The Lesser Bourgeoisie

Author: Honore de Balzac

Chapter V a Principal Personage

There exists in Provence, especially about Avignon, a race of men with blond or chestnut hair, fair skin, and eyes that are almost tender, their pupils calm, feeble, or languishing, rather than keen, ardent, or profound, as they usually are in the eyes of Southerners. Let us remark, in passing, that among Corsicans, a race subject to fits of anger and dangerous irascibility, we often meet with fair skins and physical natures of the same apparent tranquillity. These pale men, rather stout, with somewhat dim and hazy eyes either green or blue, are the worst species of humanity in Provence; and Charles-Marie- Theodose de la Peyrade presents a fine type of that race, the constitution of which deserves careful examination on the part of medical science and philosophical physiology. There rises, at times, within such men, a species of bile,—a bitter gall, which flies to their head and makes them capable of ferocious actions, done, apparently, in cold blood. Being the result of an inward intoxication, this sort of dumb violence seems to be irreconcilable with their quasi-lymphatic outward man, and the tranquillity of their benignant glance.

Born in the neighborhood of Avignon, the young Provencal whose name we have just mentioned was of middle height, well-proportioned, and rather stout; the tone of his skin had no brilliancy; it was neither livid nor dead-white, nor colored, but gelatinous,—that word can alone give a true idea of the flabby, hueless envelope, beneath which were concealed nerves that were less vigorous than capable of enormous resistance at certain given moments. His eyes, of a pale cold blue, expressed in their ordinary condition a species of deceptive sadness, which must have had great charms for women. The forehead, finely cut, was not without dignity, and it harmonized well with the soft, light chestnut hair curling naturally, but slightly, at its tips. The nose, precisely like that of a hunting dog, flat and furrowed at the tip, inquisitive, intelligent, searching, always on the scent, instead of expressing good-humor, was ironical and mocking; but this particular aspect of his nature never showed itself openly; the young man must have ceased to watch himself, he must have flown into fury before the power came to him to flash out the sarcasm and the wit which embittered, tenfold, his infernal humor. The mouth, the curving lines and pomegranate-colored lips of which were very pleasing, seemed the admirable instrument of an organ that was almost sweet in its middle tones, where its owner usually kept it, but which, in its higher key, vibrated on the ear like the sound of a gong. This falsetto was the voice of his nerves and his anger. His face, kept expressionless by an inward command, was oval in form. His manners, in harmony with the sacerdotal calmness of the face, were reserved and conventional; but he had supple, pliant ways which, though they never descended to wheedling, were not lacking in seduction; although as soon as his back was turned their charm seemed inexplicable. Charm, when it takes its rise in the heart, leaves deep and lasting traces; that which is merely a product of art, or of eloquence, has only a passing power; it produces its immediate effect, and that is all. But how many philosophers are there in life who are able to distinguish the difference? Almost always the trick is played (to use a popular expression) before the ordinary run of men have perceived its methods.

Everything about this young man of twenty-seven was in harmony with his character; he obeyed his vocation by cultivating philanthropy,— the only expression which explains the philanthropist. Theodose loved the People, for he limited his love for humanity. Like the horticulturist who devotes himself to roses, or dahlias, or heart’sease, or geraniums, and pays no attention to the plants his fancy has not selected, so this young La Rochefoucault-Liancourt gave himself to the workingmen, the proletariat and the paupers of the faubourgs Saint-Jacques and Saint-Marceau. The strong man, the man of genius at bay, the worthy poor of the bourgeois class, he cut them off from the bosom of his charity. The heart of all persons with a mania is like those boxes with compartments, in which sugarplums are kept in sorts: "suum cuique tribuere" is their motto; they measure to each duty its dose. There are some philanthropists who pity nothing but the man condemned to death. Vanity is certainly the basis of philanthropy; but in the case of this Provencal it was calculation, a predetermined course, a "liberal" and democratic hypocrisy, played with a perfection that no other actor will ever attain.

