The Middle Classes/Part I/Chapter XIII

The Middle Classes by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley
Part I/Chapter XIII: THE PERVERSITY OF DOVES

"I am a non-dispossessable property-owner!" cried Thuillier, coming home after visiting his notary. "No human power can get that house away from me. Cardot says so."

The bourgeoisie think much more of what their notary tells them than of what their attorney says. The notary is nearer to them than any other ministerial officer. The Parisian bourgeois never pays a visit to his attorney without a sense of fear; whereas he mounts the stairs with ever-renewed pleasure to see his notary; he admires that official's virtue and his sound good sense.

"Cardot, who is looking for an apartment for one of his clients, wants to know about our second floor," continued Thuillier. "If I choose he'll introduce to me on Sunday a tenant who is ready to sign a lease for eighteen years at forty thousand francs and taxes! What do you say to that, Brigitte?"

"Better wait," she replied. "Ah! that dear Theodose, what a fright he gave me!"

"Hey! my dearest girl, I must tell you that when Cardot asked who put me in the way of this affair he said I owed him a present of at least ten thousand francs. The fact is, I owe it all to him."

"But he is the son of the house," responded Brigitte.

"Poor lad! I'll do him the justice to say that he asks for nothing."

"Well, dear, good friend," said la Peyrade, coming in about three o'clock, "here you are, richissime!"

"And through you, Theodose."

"And you, little aunt, have you come to life again? Ah! you were not half as frightened as I was. I put your interests before my own; I haven't breathed freely till this morning at eleven o'clock; and yet I am sure now of having two mortal enemies at my heels in the two men I have tricked for your sake. As I walked home, just now, I asked myself what could be your influence over me to make me commit such a crime, and whether the happiness of belonging to your family and becoming your son could ever efface the stain I have put upon my conscience."

"Bah! you can confess it," said Thuillier, the free-thinker.

"And now," said Theodose to Brigitte, "you can pay, in all security, the cost of the house,—eighty thousand francs, and thirty thousand to Grindot; in all, with what you have paid in costs, one hundred and twenty thousand; and this last twenty thousand added make one hundred and forty thousand. If you let the house outright to a single tenant ask him for the last year's rent in advance, and reserve for my wife and me the whole of the first floor above the entresol. Make those conditions and you'll still get your forty thousand francs a year. If you should want to leave this quarter so as to be nearer the Chamber, you can always take up your abode with us on that vast first floor, which has stables and coach-house belonging to it; in fact, everything that is needful for a splendid life. And now, Thuillier, I am going to get the cross of the Legion of honor for you."

Hearing this last promise, Brigitte cried out in her enthusiasm:—

"Faith! my dear boy, you've done our business so well that I'll leave you to manage that of letting the house."

"Don't abdicate, dear aunt," replied Theodose. "God keep me from ever taking a step without you! You are the good genius of this family; I think only of the day when Thuillier will take his seat in the Chamber. If you let the house you will come into possession of your forty thousand francs for the last year of the lease in two months from now; and that will not prevent Thuillier from drawing his quarterly ten thousand of the rental."

After casting this hope into the mind of the old maid, who was jubilant, Theodose drew Thuillier into the garden and said to him, without beating round the bush:—

"Dear, good friend, find means to get ten thousand francs from your sister, and be sure not to let her suspect that you pay them to me; tell her that sum is required in the government office to facilitate your appointment as chevalier of the Legion of honor; tell her, too, that you know the persons among whom that sum should be distributed."

"That's a good idea," said Thuillier; "besides, I'll pay it back to her when I get my rents."

"Have the money ready this evening, dear friend. Now I am going out on business about your cross; to-morrow we shall know something definitely about it."

"What a man you are!" cried Thuillier.

"The ministry of the 1st of March is going to fall, and we must get it out of them beforehand," said Theodose, shrewdly.

He now hurried to Madame Colleville, crying out as he entered her room:—

"I've conquered! We shall have a piece of landed property for Celeste worth a million, a life-interest in which will be given to her by her marriage-contract; but keep the secret, or your daughter will be hunted down by peers of France. Besides, this settlement will only be made in my favor. Now dress yourself, and let us go and call on Madame du Bruel; she can get the cross for Thuillier. While you are getting under arms I'll do a little courting to Celeste; you and I can talk as we drive along."

