victories over
bourgeois justice. He was so accustomed to be pulled out of scrapes,
that he never thought twice before any prank. Courts of law, in his
opinion, were bugbears to frighten people who had no hold on him.
Things which he would have blamed in common people were for him only
pardonable amusements. His disposition to treat the new laws
cavalierly while obeying the maxims of a Code for aristocrats, his
behavior and character, were all pondered, analyzed, and tested by a
few adroit persons in du Croisier's interests. These folk supported
each other in the effort to make the people believe that Liberal
slanders were revelations, and that the Ministerial policy at bottom
meant a return to the old order of things.
What a bit of luck to find something by way of proof of their
assertions! President du Ronceret, and the public prosecutor likewise,
lent themselves admirably, so far as was compatible with their duty as
magistrates, to the design of letting off the offender as easily as
possible; indeed, they went deliberately out of their way to do this,
well pleased to raise a Liberal clamor against their overlarge
concessions. And so, while seeming to serve the interests of the
d'Esgrignons, they stirred up feeling against them. The treacherous de
Ronceret had it in his mind to pose as incorruptible at the right
moment over some serious charge, with public opinion to back him up.
The young Count's worst tendencies, moreover, were insidiously
encouraged by two or three young men who followed in his train, paid
court to him, won his favor, and flattered and obeyed him, with a view
to confirming his belief in a noble's supremacy; and all this at a
time when a noble's one chance of preserving his power lay in using it
with the utmost discretion for half a century to come.
Du Croisier hoped to reduce the d'Esgrignons to the last extremity of
poverty; he hoped to see their castle demolished, and their lands sold
piecemeal by auction, through the follies which this harebrained boy
was pretty certain to commit. This was as far as he went; he did not
think, with President du Ronceret, that Victurnien was likely to give
justice another kind of hold upon him. Both men found an ally for
their schemes of revenge in Victurnien's overweening vanity and love
of pleasure. President du Ronceret's son, a lad of seventeen, was
admirably fitted for the part of instigator. He was one of the Count's
companions, a new kind of spy in du Croisier's pay; du Croisier taught
him his lesson, set him to track down the noble and beautiful boy
through his better qualities, and sardonically prompted him to
encourage his victim in his worst faults. Fabien du Ronceret was a
sophisticated youth, to whom such a mystification was attractive; he
had precisely the keen brain and envious nature which finds in such a
pursuit as this the absorbing amusement which a man of an ingenious
turn lacks in the provinces.
In three years, between the ages of eighteen and one-and-twenty,
Victurnien cost poor Chesnel nearly eighty thousand francs! And this
without the knowledge of Mlle. Armande or the Marquis. More than half
of the money had been spent in buying off lawsuits; the lad's
extravagance had squandered the rest. Of the Marquis' income of ten
thousand livres, five thousand were necessary for the housekeeping;
two thousand more represented Mlle. Armande's allowance (parsimonious
though she was) and the Marquis' expenses. The handsome young
heir-presumptive, therefore, had not a hundred louis to spend. And what
sort of figure can a man make on two thousand livres? Victurnien's
tailor's bills alone absorbed his whole allowance. He had his linen,
his clothes, gloves, and perfumery from Paris. He wanted a good
English saddle-horse, a tilbury, and a second horse. M. du Croisier
had a tilbury and a thoroughbred. Was the bourgeoisie to cut out the
noblesse? Then, the young Count must have a man in the d'Esgrignon
livery. He prided himself on setting the fashion among young men in
the town and the department; he entered that world of luxuries and
fancies which suit youth and good looks and wit so well. Chesnel paid
for it all, not without using, like ancient parliaments, the right of
protest, albeit he spoke with angelic kindness.
"What a pity it is that so good a man should be so tiresome!"
Victurnien would say to himself every time that the notary staunched
some wound in his purse.
Chesnel had been left a widower, and childless; he had taken his old
master's son to fill the void in his heart. It was a pleasure to him
to watch the lad driving up the High Street, perched aloft on the
box-seat of the tilbury, whip in hand, and a rose in his button-hole,
handsome, well turned out, envied by every one.
Pressing need would bring Victurnien with uneasy eyes and coaxing
manner, but steady voice, to the modest house in the Rue du Bercail;
there had been losses at cards at the Troisvilles, or the Duc de
Verneuil's, or the prefecture, or the receiver-general's, and the
Count had come to his providence, the notary. He had only to show
himself to carry the day.
"Well, what is it, M. le Comte? What has happened?" the old man would
ask, with a tremor in his voice.
On great occasions Victurnien would sit down, assume a melancholy,
pensive expression, and submit with little coquetries of voice and
gesture to be questioned. Then when he had thoroughly roused the old
man's fears (for Chesnel was beginning to fear how such a course of
extravagance would end), he would own up to a peccadillo which a bill
for a thousand francs would absolve. Chesnel possessed a private
income of some twelve thousand livres, but the fund was not
inexhaustible. The eighty thousand francs thus squandered represented
his savings, accumulated for the day when the Marquis should send his
son to Paris, or open negotiations for a wealthy marriage.
Chesnel was clear-sighted so long as Victurnien was not there before
him. One by one he lost the illusions which the Marquis and his sister
still fondly cherished. He saw that the young fellow could not be
depended upon in the least, and wished to see him married to some
modest, sensible girl of good birth, wondering within himself how a
young man could mean so well and do so ill, for he made promises one
day only to break them all on the next.
But there is never any good to be expected of young men who confess
their sins and repent, and straightway fall into them again. A man of
strong character only confesses his faults to himself, and punishes
himself for them; as for the weak, they drop back into the old ruts
when they find that the bank is too steep to climb. The springs of
pride which lie in a great man's secret soul had been slackened in
Victurnien. With such guardians as he had, such company as he kept,
such a life as he led, he had suddenly became an enervated voluptuary
at that turning-point in his life when a man most stands in need of
the harsh discipline of misfortune and adversity which formed a Prince
Eugene, a Frederick II., a Napoleon. Chesnel saw that Victurnien
possessed that uncontrollable appetite for enjoyments which should be
the prerogative of men endowed with giant powers; the men who feel the
need of counterbalancing their gigantic labors by pleasures which
bring one-sided mortals to the pit.
