A Distinguished Provincial at Paris/Part 2/Section 5
And Lucien wrote his first newspaper article at the round table in Florine's boudoir, by the light of the pink candles lighted by Matifat; before such a remarkable audience he was eager to show what he could do.
First performance of the Alcalde in a Fix, an imbroglio in three
acts.—First appearance of Mademoiselle Florine.—Mademoiselle
People are coming and going, walking and talking, everybody is
looking for something, nobody finds anything. General hubbub. The
Alcalde has lost his daughter and found his cap, but the cap does
not fit; it must belong to some thief. Where is the thief? People
walk and talk, and come and go more than ever. Finally the Alcalde
finds a man without his daughter, and his daughter without the
man, which is satisfactory for the magistrate, but not for the
audience. Quiet being resorted, the Alcalde tries to examine the
man. Behold a venerable Alcalde, sitting in an Alcalde's great
armchair, arranging the sleeves of his Alcalde's gown. Only in
Spain do Alcaldes cling to their enormous sleeves and wear plaited
lawn ruffles about the magisterial throat, a good half of an
Alcalde's business on the stage in Paris. This particular Alcalde,
wheezing and waddling about like an asthmatic old man, is Vignol,
on whom Potier's mantle has fallen; a young actor who personates
old age so admirably that the oldest men in the audience cannot
help laughing. With that quavering voice of his, that bald
forehead, and those spindle shanks trembling under the weight of a
senile frame, he may look forward to a long career of decrepitude.
There is something alarming about the young actor's old age; he is
so very old; you feel nervous lest senility should be infectious.
And what an admirable Alcalde he makes! What a delightful, uneasy
smile! what pompous stupidity! what wooden dignity! what judicial
hesitation! How well the man knows that black may be white, or
white black! How eminently well he is fitted to be Minister to a
constitutional monarch! The stranger answers every one of his
inquiries by a question; Vignol retorts in such a fashion, that
the person under examination elicits all the truth from the
Alcalde. This piece of pure comedy, with a breath of Moliere
throughout, puts the house in good humor. The people on the stage
all seemed to understand what they were about, but I am quite
unable to clear up the mystery, or to say wherein it lay; for the
Alcalde's daughter was there, personified by a living, breathing
Andalusian, a Spaniard with a Spaniard's eyes, a Spaniard's
complexion, a Spaniard's gait and figure, a Spaniard from top to
toe, with her poniard in her garter, love in her heart, and a
cross on the ribbon about her neck. When the act was over, and
somebody asked me how the piece was going, I answered, "She wears
scarlet stockings with green clocks to them; she has a little
foot, no larger than that, in her patent leather shoes, and the
prettiest pair of ankles in Andalusia!" Oh! that Alcalde's
daughter brings your heart into your mouth; she tantalizes you so
horribly, that you long to spring upon the stage and offer her
your thatched hovel and your heart, or thirty thousand livres per
annum and your pen. The Andalusian is the loveliest actress in
Paris. Coralie, for she must be called by her real name, can be a
countess or a grisette, and in which part she would be more
charming one cannot tell. She can be anything that she chooses;
she is born to achieve all possibilities; can more be said of a
With the second act, a Parisian Spaniard appeared upon the scene,
with her features cut like a cameo and her dangerous eyes. "Where
does she come from?" I asked in my turn, and was told that she
came from the greenroom, and that she was Mademoiselle Florine;
but, upon my word, I could not believe a syllable of it, such
spirit was there in her gestures, such frenzy in her love. She is
the rival of the Alcalde's daughter, and married to a grandee cut
out to wear an Almaviva's cloak, with stuff sufficient in it for a
hundred boulevard noblemen. Mlle. Florine wore neither scarlet
stockings with green clocks, nor patent leather shoes, but she
appeared in a mantilla, a veil which she put to admirable uses,
like the great lady that she is! She showed to admiration that the
tigress can be a cat. I began to understand, from the sparkling
talk between the two, that some drama of jealousy was going on;
and just as everything was put right, the Alcalde's stupidity
embroiled everybody again. Torchbearers, rich men, footmen,
Figaros, grandees, alcaldes, dames, and damsels—the whole company
on the stage began to eddy about, and come and go, and look for
one another. The plot thickened, again I left it to thicken; for
Florine the jealous and the happy Coralie had entangled me once
more in the folds of mantilla and basquina, and their little feet
were twinkling in my eyes.
