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Honore De Balzac - A Start In Life (1844)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



(Un Debut dans la Vie)

This story appeared first in La Legisture, July 6 to September 4, 1842, under the title Le Danger des Mystification. It was published in two volumes. The next year, with fourteen chapters suppressed, it entered the Scenes de la Vie Privee in the Comedie Humaine. Balzac wrote to Madame de Surville that it was one of the pearls of his crown.

IN the year 1820, on the highroad from Paris to England, was a place named La Cave (" the cellar"), a hollow way leading down to one of the most delightful nooks of the Oise valley, and to the famous little town of l'Isle Adam, in a region renowned for its quarries, which have furnished materials for many fine buildings in Paris and Brussels. It being long before the day of rail-roads, the bit of road from Paris to l'Isle Adam was served by two cou-cous, heavy and grotesque chariot coaches, which ran to and fro alternately and put up, while in Paris, at the Silver Lion, at the corner of the Rue d'Enghien.

Pierrotin, who owned and drove one of these coaches, was an old soldier, a man of about forty, determined to advance in the world. The bulging sides of his vehicle allowed it to carry six passengers on two seats, which were as hard as iron, though covered with yellow worsted velvet. A wooden bar was so arranged that, although it was intended to form a support to the backs of the passengers, it might be turned at a pinch into an extra seat. This board, while painful to adjust, was more painful when adjusted and was the cause of despair to travelers. Pierrotin was of an ambitious and frugal nature, and continually talked of a grand new conveyance which he had ordered to be built at a standard maker's. He drove two horses—a large but slow and aged beast named Rougeot, and Bichette, a tiny mare that ate little and could go like the wind.

Early one autumn morning Pierrotin stood in front of the Silver Lion, his hands in his blouse pockets, looking up and down the square. It was near time for starting, but no passengers had arrived. This was hard, for the grand coach so long talked about was actually finished, and was advertised to make its first trip the succeeding Sunday. Pierrotin had deposited fifteen hundred francs, and unless he could raise the remaining thousand by that date, he would lose not only his coach but his money as well. Therefore his twinkling eyes looked anxiously around for passengers.

Presently a footman appeared with a small leather trunk, and told Pierrotin that his master wished to take passage if he could wait a quarter of an hour. Pierrotin could indeed wait, but who was his master? His master was a comte, a states-man, who wished to visit his estate at Presles, and who desired to go incognito. It must be no other than the Comte de Serizy, intending to take his steward, Moreau, by surprise. The footman admitted this, but appealed to the driver not to betray his identity. Pierrotin was too much a man of the world not to oblige a nobleman, but there was heaviness in his heart on account of his friend Moreau, who, while managing his master's estate magnificently, had found ways to enrich himself. There was a particular rumor in regard to a farm, wholly enclosed in the estate, long desired by the Comte, which a certain farmer Leger had held on a long lease from the owner, Margueron, which lease was about to expire. Leger conceived the idea of buying the land from Margueron himself, and selling it again to the Comte through Moreau, both making a fine percentage on the transaction. Owing to a somewhat too zealous letter from Moreau in the matter, the Comte had consulted his attorney, Monsieur Crottat, who had advised his going in person, quietly, asking Margueron to dinner, and closing the business himself. M. Crottat added that he would send his clerk down with a form of sale, thus insuring the trans-action and frustrating the steward's designs. Immediately following this advice had come a visit from Madame de Reybert, wife of a retired army officer living at Presles, who de-sired the stewardship for her husband, and was much incensed at the Moreaus, who carried themselves arrogantly toward many of the townspeople, giving corroborative information in regard to the proposed sale and setting forth her husband's claims to the place held by Moreau.

This visit had decided the Comte to follow his attorney's advice, and, anticipating an expected visit, he was about to take a seat in the public vehicle. Naturally Pierrotin did not know all these details, but the little he did know gave him apprehension when he learned of the Comte's journey.

Monsieur de Serizy was one of the great nobles of France and seldom traveled outside his own coach. Moreau's father had been of service to the Serizy family during the Revolution; he had married a former maid of the Comtesse, and had been treated with much consideration by the Comte. He had served the latter faithfully, in spite of his shrewdness, and the Comte was loth to believe in his dishonesty. The Comte and Comtesse had recently been making alterations at Presles, preparatory to taking possession themselves after a long time of non-residence. The Moreaus, particularly Madame Moreau, had carried themselves very nearly as owners of the estate, and people wondered how they would like returning to the condition of upper servants. They were, in truth, looking to a different destination. Moreau had saved so much that they meant to buy a small estate in l'Isle Adam, and for this reason Moreau was especially anxious to gain the profit on the sale.

