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Honore De Balzac - A Bachelor's Establishment (1843)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

(La Rabouilleuse)

One part of this book appeared as Les Deux Freres in La Presse, in 1841; and another in the same paper, in 1842, as Un Menage de Garcon en Province. Then these were issued in book form in 1843. The second title was given to the book when it was included in the Scenes de la Vie de Province; but Balzac changed the title to La Rabouilleuse ("one who stirs up the waters of a brook"). Flore Brazier (La Rabouilleuse), Madame Bridau, Madame Descoings, and the Hochons appear solely in this book; Joseph Bridau, frequently met with in other volumes, is said to be a portrait of Eugene Delacroix, the painter. In the dedication to Nodier, Balzac said: "I have never, perhaps, drawn a picture which shows more clearly than this how indispensable the stability of marriage is to European society, what the sorrows are of woman's weakness, what dangers are involved in unbridled self-interest." The novel has been dramatized in French and in English.

IN 1792, a Dr. Rouget, who was regarded by the citizens as a very sly fox, lived in the town of Issoudun. As long as he lived, little was said about him and he was treated civilly. His wife, a Demoiselle Descoings, had first a son, Jean-Jacques, and, ten years later, a daughter, Agathe. The doctor's father-in-law and his wife, the Descoings, were rich wool-brokers. Their son, a younger brother of Madame Rouget, went to Paris and set up as a grocer in the Rue Saint-Honor. He married the widow of Master Bixiou, his predecessor. Dr. Rouget, who did not expect his wife to live long, sent Agathe to Paris, hoping that the Descoings, who had no children, would take a fancy to her. Dr. Rouget wanted to disinherit his daughter, and thought it might be done if he transplanted her. Agathe, the handsomest girl in Issoudun, resembled neither her father nor her mother. Her birth had occasioned a feud between Dr. Rouget and his friend, Monsieur Lousteau, who removed with his family from Issoudun. Madame Rouget confided her woes to Lousteau's sister, Madame Hochon, Agathe's godmother. Madame Rouget said: "I shall never see my child again!" "And she was sadly right," Madame Hochon always remarked. Gossip said Dr. Rouget was killing his wife by inches. Her stupid son was a grief to her, for Jean- Jacques Rouget was like his father, only worse, and the doctor, as was said, was not very admirable.

Soon after Agathe arrived in Paris, her uncle, having been too rash of speech, was reported by Citoyenne Duplay to her lodger, Robespierre. The grocer was arrested. Madame Descoings knew Bridau, an under secretary; but he was unable to save Descoings, who perished on the scaffold. In the course of the few visits paid to Madame Descoings by Bridau, he became infatuated with Agathe and offered marriage. The delighted Dr. Rouget hurried to Paris to see that the settlements were drawn to his mind. Bridau, desperately in love, left this matter to the perfidious doctor. Old Monsieur and Madame Descoings had left their property to Madame Rouget, who died in 1799, and this money came into the hands of Dr. Rouget. His income was thirty thousand francs. After his wife's death, the doctor still led a dissolute life, but with more method, and in the privacy of home life. He died in 1805.

Agathe Rouget resembled Dr. Rouget's mother. Her portrait painted by her son showed an oval face with delicate features, blue eyes, and placid expression. She was an ideal housewife, trained by a country life, and never parted from her mother. She was pious without bigotry, and had no learning but such as the Church allows to women. She lived a pure, simple, and quiet life as the wife of Bridau, who attached him-self fanatically to Napoleon. The latter made him head of a department of state in 1804. Rich with a salary of twelve thousand francs and very handsome presents, Bridau cared not at all for the disgraceful proceedings by which Agathe had been robbed. Six months before his death, old Rouget had sold part of his estate to his son, to whom he secured the remainder, in part by deed of gift and in part as his direct heir. An advance on her prospective inheritance of a hundred thou-sand francs secured under her marriage settlement represented the whole of Agathe's share in her father's and mother's fortunes.

Bridau idolized the Emperor. From 1804 to 1808 he lived in style in an apartment on the Quai Voltaire, near both to his office and the Tuileries. Agathe was always relieved to relapse into provincial simplicity after enforced ceremonial splendor. In 18o8 Bridau killed himself by overwork, just as Napoleon was about to promote him. The Emperor entered Madame Bridau's name on the Pension List for four thousand francs a year and charged the education of her two sons to the privy purse.

