The Middle Classes/Part I/Chapter II

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The Middle Classes by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley
Part I/Chapter II: THE HISTORY OF A TYRANNY

At the fall of the Villele ministry, Monsieur Louis-Jerome Thuillier, who had then seen twenty-six years' service as a clerk in the ministry of finance, became sub-director of a department thereof; but scarcely had he enjoyed the subaltern authority of a position formerly his lowest hope, when the events of July, 1830, forced him to resign it. He calculated, shrewdly enough, that his pension would be honorably and readily given by the new-comers, glad to have another office at their disposal. He was right; for a pension of seventeen hundred francs was paid to him immediately.

When the prudent sub-director first talked of resigning, his sister, who was far more the companion of his life than his wife, trembled for his future.

"What will become of Thuillier?" was a question which Madame and Mademoiselle Thuillier put to each other with mutual terror in their little lodging on a third floor of the rue d'Argenteuil.

"Securing his pension will occupy him for a time," Mademoiselle Thuillier said one day; "but I am thinking of investing my savings in a way that will cut out work for him. Yes; it will be something like administrating the finances to manage a piece of property."

"Oh, sister! you will save his life," cried Madame Thuillier.

"I have always looked for a crisis of this kind in Jerome's life," replied the old maid, with a protecting air.

Mademoiselle Thuillier had too often heard her brother remark: "Such a one is dead; he only survived his retirement two years"; she had too often heard Colleville, her brother's intimate friend, a government employee like himself, say, jesting on this climacteric of bureaucrats, "We shall all come to it, ourselves," not to appreciate the danger her brother was running. The change from activity to leisure is, in truth, the critical period for government employees of all kinds.

Those of them who know not how to substitute, or perhaps cannot substitute other occupations for the work to which they have been accustomed, change in a singular manner; some die outright; others take to fishing, the vacancy of that amusement resembling that of their late employment under government; others, who are smarter men, dabble in stocks, lose their savings, and are thankful to obtain a place in some enterprise that is likely to succeed, after a first disaster and liquidation, in the hands of an abler management. The late clerk then rubs his hands, now empty, and says to himself, "I always did foresee the success of the business." But nearly all these retired bureaucrats have to fight against their former habits.

"Some," Colleville used to say, "are victims to a sort of 'spleen' peculiar to the government clerk; they die of a checked circulation; a red-tapeworm is in their vitals. That little Poiret couldn't see the well-known white carton without changing color at the beloved sight; he used to turn from green to yellow."

Mademoiselle Thuillier was considered the moving spirit of her brother's household; she was not without decision and force of character, as the following history will show. This superiority over those who immediately surrounded her enabled her to judge her brother, although she adored him. After witnessing the failure of the hopes she had set upon her idol, she had too much real maternity in her feeling for him to let herself be mistaken as to his social value.

Thuillier and his sister were children of the head porter at the ministry of finance. Jerome had escaped, thanks to his near-sightedness, all drafts and conscriptions. The father's ambition was to make his son a government clerk. At the beginning of this century the army presented too many posts not to leave various vacancies in the government offices. A deficiency of minor officials enabled old Pere Thuillier to hoist his son upon the lowest step of the bureaucratic hierarchy. The old man died in 1814, leaving Jerome on the point of becoming sub-director, but with no other fortune than that prospect. The worthy Thuillier and his wife (who died in 1810) had retired from active service in 1806, with a pension as their only means of support; having spent what property they had in giving Jerome the education required in these days, and in supporting both him and his sister.