I managed, however, to reach the third act without any mishap. The
commissary of police was not compelled to interfere, and I did
nothing to scandalize the house, wherefore I begin to believe in
the influence of that "public and religious morality," about which
the Chamber of Deputies is so anxious, that any one might think
there was no morality left in France. I even contrived to gather
that a man was in love with two women who failed to return his
affection, or else that two women were in love with a man who
loved neither of them; the man did not love the Alcalde, or the
Alcalde had no love for the man, who was nevertheless a gallant
gentleman, and in love with somebody, with himself, perhaps, or
with heaven, if the worst came to the worst, for he becomes a
monk. And if you want to know any more, you can go to the
Panorama-Dramatique. You are hereby given fair warning—you must
go once to accustom yourself to those irresistible scarlet
stockings with the green clocks, to little feet full of promises,
to eyes with a ray of sunlight shining through them, to the subtle
charm of a Parisienne disguised as an Andalusian girl, and of an
Andalusian masquerading as a Parisienne. You must go a second time
to enjoy the play, to shed tears over the love-distracted grandee,
and die of laughing at the old Alcalde. The play is twice a
success. The author, who writes it, it is said, in collaboration
with one of the great poets of the day, was called before the
curtain, and appeared with a love-distraught damsel on each arm,
and fairly brought down the excited house. The two dancers seemed
to have more wit in their legs than the author himself; but when
once the fair rivals left the stage, the dialogue seemed witty at
once, a triumphant proof of the excellence of the piece. The
applause and calls for the author caused the architect some
anxiety; but M. de Cursy, the author, being accustomed to volcanic
eruptions of the reeling Vesuvius beneath the chandelier, felt no
tremor. As for the actresses, they danced the famous bolero of
Seville, which once found favor in the sight of a council of
reverend fathers, and escaped ecclesiastical censure in spite of
its wanton dangerous grace. The bolero in itself would be enough
to attract old age while there is any lingering heat of youth in
the veins, and out of charity I warn these persons to keep the
lenses of their opera-glasses well polished.
While Lucien was writing a column which was to set a new fashion in journalism and reveal a fresh and original gift, Lousteau indited an article of the kind described as moeurs—a sketch of contemporary manners, entitled The Elderly Beau.
"The buck of the Empire," he wrote, "is invariably long, slender, and well preserved. He wears a corset and the Cross of the Legion of Honor. His name was originally Potelet, or something very like it; but to stand well with the Court, he conferred a du upon himself, and du Potelet he is until another revolution. A baron of the Empire, a man of two ends, as his name (Potelet, a post) implies, he is paying his court to the Faubourg Saint-Germain, after a youth gloriously and usefully spent as the agreeable trainbearer of a sister of the man whom decency forbids me to mention by name. Du Potelet has forgotten that he was once in waiting upon Her Imperial Highness; but he still sings the songs composed for the benefactress who took such a tender interest in his career," and so forth and so forth. It was a tissue of personalities, silly enough for the most part, such as they used to write in those days. Other papers, and notably the Figaro, have brought the art to a curious perfection since. Lousteau compared the Baron to a heron, and introduced Mme. de Bargeton, to whom he was paying his court, as a cuttlefish bone, a burlesque absurdity which amused readers who knew neither of the personages. A tale of the loves of the Heron, who tried in vain to swallow the Cuttlefish bone, which broke into three pieces when he dropped it, was irresistibly ludicrous. Everybody remembers the sensation which the pleasantry made in the Faubourg Saint-Germain; it was the first of a series of similar articles, and was one of the thousand and one causes which provoked the rigorous press legislation of Charles X.
An hour later, Blondet, Lousteau, and Lucien came back to the drawing-room, where the other guests were chatting. The Duke was there and the Minister, the four women, the three merchants, the manager, and Finot. A printer's devil, with a paper cap on his head, was waiting even then for copy.
"The men are just going off, if I have nothing to take them," he said.
"Stay a bit, here are ten francs, and tell them to wait," said Finot.
"If I give them the money, sir, they would take to tippleography, and good-night to the newspaper."