At times the good man stood aghast; then, again, some profound sally,
some sign of the lad's remarkable range of intellect, would reassure
him. He would say, as the Marquis said at the rumor of some escapade,
"Boys will be boys." Chesnel had spoken to the Chevalier, lamenting
the young lord's propensity for getting into debt; but the Chevalier
manipulated his pinch of snuff, and listened with a smile of
"My dear Chesnel, just explain to me what a national debt is," he
answered. "If France has debts, egad! why should not Victurnien have
debts? At this time and at all times princes have debts, every
gentleman has debts. Perhaps you would rather that Victurnien should
bring you his savings?--Do you know that our great Richelieu (not the
Cardinal, a pitiful fellow that put nobles to death, but the
Marechal), do you know what he did once when his grandson the Prince
de Chinon, the last of the line, let him see that he had not spent his
pocket-money at the University?"
"No, M. le Chevalier."
"Oh, well; he flung the purse out of the window to a sweeper in the
courtyard, and said to his grandson, 'Then they do not teach you to be
a prince here?'"
Chesnel bent his head and made no answer. But that night, as he lay
awake, he thought that such doctrines as these were fatal in times
when there was one law for everybody, and foresaw the first beginnings
of the ruin of the d'Esgrignons.
But for these explanations which depict one side of provincial life in
the time of the Empire and the Restoration, it would not be easy to
understand the opening scene of this history, an incident which took
place in the great salon one evening towards the end of October 1822.
The card-tables were forsaken, the Collection of Antiquities--elderly
nobles, elderly countesses, young marquises, and simple baronesses
--had settled their losses and winnings. The master of the house was
pacing up and down the room, while Mlle. Armande was putting out the
candles on the card-tables. He was not taking exercise alone, the
Chevalier was with him, and the two wrecks of the eighteenth century
were talking of Victurnien. The Chevalier had undertaken to broach the
subject with the Marquis.
"Yes, Marquis," he was saying, "your son is wasting his time and his
youth; you ought to send him to court."
"I have always thought," said the Marquis, "that if my great age
prevents me from going to court--where, between ourselves, I do not
know what I should do among all these new people whom his Majesty
receives, and all that is going on there--that if I could not go
myself, I could at least send my son to present our homage to His
Majesty. The King surely would do something for the Count--give him a
company, for instance, or a place in the Household, a chance, in
short, for the boy to win his spurs. My uncle the Archbishop suffered
a cruel martyrdom; I have fought for the cause without deserting the
camp with those who thought it their duty to follow the Princes. I
held that while the King was in France, his nobles should rally round
him.--Ah! well, no one gives us a thought; a Henry IV. would have
written before now to the d'Esgrignons, 'Come to me, my friends; we
have won the day!'--After all, we are something better than the
Troisvilles, yet here are two Troisvilles made peers of France; and
another, I hear, represents the nobles in the Chamber." (He took the
upper electoral colleges for assemblies of his own order.) "Really,
they think no more of us than if we did not exist. I was waiting for
the Princes to make their journey through this part of the world; but
as the Princes do not come to us, we must go to the Princes."
"I am enchanted to learn that you think of introducing our dear
Victurnien into society," the Chevalier put in adroitly. "He ought not
to bury his talents in a hole like this town. The best fortune that he
can look for here is to come across some Norman girl" (mimicking the
accent), "country-bred, stupid, and rich. What could he make of
her?--his wife? Oh! good Lord!"
"I sincerely hope that he will defer his marriage until he has
obtained some great office or appointment under the Crown," returned
the gray-haired Marquis. "Still, there are serious difficulties in the
And these were the only difficulties which the Marquis saw at the
outset of his son's career.
"My son, the Comte d'Esgrignon, cannot make his appearance at court
like a tatterdemalion," he continued after a pause, marked by a sigh;
"he must be equipped. Alas! for these two hundred years we have had no
retainers. Ah! Chevalier, this demolition from top to bottom always
brings me back to the first hammer stroke delivered by M. de Mirabeau.
The one thing needful nowadays is money; that is all that the
Revolution has done that I can see. The King does not ask you whether
you are a descendant of the Valois or a conquerer of Gaul; he asks
whether you pay a thousand francs in tailles which nobles never used
to pay. So I cannot well send the Count to court without a matter of
twenty thousand crowns----"
"Yes," assented the Chevalier, "with that trifling sum he could cut a
"Well," said Mlle. Armande, "I have asked Chesnel to come to-night.
Would you believe it, Chevalier, ever since the day when Chesnel
proposed that I should marry that miserable du Croisier----"
"Ah! that was truly unworthy, mademoiselle!" cried the Chevalier.
"Unpardonable!" said the Marquis.
"Well, since then my brother has never brought himself to ask anything
whatsoever of Chesnel," continued Mlle. Armande.
"Of your old household servant? Why, Marquis, you would do Chesnel
honor--an honor which he would gratefully remember till his latest
"No," said the Marquis, "the thing is beneath one's dignity, it seems
"There is not much question of dignity; it is a matter of necessity,"
said the Chevalier, with the trace of a shrug.
"Never," said the Marquis, riposting with a gesture which decided the
Chevalier to risk a great stroke to open his old friend's eyes.
"Very well," he said, "since you do not know it, I will tell you
myself that Chesnel has let your son have something already, something
"My son is incapable of accepting anything whatever from Chesnel," the
Marquis broke in, drawing himself up as he spoke. "He might have come
to /you/ to ask you for twenty-five louis----"
"Something like a hundred thousand livres," said the Chevalier,
finishing his sentence.