The influence of the Restoration on the bureaucracy is well known. From the forty and one suppressed departments a crowd of honorable employees returned to Paris with nothing to do, and clamorous for places inferior to those they had lately occupied. To these acquired rights were added those of exiled families ruined by the Revolution. Pressed between the two floods, Jerome thought himself lucky not to have been dismissed under some frivolous pretext. He trembled until the day when, becoming by mere chance sub-director, he saw himself secure of a retiring pension. This cursory view of matters will serve to explain Monsieur Thuillier's very limited scope and knowledge. He had learned the Latin, mathematics, history, and geography that are taught in schools, but he never got beyond what is called the second class; his father having preferred to take advantage of a sudden opportunity to place him at the ministry. So, while the young Thuillier was making his first records on the Grand-Livre, he ought to have been studying his rhetoric and philosophy.

While grinding the ministerial machine, he had no leisure to cultivate letters, still less the arts; but he acquired a routine knowledge of his business, and when he had an opportunity to rise, under the Empire, to the sphere of superior employees, he assumed a superficial air of competence which concealed the son of a porter, though none of it rubbed into his mind. His ignorance, however, taught him to keep silence, and silence served him well. He accustomed himself to practise, under the imperial regime, a passive obedience which pleased his superiors; and it was to this quality that he owed at a later period his promotion to the rank of sub-director. His routine habits then became great experience; his manners and his silence concealed his lack of education, and his absolute nullity was a recommendation, for a cipher was needed. The government was afraid of displeasing both parties in the Chamber by selecting a man from either side; it therefore got out of the difficulty by resorting to the rule of seniority. That is how Thuillier became sub-director. Mademoiselle Thuillier, knowing that her brother abhorred reading, and could substitute no business for the bustle of a public office, had wisely resolved to plunge him into the cares of property, into the culture of a garden, in short, into all the infinitely petty concerns and neighborhood intrigues which make up the life of the bourgeoisie.

The transplanting of the Thuillier household from the rue d'Argenteuil to the rue Saint-Dominique d'Enfer, the business of making the purchase, of finding a suitable porter, and then of obtaining tenants occupied Thuillier from 1831 to 1832. When the phenomenon of the change was accomplished, and the sister saw that Jerome had borne it fairly well, she found him other cares and occupations (about which we shall hear later), all based upon the character of the man himself, as to which it will now be useful to give information.

Though the son of a ministerial porter, Thuillier was what is called a fine man, slender in figure, above middle height, and possessing a face that was rather agreeable if wearing his spectacles, but frightful without them; which is frequently the case with near-sighted persons; for the habit of looking through glasses has covered the pupils of his eyes with a sort of film.

Between the ages of eighteen and thirty, young Thuillier had much success among women, in a sphere which began with the lesser bourgeois and ended in that of the heads of departments. Under the Empire, war left Parisian society rather denuded of men of energy, who were mostly on the battlefield; and perhaps, as a great physician has suggested, this may account for the flabbiness of the generation which occupies the middle of the nineteenth century.

Thuillier, forced to make himself noticeable by other charms than those of mind, learned to dance and to waltz in a way to be cited; he was called "that handsome Thuillier"; he played billiards to perfection; he knew how to cut out likenesses in black paper, and his friend Colleville coached him so well that he was able to sing all the ballads of the day. These various small accomplishments resulted in that appearance of success which deceives youth and befogs it about the future. Mademoiselle Thuillier, from 1806 to 1814, believed in her brother as Mademoiselle d'Orleans believed in Louis-Philippe. She was proud of Jerome; she expected to see him the director-general of his department of the ministry, thanks to his successes in certain salons, where, undoubtedly, he would never have been admitted but for the circumstances which made society under the Empire a medley.

But the successes of "that handsome Thuillier" were usually of short duration; women did not care to keep his devotion any more than he desired to make his devotion eternal. He was really an unwilling Don Juan; the career of a "beau" wearied him to the point of aging him; his face, covered with lines like that of an old coquette, looked a dozen years older than the registers made him. There remained to him of all his successes in gallantry, a habit of looking at himself in mirrors, of buttoning his coat to define his waist, and of posing in various dancing attitudes; all of which prolonged, beyond the period of enjoying his advantages, the sort of lease that he held on his cognomen, "that handsome Thuillier."