"That boy's common-sense is appalling to me," remarked Finot; and the Minister was in the middle of a prediction of a brilliant future for the urchin, when the three came in. Blondet read aloud an extremely clever article against the Romantics; Lousteau's paragraph drew laughter, and by the Duc de Rhetore's advice an indirect eulogium of Mme. d'Espard was slipped in, lest the whole Faubourg Saint-Germain should take offence.
"What have you written?" asked Finot, turning to Lucien.
And Lucien read, quaking for fear, but the room rang with applause when he finished; the actresses embraced the neophyte; and the two merchants, following suit, half choked the breath out of him. There were tears in du Bruel's eyes as he grasped his critic's hand, and the manager invited him to dinner.
"There are no children nowadays," said Blondet. "Since M. de Chateaubriand called Victor Hugo a 'sublime child,' I can only tell you quite simply that you have spirit and taste, and write like a gentleman."
"He is on the newspaper," said Finot, as he thanked Etienne, and gave him a shrewd glance.
"What jokes have you made?" inquired Lousteau, turning to Blondet and du Bruel.
"Here are du Bruel's," said Nathan.
- *** "Now, that M. le Vicomte d'A—— is attracting so much attention, they will perhaps let me alone," M. le Vicomte Demosthenes was heard to say yesterday.
- *** An Ultra, condemning M. Pasquier's speech, said his programme was only a continuation of Decaze's policy. "Yes," said a lady, "but he stands on a Monarchical basis, he has just the kind of leg for a Court suit."
"With such a beginning, I don't ask more of you," said Finot; "it will be all right.—Run round with this," he added, turning to the boy; "the paper is not exactly a genuine article, but it is our best number yet," and he turned to the group of writers. Already Lucien's colleagues were privately taking his measure.
"That fellow has brains," said Blondet.
"His article is well written," said Claude Vignon.
"Supper!" cried Matifat.
The Duke gave his arm to Florine, Coralie went across to Lucien, and Tullia went in to supper between Emile Blondet and the German Minister.
"I cannot understand why you are making an onslaught on Mme. de Bargeton and the Baron du Chatelet; they say that he is prefect-designate of the Charente, and will be Master of Requests some day."
"Mme. de Bargeton showed Lucien the door as if he had been an imposter," said Lousteau.
"Such a fine young fellow!" exclaimed the Minister.
Supper, served with new plate, Sevres porcelain, and white damask, was redolent of opulence. The dishes were from Chevet, the wines from a celebrated merchant on the Quai Saint-Bernard, a personal friend of Matifat's. For the first time Lucien beheld the luxury of Paris displayed; he went from surprise to surprise, but he kept his astonishment to himself, like a man who had spirit and taste and wrote like a gentleman, as Blondet had said.
As they crossed the drawing-room, Coralie bent to Florine, "Make Camusot so drunk that he will be compelled to stop here all night," she whispered.
"So you have hooked your journalist, have you?" returned Florine, using the idiom of women of her class.
"No, dear; I love him," said Coralie, with an adorable little shrug of the shoulders.
Those words rang in Lucien's ears, borne to them by the fifth deadly sin. Coralie was perfectly dressed. Every woman possesses some personal charm in perfection, and Coralie's toilette brought her characteristic beauty into prominence. Her dress, moreover, like Florine's, was of some exquisite stuff, unknown as yet to the public, a mousseline de soie, with which Camusot had been supplied a few days before the rest of the world; for, as owner of the Golden Cocoon, he was a kind of Providence in Paris to the Lyons silkweavers.
Love and toilet are like color and perfume for a woman, and Coralie in her happiness looked lovelier than ever. A looked-for delight which cannot elude the grasp possesses an immense charm for youth; perhaps in their eyes the secret of the attraction of a house of pleasure lies in the certainty of gratification; perhaps many a long fidelity is attributable to the same cause. Love for love's sake, first love indeed, had blent with one of the strange violent fancies which sometimes possess these poor creatures; and love and admiration of Lucien's great beauty taught Coralie to express the thoughts in her heart.
"I should love you if you were ill and ugly," she whispered as they sat down.
