The Middle Classes/Part II/Chapter XVII

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The Middle Classes by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley

About two months after the scene in which la Peyrade had been convinced that through a crime of his past life his future was irrevocably settled, he (being now married to his victim, who was beginning to have lucid intervals, though the full return of her reason would not take place until the occasion indicated by the doctors) was sitting one morning with the head of the police in the latter's office. Taking part in the work of the department, the young man was serving an apprenticeship under that great master in the difficult and delicate functions to which he was henceforth riveted. But Corentin found that his pupil did not bring to this initiation all the ardor and amiability that he desired. It was plain that in la Peyrade's soul there was a sense of forfeiture and degradation; time would get the better of that impression, but the callus was not yet formed.

Opening a number of sealed envelopes enclosing the reports of his various agents, Corentin glanced over these documents, seldom as useful as the public suppose, casting them one after another contemptuously into a basket, whence they issued in a mass for a burning. But to one of them the great man evidently gave some particular attention; as he read it a smile flickered on his lips, and when he had finished, instead of adding it to the pile in the basket, he gave it to la Peyrade.

"Here," he said, "here's something that concerns you; it shows that in our profession, which just now seems to you unpleasantly serious, we do occasionally meet with comedies. Read it aloud; it will cheer me up."

Before la Peyrade began to read, Corentin added:—

"I ought to tell you that the report is from a man called Henri, whom Madame Komorn introduced as man-servant at the Thuilliers'; you probably remember him."

"So!" said la Peyrade, "servants placed in families! is that one of your methods?"

"Sometimes," replied Corentin; "in order to know all, we must use all means. But a great many lies are told about us on that subject. It is not true that the police, making a system of it, has, at certain periods, by a general enrolment of lacqueys and lady's-maids, established a vast network in private families. Nothing is fixed and absolute in our manner of proceeding; we act in accordance with the time and circumstances. I wanted an ear and an influence in the Thuillier household; accordingly, I let loose the Godollo upon it, and she, in turn, partly to assist herself, installed there one of our men, an intelligent fellow, as you will see for yourself. But for all that, if, at another time, a servant came and offered to sell me the secrets of his master, I should have him arrested, and let a warning reach the ears of the family to distrust the other servants. Now go on, and read that report."

  Monsieur the Director of the Secret Police,

read la Peyrade aloud,—

  I did not stay long with the little baron; he is a man wholly
  occupied in frivolous pleasures; and there was nothing to be
  gathered there that was worthy of a report to you. I have found
  another place, where I have already witnessed several thing which
  fit into the mission that Madame de Godollo gave me, and
  therefore, thinking them likely to interest you, I hasten to bring
  them to your knowledge. The household in which I am now employed
  is that of an old savant, named Monsieur Picot, who lives on a
  first floor, Place de la Madeleine, in the house and apartment
  formerly occupied by my late masters, the Thuilliers—

"What!" cried la Peyrade, interrupting his reading, "Pere Picot, that ruined old lunatic, occupying such an apartment as that?"

"Go on, go on!" said Corentin; "life is full of many strange things. You'll find the explanation farther along; for our correspondent—it is the defect of those fellows to waste themselves on details—is only too fond of dotting his i's."

La Peyrade read on:—

  The Thuilliers left this apartment some weeks ago to return to
  their Latin quarter. Mademoiselle Brigitte never really liked our
  sphere; her total want of education made her ill at ease. Just
  because I speak correctly, she was always calling me 'the orator,'
  and she could not endure Monsieur Pascal, her porter, because,
  being beadle in the church of the Madeleine, he had manners; she
  even found something to say against the dealers in the great
  market behind the church, where, of course, she bought her
  provisions; she complained that they gave themselves capable
  airs, merely because they are not so coarse-tongued as those of
  the Halle, and only laughed at her when she tried to beat them
  down. She has leased the whole house to a certain Monsieur Cerizet
  (a very ugly man, with a nose all eaten away) for an annual rent of
  fifty-five thousand francs. This tenant seems to know what he is
  about. He has lately married an actress at one of the minor
  theatres, Mademoiselle Olympe Cardinal, and he was just about to
  occupy himself the first-floor apartment, where he proposed to
  establish his present business, namely, insurance for the "dots"
  of children, when Monsieur Picot, arriving from England with his
  wife, a very rich Englishwoman, saw the apartment and offered such
  a good price that Monsieur Cerizet felt constrained to take it.
  That was the time when, by the help of M. Pascal, the porter, with
  whom I have been careful to maintain good relations, I entered the
  household of Monsieur Picot.

"Monsieur Picot married to a rich Englishwoman!" exclaimed la Peyrade, interrupting himself again; "but it is incomprehensible."

"Go on, I tell you," said Corentin; "you'll comprehend it presently."