The Comte de Serizy was truly a great man, who worked incessantly for the good of the State, to the detriment of his health. He was much older than the Comtesse, whom he adored. She was a beauty, who was a widow before he married her. She remained mistress of herself after as well as before her second marriage, but retained her fascination for her husband, who treated her as a mother treats a spoiled child. He was not happy, but he buried himself in his work, and by the protection of his great name and distinguished devotion prevented the gossip that her conduct might otherwise have provoked. She, in turn, held him in highest esteem.

Slowly the travelers gathered for the trip in Pierrotin's coach. First appeared a woman, once handsome but now shabby in her poverty, accompanied by her son, who showed evidences of a mother's hand in his attire, which was patched and outgrown. She commended this lad to Pierrotin's care, and gave him maternal injunctions as to his behavior, which embarrassed him. These two were Madame Clapart and Oscar Husson, her son by a former marriage. Madame Clapart had been one of the Aspasias of the Directory, but was now living in extreme poverty with her incapable husband, her only friend being the Presles steward, Moreau, whom she had known in her youth, who constantly visited her and made her substantial presents of produce from his farm. The boy, Oscar, was of an age when ignorance and folly combined to make him absurd. Moreau had suggested a trip to his own home as an eye-opener to life, and this journey was the result.

After the mother and son came two young men, gay and well dressed in the extreme of fashion. Oscar listened to their witty comments on his own and his mother's appearance in an agony of shame, and begged her to shorten her farewells and advice. A stout farmer arrived, and two other young men, and Pierrotin began packing them into the coach and put up the wooden bar. It was past the time for starting, but Pierrotin lingered, making one excuse and another. At last an elderly man with a red face and very white hair arrived and took the last place inside. This was the Comte himself, and Pierrotin recognized him, but the others took him for no one in particular, as he was plainly dressed and unpretentious in manner. The coach-doors were then closed, and with much noise and bustle the comical vehicle was off.

In a French coach, the passengers, after they take some preliminary observations of each other, all talk. One of the well-dressed young men, Georges by name, quickly decided that he was the superior man of the party, and set out to amuse him-self by hoaxing them. He told them that he had been in command of the troops under Ali, the Pasha of Janina. His tales increased in splendor as the others interpolated ejaculations, and he wound up by describing his seraglio in the East and his sensations at the battle of Waterloo. The Comte took this in with a twinkling eye, and, observing the name "Maitre Crottat" on his portfolio, took advantage of the descent of the others to get luncheon at an inn to peep inside this portfolio. He there discovered the deed of sale intended for his purchase of the Molineaux farms, which proved the young man to be the attorney's clerk. The Comte quietly appropriated this paper and closed the portfolio again.

On reentering the coach, one of the other young men followed Georges's example, and amused the company with relating his adventures. He declared himself to be Schinner, the great painter, and told tales of Venice and his amours and escapades there. The Comte, greatly amused, put in an occasional comment. Oscar felt his spirits sink in envy and tried smoking a cigar, which made him ill.

At last the conversation turned on the projected sale of the farms. The Comte in an undertone reminded Pierrotin of his wish to remain incognito, and promised to pay the whole thousand francs for his new coach if he would keep still and let the others talk to their hearts' content. The old farmer, who was Leger himself, had not been able to refrain from boasting of his intended bargain, and between the gettings out and in to relieve the horses up the hills, and the various conversations with innkeepers, he got full evidence of his steward's dishonesty, to his great sorrow.

Oscar became more excited as the conversation turned on matters of which he knew something. Finally, exasperated at their slighting tone toward himself, he dashed in and informed the assembly that he was intended for a career of diplomacy. He was of noble blood, he said. They jeered at him, and re-minded him of his mother's shabby appearance. He then declared her to be the housekeeper, and that he was going to Presles on a visit to the Comte de Serizy. " Schinner " blushed at this, and the others looked at him with interest. Elated at having at last made an impression, he totally lost his head and betrayed the most intimate secrets of the Comte's life, the facts of which he had overheard during Moreau's confidential talks with his mother, Madame Clapart. When he at last made some comment on the Comtesse, the Comte stopped him in a voice of thunder, and almost immediately left the coach, making ironical farewells to the passengers, but without disclosing his identity. When they reached Presles, no one felt quite comfortable, except Pierrotin, who looked forward on the morrow to his thousand francs and his new coach.