What a saying for a poet! Camusot utterly vanished, Lucien had forgotten his existence, he saw Coralie, and had eyes for nothing else. How should he draw back—this creature, all sensation, all enjoyment of life, tired of the monotony of existence in a country town, weary of poverty, harassed by enforced continence, impatient of the claustral life of the Rue de Cluny, of toiling without reward? The fascination of the under world of Paris was upon him; how should he rise and leave this brilliant gathering? Lucien stood with one foot in Coralie's chamber and the other in the quicksands of Journalism. After so much vain search, and climbing of so many stairs, after standing about and waiting in the Rue de Sentier, he had found Journalism a jolly boon companion, joyous over the wine. His wrongs had just been avenged. There were two for whom he had vainly striven to fill the cup of humiliation and pain which he had been made to drink to the dregs, and now to-morrow they should receive a stab in their very hearts. "Here is a real friend!" he thought, as he looked at Lousteau. It never crossed his mind that Lousteau already regarded him as a dangerous rival. He had made a blunder; he had done his very best when a colorless article would have served him admirably well. Blondet's remark to Finot that it would be better to come to terms with a man of that calibre, had counteracted Lousteau's gnawing jealousy. He reflected that it would be prudent to keep on good terms with Lucien, and, at the same time, to arrange with Finot to exploit this formidable newcomer—he must be kept in poverty. The decision was made in a moment, and the bargain made in a few whispered words.
"He has talent."
"He will want the more."
"A supper among French journalists always fills me with dread," said the German diplomatist, with serene urbanity; he looked as he spoke at Blondet, whom he had met at the Comtesse de Montcornet's. "It is laid upon you, gentlemen, to fulfil a prophecy of Blucher's."
"What prophecy?" asked Nathan.
"When Blucher and Sacken arrived on the heights of Montmartre in 1814 (pardon me, gentlemen, for recalling a day unfortunate for France), Sacken (a rough brute), remarked, 'Now we will set Paris alight!'—'Take very good care that you don't,' said Blucher. 'France will die of that, nothing else can kill her,' and he waved his hand over the glowing, seething city, that lay like a huge canker in the valley of the Seine.—There are no journalists in our country, thank Heaven!" continued the Minister after a pause. "I have not yet recovered from the fright that the little fellow gave me, a boy of ten, in a paper cap, with the sense of an old diplomatist. And to-night I feel as if I were supping with lions and panthers, who graciously sheathe their claws in my honor."
"It is clear," said Blondet, "that we are at liberty to inform Europe that a serpent dropped from your Excellency's lips this evening, and that the venomous creature failed to inoculate Mlle. Tullia, the prettiest dancer in Paris; and to follow up the story with a commentary on Eve, and the Scriptures, and the first and last transgression. But have no fear, you are our guest."
"It would be funny," said Finot.
"We would begin with a scientific treatise on all the serpents found in the human heart and human body, and so proceed to the corps diplomatique," said Lousteau.
"And we could exhibit one in spirits, in a bottle of brandied cherries," said Vernou.
"Till you yourself would end by believing in the story," added Vignon, looking at the diplomatist.
"Gentlemen," cried the Duc de Rhetore, "let sleeping claws lie."
"The influence and power of the press is only dawning," said Finot. "Journalism is in its infancy; it will grow. In ten years' time, everything will be brought into publicity. The light of thought will be turned on all subjects, and——"
"The blight of thought will be over it all," corrected Blondet.
"Here is an apothegm," cried Claude Vignon.
"Thought will make kings," said Lousteau.
"And undo monarchs," said the German.
"And therefore," said Blondet, "if the press did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it forthwith. But here we have it, and live by it."
"You will die of it," returned the German diplomatist. "Can you not see that if you enlighten the masses, and raise them in the political scale, you make it all the harder for the individual to rise above their level? Can you not see that if you sow the seeds of reasoning among the working-classes, you will reap revolt, and be the first to fall victims? What do they smash in Paris when a riot begins?"
"The street-lamps!" said Nathan; "but we are too modest to fear for ourselves, we only run the risk of cracks."
"As a nation, you have too much mental activity to allow any government to run its course without interference. But for that, you would make the conquest of Europe a second time, and win with the pen all that you failed to keep with the sword."
"Journalism is an evil," said Claude Vignon. "The evil may have its uses, but the present Government is resolved to put it down. There will be a battle over it. Who will give way? That is the question."
"The Government will give way," said Blondet. "I keep telling people that with all my might! Intellectual power is the great power in France; and the press has more wit than all men of intellect put together, and the hypocrisy of Tartufe besides."