"The Comte d'Esgrignon owes a hundred thousand livres to a Chesnel!"
cried the Marquis, with every sign of deep pain. "Oh! if he were not
an only son, he should set out to-night for Mexico with a captain's
commission. A man may be in debt to money-lenders, they charge a heavy
interest, and you are quits; that is right enough; but /Chesnel/! a man
to whom one is attached!----"
"Yes, our adorable Victurnien has run through a hundred thousand
livres, dear Marquis," resumed the Chevalier, flicking a trace of
snuff from his waistcoat; "it is not much, I know. I myself at his
age---- But, after all, let us let old memories be, Marquis. The Count
is living in the provinces; all things taken into consideration, it is
not so much amiss. He will not go far; these irregularities are common
in men who do great things afterwards----"
"And he is sleeping upstairs, without a word of this to his father,"
exclaimed the Marquis.
"Sleeping innocently as a child who has merely got five or six little
bourgeoises into trouble, and now must have duchesses," returned the
"Why, he deserves a lettre de cachet!"
"'They' have done away with lettres de cachet," said the Chevalier.
"You know what a hubbub there was when they tried to institute a law
for special cases. We could not keep the provost's courts, which
M. /de/ Bonaparte used to call commissions militaires."
"Well, well; what are we to do if our boys are wild, or turn out
scapegraces? Is there no locking them up in these days?" asked the
The Chevalier looked at the heartbroken father and lacked courage to
answer, "We shall be obliged to bring them up properly."
"And you have never said a word of this to me, Mlle. d'Esgrignon,"
added the Marquis, turning suddenly round upon Mlle. Armande. He never
addressed her as Mlle. d'Esgrignon except when he was vexed; usually
she was called "my sister."
"Why, monsieur, when a young man is full of life and spirits, and
leads an idle life in a town like this, what else can you expect?"
asked Mlle. d'Esgrignon. She could not understand her brother's anger.
"Debts! eh! why, hang it all!" added the Chevalier. "He plays cards,
he has little adventures, he shoots,--all these things are horribly
"Come," said the Marquis, "it is time to send him to the King. I will
spend to-morrow morning in writing to our kinsmen."
"I have some acquaintance with the Ducs de Navarreins, de Lenoncourt,
de Maufrigneuse, and de Chaulieu," said the Chevalier, though he knew,
as he spoke, that he was pretty thoroughly forgotten.
"My dear Chevalier, there is no need of such formalities to present a
d'Esgrignon at court," the Marquis broke in.--"A hundred thousand
livres," he muttered; "this Chesnel makes very free. This is what
comes of these accursed troubles. M. Chesnel protects my son. And now
I must ask him. . . . No, sister, you must undertake this business.
Chesnel shall secure himself for the whole amount by a mortgage on our
lands. And just give this harebrained boy a good scolding; he will end
by ruining himself if he goes on like this."
The Chevalier and Mlle. d'Esgrignon thought these words perfectly
simple and natural, absurd as they would have sounded to any other
listener. So far from seeing anything ridiculous in the speech, they
were both very much touched by a look of something like anguish in the
old noble's face. Some dark premonition seemed to weigh upon M.
d'Esgrignon at that moment, some glimmering of an insight into the
changed times. He went to the settee by the fireside and sat down,
forgetting that Chesnel would be there before long; that Chesnel, of
whom he could not bring himself to ask anything.
Just then the Marquis d'Esgrignon looked exactly as any imagination
with a touch of romance could wish. He was almost bald, but a fringe
of silken, white locks, curled at the tips, covered the back of his
head. All the pride of race might be seen in a noble forehead, such as
you may admire in a Louis XV., a Beaumarchais, a Marechal de
Richelieu, it was not the square, broad brow of the portraits of the
Marechal de Saxe; nor yet the small hard circle of Voltaire, compact
to overfulness; it was graciously rounded and finely moulded, the
temples were ivory tinted and soft; and mettle and spirit, unquenched
by age, flashed from the brilliant eyes. The Marquis had the Conde
nose and the lovable Bourbon mouth, from which, as they used to say of
the Comte d'Artois, only witty and urbane words proceed. His cheeks,
sloping rather than foolishly rounded to the chin, were in keeping
with his spare frame, thin legs, and plump hands. The strangulation
cravat at his throat was of the kind which every marquis wears in all
the portraits which adorn eighteenth century literature; it is common
alike to Saint-Preux and to Lovelace, to the elegant Montesquieu's
heroes and to Diderot's homespun characters (see the first editions of
those writers' works).
The Marquis always wore a white, gold-embroidered, high waistcoat,
with the red ribbon of a commander of the Order of St. Louis blazing
upon his breast; and a blue coat with wide skirts, and fleur-de-lys on
the flaps, which were turned back--an odd costume which the King had
adopted. But the Marquis could not bring himself to give up the
Frenchman's knee-breeches nor yet the white silk stockings or the
buckles at the knees. After six o'clock in the evening he appeared in
He read no newspapers but the Quotidienne and the Gazette de France,
two journals accused by the Constitutional press of obscurantist views
and uncounted "monarchical and religious" enormities; while the
Marquis d'Esgrignon, on the other hand, found heresies and
revolutionary doctrines in every issue. No matter to what extremes the
organs of this or that opinion may go, they will never go quite far
enough to please the purists on their own side; even as the portrayer
of this magnificent personage is pretty certain to be accused of
exaggeration, whereas he has done his best to soften down some of the
cruder tones and dim the more startling tints of the original.
The Marquis d'Esgrignon rested his elbows on his knees and leant his
head on his hands. During his meditations Mlle. Armande and the
Chevalier looked at one another without uttering the thoughts in their
minds. Was he pained by the discovery that his son's future must
depend upon his sometime land steward? Was he doubtful of the
reception awaiting the young Count? Did he regret that he had made no
preparation for launching his heir into that brilliant world of court?
Poverty had kept him in the depths of his province; how should he have
appeared at court? He sighed heavily as he raised his head.