The truth of 1806 has, however, become a fable, in 1826. He retains a few vestiges of the former costume of the beaux of the Empire, which are not unbecoming to the dignity of a former sub-director. He still wears the white cravat with innumerable folds, wherein his chin is buried, and the coquettish bow, formerly tied by the hands of beauty, the two ends of which threaten danger to the passers to right and left. He follows the fashions of former days, adapting them to his present needs; he tips his hat on the back of his head, and wears shoes and thread stockings in summer; his long-tailed coats remind one of the well-known "surtouts" of the Empire; he has not yet abandoned his frilled shirts and his white waistcoats; he still plays with his Empire switch, and holds himself so erect that his back bends in. No one, seeing Thuillier promenading on the boulevards, would take him for the son of a man who cooked the breakfasts of the clerks at a ministry and wore the livery of Louis XVI.; he resembles an imperial diplomatist or a sub-prefect. Now, not only did Mademoiselle Thuillier very innocently work upon her brother's weak spot by encouraging in him an excessive care of his person, which, in her, was simply a continuation of her worship, but she also provided him with family joys, by transplanting to their midst a household which had hitherto been quasi-collateral to them.

It was that of Monsieur Colleville, an intimate friend of Thuillier. But before we proceed to describe Pylades let us finish with Orestes, and explain why Thuillier—that handsome Thuillier—was left without a family of his own—for the family, be it said, is non-existent without children. Herein appears one of those deep mysteries which lie buried in the arena of private life, a few shreds of which rise to the surface at moments when the pain of a concealed situation grows poignant. This concerns the life of Madame and Mademoiselle Thuillier; so far, we have seen only the life (and we may call it the public life) of Jerome Thuillier.

Marie-Jeanne-Brigitte Thuillier, four years older than her brother, had been utterly sacrificed to him; it was easier to give a career to one than a "dot" to the other. Misfortune to some natures is a pharos, which illumines to their eyes the dark low corners of social existence. Superior to her brother both in mind and energy, Brigitte had one of those natures which, under the hammer of persecution, gather themselves together, become compact and powerfully resistant, not to say inflexible. Jealous of her independence, she kept aloof from the life of the household; choosing to make herself the sole arbiter of her own fate. At fourteen years of age, she went to live alone in a garret, not far from the ministry of finance, which was then in the rue Vivienne, and also not far from the Bank of France, then, and now, in the rue de la Vrilliere. There she bravely gave herself up to a form of industry little known and the perquisite of a few persons, which she obtained, thanks to the patrons of her father. It consisted in making bags to hold coin for the Bank, the Treasury, and the great financial houses. At the end of three years she employed two workwomen. By investing her savings on the Grand-Livre, she found herself, in 1814, the mistress of three thousand six hundred francs a year, earned in fifteen years. As she spent little, and dined with her father as long as he lived, and, as government securities were very low during the last convulsions of the Empire, this result, which seems at first sight exaggerated, explains itself.

On the death of their father, Brigitte and Jerome, the former being twenty-seven, the latter twenty-three, united their existence. Brother and sister were bound together by an extreme affection. If Jerome, then at the height of his success, was pinched for money, his sister, clothed in serge, and her fingers roughened by the coarse thread with which she sewed her bags, would give him a few louis. In Brigitte's eyes Jerome was the handsomest and most charming man in the whole French Empire. To keep house for this cherished brother, to be initiated into the secrets of Lindor and Don Juan, to be his handmaiden, his spaniel, was Brigitte's dream. She immolated herself lovingly to an idol whose selfishness, always great, was enormously increased by her self-sacrifice. She sold her business to her fore-woman for fifteen thousand francs and came to live with Thuillier in the rue d'Argenteuil, where she made herself the mother, protectress, and servant of this spoiled child of women. Brigitte, with the natural caution of a girl who owed everything to her own discretion and her own labor, concealed the amount of her savings from Jerome,—fearing, no doubt, the extravagance of a man of gallantry. She merely paid a quota of six hundred francs a year to the expenses of the household, and this, with her brother's eighteen hundred, enabled her to make both ends meet at the end of the year.