Theodose did not attack the rich; he contented himself with not understanding them; he endured them; every one, in his opinion, ought to enjoy the fruits of his labor. He had been, he said, a fervent disciple of Saint-Simon, but that mistake must be attributed to his youth: modern society could have no other basis than heredity. An ardent Catholic, like all men from the Comtat, he went to the earliest morning masses, and thus concealed his piety. Like other philanthropists, he practised a sordid economy, and gave to the poor his time, his legal advice, his eloquence, and such money as he extracted for them from the rich. His clothes, always of black cloth, were worn until the seams became white. Nature had done a great deal for Theodose in not giving him that fine manly Southern beauty which creates in others an imaginary expectation, to which it is more than difficult for a man to respond. As it was, he could be what suited him at the moment,—an agreeable man or a very ordinary one. Never, since his admission to the Thuilliers’, had he ventured, till this evening, to raise his voice and speak as dogmatically as he had risked doing to Olivier Vinet; but perhaps Theodose de la Peyrade was not sorry to seize the opportunity to come out from the shade in which he had hitherto kept himself. Besides, it was necessary to get rid of the young substitute, just as the Minards had previously ruined the hopes of Monsieur Godeschal. Like all superior men (for he certainly had some superiority), Vinet had never lowered himself to the point where the threads of these bourgeois spider-webs became visible to him, and he had therefore plunged, like a fly, headforemost, into the almost invisible trap to which Theodose inveigled him.

To complete this portrait of the poor man’s lawyer we must here relate the circumstances of his first arrival at the Thuilliers’.

Theodose came to lodge in Mademoiselle Thuillier’s house toward the close of the year 1837. He had taken his degree about five years earlier, and had kept the proper number of terms to become a barrister. Circumstances, however, about which he said nothing, had interfered to prevent his being called to the bar; he was, therefore, still a licentiate. But soon after he was installed in the little apartment on the third floor, with the furniture rigorously required by all members of his noble profession,—for the guild of barristers admits no brother unless he has a suitable study, a legal library, and can thus, as it were, verify his claims,—Theodose de la Peyrade began to practise as a barrister before the Royal Court of Paris.

The whole of the year 1838 was employed in making this change in his condition, and he led a most regular life. He studied at home in the mornings till dinner-time, going sometimes to the Palais for important cases. Having become very intimate with Dutocq (so Dutocq said), he did certain services to the poor of the faubourg Saint-Jacques who were brought to his notice by that official. He pleaded their cases before the court, after bringing them to the notice of the attorneys, who, according to the statutes of their order, are obliged to take turns in doing business for the poor. As Theodose was careful to plead only safe cases, he won them all. Those persons whom he thus obliged expressed their gratitude and their admiration, in spite of the young lawyer’s admonitions, among their own class, and to the porters of private houses, through whom many anecdotes rose to the ears of the proprietors. Delighted to have in their house a tenant so worthy and so charitable, the Thuilliers wished to attract him to their salon, and they questioned Dutocq about him. The mayor’s clerk replied as the envious reply; while doing justice to the young man he dwelt on his remarkable avarice, which might, however, be the effect of poverty.

"I have had other information about him. He belongs to the Peyrades, an old family of the ’comtat’ of Avignon; he came here toward the end of 1829, to inquire about an uncle whose fortune was said to be considerable; he discovered the address of the old man only three days before his death; and the furniture of the deceased merely sufficed to bury him and pay his debts. A friend of this useless uncle gave a couple of hundred louis to the poor fortune-hunter, advising him to finish his legal studies and enter the judiciary career. Those two hundred louis supported him for three years in Paris, where he lived like an anchorite. But being unable to discover his unknown friend and benefactor, the poor student was in abject distress in 1833. He worked then, like so many other licentiates, in politics and literature, by which he kept himself for a time above want—for he had nothing to expect from his family. His father, the youngest brother of the dead uncle, has eleven other children, who live on a small estate called Les Canquoelles. He finally obtained a place on a ministerial newspaper, the manager of which was the famous Cerizet, so celebrated for the persecutions he met with, under the Restoration, on account of his attachment to the liberals,—a man whom the new Left will never forgive for having made his paper ministerial. As the government of these days does very little to protect even its most devoted servants (witness the Gisquet affair), the republicans have ended by ruining Cerizet. I tell you this to explain how it is that Cerizet is now a copying clerk in my office. Well, in the days when he flourished as managing editor of a paper directed by the Perier ministry against the incendiary journals, the ’Tribune’ and others, Cerizet, who is a worthy fellow after all, though he is too fond of women, pleasure, and good living, was very useful to Theodose, who edited the political department of the paper; and if it hadn’t been for the death of Casimir Perier that young man would certainly have received an appointment as substitute judge in Paris. As it was, he dropped back in 1834-35, in spite of his talent; for his connection with a ministerial journal of course did him harm. ’If it had not been for my religious principles,’ he said to me, ’I should have thrown myself into the Seine.’ However, it seems that the friend of his uncle must have heard of his distress, for again he sent him a sum of money; enough to complete his terms for the bar; but, strange to say, he has never known the name or the address of this mysterious benefactor. After all, perhaps, under such circumstances, his economy is excusable, and he must have great strength of mind to refuse what the poor devils whose cases he wins by his devotion offer him. He is indignant at the way other lawyers speculate on the possibility or impossibility of poor creatures, unjustly sued, paying for the costs of their defence. Oh! he’ll succeed in the end. I shouldn’t be surprised to see that fellow in some very brilliant position; he has tenacity, honesty, and courage. He studies, he delves."