That sigh, in those days, came from the real aristocracy all over
France; from the loyal provincial noblesse, consigned to neglect with
most of those who had drawn sword and braved the storm for the cause.
"What have the Princes done for the du Guenics, or the Fontaines, or
the Bauvans, who never submitted?" he muttered to himself. "They fling
miserable pensions to the men who fought most bravely, and give them a
royal lieutenancy in a fortress somewhere on the outskirts of the
Evidently the Marquis doubted the reigning dynasty. Mlle. d'Esgrignon
was trying to reassure her brother as to the prospects of the journey,
when a step outside on the dry narrow footway gave them notice of
Chesnel's coming. In another moment Chesnel appeared; Josephin, the
Count's gray-aired valet, admitted the notary without announcing him.
"Chesnel, my boy----" (Chesnel was a white-haired man of sixty-nine,
with a square-jawed, venerable countenance; he wore knee-breeches,
ample enough to fill several chapters of dissertation in the manner
of Sterne, ribbed stockings, shoes with silver clasps, an
ecclesiastical-looking coat and a high waistcoat of scholastic cut.)
"Chesnel, my boy, it was very presumptuous of you to lend money to the
Comte d'Esgrignon! If I repaid you at once and we never saw each other
again, it would be no more than you deserve for giving wings to his
There was a pause, a silence such as there falls at court when the
King publicly reprimands a courtier. The old notary looked humble and
"I am anxious about that boy, Chesnel," continued the Marquis in a
kindly tone; "I should like to send him to Paris to serve His Majesty.
Make arrangements with my sister for his suitable appearance at
court.--And we will settle accounts----"
The Marquis looked grave as he left the room with a friendly gesture
of farewell to Chesnel.
"I thank M. le Marquis for all his goodness," returned the old man,
who still remained standing.
Mlle. Armande rose to go to the door with her brother; she had rung
the bell, old Josephin was in readiness to light his master to his
"Take a seat, Chesnel," said the lady, as she returned, and with
womanly tact she explained away and softened the Marquis' harshness.
And yet beneath that harshness Chesnel saw a great affection. The
Marquis' attachment for his old servant was something of the same
order as a man's affection for his dog; he will fight any one who
kicks the animal, the dog is like a part of his existence, a something
which, if not exactly himself, represents him in that which is nearest
and dearest--his sensibilities.
"It is quite time that M. le Comte should be sent away from the town,
mademoiselle," he said sententiously.
"Yes," returned she. "Has he been indulging in some new escapade?"
"Well, why do you blame him?"
"I am not blaming him, mademoiselle. No, I am not blaming him. I am
very far from blaming him. I will even say that I shall never blame
him, whatever he may do."
There was a pause. The Chevalier, nothing if not quick to take in a
situation, began to yawn like a sleep-ridden mortal. Gracefully he
made his excuses and went, with as little mind to sleep as to go and
drown himself. The imp Curiosity kept the Chevalier wide awake, and
with airy fingers plucked away the cotton wool from his ears.
"Well, Chesnel, is it something new?" Mlle. Armande began anxiously.
"Yes, things that cannot be told to M. le Marquis; he would drop down
in an apoplectic fit."
"Speak out," she said. With her beautiful head leant on the back of
her low chair, and her arms extended listlessly by her side, she
looked as if she were waiting passively for her deathblow.
"Mademoiselle, M. le Comte, with all his cleverness, is a plaything in
the hands of mean creatures, petty natures on the lookout for a
crushing revenge. They want to ruin us and bring us low! There is the
President of the Tribunal, M. de Ronceret; he has, as you know, a very
great notion of his descent----"
"His grandfather was an attorney," interposed Mlle. Armande.
"I know he was. And for that reason you have not received him; nor
does he go to M. de Troisville's, nor to M. le Duc de Verneuil's, nor
to the Marquis de Casteran's; but he is one of the pillars of du
Croisier's salon. Your nephew may rub shoulders with young M. Fabien
du Ronceret without condescending too far, for he must have companions
of his own age. Well and good. That young fellow is at the bottom of
all M. le Comte's follies; he and two or three of the rest of them
belong to the other side, the side of M. le Chevalier's enemy, who
does nothing but breathe threats of vengeance against you and all the
nobles together. They all hope to ruin you through your nephew. The
ringleader of the conspiracy is this sycophant of a du Croisier, the
pretended Royalist. Du Croisier's wife, poor thing, knows nothing
about it; you know her, I should have heard of it before this if she
had ears to hear evil. For some time these wild young fellows were not
in the secret, nor was anybody else; but the ringleaders let something
drop in jest, and then the fools got to know about it, and after the
Count's recent escapades they let fall some words while they were
drunk. And those words were carried to me by others who are sorry to
see such a fine, handsome, noble, charming lad ruining himself with
pleasure. So far people feel sorry for him; before many days are over
they will--I am afraid to say what----"
"They will despise him; say it out, Chesnel!" Mlle. Armande cried
"Ah! How can you keep the best people in the town from finding out
faults in their neighbors? They do not know what to do with themselves
from morning to night. And so M. le Comte's losses at play are all
reckoned up. Thirty thousand francs have taken flight during these two
months, and everybody wonders where he gets the money. If they mention
it when I am present, I just call them to order. Ah! but--'Do you
suppose' (I told them this morning), 'do you suppose that if the
d'Esgrignon family have lost their manorial rights, that therefore
they have been robbed of their hoard of treasure? The young Count has
a right to do as he pleases; and so long as he does not owe you a
half-penny, you have no right to say a word.'"
Mlle, Armande held out her hand, and the notary kissed it
"Good Chesnel! . . . But, my friend, how shall we find the money for
this journey? Victurnien must appear as befits his rank at court."
"Oh! I have borrowed money on Le Jard, mademoiselle."
"What? You have nothing left! Ah, heaven! what can we do to reward
"You can take the hundred thousand francs which I hold at your
disposal. You can understand that the loan was negotiated in
confidence, so that it might not reflect on you; for it is known in
the town that I am closely connected with the d'Esgrignon family."