La Peyrade had seen, as he passed the door of the salon, Celeste and Felix Phellion in close conversation. Flavie had such confidence in her daughter that she did not fear to leave them together. Now that the great success of the morning was secured, Theodose felt the necessity of beginning his courtship of Celeste. It was high time, he thought, to bring about a quarrel between the lovers. He did not, therefore, hesitate to apply his ear to the door of the salon before entering it, in order to discover what letters of the alphabet of love they were spelling; he was even invited to commit this domestic treachery by sounds from within, which seemed to say that they were disputing. Love, according to one of our poets, is a privilege which two persons mutually take advantage of to cause each other, reciprocally, a great deal of sorrow about nothing at all.

When Celeste knew that Felix was elected by her heart to be the companion of her life, she felt a desire, not so much to study him as to unite herself closely with him by that communion of souls which is the basis of all affections, and leads, in youthful minds, to involuntary examination. The dispute to which Theodose was now to listen took its rise in a disagreement which had sprung up within the last few days between the mathematician and Celeste. The young girl's piety was real; she belonged to the flock of the truly faithful, and to her, Catholicism, tempered by that mysticism which attracts young souls, was an inward poem, a life within her life. From this point young girls are apt to develop into either extremely high-minded women or saints. But, during this beautiful period of their youth they have in their heart, in their ideas, a sort of absolutism: before their eyes is the image of perfection, and all must be celestial, angelic, or divine to satisfy them. Outside of their ideal, nothing of good can exist; all is stained and soiled. This idea causes the rejection of many a diamond with a flaw by girls who, as women, fall in love with paste.

Now, Celeste had seen in Felix, not irreligion, but indifference to matters of religion. Like most geometricians, chemists, mathematicians, and great naturalists, he had subjected religion to reason; he recognized a problem in it as insoluble as the squaring of the circle. Deist "in petto," he lived in the religion of most Frenchmen, not attaching more importance to it than he did to the new laws promulgated in July. It was necessary to have a God in heaven, just as they set up a bust of the king at the mayor's office. Felix Phellion, a worthy son of his father, had never drawn the slightest veil over his opinions or his conscience; he allowed Celeste to read into them with the candor and the inattention of a student of problems. The young girl, on her side, professed a horror for atheism, and her conscience assured her that a deist was cousin-germain to an atheist.

"Have you thought, Felix, of doing what you promised me?" asked Celeste, as soon as Madame Colleville had left them alone.

"No, my dear Celeste," replied Felix.

"Oh! to have broken his word!" she cried, softly.

"But to have kept it would have been a profanation," said Felix. "I love you so deeply, with a tenderness so little proof against your wishes, that I promised a thing contrary to my conscience. Conscience, Celeste, is our treasure, our strength, our mainstay. How can you ask me to go into a church and kneel at the feet of a priest, in whom I can see only a man? You would despise me if I obeyed you."

"And so, my dear Felix, you refuse to go to church," said Celeste, casting a tearful glance at the man she loved. "If I were your wife you would let me go alone? You do not love me as I love you! for, alas! I have a feeling in my heart for an atheist contrary to that which God commands."

"An atheist!" cried Felix. "Oh, no! Listen to me, Celeste. There is certainly a God; I believe in that; but I have higher ideas of Him than those of your priests; I do not wish to bring Him down to my level; I want to rise to Him. I listen to the voice He has put within me,—a voice which honest men call conscience, and I strive not to darken that divine ray as it comes to me. For instance, I will never harm others; I will do nothing against the commandments of universal morality, which was that of Confucius, Moses, Pythagoras, Socrates, as well as of Jesus Christ. I will stand in the presence of God; my actions shall be my prayers; I will never be false in word or deed; never will I do a base or shameful thing. Those are the precepts I have learned from my virtuous father, and which I desire to bequeath to my children. All the good that I can do I shall try to accomplish, even if I have to suffer for it. What can you ask more of a man than that?"