Agathe had had no communication with Issoudun, except a yearly letter from her godmother, Madame Hochon, who had begged her to let Monsieur Hochon look after her interests. She, however, had not wished to annoy her brother. With her pension and Bridau's investments, Agathe had six thousand francs a year. Madame Descoings, her uncle's widow, desired to live with Agathe: the two widows, therefore, joined their incomes. They had between them twelve thousand francs a year.

In 1809, Madame Descoings was sixty-five years old: she owned up to thirty-six! In the heyday of her charms she was called La Belle Epiciere. She was of medium height, plump, with a fair warm complexion and chestnut hair. She was fond of cooking dainty dishes, loved the theater, and spent a great deal of money in dress, was attractive by reason of her gentle and contagious cheerfulness and she understood a joke; but Madame Descoings indulged one vice which she wrapped in the deepest mystery—she put money into the lottery. Since the death of the husband she had adored, Agathe cared for nothing but her two children.

Madame Descoings had a fancy for sets of three numbers, and she gradually increased her debt, surreptitiously borrowed from Agathe, always staking higher sums, hoping that the favorite combination, which had not come out in ten years, would cover the loss. Presently, the debt amounted to twenty thousand francs. She then wished to pledge her fortune to repay Agathe, but her lawyer showed her that Dr. Rouget had, at the death of his brother-in-law, her husband, taken over his liabilities and assets, indemnifying the widow by a life-annuity, charged on Jean-Jacques Rouget's estate. It was impossible to raise money on this annuity. With sobs, Madame Descoings confessed the state of affairs to her niece. Madame Bridau did not reproach her. She sold out some of her securities, parted with her servants and furniture, paid all debts and gave up her apartment.

Madame Bridau now went to live in the Rue Mazarine, opposite the Palais de l'Institut. She rented the top floor, consisting of a small suite, with two little rooms for the boys under the roof. This apartment was simply furnished with a few necessary pieces saved from the wreck, a picture of Napoleon by Vernet, a portrait of Bridau, two large bird-cages—one full of canaries, the other of exotic birds—and cats slept in the arm-chairs. The dashing Madame Descoings occupied a similar apartment on the floor below. Her income was reduced to twelve hundred francs a year. The widows lived together; the aunt managed the dinner; and in the evening a few old riends—Bridau's clerks—came in to play cards. Madame Descoings still clung to her three numbers, hoping by a stroke of luck to repay all she had borrowed from her niece. Madame Bridau reduced her expenses to save what she could for her children. Thus the two widows had sunk from unreal opulence to voluntary penury—one under the influence of a vice, the other under the promptings of the purest virtue. None of these trivial things are foreign to the deep lesson to be derived from this story, founded on the sordid interests of common life.

Philippe, the elder of Madame Bridau's children, was strikingly like his mother; and, moreover, possessed, though fair-haired and blue-eyed, a daring look which was often mistaken for high spirit and courage. By dint of fighting at school, he acquired that hardihood and scorn of pain which gave rise to military courage. He hated study. From his purely superficial resemblance to her, Agathe inferred that they must agree in mind. Joseph, three years younger, was an ugly likeness of his father, with bushy, black, ill-kempt hair, and slovenly habits. The mother greatly preferred Philippe. She looked for wonders from Philippe; she founded no hopes on Joseph.

One day, in 1812, Joseph slipped into the courtyard of the Institute: he was fascinated with the statues, busts, and plaster studies, and his vocation seethed within him. Entering a room, where a dozen lads were drawing from a statue, he became the butt of their horseplay. The sculptor, Chaudet, coming in, put a stop to their tortures, and, questioning the boy, found he wanted to be an artist. He told him to come to the studio as often as he pleased. Soon his progress was so great that his master, Lemire, came to Agathe to speak of her son's vocation; but, a true provincial and ignorant of art, she was horrified. Painting to her was a "beggar's trade."