Tears came into Mlle. Armande's eyes. Chesnel saw them, took a fold of
the noble woman's dress in his hands, and kissed it.
"Never mind," he said, "a lad must sow his wild oats. In great salons
in Paris his boyish ideas will take a new turn. And, really, though
our old friends here are the worthiest folk in the world, and no one
could have nobler hearts than they, they are not amusing. If M. le
Comte wants amusement, he is obliged to look below his rank, and he
will end by getting into low company."
Next day the old traveling coach saw the light, and was sent to be put
in repair. In a solemn interview after breakfast, the hope of the
house was duly informed of his father's intentions regarding him--he
was to go to court and ask to serve His Majesty. He would have time
during the journey to make up his mind about his career. The navy or
the army, the privy council, an embassy, or the Royal Household,--all
were open to a d'Esgrignon, a d'Esgrignon had only to choose. The King
would certainly look favorably upon the d'Esgrignons, because they had
asked nothing of him, and had sent the youngest representative of
their house to receive the recognition of Majesty.
But young d'Esgrignon, with all his wild pranks, had guessed
instinctively what society in Paris meant, and formed his own opinions
of life. So when they talked of his leaving the country and the
paternal roof, he listened with a grave countenance to his revered
parent's lecture, and refrained from giving him a good deal of
information in reply. As, for instance, that young men no longer went
into the army or the navy as they used to do; that if a man had a mind
to be a second lieutenant in a cavalry regiment without passing
through a special training in the Ecoles, he must first serve in the
Pages; that sons of the greatest houses went exactly like commoners to
Saint-Cyr and the Ecole polytechnique, and took their chances of being
beaten by base blood. If he had enlightened his relatives on these
points, funds might not have been forthcoming for a stay in Paris; so
he allowed his father and Aunt Armande to believe that he would be
permitted a seat in the King's carriages, that he must support his
dignity at court as the d'Esgrignon of the time, and rub shoulders
with great lords of the realm.
It grieved the Marquis that he could send but one servant with his
son; but he gave him his own valet Josephin, a man who can be trusted
to take care of his young master, and to watch faithfully over his
interests. The poor father must do without Josephin, and hope to
replace him with a young lad.
"Remember that you are a Carol, my boy," he said; "remember that you
come of an unalloyed descent, and that your scutcheon bears the motto
Cil est nostre; with such arms you may hold your head high everywhere,
and aspire to queens. Render grace to your father, as I to mine. We
owe it to the honor of our ancestors, kept stainless until now, that
we can look all men in the face, and need bend the knee to none save a
mistress, the King, and God. This is the greatest of your privileges."
Chesnel, good man, was breakfasting with the family. He took no part
in counsels based on heraldry, nor in the inditing of letters
addressed to divers mighty personages of the day; but he had spent the
night in writing to an old friend of his, one of the oldest
established notaries of Paris. Without this letter it is not possible
to understand Chesnel's real and assumed fatherhood. It almost recalls
Daedalus' address to Icarus; for where, save in old mythology, can you
look for comparisons worthy of this man of antique mould?
"MY DEAR AND ESTIMABLE SORBIER,--I remember with no little
pleasure that I made my first campaign in our honorable profession
under your father, and that you had a liking for me, poor little
clerk that I was. And now I appeal to old memories of the days
when we worked in the same office, old pleasant memories for our
hearts, to ask you to do me the one service that I have ever asked
of you in the course of our long lives, crossed as they have been
by political catastrophes, to which, perhaps, I owe it that I have
the honor to be your colleague. And now I ask this service of you,
my friend, and my white hairs will be brought with sorrow to the
grave if you should refuse my entreaty. It is no question of
myself or of mine, Sorbier, for I lost poor Mme. Chesnel, and I
have no child of my own. Something more to me than my own family
(if I had one) is involved--it is the Marquis d'Esgrignon's only
son. I have had the honor to be the Marquis' land steward ever
since I left the office to which his father sent me at his own
expense, with the idea of providing for me. The house which
nurtured me has passed through all the troubles of the Revolution.
I have managed to save some of their property; but what is it,
after all, in comparison with the wealth that they have lost? I
cannot tell you, Sorbier, how deeply I am attached to the great
house, which has been all but swallowed up under my eyes by the
abyss of time. M. le Marquis was proscribed, and his lands
confiscated, he was getting on in years, he had no child.
Misfortunes upon misfortunes! Then M. le Marquis married, and his
wife died when the young Count was born, and to-day this noble,
dear, and precious child is all the life of the d'Esgrignon
family; the fate of the house hangs upon him. He has got into debt
here with amusing himself. What else should he do in the provinces
with an allowance of a miserable hundred louis? Yes, my friend, a
hundred louis, the great house has come to this.
"In this extremity his father thinks it necessary to send the
Count to Paris to ask for the King's favor at court. Paris is a
very dangerous place for a lad; if he is to keep steady there, he
must have the grain of sense which makes notaries of us. Besides,
I should be heartbroken to think of the poor boy living amid such
hardships as we have known.--Do you remember the pleasure with
which we spent a day and a night there waiting to see The Marriage
of Figaro? Oh, blind that we were!--We were happy and poor, but a
noble cannot be happy in poverty. A noble in want--it is a thing
against nature! Ah! Sorbier, when one has known the satisfaction
of propping one of the grandest genealogical trees in the kingdom
in its fall, it is so natural to interest oneself in it and to
grow fond of it, and love it and water it and look to see it
blossom. So you will not be surprised at so many precautions on my
part; you will not wonder when I beg the help of your lights, so
that all may go well with our young man.
"Keep yourself informed of his movements and doings, of the
company which he keeps, and watch over his connections with women.