This profession of the Phellion faith caused Celeste to sadly shake her head.

"Read attentively," she replied, "'The Imitation of Jesus Christ.' Strive to convert yourself to the holy Catholic, apostolic, and Roman Church, and you will see how empty your words are. Hear me, Felix; marriage is not, the Church says, the affair of a day, the mere satisfaction of our own desires; it is made for eternity. What! shall we be united day and night, shall we form one flesh, one word, and yet have two languages, two faiths in our heart, and a cause of perpetual dissension? Would you condemn me to weep tears over the state of your soul,—tears that I must ever conceal from you? Could I address myself in peace to God when I see his arm stretched out in wrath against you? Must my children inherit the blood of a deist and his convictions? Oh! God, what misery for a wife! No, no, these ideas are intolerable. Felix! be of my faith, for I cannot share yours. Do not put a gulf between us. If you loved me, you would already have read 'The Imitation of Jesus Christ.'"

The Phellion class, sons of the "Constitutionnel," dislike the priestly mind. Felix had the imprudence to reply to this sort of prayer from the depths of an ardent heart:—

"You are repeating, Celeste, the lessons your confessor teaches you; nothing, believe me, is more fatal to happiness than the interference of priests in a home."

"Oh!" cried Celeste, wounded to the quick, for love alone inspired her, "you do not love! The voice of my heart is not in unison with yours! You have not understood me, because you have not listened to me; but I forgive you, for you know not what you say."

She wrapped herself in solemn silence, and Felix went to the window and drummed upon the panes,—music familiar to those who have indulged in poignant reflections. Felix was, in fact, presenting the following delicate and curious questions to the Phellion conscience.

"Celeste is a rich heiress, and, in yielding against the voice of natural religion, to her ideas, I should have in view the making of what is certainly an advantageous marriage,—an infamous act. I ought not, as father of a family, to allow the priesthood to have an influence in my home. If I yield to-day, I do a weak act, which will be followed by many others equally pernicious to the authority of a husband and father. All this is unworthy of a philosopher."

Then he returned to his beloved.

"Celeste, I entreat you on my knees," he said, "not to mingle that which the law, in its wisdom, has separated. We live in two worlds,—society and heaven. Each has its own way of salvation; but as to society, is it not obeying God to obey the laws? Christ said: 'Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.' Caesar is the body politic. Dear, let us forget our little quarrel."

"Little quarrel!" cried the young enthusiast; "I want you to have my whole heart as I want to have the whole of yours; and you make it into two parts! Is not that an evil? You forget that marriage is a sacrament."

"Your priesthood have turned your head," exclaimed the mathematician, impatiently.

"Monsieur Phellion," said Celeste, interrupting him hastily, "enough of this!"

It was at this point of the quarrel that Theodose considered it judicious to enter the room. He found Celeste pale, and the young professor as anxious as a lover should be who has just irritated his mistress.

"I heard the word 'enough'; then something is too much?" he said, inquiringly, looking in turn from Celeste to Felix.

"We were talking religion," replied Felix, "and I was saying to mademoiselle how dangerous ecclesiastical influence is in the bosom of families."

"That was not the point, monsieur," said Celeste, sharply; "it was to know if husband and wife could be of one heart when the one is an atheist and the other Catholic."

"Can there be such a thing as atheists?" cried Theodose, with all the signs of extreme wonderment. "Could a true Catholic marry a Protestant? There is no safety possible for a married pair unless they have perfect conformity in the matter of religious opinions. I, who come from the Comtat, of a family which counts a pope among its ancestors—for our arms are: gules, a key argent, with supporters, a monk holding a church, and a pilgrim with a staff, or, and the motto, 'I open, I shut'—I am, of course, intensely dogmatic on such points. But in these days, thanks to our modern system of education, it does not seem to me strange that religion should be called into question. I myself would never marry a Protestant, had she millions, even if I loved her distractedly. Faith is a thing that cannot be tampered with. 'Una fides, unus Dominus,' that is my device in life."

"You hear that!" cried Celeste, triumphantly, looking at Felix Phellion.