From the first days of their coming together, Thuillier listened to his sister as to an oracle; he consulted her in his trifling affairs, kept none of his secrets from her, and thus made her taste the fruit of despotism which was, in truth, the one little sin of her nature. But the sister had sacrificed everything to the brother; she had staked her all upon his heart; she lived by him only. Brigitte's ascendancy over Jerome was singularly proved by the marriage which she procured for him about the year 1814.

Seeing the tendency to enforced reduction which the new-comers to power under the Restoration were beginning to bring about in the government offices, and particularly since the return of the old society which sought to ride over the bourgeoisie, Brigitte understood, far better than her brother could explain it to her, the social crisis which presently extinguished their common hopes. No more successes for that handsome Thuillier in the salons of the nobles who now succeeded the plebeians of the Empire!

Thuillier was not enough of a person to take up a politic opinion and choose a party; he felt, as his sister did for him, the necessity of profiting by the remains of his youth to make a settlement. In such a situation, a sister as jealous of her power as Brigitte naturally would, and ought, to marry her brother, to suit herself as well as to suit him; for she alone could make him really happy, Madame Thuillier being only an indispensable accessory to the obtaining of two or three children. If Brigitte did not have an intellect quite the equal of her will, at least she had the instinct of her despotism; without, it is true, education, she marched straight before her, with the headstrong determination of a nature accustomed to succeed. She had the genius of housekeeping, a faculty for economy, a thorough understanding of how to live, and a love for work. She saw plainly that she could never succeed in marrying Jerome into a sphere above their own, where parents might inquire into their domestic life and feel uneasy at finding a mistress already reigning in the home. She therefore sought in a lower grade for persons to dazzle, and found, almost beside her, a suitable match.

The oldest usher at the Bank, a man named Lemprun, had an only daughter, called Celeste. Mademoiselle Celeste Lemprun would inherit the fortune of her mother, the only daughter of a rich farmer. This fortune consisted of some acres of land in the environs of Paris, which the old father still worked; besides this, she would have the property of Lemprun himself, a man who had left the firms of Thelusson and of Keller to enter the service of the Bank of France. Lemprun, now the head of that service, enjoyed the respect and consideration of the governors and auditors.

The Bank council, on hearing of the probable marriage of Celeste to an honorable employee at the ministry of finance, promised a wedding present of six thousand francs. This gift, added to twelve thousand given by Pere Lemprun, and twelve thousand more from the maternal grandfather, Sieur Galard, market-gardener at Auteuil, brought up the dowry to thirty thousand francs. Old Galard and Monsieur and Madame Lemprun were delighted with the marriage. Lemprun himself knew Mademoiselle Thuillier, and considered her one of the worthiest and most conscientious women in Paris. Brigitte then, for the first time, allowed her investments on the Grand-Livre to shine forth, assuring Lemprun that she should never marry; consequently, neither he nor his wife, persons devoted to the main chance, would ever allow themselves to find fault with Brigitte. Above all, they were greatly struck by the splendid prospects of the handsome Thuillier, and the marriage took place, as the conventional saying is, to the general satisfaction.

The governor of the Bank and the secretary were the bride's witnesses; Monsieur de la Billardiere, director of Thuillier's department, and Monsieur Rabourdin, head of the office, being those of the groom. Six days after the marriage old Lemprun was the victim of a daring robbery which made a great noise in the newspapers of the day, though it was quickly forgotten during the events of 1815. The guilty parties having escaped detection, Lemprun wished to make up the loss; but the Bank agreed to carry the deficit to its profit and loss account; nevertheless, the poor old man actually died of the grief this affair had caused him. He regarded it as an attack upon his aged honor.