Notwithstanding the favor with which he was greeted, la Peyrade went discreetly to the Thuilliers’. When reproached for this reserve he went oftener, and ended by appearing every Sunday; he was invited to all dinner-parties, and became at last so familiar in the house that whenever he came to see Thuillier about four o’clock he was always requested to take "pot-luck" without ceremony. Mademoiselle Thuillier used to say:—

"Then we know that he will get a good dinner, poor fellow!"

A social phenomenon which has certainly been observed, but never, as yet, formulated, or, if you like it better, published, though it fully deserves to be recorded, is the return of habits, mind, and manners to primitive conditions in certain persons who, between youth and old age, have raised themselves above their first estate. Thus Thuillier had become, once more, morally speaking, the son of a concierge. He now made use of many of his father’s jokes, and a little of the slime of early days was beginning to appear on the surface of his declining life. About five or six times a month, when the soup was rich and good he would deposit his spoon in his empty plate and say, as if the proposition were entirely novel:—

"That’s better than a kick on the shin-bone!"

On hearing that witticism for the first time Theodose, to whom it was really new, laughed so heartily that the handsome Thuillier was tickled in his vanity as he had never been before. After that, Theodose greeted the same speech with a knowing little smile. This slight detail will explain how it was that on the morning of the day when Theodose had his passage at arms with Vinet he had said to Thuillier, as they were walking in the garden to see the effect of a frost:—

"You have much more wit than you give yourself credit for."

To which he received this answer:—

"In any other career, my dear Theodose, I should have made my way nobly; but the fall of the Emperor broke my neck."

"There is still time," said the young lawyer. "In the first place, what did that mountebank, Colleville, ever do to get the cross?"

There la Peyrade laid his finger on a sore wound which Thuillier hid from every eye so carefully that even his sister did not know of it; but the young man, interested in studying these bourgeois, had divined the secret envy that gnawed at the heart of the ex-official.

"If you, experienced as you are, will do the honor to follow my advice," added the philanthropist, "and, above all, not mention our compact to any one, I will undertake to have you decorated with the Legion of honor, to the applause of the whole quarter."

"Oh! if we succeed in that," cried Thuillier, "you don’t know what I would do for you."

This explains why Thuillier carried his head high when Theodose had the audacity that evening to put opinions into his mouth.

In art—and perhaps Moliere had placed hypocrisy in the rank of art by classing Tartuffe forever among comedians—there exists a point of perfection to which genius alone attains; mere talent falls below it. There is so little difference between a work of genius and a work of talent, that only men of genius can appreciate the distance that separates Raffaelle from Correggio, Titian from Rubens. More than that; common minds are easily deceived on this point. The sign of genius is a certain appearance of facility. In fact, its work must appear, at first sight, ordinary, so natural is it, even on the highest subjects. Many peasant-women hold their children as the famous Madonna in the Dresden gallery holds hers. Well, the height of art in a man of la Peyrade’s force was to oblige others to say of him later: "Everybody would have been taken in by him."