  The fortune of my new master,

continued la Peyrade,

  is quite a history; and I speak of it to Monsieur le directeur
  because another person in whom Madame de Godollo was interested
  has his marriage closely mixed up in it. That other person is
  Monsieur Felix Phellion, the inventor of a star, who, in despair
  at not being able to marry that demoiselle whom they wanted to
  give to the Sieur la Peyrade whom Madame de Godollo made such a
  fool of—

"Scoundrel!" said the Provencal, in a parenthesis. "Is that how he speaks of me? He doesn't know who I am."

Corentin laughed heartily and exhorted his pupil to read on.

  —who, in despair at not being able to marry that demoiselle . . .
  went to England in order to embark for a journey round the world
  —a lover's notion! Learning of this departure, Monsieur Picot,
  his former professor, who took great interest in his pupil, went
  after him to prevent that nonsense, which turned out not to be
  difficult. The English are naturally very jealous of discoveries,
  and when they saw Monsieur Phellion coming to embark at the heels
  of their own savants they asked him for his permit from the
  Admiralty; which, not having been provided, he could not produce;
  so then they laughed in his face and would not let him embark at
  all, fearing that he should prove more learned than they.

"He is a fine hand at the 'entente cordiale,' your Monsieur Henri," said la Peyrade, gaily.

"Yes," replied Corentin; "you will be struck, in the reports of nearly all our agents, with this general and perpetual inclination to calumniate. But what's to be done? For the trade of spies we can't have angels."

  Left upon the shore, Telemachus and his mentor—

"You see our men are lettered," commented Corentin.

  —Telemachus and his mentor thought best to return to France, and
  were about to do so when Monsieur Picot received a letter such as
  none but an Englishwoman could write. It told him that the writer
  had read his "Theory of Perpetual Motion," and had also heard of
  his magnificent discovery of a star; that she regarded him as a
  genius only second to Newton, and that if the hand of her who
  addressed him, joined to eighty thousand pounds sterling—that is,
  two millions—of "dot," was agreeable to him it was at his
  disposal. The first thought of the good man was to make his pupil
  marry her, but finding that impossible, he told her, before
  accepting on his own account, that he was old and three-quarters
  blind, and had never discovered a star, and did not own a penny.
  The Englishwoman replied that Milton was not young either, and was
  altogether blind; that Monsieur Picot seemed to her to have
  nothing worse than a cataract, for she knew all about it, being
  the daughter of a great oculist, and she would have him operated
  upon; that as for the star, she did not care so very much about
  that; it was the author of the "Theory of Perpetual Motion" who
  was the man of her dreams, and to whom she again offered her hand
  with eighty thousand pounds sterling (two millions) of "dot."
  Monsieur Picot replied that if his sight were restored and she
  would consent to live in Paris, for he hated England, he would let
  himself be married. The operation was performed and was
  successful, and, at the end of three weeks the newly married pair
  arrived in the capital. These details I obtained from the lady's
  maid, with whom I am on the warmest terms.

"Oh! the puppy!" said Corentin, laughing.

  The above is therefore hearsay, but what remains to be told to
  Monsieur le directeur are facts of which I can speak "de visu,"
  and to which I am, consequently, in a position to certify. As
  soon as Monsieur and Madame Picot had installed themselves, which
  was done in the most sumptuous and comfortable manner, my master
  gave me a number of invitations to dinner to carry to the
  Thuillier family, the Colleville family, the Minard family, the
  Abbe Gondrin, vicar of the Madeleine, and nearly all the guests
  who were present at another dinner a few months earlier, when he
  had an encounter with Mademoiselle Thuillier, and behaved, I must
  say, in a rather singular manner. All the persons who received
  these invitations were so astonished to learn that the old man
  Picot had married a rich wife and was living in the Thuilliers'
  old apartment that most of them came to inquire of Monsieur
  Pascal, the porter, to see if they were hoaxed. The information
  they obtained being honest and honorable, the whole society
  arrived punctually on time; but Monsieur Picot did not appear.
  The guests were received by Madame Picot, who does not speak
  French and could only say, "My husband is coming soon"; after
  which, not being able to make further conversation, the company
  were dull and ill at ease. At last Monsieur Picot arrived, and all
  present were stupefied on seeing, instead of an old blind man,
  shabbily dressed, a handsome young elderly man, bearing his years
  jauntily, like Monsieur Ferville of the Gymnase, who said with a
  lively air:

  "I beg your pardon, mesdames, for not being here at the moment of
  your arrival; but I was at the Academy of Sciences, awaiting the
  result of an election,—that of Monsieur Felix Phellion, who has
  been elected unanimously less three votes."