Philippe was a spectator of Napoleon's review at the Tuileries, after the rout at Moscow. It turned his head. Unknown to his mother, he petitioned the Emperor to enroll him, saying he was the son of his favorite, Bridau. Within twenty-four hours Philippe was at Saint-Cyr; and in 1813 was made a sublieutenant in a cavalry regiment. He soon gained a lieutenancy; then a captaincy; and won the Cross. He witnessed Napoleon's farewell at Fontainebleau and refused to serve under the Bourbons. He was only nineteen. To his mother, he was a man of genius, while Joseph, small, sickly, loving peace and quiet and dreaming of fame as an artist, was doomed, she declared, " to give her nothing but worry and anxiety." In 1816, Philippe, fallen from the half-pay of major in the Emperor's Dragoon Guards, returned to his mother's apartment. Joseph, de-pendent on the two widows, had a studio in the loft. Joseph worshiped his mother; Philippe allowed her to adore him, and had a deep contempt for Joseph. Presently Philippe embarked for the United States to aid in founding the Champ d'Asile. Agathe paid ten thousand francs and went to Havre to see him off. Joseph advanced in his art; but the family had a terrible year of hardship. Philippe lost in the great swindle; where-upon, by means of family sacrifices, money was sent for his return. He came back a bully, a drinker, a smoker, rude, assertive, and deteriorated by penury and privations, but in appearance preserving the blunt, frank, easy-going manner of a soldier. He was a hero in his mother's eyes; but he had really become a rascal. He soon developed into a loafer and gambler, and getting intimate with a former captain of the Dragoon Guards, named Giroudeau, completed what Rabelais calls "the devil's outfit" by adding a fourth iniquity to his dram, his cigar, and his gambling. This Captain took Philippe to see Mademoiselle Florentine, a dancer, at whose house Philippe fell in love with another dancer, Marie Godeschal, whose stage name was Marlette. Philippe now got in with a newspaper and theatrical set and lived a wild life. But before long Marlette attracted the attentions of a duke at Louis XVIII's court and threw over the rough and brainless soldier. Philippe was now deeply in debt. Moreover, he had borrowed from the cash-box of a newspaper. He told this to Joseph, adding that he intended to commit suicide. Joseph informed Madame Descoings, who told Agathe. The household was terrified. Philippe, how-ever, went to the same cash-box and borrowed five hundred francs more, which he took to the gaming-table, and soon lost it all. Philippe then returned to the family roof, where the tearful, frightened women petted him and excused his behavior. He continued his life of dissipation and Joseph went on with his painting. Madame Descoings lavished her affection upon the young artist, but Agathe lived only in Philippe.

Madame Descoings still continued to stake on the same three numbers that had never yet been drawn. This set was now nearly twenty-one years old. It would soon be of age. Madame Descoings based high hopes on this trivial fact. She kept her savings sewed in the bottom mattress of her bed; and resolved to risk her all on the combinations of the three cherished numbers.

Joseph kept some of his savings in a skull that stood in an antique cabinet. His money disappeared so rapidly that he became suspicious. He found that Philippe was guilty of this petty theft; came to the conclusion that what some of the friends of the family said was right—Philippe was a scoundrel. Philippe next took money from the pocket of his mother's dress, while he thought her asleep; but she saw him. She then offered to give him money, and even tried to earn some by needlework; but it was impossible to supply Philippe's demands.

On Christmas Eve, when Agathe and Madame Descoings were both out, Philippe, needing money for the gaming-table, entered Madame Descoings's rooms and stole the twenty napoleons hidden in her mattress. With these he began playing, and at first he won. He paid Florentine the five hundred francs he owed her, and after a splendid supper returned to the tables and played for an hour. He doubled his winnings, and gained a hundred and fifty thousand francs; but then luck turned, and at three o'clock in the morning he left the gambling-house a ruined man.

That same evening Joseph paid a visit to Madame Descoings. She told him about the monster stake on the famous ternion. Joseph wondered where the four hundred francs were to come from. "You will see," she said, and led Joseph to her bedroom. One look at the mattress, and the poor old woman fainted. Joseph called his mother and they worked over her. On coming to, she told them that all her savings were in the mattress and that she was confident that Philippe had taken them. Agathe begged her to take the family silver in repayment; but when the three opened the plate-box, a pawn-ticket was all that met their horrified gaze. Joseph then ran for his savings; but Maman Descoings heroically refused to accept them. Joseph, however, ran out to find a lottery-ticket office, but it was too late—they had all closed. The next morning, as they were having coffee, their old friend, Desrosches, came in to congratulate Madame Descoings on the success of her three numbers. He handed them the list: Joseph read it; Agathe read it; Madame Descoings read nothing: she fell back in her chair, stricken with apoplexy, and died in a few days. Philippe on his return excited the dying woman and was denounced by his mother and brother.