Now, in the salon Thuillier, he noted a dawning opposition; he perceived in Colleville the somewhat clear-sighted and criticising nature of an artist who has missed his vocation. The barrister felt himself displeasing to Colleville, who (as the result of circumstances not necessary to here report) considered himself justified in believing in the science of anagrams. None of this anagrams had ever failed. The clerks in the government office had laughed at him when, demanding an anagram on the name of the poor helpless Auguste-Jean- Francois Minard, he had produced, "J’amassai une si grande fortune"; and the event had justified him after the lapse of ten years! Theodose, on several occasions, had made advances to the jovial secretary of the mayor’s office, and had felt himself rebuffed by a coldness which was not natural in so sociable a man. When the game of bouillotte came to an end, Colleville seized the moment to draw Thuillier into the recess of a window and say to him:—

"You are letting that lawyer get too much foothold in your house; he kept the ball in his own hands all the evening."

"Thank you, my friend; forewarned is forearmed," replied Thuillier, inwardly scoffing at Colleville.

Theodose, who was talking at the moment to Madame Colleville, had his eye on the two men, and, with the same prescience by which women know when and how they are spoken of, he perceived that Colleville was trying to injure him in the mind of the weak and silly Thuillier. "Madame," he said in Flavie’s ear, "if any one here is capable of appreciating you it is certainly I. You seem to me a pearl dropped into the mire. You say you are forty-two, but a woman is no older than she looks, and many women of thirty would be thankful to have your figure and that noble countenance, where love has passed without ever filling the void in your heart. You have given yourself to God, I know, and I have too much religion myself to regret it, but I also know that you have done so because no human being has proved worthy of you. You have been loved, but you have never been adored—I have divined that. There is your husband, who has not known how to please you in a position in keeping with your deserts. He dislikes me, as if he thought I loved you; and he prevents me from telling you of a way that I think I have found to place you in the sphere for which you were destined. No, madame," he continued, rising, "the Abbe Gondrin will not preach this year through Lent at our humble Saint-Jacques du Haut-Pas; the preacher will be Monsieur d’Estival, a compatriot of mine, and you will hear in him one of the most impressive speakers that I have ever known,—a priest whose outward appearance is not agreeable, but, oh! what a soul!"

"Then my desire will be gratified," said poor Madame Thuillier. "I have never yet been able to understand a famous preacher."

A smile flickered on the lips of Mademoiselle Thuillier and several others who heard the remark.

"They devote themselves too much to theological demonstration," said Theodose. "I have long thought so myself—but I never talk religion; if it had not been for Madame DE Colleville, I—"

"Are there demonstrations in theology?" asked the professor of mathematics, naively, plunging headlong into the conversation.

"I think, monsieur," replied Theodose, looking straight at Felix Phellion, "that you cannot be serious in asking me such a question."

"Felix," said old Phellion, coming heavily to the rescue of his son, and catching a distressed look on the pale face of Madame Thuillier,— "Felix separates religion into two categories; he considers it from the human point of view and the divine point of view,—tradition and reason."

"That is heresy, monsieur," replied Theodose. "Religion is one; it requires, above all things, faith."

Old Phellion, nonplussed by that remark, nodded to his wife:—

"It is getting late, my dear," and he pointed to the clock.

"Oh, Monsieur Felix," said Celeste in a whisper to the candid mathematician, "Couldn’t you be, like Pascal and Bossuet, learned and pious both?"

The Phellions, on departing, carried the Collevilles with them. Soon no one remained in the salon but Dutocq, Theodose, and the Thuilliers.

The flattery administered by Theodose to Flavie seems at the first sight coarsely commonplace, but we must here remark, in the interests of this history, that the barrister was keeping himself as close as possible to these vulgar minds; he was navigating their waters; he spoke their language. His painter was Pierre Grassou, and not Joseph Bridau; his book was "Paul and Virginia." The greatest living poet for him was Casimire de la Vigne; to his eyes the mission of art was, above all things, utility. Parmentier, the discoverer of the potato, was greater to him that thirty Raffaelles; the man in the blue cloak seemed to him a sister of charity. These were Thuillier’s expressions, and Theodose remembered them all—on occasion.

"That young Felix Phellion," he now remarked, "is precisely the academical man of our day; the product of knowledge which sends God to the rear. Heavens, what are we coming to? Religion alone can save France; nothing but the fear of hell will preserve us from domestic robbery, which is going on at all hours in the bosom of families, and eating into the surest fortunes. All of you have a secret warfare in your homes."