M. le Chevalier says that an opera dancer often costs less than a
court lady. Obtain information on that point and let me know. If
you are too busy, perhaps Mme. Sorbier might know what becomes of
the young man, and where he goes. The idea of playing the part of
guardian angel to such a noble and charming boy might have
attractions for her. God will remember her for accepting the
sacred trust. Perhaps when you see M. le Comte Victurnien, her
heart may tremble at the thought of all the dangers awaiting him
in Paris; he is very young, and handsome; clever, and at the same
time disposed to trust others. If he forms a connection with some
designing woman, Mme. Sorbier could counsel him better than you
yourself could do. The old man-servant who is with him can tell
you many things; sound Josephin, I have told him to go to you in
"But why should I say more? We once were clerks together, and a
pair of scamps; remember our escapades, and be a little bit young
again, my old friend, in your dealings with him. The sixty
thousand francs will be remitted to you in the shape of a bill on
the Treasury by a gentlemen who is going to Paris," and so forth.
If the old couple to whom this epistle was addressed had followed out
Chesnel's instructions, they would have been compelled to take three
private detectives into their pay. And yet there was ample wisdom
shown in Chesnel's choice of a depositary. A banker pays money to any
one accredited to him so long as the money lasts; whereas, Victurnien
was obliged, every time that he was in want of money, to make a
personal visit to the notary, who was quite sure to use the right of
Victurnien heard that he was to be allowed two thousand francs every
month, and thought that he betrayed his joy. He knew nothing of Paris.
He fancied that he could keep up princely state on such a sum.
Next day he started on his journey. All the benedictions of the
Collection of Antiquities went with him; he was kissed by the
dowagers; good wishes were heaped on his head; his old father, his
aunt, and Chesnel went with him out of the town, tears filling the
eyes of all three. The sudden departure supplied material for
conversation for several evenings; and what was more, it stirred the
rancorous minds of the salon du Croisier to the depths. The
forage-contractor, the president, and others who had vowed to ruin
the d'Esgrignons, saw their prey escaping out of their hands. They
had based their schemes of revenge on a young man's follies, and now
he was beyond their reach.
The tendency in human nature, which often gives a bigot a rake for a
daughter, and makes a frivolous woman the mother of a narrow pietist;
that rule of contraries, which, in all probability, is the "resultant"
of the law of similarities, drew Victurnien to Paris by a desire to
which he must sooner or later have yielded. Brought up as he had been
in the old-fashioned provincial house, among the quiet, gentle faces
that smiled upon him, among sober servants attached to the family, and
surroundings tinged with a general color of age, the boy had only seen
friends worthy of respect. All of those about him, with the exception
of the Chevalier, had example of venerable age, were elderly men and
women, sedate of manner, decorous and sententious of speech. He had
been petted by those women in gray gowns and embroidered mittens
described by Blondet. The antiquated splendors of his father's house
were as little calculated as possible to suggest frivolous thoughts;
and lastly, he had been educated by a sincerely religious abbe,
possessed of all the charm of old age, which has dwelt in two
centuries, and brings to the Present its gifts of the dried roses of
experience, the faded flowers of the old customs of its youth.
Everything should have combined to fashion Victurnien to serious
habits; his whole surroundings from childhood bade him continue the
glory of a historic name, by taking his life as something noble and
great; and yet Victurnien listened to dangerous promptings.
For him, his noble birth was a stepping-stone which raised him above
other men. He felt that the idol of Noblesse, before which they burned
incense at home, was hollow; he had come to be one of the commonest as
well as one of the worst types from a social point of view--a
consistent egoist. The aristocratic cult of the /ego/ simply taught him
to follow his own fancies; he had been idolized by those who had the
care of him in childhood, and adored by the companions who shared in
his boyish escapades, and so he had formed a habit of looking and
judging everything as it affected his own pleasure; he took it as a
matter of course when good souls saved him from the consequences of
his follies, a piece of mistaken kindness which could only lead to his
ruin. Victurnien's early training, noble and pious though it was, had
isolated him too much. He was out of the current of the life of the
time, for the life of a provincial town is certainly not in the main
current of the age; Victurnien's true destiny lifted him above it. He
had learned to think of an action, not as it affected others, nor
relatively, but absolutely from his own point of view. Like despots,
he made the law to suit the circumstance, a system which works in the
lives of prodigal sons the same confusion which fancy brings into art.
Victurnien was quick-sighted, he saw clearly and without illusion, but
he acted on impulse, and unwisely. An indefinable flaw of character,
often seen in young men, but impossible to explain, led him to will
one thing and do another. In spite of an active mind, which showed
itself in unexpected ways, the senses had but to assert themselves,
and the darkened brain seemed to exist no longer. He might have
astonished wise men; he was capable of setting fools agape. His
desires, like a sudden squall of bad weather, overclouded all the
clear and lucid spaces of his brain in a moment; and then, after the
dissipations which he could not resist, he sank, utterly exhausted in
body, heart, and mind, into a collapsed condition bordering upon
imbecility. Such a character will drag a man down into the mire if he
is left to himself, or bring him to the highest heights of political
power if he has some stern friend to keep him in hand. Neither
Chesnel, nor the lad's father, nor Aunt Armande had fathomed the
depths of a nature so nearly akin on many sides to the poetic
temperament, yet smitten with a terrible weakness at its core.
By the time the old town lay several miles away, Victurnien felt not
the slightest regret; he thought no more about the father, who had
loved ten generations in his son, nor of the aunt, and her almost
insane devotion. He was looking forward to Paris with vehement
ill-starred longings; in thought he had lived in that fairyland, it
had been the background of his brightest dreams. He imagined that he
would be first in Paris, as he had been in the town and the department
where his father's name was potent; but it was vanity, not pride, that
filled his soul, and in his dreams his pleasures were to be magnified
by all the greatness of Paris. The distance was soon crossed. The
traveling coach, like his own thoughts, left the narrow horizon of the
province for the vast world of the great city, without a break in the
journey. He stayed in the Rue de Richelieu, in a handsome hotel close
to the boulevard, and hastened to take possession of Paris as a
famished horse rushes into a meadow.