Agathe now begged Philippe to rejoin the army and gave him a hundred francs. He departed coldly, saying he was going to Florentine, Giroudeau's mistress. "They are real friends!" he added.

In 1822, Agathe was reduced so low that she had become a clerk in a lottery-ticket office. Her thoughts constantly turned to Philippe; and, at her request, Joseph went to ask him to sit for his portrait. Philippe came, and on one visit, stole a copy of a Rubens, thinking it was the original. After this last crime, Agathe never again mentioned Philippe. But the last blow was yet to fall. Philippe was concerned in a conspiracy of officers and arrested. Giroudeau told the widow that if she could raise twelve thousand francs Philippe might be released.

Madame Bridau then wrote to Madame Hochon, imploring her to beg Jean-Jacques Rouget to save Philippe; and should this prove impossible, would she herself lend the money?

Madame Hochon replied: "Though your brother has forty thousand francs a year, to say nothing of the money he has saved in the last seventeen years, which Monsieur Hochon estimates at more than six hundred thousand francs, he will not spend two farthings on the nephews he has never seen. As for me—as long as my husband lives, I shall never have six francs of my own. Hochon is the biggest miser in Issoudun. . . . I have not attempted to speak with your brother, who keeps a woman, whose very humble servant he is. It is pitiable to see how the poor man is treated in his own house when he has a sister and nephews. I have hinted to you several times that your presence at Issoudun might save your brother, and rescue from the clutches of that hussy forty or even sixty thousand francs a year." She invited Agathe to come to Issoudun, and added that there were rumors of a will to deprive her of her inheritance.

Desroches, Joseph's lawyer, advised him to hasten to Issoudun with his mother.

Issoudun afforded no diversions and the young men sought amusement at the expense of the - town itself. In 1816 they formed a society—the "Knights of Idlesse "—for playing practical jokes; and in 1823 all Issoudun lived in terror of them. Their leader, Maxence Gilet, called Max for short, was sup-posed to be the son of Lousteau. Dr. Rouget also claimed him; but he was the son of neither. He had been a bad boy in the town, had run away and served in the army, been sent to the hulks, and now was a braggart and bully. He was also the man of fashion in Issoudun. Madame Hochon's two grandsons were his devotees; and through them Max learned of the expected visit of Madame Bridau. "Madame Hochon's goddaughter is Rouget's sister," said one of the company to Max; "if she and her son are coming here, it is no doubt to get back her share of the old man's fortune, and then good-by to your harvest." "If," said another, "old Rouget were to alter his will, supposing he has made one in favor of La Rabouilleuse—" But Max cut him short. He never allowed anyone to speak to him of Mademoiselle Flore Brazier, Jean-Jacques Rouget's servant-mistress. However, Max bethought himself of the danger of this threatened visit, with the result that the "Knights of Idlesse," drinking a toast to the fair Flore, resolved to support Max against the Bridaus. Max went home to Rouget's house.

La Rabouilleuse commanded the bachelor's establishment. One day Dr. Rouget saw a little girl on the water-meadow. She was clad in a tattered petticoat of brown and white stripes; a sheet of paper formed her hat, beneath which escaped her beautiful golden hair. She replied to his questions that she came from Vatan, and added, "I rabouille for my Uncle Brazier there." Ratbouiller is a local word of Le Berry, used to describe the beating of the waters with a racket (rabouilloir) to frighten the crayfish, that, rushing up-stream, are caught in the poacher's net. Dr. Rouget satisfied Brazier with money and "La Rabouilleuse" entered his house, She was seventeen when he died: he left her nothing. Jean-Jacques, who was in love with her, persuaded her to remain. In 1816 she fell in love with Maxence Gilet, and the penniless and ambitious officer saw something better than a mere love-affair in connection with La Rabouilleuse. He was more than content to lodge under Rouget's roof.