After this shrewd tirade, which made a great impression upon Brigitte, he retired, followed by Dutocq, after wishing good evening to the three Thuilliers.

"That young man has great capacity," said Thuillier, sententiously.

"Yes, that he has," replied Brigitte, extinguishing the lamps.

"He has religion," said Madame Thuillier, as she left the room.

"Monsieur," Phellion was saying to Colleville as they came abreast of the Ecole de Mines, looking about him to see that no one was near, "it is usually my custom to submit my insight to that of others, but it is impossible for me not to think that that young lawyer plays the master at our friend Thuillier’s."

"My own opinion," said Colleville, who was walking with Phellion behind his wife, Madame Phellion, and Celeste, "is that he’s a Jesuit; and I don’t like Jesuits; the best of them are no good. To my mind a Jesuit means knavery, and knavery for knavery’s sake; they deceive for the pleasure of deceiving, and, as the saying is, to keep their hand in. That’s my opinion, and I don’t mince it."

"I understand you, monsieur," said Phellion, who was arm-in-arm with Colleville.

"No, Monsieur Phellion," remarked Flavie in a shrill voice, "you don’t understand Colleville; but I know what he means, and I think he had better stop saying it. Such subjects are not to be talked of in the street, at eleven o’clock at night, and before a young lady."

"You are right, wife," said Colleville.

When they reached the rue des Deux-Eglises, which Phellion was to take, they all stopped to say good-night, and Felix Phellion, who was bring up the rear, said to Colleville:—

"Monsieur, your son Francois could enter the Ecole Polytechnique if he were well-coached; I propose to you to fit him to pass the examinations this year."

"That’s an offer not to be refused! Thank you, my friend," said Colleville. "We’ll see about it."

"Good!" said Phellion to his son, as they walked on.

"Not a bad stroke!" said the mother.

"What do you mean by that?" asked Felix.

"You are very cleverly paying court to Celeste’s parents."

"May I never find the solution of my problem if I even thought of it!" cried the young professor. "I discovered, when talking with the little Collevilles, that Francois has a strong turn for mathematics, and I thought I ought to enlighten his father."

"Good, my son!" repeated Phellion. "I wouldn’t have you otherwise. My prayers are granted! I have a son whose honor, probity, and private and civic virtues are all that I could wish."

Madame Colleville, as soon as Celeste had gone to bed, said to her husband:—

"Colleville, don’t utter those blunt opinions about people without knowing something about them. When you talk of Jesuits I know you mean priests; and I wish you would do me the kindness to keep your opinions on religion to yourself when you are in company with your daughter. We may sacrifice our own souls, but not the souls of our children. You don’t want Celeste to be a creature without religion? And remember, my dear, that we are at the mercy of others; we have four children to provide for; and how do you know that, some day or other, you may not need the services of this one or that one? Therefore don’t make enemies. You haven’t any now, for you are a good-natured fellow; and, thanks to that quality, which amounts in you to a charm, we have got along pretty well in life, so far."

"That’s enough!" said Colleville, flinging his coat on a chair and pulling off his cravat. "I’m wrong, and you are right, my beautiful Flavie."

"And on the next occasion, my dear old sheep," said the sly creature, tapping her husband’s cheek, "you must try to be polite to that young lawyer; he is a schemer and we had better have him on our side. He is playing comedy—well! play comedy with him; be his dupe apparently; if he proves to have talent, if he has a future before him, make a friend of him. Do you think I want to see you forever in the mayor’s office?"

"Come, wife Colleville," said the former clarionet, tapping his knee to indicate the place he wished his wife to take. "Let us warm our toes and talk.—When I look at you I am more than ever convinced that the youth of women is in their figure."

"And in their heart."

"Well, both," assented Colleville; "waist slender, heart solid—"

"No, you old stupid, deep."

"What is good about you is that you have kept your fairness without growing fat. But the fact is, you have such tiny bones. Flavie, it is a fact that if I had life to live over again I shouldn’t wish for any other wife than you."

"You know very well I have always preferred you to OTHERS. How unlucky that monseigneur is dead! Do you know what I covet for you?"