The Comte was indeed wounded to the depths of his heart. The dishonesty of his steward appeared slight in his estimation compared with the discussion of the tragedies of his own sorrows, which must have taken place for this boy to have got hold of them. He wept bitter tears, his last, as he pursued his way through a by-path to his estate.

The master dropped on the household at Presles like a shell from a mortar. He approached the gamekeeper's hut and said: "Is Moreau here? I see his horse waiting."

No, Monseigneur, but as he is going over to Les Moulineux before dinner, he left his horse while he ran over to give some orders at the house."

At this confirmation of the steward's guilt, the Comte ordered the gamekeeper to go immediately to Farmer Margueron with a note demanding his immediate presence at dinner, forestalling the steward, whom he encountered shortly afterward, to the latter's confusion.

"Well, Monsieur," said the Comte, who remained sitting, but allowed Moreau to stand, "so we cannot come to terms with Margueron."

"At the present moment he wants too much for his farm."

"But why should he not come over here to talk about it?" "He is ill, Monseigneur "

"Monsieur," said the Comte, assuming a terrible expression, "what would you do to a man whom you had allowed to see you dress a wound, and who went off to make game of it with a street trollop?"

" I should give him a sound thrashing."

"Listen, Monsieur Moreau. You have, I suppose, discussed my affairs with Madame Clapart, for little Husson was giving to the passengers in a public conveyance information about them this very morning. In addition, I heard from Farmer Leger's own lips of the plan concocted with regard to the farms at Molineux. . . . It is unpardonable. To strike at a man's interest is nothing, but to strike at his heart! Ah, you do not know what you have done."

The Comte covered his face and was silent for a moment. "I will leave you in possession of what you have. As a point of dignity, we will part without quarreling. I cannot forget what your father did for mine."

The Comte and Moreau went downstairs, Moreau as white as the Comte's hair, M. de Serizy calm and dignified.

The Comte, somewhat later, put through the sale with Margueron, and entertained his whilom companions at dinner, rallying them on their efforts at amusement, and displaying the deed of sale to the crestfallen Georges, taken, unknown to him, from his own portfolio, in the presence of M. Crottat, who had come down himself by a later coach; as well as congratulating the noble Schirmer, who turned out to be Joseph Bridau, a young artist sent down to do some of the decorating.

Oscar, dumb with misery and helpless with fright, was dragged into the Comte's presence by the enraged Moreau, to be dismissed with contempt by the nobleman and later sent home to his mother, with a note relating the affair, and telling her that she need expect no more assistance from the humiliated steward in his education, as he was hopeless from stupidity and conceit.

Madame Clapart was in despair at her son's return and the news that he had lost Moreau's friendship and patronage, for to the latter she had looked for the young man's start in life. There was but one possible direction in which she could now turn: this was to her first husband's brother-in-law, a retired silk-merchant, Monsieur Cardot. This old gentleman had settled the silk business, a flourishing concern, on his eldest daughter, whose husband, Camusot, managed it admirably, and had given portions of four hundred thousand francs each to his younger children. In addition to this, he had settled a large sum on himself in an annuity, so that he was able to live in great comfort in his old age. This little old gentleman, plump, rosy, square, and hearty, was always as neat as a pin, and was a person of much gallantry toward the ladies. He, in fact, amused himself quietly, for to him the charming Mademoiselle Florentine, of the Comedic, looked for support. Madame Clapart had always been on the polite terms of the poor relation, and never had asked him for help. But this was her only course in the present emergency. Accordingly, she and her son called one morning, and, finding M. Cardot in his garden, were invited to stay to breakfast. She found him to be unexpectedly good-natured, and he promised to pay Oscar's expenses in studying law, mingling the promise with salutary advice; for he had been a hard worker in his younger years and knew the principles of success.

Accordingly, Oscar was introduced to Monsieur Desroches, a hard-working attorney, and began a career of great industry, which he hated, but could not escape from. He worked diligently in this office for two years, being under the particular charge of Godeschal, the head clerk, a young man of good principles, who took a friendly interest in keeping the boy up to the mark. Oscar, however, longed for some variety and fun, and on the appearance of Georges Marest at the office, the young man who had so influenced him to boasting while on the journey to Presles, he became more and more restless under the restraints of drudgery and hard work.