"Blondet! Blondet! you are going too far!" called Finot. "Subscribers are present."
"You are the proprietor of one of those poison shops; you have reason to be afraid; but I can laugh at the whole business, even if I live by it."
"Blondet is right," said Claude Vignon. "Journalism, so far from being in the hands of a priesthood, came to be first a party weapon, and then a commercial speculation, carried on without conscience or scruple, like other commercial speculations. Every newspaper, as Blondet says, is a shop to which people come for opinions of the right shade. If there were a paper for hunchbacks, it would set forth plainly, morning and evening, in its columns, the beauty, the utility, and necessity of deformity. A newspaper is not supposed to enlighten its readers, but to supply them with congenial opinions. Give any newspaper time enough, and it will be base, hypocritical, shameless, and treacherous; the periodical press will be the death of ideas, systems, and individuals; nay, it will flourish upon their decay. It will take the credit of all creations of the brain; the harm that it does is done anonymously. We, for instance—I, Claude Vignon; you, Blondet; you, Lousteau; and you, Finot—we are all Platos, Aristides, and Catos, Plutarch's men, in short; we are all immaculate; we may wash our hands of all iniquity. Napoleon's sublime aphorism, suggested by his study of the Convention, 'No one individual is responsible for a crime committed collectively,' sums up the whole significance of a phenomenon, moral or immoral, whichever you please. However shamefully a newspaper may behave, the disgrace attaches to no one person."
"The authorities will resort to repressive legislation," interposed du Bruel. "A law is going to be passed, in fact."
"Pooh!" retorted Nathan. "What is the law in France against the spirit in which it is received, the most subtle of all solvents?"
"Ideas and opinions can only be counteracted by opinions and ideas," Vignon continued. "By sheer terror and despotism, and by no other means, can you extinguish the genius of the French nation; for the language lends itself admirably to allusion and ambiguity. Epigram breaks out the more for repressive legislation; it is like steam in an engine without a safety-valve.—The King, for example, does right; if a newspaper is against him, the Minister gets all the credit of the measure, and vice versa. A newspaper invents a scandalous libel—it has been misinformed. If the victim complains, the paper gets off with an apology for taking so great a freedom. If the case is taken into court, the editor complains that nobody asked him to rectify the mistake; but ask for redress, and he will laugh in your face and treat his offence as a mere trifle. The paper scoffs if the victim gains the day; and if heavy damages are awarded, the plaintiff is held up as an unpatriotic obscurantist and a menace to the liberties of the country. In the course of an article purporting to explain that Monsieur So-and-so is as honest a man as you will find in the kingdom, you are informed that he is not better than a common thief. The sins of the press? Pooh! mere trifles; the curtailers of its liberties are monsters; and give him time enough, the constant reader is persuaded to believe anything you please. Everything which does not suit the newspaper will be unpatriotic, and the press will be infallible. One religion will be played off against another, and the Charter against the King. The press will hold up the magistracy to scorn for meting out rigorous justice to the press, and applaud its action when it serves the cause of party hatred. The most sensational fictions will be invented to increase the circulation; Journalism will descend to mountebanks' tricks worthy of Bobeche; Journalism would serve up its father with the Attic salt of its own wit sooner than fail to interest or amuse the public; Journalism will outdo the actor who put his son's ashes into the urn to draw real tears from his eyes, or the mistress who sacrifices everything to her lover."
"Journalism is, in fact, the People in folio form," interrupted Blondet.
"The people with hypocrisy added and generosity lacking," said Vignon. "All real ability will be driven out from the ranks of Journalism, as Aristides was driven into exile by the Athenians. We shall see newspapers started in the first instance by men of honor, falling sooner or later into the hands of men of abilities even lower than the average, but endowed with the resistance of flexibility of india-rubber, qualities denied to noble genius; nay, perhaps the future newspaper proprietor will be the tradesman with capital sufficient to buy venal pens. We see such things already indeed, but in ten years' time every little youngster that has left school will take himself for a great man, slash his predecessors from the lofty height of a newspaper column, drag them down by the feet, and take their place.