"No; what?"

"Some office at the Hotel de Ville,—an office worth twelve thousand francs a year; cashier, or something of that kind; either there, or at Poissy, in the municipal department; or else as manufacturer of musical instruments—"

"Any one of them would suit me."

"Well, then! if that queer barrister has power, and he certainly has plenty of intrigue, let us manage him. I’ll sound him; leave me to do the thing—and, above all, don’t thwart his game at the Thuilliers’."

Theodose had laid a finger on a sore sport in Flavie Colleville’s heart; and this requires an explanation, which may, perhaps, have the value of a synthetic glance at women’s life.

At forty years of age a woman, above all, if she has tasted the poisoned apple of passion, undergoes a solemn shock; she sees two deaths before her: that of the body and that of the heart. Dividing women into two great categories which respond to the common ideas, and calling them either virtuous or guilty, it is allowable to say that after that fatal period they both suffer pangs of terrible intensity. If virtuous, and disappointed in the deepest hopes of their nature— whether they have had the courage to submit, whether they have buried their revolt in their hearts or at the foot of the altar—they never admit to themselves that all is over for them without horror. That thought has such strange and diabolical depths that in it lies the reason of some of those apostasies which have, at times, amazed the world and horrified it. If guilty, women of that age fall into one of several delirious conditions which often turn, alas! to madness, or end in suicide, or terminate in some with passion greater than the situation itself.

The following is the "dilemmatic" meaning of this crisis. Either they have known happiness, known it in a virtuous life, and are unable to breathe in any air but that surcharged with incense, or act in any but a balmy atmosphere of flattery and worship,—if so, how is it possible to renounce it?—or, by a phenomenon less rare than singular, they have found only wearying pleasures while seeking for the happiness that escaped them—sustained in that eager chase by the irritating satisfactions of vanity, clinging to the game like a gambler to his double or quits; for to them these last days of beauty are their last stake against despair.

"You have been loved, but never adored."

That speech of Theodose, accompanied by a look which read, not into her heart, but into her life, was the key-note to her enigma, and Flavie felt herself divined.

The lawyer had merely repeated ideas which literature has rendered trivial; but what matter where the whip comes from, or how it is made, if it touches the sensitive spot of a horse’s hide? The emotion was in Flavie, not in the speech, just as the noise is not in the avalanche, though it produces it.

A young officer, two fops, a banker, a clumsy youth, and Colleville, were poor attempts at happiness. Once in her life Madame Colleville had dreamed of it, but never attained it. Death had hastened to put an end to the only passion in which she had found a charm. For the last two years she had listened to the voice of religion, which told her that neither the Church, nor its votaries, should talk of love or happiness, but of duty and resignation; that the only happiness lay in the satisfaction of fulfilling painful and costly duties, the rewards for which were not in this world. All the same, however, she was conscious of another clamoring voice; but, inasmuch as her religion was only a mask which it suited her to wear, and not a conversion, she did not lay it aside, thinking it a resource. Believing also that piety, false or true, was a becoming manner in which to meet her future, she continued in the Church, as though it were the cross-roads of a forest, where, seated on a bench, she read the sign-posts, and waited for some lucky chance; feeling all the while that night was coming on.

Thus it happened that her interest was keenly excited when Theodose put her secret condition of mind into words, seeming to promise her the realization of her castle in the air, already built and overthrown some six or eight times.

From the beginning of the winter she had noticed that Theodose was examining and studying her, though cautiously and secretly. More than once, she had put on her gray moire silk with its black lace, and her headdress of Mechlin with a few flowers, in order to appear to her best advantage; and men know very well when a toilet has been made to please them. The old beau of the Empire, that handsome Thuillier, overwhelmed her with compliments, assuring her she was queen of the salon, but la Peyrade said infinitely more to the purpose by a look.

Flavie had expected, Sunday after Sunday, a declaration, saying to herself at times:—

"He knows I am ruined and haven’t a sou. Perhaps he is really pious."

Theodose did nothing rashly; like a wise musician, he had marked the place in his symphony where he intended to tap his drum. When he saw Colleville attempting to warn Thuillier against him, he fired his broadside, cleverly prepared during the three or four months in which he had been studying Flavie; he now succeeded with her as he had, earlier in the day, succeeded with Thuillier.

