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Honore De Balzac - The Middle Classes (1854)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

This novel was left unfinished by Balzae, and it is supposed to have been completed by Charles Rabou, whom Balzac chose to continue it. Balzac had been at work upon it a long time, frequently laying it aside for other things. It appears from his correspondence that it was very nearly finished at the time of his death, and all the principal scenes were sketched out, if not entirely finished, even to the last chapter.

THE Thuillier family occupied one of those great houses in Paris which, formerly the abode of the nobility, retain traces of former grandeur. Mademoiselle Thuillier owned this house, having by saving and clever investing gradually be-come rich. This remarkable woman ruled her brother, a retired government clerk, handsome but empty-headed, and the insignificant wife his sister had chosen for him. She rented the floors of the house not used by the family, and held a salon every Sunday evening with her tenants and a few friends.

Among the frequenters of her salon were Monsieur Dutocq, a government clerk, Monsieur and Madame Colleville, the latter handsome and ambitious, and their daughter, the pretty Celeste; Monsieur and Madame Phellion and their son, Felix, Monsieur a highly respected man in the arrondissement and Felix a student and professor of mathematics in the Royal College. Monsieur Minard, who had made a fortune in adulterating groceries but who was now a pattern of benevolence, with his wife and son, together with the lodger on the top floor, Monsieur de la Peyrade, were the remaining principal persons of the group.

Monsieur and Madame Thuillier had no children; but as Celeste Colleville was their godchild, they looked upon her as their own, and she had the promise of inheriting the united fortunes of Madame and Mademoiselle. The three young men aspired to her hand with differing motives—Felix, from affection, Julien Minard, from desire for her money, and De la Feyrade, with the desperate hope that it might save him from the abyss of degradation which, unknown to the simple group, yawned under his feet.

Theodose de la Peyrade had come to Paris a few years previously and had been admitted to the bar. He had not advanced in his profession, but continued as an advocate, de-voting himself ostentatiously to the service of the poor. He was, in fact, an adventurer, of an honest family in the province, but a Tartuffe in character, who made trickery and hypocrisy his means of advancement in life. He had two associates in vice, Cerizet and the clerk Dutocq. The latter, also masking under false pretenses, while highly thought of by the Thuilliers, had introduced Peyrade to them. Cerizet was a man of powerful intellect, who had formerly edited a ministerial journal, but who, sinking lower and lower, now kept a sort of quick-loan shop for the lowest of the poor in the most disreputable quarter of Paris. These two had befriended Peyrade in a time of extremity and had loaned him fifty thousand francs. They held him by this chain, now that he was rising in the world and hoped to marry the young heiress, Celeste. The three held together, although each suspected the other of treachery. Cerizet's appearance was so terrible, from a life of dissipation, that he never came with the others to the Latin Quarter. Peyrade began his flatteries by making love to Madame Colleville, by praising Brigitte's cooking, and by laughing at Thuillier's jokes.

Cerizet had concocted a plan to make Brigitte Thuillier buy a house near the Madeleine. The procedure was illegal on account of some difficulty with the builders, but it would prove profitable. Cerizet himself intended to rent from her and sub-let to actual tenants, making a large profit.

De la Peyrade agreed to this, because it fell in with his plans. To carry them out, he first suggested to Thuillier, an incompetent fool, that he should obtain a seat in the Municipal Council, and won over old Phellion, virtuous but pompous, to voting for him against his own convictions. He promised to get Thuillier the cross of the Legion of Honor and to write a political pamphlet for him.

His next step was to take advantage of Brigitte's joy in the election of her idolized brother to persuade her into buying the house, as necessary to his new dignity.

He then approached Thuillier with his plan of marrying Celeste. Thuillier agreed to this, and the two influenced Brigitte, the supreme power in the family, to approve and to promise her own and Madame Thuillier's fortunes as her dowry. In addition, he informed Thuillier that as it was very necessary to win over the girl's mother by flattery and judicious management, it would be better to say nothing of these plans for the present.

The only thing in the way of this match was the inclination of Celeste herself. She loved Felix. She was an ardent Catholic and talked often with him about religion, as he was in-different to the faith. The two were tacitly engaged, but De la Peyrade, having managed the property question, turned himself to embroiling the lovers, which he did by adroitly fostering their religious differences.