Madame Lemprun then resigned all her property to her daughter, Madame Thuillier, and went to live with her father at Auteuil until he died from an accident in 1817. Alarmed at the prospect of having to manage or lease the market-garden and the farm of her father, Madame Lemprun entreated Brigitte, whose honesty and capacity astonished her, to wind up old Galard's affairs, and to settle the property in such a way that her daughter should take possession of everything, securing to her mother fifteen hundred francs a year and the house at Auteuil. The landed property of the old farmer was sold in lots, and brought in thirty thousand francs. Lemprun's estate had given as much more, so that Madame Thuillier's fortune, including her "dot," amounted in 1818 to ninety thousand francs. Joining the revenue of this property to that of the brother and sister, the Thuillier household had an income, in 1818, amounting to eleven thousand francs, managed by Brigitte alone on her sole responsibility. It is necessary to begin by stating this financial position, not only to prevent objections but to rid the drama of difficulties.

Brigitte began, from the first, by allowing her brother five hundred francs a month, and by sailing the household boat at the rate of five thousand francs a year. She granted to her sister-in-law fifty francs a month, explaining to her carefully that she herself was satisfied with forty. To strengthen her despotism by the power of money, Brigitte laid by the surplus of her own funds. She made, so it was said in business offices, usurious loans by means of her brother, who appeared as a money-lender. If, between the years 1813 and 1830, Brigitte had capitalized sixty thousand francs, that sum can be explained by the rise in the Funds, and there is no need to have recourse to accusations more or less well founded, which have nothing to do with our present history.

From the first days of the marriage, Brigitte subdued the unfortunate Madame Thuillier with a touch of the spur and a jerk of the bit, both of which she made her feel severely. A further display of tyranny was useless; the victim resigned herself at once. Celeste, thoroughly understood by Brigitte, a girl without mind or education, accustomed to a sedentary life and a tranquil atmosphere, was extremely gentle by nature; she was pious in the fullest acceptation of the word; she would willingly have expiated by the hardest punishments the involuntary wrong of giving pain to her neighbor. She was utterly ignorant of life; accustomed to be waited on by her mother, who did the whole service of the house, for Celeste was unable to make much exertion, owing to a lymphatic constitution which the least toil wearied. She was truly a daughter of the people of Paris, where children, seldom handsome, and of no vigor, the product of poverty and toil, of homes without fresh air, without freedom of action, without any of the conveniences of life, meet us at every turn.

At the time of the marriage, Celeste was seen to be a little woman, fair and faded almost to sickliness, fat, slow, and silly in the countenance. Her forehead, much too large and too prominent, suggested water on the brain, and beneath that waxen cupola her face, noticeably too small and ending in a point like the nose of a mouse, made some people fear she would become, sooner or later, imbecile. Her eyes, which were light blue, and her lips, always fixed in a smile, did not contradict that idea. On the solemn occasion of her marriage she had the manner, air, and attitude of a person condemned to death, whose only desire is that it might all be over speedily.

"She is rather round," said Colleville to Thuillier.

Brigitte was just the knife to cut into such a nature, to which her own formed the strongest contrast. Mademoiselle Thuillier was remarkable for her regular and correct beauty, but a beauty injured by toil which, from her very childhood, had bent her down to painful, thankless tasks, and by the secret privations she imposed upon herself in order to amass her little property. Her complexion, early discolored, had something the tint of steel. Her brown eyes were framed in brown; on the upper lip was a brown floss like a sort of smoke. Her lips were thin, and her imperious forehead was surmounted by hair once black, now turning to chinchilla. She held herself as straight as the fairest beauty; but all things else about her showed the hardiness of her life, the deadening of her natural fire, the cost of what she was!