While getting into bed, Theodose said to himself:—

"The wife is on my side; the husband can’t endure me; they are now quarrelling; and I shall get the better of it, for she does what she likes with that man."

The lawyer was mistaken in one thing: there was no dispute whatever, and Colleville was sleeping peacefully beside his dear little Flavie, while she was saying to herself:—

"Certainly Theodose must be a superior man."

Many men, like la Peyrade, derive their superiority from the audacity, or the difficulty, of an enterprise; the strength they display increases their muscular power, and they spend it freely. Then when success is won, or defeat is met, the public is astonished to find how small, exhausted, and puny those men really are. After casting into the minds of the two persons on whom Celeste’s fate chiefly depended, an interest and curiosity that were almost feverish, Theodose pretended to be a very busy man; for five or six days he was out of the house from morning till night, in order not to meet Flavie until the time when her interest should increase to the point of overstepping conventionality, and also in order to force the handsome Thuillier to come and fetch him.

The following Sunday he felt certain he should find Madame Colleville at church; he was not mistaken, for they came out, each of them, at the same moment, and met at the corner of the rue des Deux-Eglises. Theodose offered his arm, which Flavie accepted, leaving her daughter to walk in front with her brother Anatole. This youngest child, then about twelve years old, being destined for the seminary, was now at the Barniol institute, where he obtained an elementary education; Barniol, the son-in-law of the Phellions, was naturally making the tuition fees light, with a view to the hoped-for alliance between Felix and Celeste.

"Have you done me the honor and favor of thinking over what I said to you so badly the other day?" asked the lawyer, in a caressing tone, pressing the lady’s arm to his heart with a movement both soft and strong; for he seemed to wish to restrain himself and appear respectful, in spite of his evident eagerness. "Do not misunderstand my intentions," he continued, after receiving from Madame Colleville one of those looks which women trained to the management of passion know how to give,—a look that, by mere expression, can convey both severe rebuke and secret community of sentiment. "I love you as we love a noble nature struggling against misfortune; Christian charity enfolds both the strong and the weak; its treasure belongs to both. Refined, graceful, elegant as you are, made to be an ornament of the highest society, what man could see you without feeling an immense compassion in his heart—buried here among these odious bourgeois, who know nothing of you, not even the aristocratic value of a single one of your attitudes, or those enchanting inflections of your voice! Ah! if I were only rich! if I had power! your husband, who is certainly a good fellow, should be made receiver-general, and you yourself could get him elected deputy. But, alas! poor ambitious man, my first duty is to silence my ambition. Knowing myself at the bottom of the bag like the last number in a family lottery, I can only offer you my arm and not my heart. I hope all from a good marriage, and, believe me, I shall make my wife not only happy, but I shall make her one of the first in the land, receiving from her the means of success. It is so fine a day, will you not take a turn in the Luxembourg?" he added, as they reached the rue d’Enfer at the corner of Colleville’s house, opposite to which was a passage leading to the gardens by the stairway of a little building, the last remains of the famous convent of the Chartreux.

The soft yielding of the arm within his own, indicated a tacit consent to this proposal, and as Flavie deserved the honor of a sort of enthusiasm, he drew her vehemently along, exclaiming:—

"Come! we may never have so good a moment—But see!" he added, "there is your husband at the window looking at us; let us walk slowly."

"You have nothing to fear from Monsieur Colleville," said Flavie, smiling; "he leaves me mistress of my own actions."

"Ah! here, indeed, is the woman I have dreamed of," cried the Provencal, with that ecstasy that inflames the soul only, and in tones that issue only from Southern lips. "Pardon me, madame," he said, recovering himself, and returning from an upper sphere to the exiled angel whom he looked at piously,—"pardon me, I abandon what I was saying; but how can a man help feeling for the sorrows he has known himself when he sees them the lot of a being to whom life should bring only joy and happiness? Your sufferings are mine; I am no more in my right place than you are in yours; the same misfortune has made us brother and sister. Ah! dear Flavie, the first day it was granted to me to see you—the last Sunday in September, 1838—you were very beautiful; I shall often recall you to memory in that pretty little gown of mousseline-de-laine of the color of some Scottish tartan! That day I said to myself: ’Why is that woman so often at the Thuilliers’; above all, why did she ever have intimate relations with Thuillier himself?—’"

"Monsieur!" said Flavie, alarmed at the singular course la Peyrade was giving to the conversation.