  This news seemed to have a great effect upon the company. So then
  Monsieur Picot resumed:—

  "I must also, mesdames, ask your pardon for the rather improper
  manner in which I behaved a short time ago in the house where we
  are now assembled. My excuse must be my late infirmity, the
  annoyances of a family lawsuit, and of an old housekeeper who
  robbed me and tormented me in a thousand ways, from whom I am
  happily delivered. To-day you see me another man, rejuvenated and
  rich with the blessings bestowed upon me by the amiable woman who
  has given me her hand; and I should be in the happiest frame of
  mind to receive you if the recollection of my young friend, whose
  eminence as a man of science has just been consecrated by the
  Academy, did not cast upon my mind a veil of sadness. All here
  present," continued Monsieur Picot, raising his voice, which is
  rather loud, "are guilty towards him: I, for ingratitude when he
  gave me the glory of his discovery and the reward of his immortal
  labors; that young lady, whom I see over there with tears in her
  eyes, for having foolishly accused him of atheism; that other
  lady, with the stern face, for having harshly replied to the
  proposals of his noble father, whose white hairs she ought rather
  to have honored; Monsieur Thuillier, for having sacrificed him to
  ambition; Monsieur Colleville, for not performing his part of
  father and choosing for his daughter the worthiest and most
  honorable man; Monsieur Minard, for having tried to foist his son
  into his place. There are but two persons in the room at this
  moment who have done him full justice,—Madame Thuillier and
  Monsieur l'Abbe Gondrin. Well, I shall now ask that man of God
  whether we can help doubting the divine justice when this generous
  young man, the victim of all of us, is, at the present hour, at
  the mercy of waves and tempests, to which for three long years he
  is consigned."

  "Providence is very powerful, monsieur," replied the Abbe Gondrin.
  "God will protect Monsieur Felix Phellion wherever he may be, and
  I have the firmest hope that three years hence he will be among
  his friends once more."

  "But three years!" said Monsieur Picot. "Will it still be time?
  Will Mademoiselle Colleville have waited for him?"

  "Yes, I swear it!" cried the young girl, carried away by an
  impulse she could not control.

  Then she sat down again, quite ashamed, and burst into tears.

  "And you, Mademoiselle Thuillier, and you, Madame Colleville, will
  you permit this young lady to reserve herself for one who is
  worthy of her?"

  "Yes! Yes!" cried everybody; for Monsieur Picot's voice, which is
  very full and sonorous, seemed to have tears in it and affected

  "Then it is time," he said, "to forgive Providence."

  And rushing suddenly to the door, where my ear was glued to the
  keyhole, he very nearly caught me.

  "Announce," he said to me, in a very loud tone of voice, "Monsieur
  Felix Phellion and his family."

  And thereupon the door of a side room opened, and five or six
  persons came out, who were led by Monsieur Picot into the salon.

  At the sight of her lover, Mademoiselle Colleville was taken ill,
  but the faint lasted only a minute; seeing Monsieur Felix at her
  feet she threw herself into Madame Thuillier's arms, crying out:—

  "Godmother! you always told me to hope."

  Mademoiselle Thuillier, who, in spite of her harsh nature and want
  of education, I have always myself thought a remarkable woman, now
  had a fine impulse. As the company were about to go into the

  "One moment!" she said.

  Then going up to Monsieur Phellion, senior, she said to him:

  "Monsieur and old friend! I ask you for the hand of Monsieur Felix
  Phellion for our adopted daughter, Mademoiselle Colleville."

  "Bravo! bravo!" they call cried in chorus.

  "My God!" said Monsieur Phellion, with tears in his eyes; "what
  have I done to deserve such happiness?"

  "You have been an honest man and a Christian without knowing it,"
  replied the Abbe Gondrin.

Here la Peyrade flung down the manuscript.

"You did not finish it," said Corentin, taking back the paper. "However, there's not much more. Monsieur Henri confesses to me that the scene had moved him; he also says that, knowing the interest I had formerly taken in the marriage, he thought he ought to inform me of its conclusion; ending with a slightly veiled suggestion of a fee. No, stay," resumed Corentin, "here is a detail of some importance:—"

  The English woman seems to have made it known during dinner that,
  having no heirs, her fortune, after the lives of herself and her
  husband, will go to Felix. That will make him powerfully rich one
  of these days.

La Peyrade had risen and was striding about the room with rapid steps.

"Well," said Corentin, "what is the matter with you?"


"That is not true," said the great detective. "I think you envy the happiness of that young man. My dear fellow, permit me to tell you that if such a conclusion were to your taste, you should have acted as he has done. When I sent you two thousand francs on which to study law, I did not intend you to succeed me; I expected you to row your galley laboriously, to have the needful courage for obscure and painful toil; your day would infallibly have come. But you chose to violate fortune—"


"I mean hasten it, reap it before it ripened. You flung yourself into journalism; then into business, questionable business; you made acquaintance with Messieurs Dutocq and Cerizet. Frankly, I think you fortunate to have entered the port which harbors you to-day. In any case, you are not sufficiently simple of heart to have really valued the joys reserved for Felix Phellion. These bourgeois—"

"These bourgeois," said la Peyrade, quickly,—"I know them now. They have great absurdities, great vices even, but they have virtues, or, at the least, estimable qualities; in them lies the vital force of our corrupt society."

"Your society!" said Corentin, smiling; "you speak as if you were still in the ranks. You have another sphere, my dear fellow; and you must learn to be more content with your lot. Governments pass, societies perish or dwindle; but we—we dominate all things; the police is eternal."