To Brigitte, Celeste was simply a fortune to lay hold of, a future mother to rule, one more subject in her empire. She soon reproached her for being weak, a constant word in her vocabulary, and the jealous old maid, who would strongly have resented any signs of activity in her sister-in-law, now took a savage pleasure in prodding the languid inertness of the feeble creature. Celeste, ashamed to see her sister-in-law displaying such energy in household work, endeavored to help her, and fell ill in consequence. Instantly, Brigitte was devoted to her, nursed her like a beloved sister, and would say, in presence of Thuillier: "You haven't any strength, my child; you must never do anything again." She showed up Celeste's incapacity by that display of sympathy with which strength, seeming to pity weakness, finds means to boast of its own powers.

But, as all despotic natures liking to exercise their strength are full of tenderness for physical sufferings, Brigitte took such real care of her sister-in-law as to satisfy Celeste's mother when she came to see her daughter. After Madame Thuillier recovered, however, she called her, in Celeste's hearing, "a helpless creature, good for nothing!" which sent the poor thing crying to her room. When Thuillier found her there, drying her eyes, he excused her sister, saying:—

"She is an excellent woman, but rather hasty; she loves you in her own way; she behaves just so with me."

Celeste, remembering the maternal care of her sister-in-law during her illness, forgave the wound. Brigitte always treated her brother as the king of the family; she exalted him to Celeste, and made him out an autocrat, a Ladislas, an infallible pope. Madame Thuillier having lost her father and grandfather, and being well-nigh deserted by her mother, who came to see her on Thursdays only (she herself spending Sundays at Auteuil in summer), had no one left to love except her husband, and she did love him,—in the first place, because he was her husband, and secondly, because he still remained to her "that handsome Thuillier." Besides, he sometimes treated her like a wife, and all these reasons together made her adore him. He seemed to her all the more perfect because he often took up her defence and scolded his sister, not from any real interest in his wife, but for pure selfishness, and in order to have peace in the household during the very few moments that he stayed there.

In fact, that handsome Thuillier was never at home except at dinner, after which meal he went out, returning very late at night. He went to balls and other social festivities by himself, precisely as if he were still a bachelor. Thus the two women were always alone together. Celeste insensibly fell into a passive attitude, and became what Brigitte wanted her,—a helot. The Queen Elizabeth of the household then passed from despotism to a sort of pity for the poor victim who was always sacrificed. She ended by softening her haughty ways, her cutting speech, her contemptuous tones, as soon as she was certain that her sister-in-law was completely under the yoke. When she saw the wounds it made on the neck of her victim, she took care of her as a thing of her own, and Celeste entered upon happier days. Comparing the end with the beginning, she even felt a sort of love for her torturer. To gain some power of self-defence, to become something less a cipher in the household, supported, unknown to herself, by her own means, the poor helot had but a single chance, and that chance never came to her.

Celeste had no child. This barrenness, which, from month to month, brought floods of tears from her eyes, was long the cause of Brigitte's scorn; she reproached the poor woman bitterly for being fit for nothing, not even to bear children. The old maid, who had longed to love her brother's child as if it were her own, was unable, for years, to reconcile herself to this irremediable sterility.

At the time when our history begins, namely, in 1840, Celeste, then forty-six years old, had ceased to weep; she now had the certainty of never being a mother. And here is a strange thing. After twenty-five years of this life, in which victory had ended by first dulling and then breaking its own knife, Brigitte loved Celeste as much as Celeste loved Brigitte. Time, ease, and the perpetual rubbing of domestic life, had worn off the angles and smoothed the asperities; Celeste's resignation and lamb-like gentleness had brought, at last, a serene and peaceful autumn. The two women were still further united by the one sentiment that lay within them, namely, their adoration for the lucky and selfish Thuillier.

Moreover, these two women, both childless, had each, like all women who have vainly desired children, fallen in love with a child. This fictitious motherhood, equal in strength to a real motherhood, needs an explanation which will carry us to the very heart of our drama, and will show the reason of the new occupation which Mademoiselle Thuillier provided for her brother.