The news of the visit of the Bridaus was a bomb to Max and Flore: they formed plans to get Rouget's money and send the Bridaus away.

The Bridaus were welcomed at the Hochons. Joseph and his mother were entertained at dinner, and Joseph went into raptures over the Italian paintings purchased by the Descoings for the sake of the frames. Max and Flore persuaded Rouget to give Joseph the valueless pictures. Joseph sent them to Paris; but he rashly boasted that they were worth a hundred and fifty thousand francs. This reached the Rouget household and they accused Joseph of unfair dealings.

On the last night of the Bridaus' stay Max was stabbed by Fario, a Spaniard, who had suffered from the pranks of the Knights. Max recognized Fario but accused Joseph, who was unfortunately strolling about at the time. His innocence was proved, and Joseph and Agathe returned to Paris.

Philippe was sentenced to police surveillance. Desroches got him sent to Issoudun, hoping he could rescue his uncle's fortune from Gilet.

"I sent your brother's pictures back to Monsieur Hochon, telling him to deliver them to you," said the lawyer. "You have an astute adversary-Max Gilet is brave—" "So much the better, a coward would run away," said Philippe, who was overjoyed at the prospect opening before him.

Max and Flore made light of the advent of Rouget's elder nephew. Philippe called on his uncle and asked him to come across to the Hochons' and identify his pictures. Max began to smell an enemy. Philippe, investigating his brother's arrest, and the history of Gilet and La Rabouilleuse, ended by forming an alliance with Fario. Flore resolved to collect bonds from Rouget, of whom she was heartily tired, and go to Paris, where she could be married to Max. Rouget refused to give her the securities, half suspecting her plans. Philippe called on his uncle and took him for a walk, alone, without Flore. Philippe then made him promise that he would not sign the papers Flore and Max were trying to get hold of. Philippe would reward him by "killing Max like a dog." In the mean-time, Max sent Flore away, and Rouget, on his return, was in despair.

Philippe, however, succeeded in bringing Flore back, ousting Max and taking his place in the house. He brutally told Flore he was going to fight a duel with Max. In this duel Max was killed and Philippe wounded. Agathe hurried to Issoudun. Shortly afterward Flore Brazier, who had been ill after Max's death, was married to Jean-Jacques Rouget. On the following day Philippe took the bride aside and with terrible threats commanded her to get for him the power of attorney. "When once the securities are in my name," he said, "we shall have an equal interest in marrying each other some day. I may marry my aunt-in-law after a year's widowhood, whereas I could not marry a disreputable nobody." Flore quaked, but dared not oppose him.

Philippe next took Rouget and Flore to Paris and plunged them into the wildest dissipations. Rouget died after one of Florentine's splendid suppers. Philippe then married the widow; bought a fine house in Paris and also the estate of Brambourg, and gained permission to entail the property with the title of Count. He lived in the greatest style, gave splendid entertainments, and was pitiless to the companions of his old debaucheries. One evening, on the way to an entertainment, at the Elysee-Bourbon, Philippe, dashing by in his carriage, patronizingly bowed to his mother and brother, splashing them with mud. The adoring mother still forgave him.

Philippe now wanted to get rid of his wife and marry the daughter of the Comte de Soulanges.

In the meanwhile Joseph had attained fame; but he was still in financial difficulties. His mother, too, was forced to work for her living. A tender letter from her to Philippe brought a brutal answer. She fainted on reading it, and be-came desperately ill. Agathe at last understood and gave her heart to Joseph during her last days. Philippe refused to visit his dying mother.

Soon after Agathe's death, a letter came to Joseph from the Comtesse Flore, asking his charity. Joseph and Bixion, grandson of Madame Descoings, found her in a garret, in rags, ill and emaciated. She had been cast off by Philippe and had gone from bad to worse. They sent her to a hospital, but she soon died. Bixion got an interview with the Comte de Soulanges, told him of Philippe's life and prevented the marriage.

Philippe played into the hands of two financiers who were gambling against him on the Bourse. Within a month nothing remained of his fortune but his house, estate, furniture, and pictures. He then went into active service and perished horribly in 1839, while fighting the Arabs.

Joseph, who had married an heiress, inherited Philippe's possessions and his title. He still continued to paint and greatly valued the collection of paintings which came with the estate, although he used to laugh at the title.

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