"Napoleon did wisely when he muzzled the press. I would wager that the Opposition papers would batter down a government of their own setting up, just as they are battering the present government, if any demand was refused. The more they have, the more they will want in the way of concessions. The parvenu journalist will be succeeded by the starveling hack. There is no salve for this sore. It is a kind of corruption which grows more and more obtrusive and malignant; the wider it spreads, the more patiently it will be endured, until the day comes when newspapers shall so increase and multiply in the earth that confusion will be the result—a second Babel. We, all of us, such as we are, have reason to know that crowned kings are less ungrateful than kings of our profession; that the most sordid man of business is not so mercenary nor so keen in speculation; that our brains are consumed to furnish their daily supply of poisonous trash. And yet we, all of us, shall continue to write, like men who work in quicksilver mines, knowing that they are doomed to die of their trade.
"Look there," he continued, "at that young man sitting beside Coralie—what is his name? Lucien! He has a beautiful face; he is a poet; and what is more, he is witty—so much the better for him. Well, he will cross the threshold of one of those dens where a man's intellect is prostituted; he will put all his best and finest thought into his work; he will blunt his intellect and sully his soul; he will be guilty of anonymous meannesses which take the place of stratagem, pillage, and ratting to the enemy in the warfare of condottieri. And when, like hundreds more, he has squandered his genius in the service of others who find the capital and do no work, those dealers in poisons will leave him to starve if he is thirsty, and to die of thirst if he is starving."
"Thanks," said Finot.
"But, dear me," continued Claude Vignon, "I knew all this, yet here am I in the galleys, and the arrival of another convict gives me pleasure. We are cleverer, Blondet and I, than Messieurs This and That, who speculate in our abilities, yet nevertheless we are always exploited by them. We have a heart somewhere beneath the intellect; we have NOT the grim qualities of the man who makes others work for him. We are indolent, we like to look on at the game, we are meditative, and we are fastidious; they will sweat our brains and blame us for improvidence."
"I thought you would be more amusing than this!" said Florine.
"Florine is right," said Blondet; "let us leave the cure of public evils to those quacks the statesmen. As Charlet says, 'Quarrel with my own bread and butter? Never!'"
"Do you know what Vignon puts me in mind of?" said Lousteau. "Of one of those fat women in the Rue du Pelican telling a schoolboy, 'My boy, you are too young to come here.'"
A burst of laughter followed the sally, but it pleased Coralie. The merchants meanwhile ate and drank and listened.
"What a nation this is! You see so much good in it and so much evil," said the Minister, addressing the Duc de Rhetore.—"You are prodigals who cannot ruin yourselves, gentlemen."
And so, by the blessing of chance, Lucien, standing on the brink of the precipice over which he was destined to fall, heard warnings on all sides. D'Arthez had set him on the right road, had shown him the noble method of work, and aroused in him the spirit before which all obstacles disappear. Lousteau himself (partly from selfish motives) had tried to warn him away by describing Journalism and Literature in their practical aspects. Lucien had refused to believe that there could be so much hidden corruption; but now he had heard the journalists themselves crying woe for their hurt, he had seen them at their work, had watched them tearing their foster-mother's heart to read auguries of the future.
That evening he had seen things as they are. He beheld the very heart's core of corruption of that Paris which Blucher so aptly described; and so far from shuddering at the sight, he was intoxicated with enjoyment of the intellectually stimulating society in which he found himself.
These extraordinary men, clad in armor damascened by their vices, these intellects environed by cold and brilliant analysis, seemed so far greater in his eyes than the grave and earnest members of the brotherhood. And besides all this, he was reveling in his first taste of luxury; he had fallen under the spell. His capricious instincts awoke; for the first time in his life he drank exquisite wines, this was his first experience of cookery carried to the pitch of a fine art. A minister, a duke, and an opera-dancer had joined the party of journalists, and wondered at their sinister power. Lucien felt a horrible craving to reign over these kings, and he thought that he had power to win his kingdom. Finally, there was this Coralie, made happy by a few words of his. By the bright light of the wax-candles, through the steam of the dishes and the fumes of wine, she looked sublimely beautiful to his eyes, so fair had she grown with love. She was the loveliest, the most beautiful actress in Paris. The brotherhood, the heaven of noble thoughts, faded away before a temptation that appealed to every fibre of his nature. How could it have been otherwise? Lucien's author's vanity had just been gratified by the praises of those who know; by the appreciation of his future rivals; the success of his articles and his conquest of Coralie might have turned an older head than his.