Frederic Marest, Georges's cousin, was the latest clerk to appear in the office. He was summoned to give the Bien-venue, or welcome, the breakfast which every new pupil must give the old boys, according to the traditions of Parisian law-offices. Godeschal left a book, contrived ingeniously to appear an ancient ritual of office customs, on Frederic's desk. He looked at it, laughed, but did not take the hint. Georges appeared soon afterward, and told them his cousin would not ask them to breakfast, but that he would invite them to a supper at the grand Marquise de la Florentina's. This lady, put forward as a Spanish aristocrat, was only the Mademoiselle Florentine who was the pet and favorite of old M. Cardot, and who contrived to amuse herself very well with Georges Marest and his gay set of friends. The clerks, delighted with this invitation, accepted in a body.

Oscar, while hating his work, had done it faithfully, and had come to be looked upon with respect by his employer. Maitre Desroches, the day of the supper, had given him five hundred francs to take to a client. By some mischance, he had not been able to conclude this business, and was obliged to carry the money to the supper at Mademoiselle Florentine's. Oscar looked forward to a day of perfect bliss. He had new and grand clothes, and he was going to see the world of fashion for the first time. Apart from this, however, he had an instinctive dislike of Georges Marest, who was so closely connected with the circumstances of his great humiliation at Presles.

This dislike melted away as the twelve young men sat at the gay supper-table, and later were led into the sumptuous rooms of the pseudo Marquise. The wine went to the poor boy's head, and the scene dazzled his vision. When the cards were produced, he easily put up a hundred francs, his entire property, and naturally lost it at once. Tempted then, beyond resistance, he put up his employer's five hundred francs, and this also, in the ups and downs known so well to gamblers, was forfeited, together with a thousand francs more, borrowed from the good-natured Florentine. Dazed, bewildered, and despairing, overcome with champagne, at the end of the evening Oscar sank in a deep sleep on a sofa, where he was allowed to stay, and soon was forgotten by all.

About eleven o'clock in the morning he was awakened by a terrible sound—the rasping voice of Papa Cardot, chiding pretty Florentine for her extravagance. She had managed to fool the old gentleman back into good humor, when he caught sight of his protege, whom he had recommended to a life of hard work and self-denial, extended on the sofa. An admirable scene ensued, as Florentine pulled the young man up by the elbow and half choked with laughing as she saw the hangdog look of uncle and nephew.

"You here, nephew?"

"Ho, ho, he is your nephew. Whatever is to become of the poor boy?"

"Whatever he pleases," said the old man dryly.

"Wait a moment, Papa Cardot. Who is to pay the fifteen hundred francs he owes?"

Cajoled and threatened by Florentine, Cardot handed his nephew five hundred francs, with which to repay his master, and told him to begone and never show himself to him again, promising scornfully to repay Florentine herself the thousand she had lent him.

Oscar was indeed miserable, deprived of his last benefactor; and when at last, by some mischance, Desroches discovered his theft before he had time to repay it with his uncle's money, and discharged him peremptorily, his misfortunes, induced by his own folly, were at the crushing point.

Oscar, to his mother's despair, was thus brought to the last resort of a French youth and obliged to enlist as a common soldier. Humbled and sobered, he followed faithfully from this time the precepts of wisdom and common sense. His con-duct was so satisfactory that he became quartermaster in his regiment at the age of twenty-five, and by an act of great bravery, in which he lost an arm, gained the cross of the Legion of Honor and the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In this action his superior officer was the son of the Comte de Serizy, and in this way the Comte was led to forgive him his folly on the ride to Presles.

Years afterward, there was another ride from Paris to Presles, the same passengers finding themselves together once more. It was hard to recognize in the one-armed, bronzed Oscar, carrying his mother proudly on his arm, the foolish boy who had played the bravado years before. Georges Marest was there also, showing by his shabby gentility that he had run through his income of thirty thousand francs a year. Joseph Bridau, now a painter of renown, was going down to marry the daughter of Farmer Leger, who had become a millionaire and had married the daughter of Reybut, Moreau's success-or. Monsieur and Madame Moreau occupied the coupe, together with their daughter and son-in-law, the Baron de Canalis, a peer of France. The ex-steward had prospered by his shrewdness, and his wife had seen her social ambitions all gratified.

As for Oscar, under the powerful patronage of the Serizy family, he was going down to take the office of Collector at Presles. Later he would be promoted to be Receiver-General. He married Pierrotin's daughter. The former driver had acquired the ownership of the entire diligence system and was able to give his daughter a fine dowry. The Camusots, Oscar's relatives, recognized him, and his mother had the pleasure of seeing her son a respected and successful matt. The results of the journey to Presles had given him discretlon, the evening at Florentine's had disciplined his honesty; the hardships of military life had taught him the value of soclal distinctions and submission to fate. He became prudent, capable, and consequently happy.



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