He was not long in finding out the difference between country and
town, and was rather surprised than abashed by the change. His mental
quickness soon discovered how small an entity he was in the midst of
this all-comprehending Babylon; how insane it would be to attempt to
stem the torrent of new ideas and new ways. A single incident was
enough. He delivered his father's letter of introduction to the Duc de
Lenoncourt, a noble who stood high in favor with the King. He saw the
duke in his splendid mansion, among surroundings befitting his rank.
Next day he met him again. This time the Peer of France was lounging
on foot along the boulevard, just like any ordinary mortal, with an
umbrella in his hand; he did not even wear the Blue Ribbon, without
which no knight of the order could have appeared in public in other
times. And, duke and peer and first gentleman of the bedchamber though
he was, M. de Lenoncourt, in spite of his high courtesy, could not
repress a smile as he read his relative's letter; and that smile told
Victurnien that the Collection of Antiquities and the Tuileries were
separated by more than sixty leagues of road; the distance of several
centuries lay between them.
The names of the families grouped about the throne are quite different
in each successive reign, and the characters change with the names. It
would seem that, in the sphere of court, the same thing happens over
and over again in each generation; but each time there is a quite
different set of personages. If history did not prove that this is so,
it would seem incredible. The prominent men at the court of Louis
XVIII., for instance, had scarcely any connection with the
Rivieres, Blacas, d'Avarays, Vitrolles, d'Autichamps, Pasquiers,
Larochejaqueleins, Decazes, Dambrays, Laines, de Villeles, La
Bourdonnayes, and others who shone at the court of Louis XV. Compare
the courtiers of Henri IV. with those of Louis XIV.; you will hardly
find five great families of the former time still in existence. The
nephew of the great Richelieu was a very insignificant person at the
court of Louis XIV.; while His Majesty's favorite, Villeroi, was the
grandson of a secretary ennobled by Charles IX. And so it befell that
the d'Esgrignons, all but princes under the Valois, and all-powerful
in the time of Henri IV., had no fortune whatever at the court of
Louis XVIII., which gave them not so much as a thought. At this day
there are names as famous as those of royal houses--the Foix-Graillys,
for instance, or the d'Herouvilles--left to obscurity tantamount to
extinction for want of money, the one power of the time.
All which things Victurnien beheld entirely from his own point of
view; he felt the equality that he saw in Paris as a personal wrong.
The monster Equality was swallowing down the last fragments of social
distinction in the Restoration. Having made up his mind on this head,
he immediately proceeded to try to win back his place with such
dangerous, if blunted weapons, as the age left to the noblesse. It is
an expensive matter to gain the attention of Paris. To this end,
Victurnien adopted some of the ways then in vogue. He felt that it was
a necessity to have horses and fine carriages, and all the accessories
of modern luxury; he felt, in short, "that a man must keep abreast of
the times," as de Marsay said--de Marsay, the first dandy that he came
across in the first drawing-room to which he was introduced. For his
misfortune, he fell in with a set of roues, with de Marsay, de
Ronquerolles, Maxime de Trailles, des Lupeaulx, Rastignac,
Ajuda-Pinto, Beaudenord, de la Roche-Hugon, de Manerville, and the
Vandenesses, whom he met wherever he went, and a great many houses
were open to a young man with his ancient name and reputation for
wealth. He went to the Marquise d'Espard's, to the Duchesses de
Grandlieu, de Carigliano, and de Chaulieu, to the Marquises
d'Aiglemont and de Listomere, to Mme. de Serizy's, to the Opera, to
the embassies and elsewhere. The Faubourg Saint-Germain has its
provincial genealogies at its fingers' ends; a great name once
recognized and adopted therein is a passport which opens many a door
that will scarcely turn on its hinges for unknown names or the lions
of a lower rank.
Victurnien found his relatives both amiable and ready to welcome him
so long as he did not appear as a suppliant; he saw at once that the
surest way of obtaining nothing was to ask for something. At Paris, if
the first impulse moves people to protect, second thoughts (which last
a good deal longer) impel them to despise the protege. Independence,
vanity, and pride, all the young Count's better and worse feelings
combined, led him, on the contrary, to assume an aggressive attitude.
And therefore the Ducs de Verneuil, de Lenoncourt, de Chaulieu, de
Navarreins, d'Herouville, de Grandlieu, and de Maufrigneuse, the
Princes de Cadignan and de Blamont-Chauvry, were delighted to present
the charming survivor of the wreck of an ancient family at court.
Victurnien went to the Tuileries in a splendid carriage with his
armorial bearings on the panels; but his presentation to His Majesty
made it abundantly clear to him that the people occupied the royal
mind so much that his nobility was like to be forgotten. The restored
dynasty, moreover, was surrounded by triple ranks of eligible old men
and gray-headed courtiers; the young noblesse was reduced to a cipher,
and this Victurnien guessed at once. He saw that there was no suitable
place for him at court, nor in the government, nor the army, nor,
indeed, anywhere else. So he launched out into the world of pleasure.
Introduced at the Elyess-Bourbon, at the Duchesse d'Angouleme's, at
the Pavillon Marsan, he met on all sides with the surface civilities
due to the heir of an old family, not so old but it could be called to
mind by the sight of a living member. And, after all, it was not a
small thing to be remembered. In the distinction with which Victurnien
was honored lay the way to the peerage and a splendid marriage; he had
taken the field with a false appearance of wealth, and his vanity
would not allow him to declare his real position. Besides, he had been
so much complimented on the figure that he made, he was so pleased
with his first success, that, like many other young men, he felt
ashamed to draw back. He took a suite of rooms in the Rue du Bac, with
stables and a complete equipment for the fashionable life to which he
had committed himself. These preliminaries cost him fifty thousand
francs, which money, moreover, the young gentleman managed to draw in
spite of all Chesnel's wise precautions, thanks to a series of
Chesnel's letter certainly reached his friend's office, but Maitre
Sorbier was dead; and Mme. Sorbier, a matter-of-fact person, seeing it
was a business letter, handed it on to her husband's successor. Maitre
Cardot, the new notary, informed the young Count that a draft on the
Treasury made payable to the deceased would be useless; and by way of
reply to the letter, which had cost the old provincial notary so much
thought, Cardot despatched four lines intended not to reach Chesnel's
heart, but to produce the money. Chesnel made the draft payable to
Sorbier's young successor; and the latter, feeling but little
inclination to adopt his correspondent's sentimentality, was delighted
to put himself at the Count's orders, and gave Victurnien as much
money as he wanted.