"Eh! I know all," he cried, accompanying the words with a shrug of his shoulders. "I explain it all to my own mind, and I do not respect you less. You now have to gather the fruits of your sin, and I will help you. Celeste will be very rich, and in that lies your own future. You can have only one son-in-law; chose him wisely. An ambitious man might become a minister, but you would humble your daughter and make her miserable; and if such a man lost his place and fortune he could never recover it. Yes, I love you," he continued. "I love you with an unlimited affection; you are far above the mass of petty considerations in which silly women entangle themselves. Let us understand each other."

Flavie was bewildered; she was, however, awake to the extreme frankness of such language, and she said to herself, "He is not a secret manoeuvrer, certainly." Moreover, she admitted to her own mind that no one had ever so deeply stirred and excited her as this young man.

"Monsieur," she said, "I do not know who could have put into your mind so great an error as to my life, nor by what right you—"

"Ah! pardon me, madame," interrupted the Provencal with a coolness that smacked of contempt. "I must have dreamed it. I said to myself, ’She is all that!’ But I see I was judging from the outside. I know now why you are living and will always live on a fourth floor in the rue d’Enfer."

And he pointed his speech with an energetic gesture toward the Colleville windows, which could be seen through the passage from the alley of the Luxembourg, where they were walking alone, in that immense tract trodden by so many and various young ambitions.

"I have been frank, and I expected reciprocity," resumed Theodose. "I myself have had days without food, madame; I have managed to live, pursue my studies, obtain my degree, with two thousand francs for my sole dependence; and I entered Paris through the Barriere d’Italie, with five hundred francs in my pocket, firmly resolved, like one of my compatriots, to become, some day, one of the foremost men of our country. The man who has often picked his food from baskets of scraps where the restaurateurs put their refuse, which are emptied at six o’clock every morning—that man is not likely to recoil before any means,—avowable, of course. Well, do you think me the friend of the people?" he said, smiling. "One has to have a speaking-trumpet to reach the ear of Fame; she doesn’t listen if you speak with your lips; and without fame of what use is talent? The poor man’s advocate means to be some day the advocate of the rich. Is that plain speaking? Don’t I open my inmost being to you? Then open your heart to me. Say to me, ’Let us be friends,’ and the day will come when we shall both be happy."

"Good heavens! why did I ever come here? Why did I ever take your arm?" cried Flavie.

"Because it is in your destiny," he replied. "Ah! my dear, beloved Flavie," he added, again pressing her arm upon his heart, "did you expect to hear the vulgarities of love from me? We are brother and sister; that is all."

And he led her towards the passage to return to the rue d’Enfer.

Flavie felt a sort of terror in the depths of the contentment which all women find in violent emotions; and she took that terror for the sort of fear which a new passion always excites; but for all that, she felt she was fascinated, and she walked along in absolute silence.

"What are you thinking of?" asked Theodose, when they reached the middle of the passage.

"Of what you have just said to me," she answered.

"At our age," he said, "it is best to suppress preliminaries; we are not children; we both belong to a sphere in which we should understand each other. Remember this," he added, as they reached the rue d’Enfer. —"I am wholly yours."

So saying, he bowed low to her.

"The iron’s in the fire now!" he thought to himself as he watched his giddy prey on her way home.


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Honoré de Balzac

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Chicago: Honore de Balzac, "Chapter V a Principal Personage," The Lesser Bourgeoisie, trans. Marriage, Ellen in The Lesser Bourgeoisie Original Sources, accessed February 4, 2023,

MLA: de Balzac, Honore. "Chapter V a Principal Personage." The Lesser Bourgeoisie, translted by Marriage, Ellen, in The Lesser Bourgeoisie, Original Sources. 4 Feb. 2023.

Harvard: de Balzac, H, 'Chapter V a Principal Personage' in The Lesser Bourgeoisie, trans. . cited in , The Lesser Bourgeoisie. Original Sources, retrieved 4 February 2023, from