"I am not openly devout," continued la Peyrade. "I go to mass at six every morning, that I may not be observed; I fast on Fridays; I am, in short, a son of the Church, and I would not undertake any serious enterprise without prayer, after the ancient fashion of our ancestors; but no one is able to notice my religion. A singular thing happened to our family during the Revolution of 1789, which attached us more closely than ever to our holy mother the Church. A poor young lady of the elder branch of the Peyrades, who owned the little estate of la Peyrade,—for we ourselves are Peyrades of Canquoelle, but the two branches inherit from one another,—well, this young lady married, six years before the Revolution, a barrister who, after the fashion of the times, was Voltairean, that is to say, an unbeliever, or, if you choose, a deist. He took up all the revolutionary ideas, and practised the charming rites that you know of in the worship of the goddess Reason. He came into our part of the country imbued with the ideas of the Convention, and fanatical about them. His wife was very handsome; he compelled her to play the part of Liberty; and the poor unfortunate creature went mad. She died insane! Well, as things are going now it looks as if we might have another 1793."

This history, invented on the spot, made such an impression on Celeste's fresh and youthful imagination that she rose, bowed to the young men and hastened to her chamber.

"Ah! monsieur, why did you tell her that?" cried Felix, struck to the heart by the cold look the young girl, affecting profound indifference, cast upon him. She fancied herself transformed into a goddess of Reason.

"Why not? What were you talking about?" asked Theodose.

"About my indifference to religion."

"The great sore of this century," replied Theodose, gravely.

"I am ready," said Madame Colleville, appearing in a toilet of much taste. "But what is the matter with my poor daughter? She is crying!"

"Crying? madame," exclaimed Felix; "please tell her that I will study 'The Imitation of Christ' at once."

Felix left the house with Theodose and Flavie, whose arm the barrister pressed to let her know he would explain in the carriage the apparent dementia of the young professor.

An hour later, Madame Colleville and Celeste, Colleville and Theodose were entering the Thuilliers' apartment to dine there. Theodose and Flavie took Thuillier into the garden, where the former said to him:—

"Dear, good friend! you will have the cross within a week. Our charming friend here will tell you about our visit to the Comtesse du Bruel."

And Theodose left Thuillier, having caught sight of Desroches in the act of being brought by Mademoiselle Thuillier into the garden; he went, driven by a terrible and glacial presentiment, to meet him.

"My good friend," said Desroches in his ear, "I have come to see if you can procure at once twenty-five thousand francs plus two thousand six hundred and eighty for costs."

"Are you acting for Cerizet?" asked the barrister.

"Cerizet has put all the papers into the hands of Louchard, and you know what you have to expect if arrested. Is Cerizet wrong in thinking you have twenty-five thousand francs in your desk? He says you offered them to him and he thinks it only natural not to leave them in your hands."

"Thank you for taking the step, my good friend," replied Theodose. "I have been expecting this attack."

"Between ourselves," replied Desroches, "you have made an utter fool of him, and he is furious. The scamp will stop at nothing to get his revenge upon you—for he'll lose everything if he forces you to fling your barrister's gown, as they say, to the nettles and go to prison."

"I?" said Theodose. "I'm going to pay him. But even so, there will still be five notes of mine in his hands, for five thousand francs each; what does he mean to do with them?"

"Oh! after the affair of this morning, I can't tell you; my client is a crafty, mangy cur, and he is sure to have his little plans."

"Look here, Desroches," said Theodose, taking the hard, unyielding attorney round the waist, "those papers are in your hands, are not they?"

"Will you pay them?"

"Yes, in three hours."

"Very good, then. Be at my office at nine o'clock; I'll receive the money and give you your notes; but, at half-past nine o'clock, they will be in the sheriff's hands."

"To-night, then, at nine o'clock," said Theodose.

"Nine o'clock," repeated Desroches, whose glance had taken in the whole family, then assembled in the garden.

Celeste, with red eyes, was talking to her godmother; Colleville and Brigitte, Flavie and Thuillier were on the steps of the broad portico leading to the entrance-hall. Desroches remarked to Theodose, who followed him to the door:—

"You can pay off those notes."

At a single glance the shrewd attorney had comprehended the whole scheme of the barrister.