Now those who know what life in Paris means, know that fifty thousand
francs will not go very far in furniture, horses, carriages, and
elegance generally; but it must be borne in mind that Victurnien
immediately contracted some twenty thousand francs' worth of debts
besides, and his tradespeople at first were not at all anxious to be
paid, for our young gentleman's fortune had been prodigiously
increased, partly by rumor, partly by Josephin, that Chesnel in
Victurnien had not been in town a month before he was obliged to
repair to his man of business for ten thousand francs; he had only
been playing whist with the Ducs de Navarreins, de Chaulieu, and de
Lenoncourt, and now and again at his club. He had begun by winning
some thousands of francs but pretty soon lost five or six thousand,
which brought home to him the necessity of a purse for play.
Victurnien had the spirit that gains goodwill everywhere, and puts a
young man of a great family on a level with the very highest. He was
not merely admitted at once into the band of patrician youth, but was
even envied by the rest. It was intoxicating to him to feel that he
was envied, nor was he in this mood very likely to think of reform.
Indeed, he had completely lost his head. He would not think of the
means; he dipped into his money-bags as if they could be refilled
indefinitely; he deliberately shut his eyes to the inevitable results
of the system. In that dissipated set, in the continual whirl of
gaiety, people take the actors in their brilliant costumes as they
find them, no one inquires whether a man can afford to make the figure
he does, there is nothing in worse taste than inquiries as to ways and
means. A man ought to renew his wealth perpetually, and as Nature does
--below the surface and out of sight. People talk if somebody comes to
grief; they joke about a newcomer's fortune till their minds are set
at rest, and at this they draw the line. Victurnien d'Esgrignon, with
all the Faubourg Saint-Germain to back him, with all his protectors
exaggerating the amount of his fortune (were it only to rid themselves
of responsibility), and magnifying his possessions in the most refined
and well-bred way, with a hint or a word; with all these advantages
--to repeat--Victurnien was, in fact, an eligible Count. He was
handsome, witty, sound in politics; his father still possessed the
ancestral castle and the lands of the marquisate. Such a young fellow
is sure of an admirable reception in houses where there are
marriageable daughters, fair but portionless partners at dances, and
young married women who find that time hangs heavy on their hands. So
the world, smiling, beckoned him to the foremost benches in its booth;
the seats reserved for marquises are still in the same place in Paris;
and if the names are changed, the things are the same as ever.
In the most exclusive circle of society in the Faubourg Saint-Germain,
Victurnien found the Chevalier's double in the person of the Vidame de
Pamiers. The Vidame was a Chevalier de Valois raised to the tenth
power, invested with all the prestige of wealth, enjoying all the
advantages of high position. The dear Vidame was a repositary for
everybody's secrets, and the gazette of the Faubourg besides;
nevertheless, he was discreet, and, like other gazettes, only said
things that might safely be published. Again Victurnien listened to
the Chevalier's esoteric doctrines. The Vidame told young d'Esgrignon,
without mincing matters, to make conquests among women of quality,
supplementing the advice with anecdotes from his own experience. The
Vicomte de Pamiers, it seemed, had permitted himself much that it
would serve no purpose to relate here; so remote was it all from our
modern manners, in which soul and passion play so large a part, that
nobody would believe it. But the excellent Vidame did more than this.
"Dine with me at a tavern to-morrow," said he, by way of conclusion.
"We will digest our dinner at the Opera, and afterwards I will take
you to a house where several people have the greatest wish to meet
The Vidame gave a delightful little dinner at the Rocher de Cancale;
three guests only were asked to meet Victurnien--de Marsay, Rastignac,
and Blondet. Emile Blondet, the young Count's fellow-townsman, was a
man of letters on the outskirts of society to which he had been
introduced by a charming woman from the same province. This was one of
the Vicomte de Troisville's daughters, now married to the Comte de
Montcornet, one of those of Napoleon's generals who went over to the
Bourbons. The Vidame held that a dinner-party of more than six persons
was beneath contempt. In that case, according to him, there was an end
alike of cookery and conversation, and a man could not sip his wine in
a proper frame of mind.
"I have not yet told you, my dear boy, where I mean to take you
to-night," he said, taking Victurnien's hands and tapping on them.
"You are going to see Mlle. des Touches; all the pretty women with any
pretensions to wit will be at her house en petit comite. Literature,
art, poetry, any sort of genius, in short, is held in great esteem
there. It is one of our old-world bureaux d'esprit, with a veneer of
monarchical doctrine, the livery of this present age."
"It is sometimes as tiresome and tedious there as a pair of new boots,
but there are women with whom you cannot meet anywhere else," said de
"If all the poets who went there to rub up their muse were like our
friend here," said Rastignac, tapping Blondet familiarly on the
shoulder, "we should have some fun. But a plague of odes, and ballads,
and driveling meditations, and novels with wide margins, pervades the
sofas and the atmosphere."
"I don't dislike them," said de Marsay, "so long as they corrupt
girls' minds, and don't spoil women."
"Gentlemen," smiled Blondet, "you are encroaching on my field of
"You need not talk. You have robbed us of the most charming woman in
the world, you lucky rogue; we may be allowed to steal your less
brilliant ideas," cried Rastignac.
"Yes, he is a lucky rascal," said the Vidame, and he twitched
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