In these operations De la Peyrade had acted entirely for him-self. He had outwitted his two companions and was preparing to cast them off as soon as he felt himself to be strong enough. They knew this well, and Cerizet prepared a pitfall for him. He summoned him to a visit at his own sordid stronghold. Cerizet was talking with Mother Cardinal, a fish-hawker with a voice of iron, when he entered, and seemed preoccupied with a new idea, but almost immediately turned his attention to De la Peyrade, and put it to him plainly that he must get him the lease of the new house, or he would foreclose one of his acceptances. This was a blow to De la Peyrade, for, despite his. success, he could not command the money. He therefore promised to bring the lease to a dinner on the following Tuesday.

Good luck seemed coming Cerizet's way. Madame Cardinal had told him of the approaching death of an old uncle of hers, a miser. Cerizet accepted her proposition to help her carry off his gold before his death. This scheme was foiled by the appearance of a little old man at the very moment when Cerizet had his hand on the treasure, and even in his success he found himself in danger of the police.

This old man was Monsieur du Portail, who occupied the first floor with his niece, a girl crazed by sortie misfortune. He spoke with an air of authority, and instead of having Cerizet arrested, commanded him to call on him the next morning.

At this call it devolved that the niece was a cousin of De la Peyrade's; that her malady was one that physicians said would be cured by marriage; and that M. du Portail intended that Peyrade should marry her. Cerizet told the old man something of Peyrade's plans; that Dutocq's introduction of him to the Thuilliers was intended ultimately to repay himself and Cerizet from Celeste's dowry, and was told in return that the miser, Torpillon, had left his fortune to the crazed girl, Mademoiselle Lydie de la Peyrade. Du Portail further explained that this was a restitution, as years before the jewels had been stolen from Lydie's mother, a celebrated actress, and confided by the actual thief to Torpillon, who had afterward refused to renounce them. Du Portail had discovered this and had compelled Torpillon to make a will in the girl's favor, not only of the jewels, but of all his property. Thus Cerizet could see that Peyrade would be rich if he married his cousin. Du Portail therefore proposed to him, as the price of his own silence in regard to the attempted robbery, to buy Peyrade's acceptances from Dutocq, thus getting the former into his own power. Cerizet agreed to this, with an idea of making an additional commission himself out of the transaction.

De la Peyrade came to this dinner in a gay mood. He coolly told Cerizet that he could not have the lease of the house, as Mademoiselle intended to look after her own renting, and as for Dutocq's acceptances, he should have the money for them. He then left, humming a tune, and paid their bill at the desk, as a bit of effrontery, after carelessly dismissing Cerizet's proposition that he should marry his cousin. instead of Celeste.

Cerizet, downcast at his double failure, confessed it to M. du Portail, who merely remarked that he should have to look after the business himself.

De la Peyrade was in the habit of attending early mass in his parish church. He had noticed a woman of saintly appearance and plain dress watching him constantly. On the morning of the dinner he had spoken to her and found that she desired to confide to him, as his reputation as a friend of the poor was great, the sum of twenty-five thousand francs, a legacy. He, promising to invest them for her, and giving her no receipt, found himself, just in time, able to rid himself of his shackles by paying Dutocq, which he did to the last cent. She was a woman who served Monsieur Picot, the astronomer, nearly blind and absent-minded, and this money was the result of her thieving.

It was not so good for Peyrade as it seemed, to keep the whole buslness of renting Mademoiselle Thuillier's house in her own hands. The old bourgeoise, feeling a timidity in doing business in a fashionable quarter, put herself entirely into the hands of a tenant who suddenly appeared, a Hungarian countess, Madame Godollo. The Thuilliers decided to occupy their new house, and help was needed to furnish their apartment suitably. This help Madame Godollo, a woman of most lofty pretensions to fashion, was ready to give. Wonderful bargains in furniture, draperies, and carpets were secured through her agency, and she soon occupied the position of social mentor to these good people, unused to the customs of polite society. De la Peyrade felt that his own influence was waning, and, worse than this, the Countess Godollo made no pretense of her opposition to the match with Celeste.

Another thing troubled him. There was a mysterious obstacle to his obtaining the cross for Thuillier, which he had been sincere in promising. He felt that he had reached a point where he must strike a decisive blow.

Accordingly one morning, while they were working over the famous pamphlet, he stopped and refused to go on. Thuillier, alarmed, asked him the reason. He replied frankly that Madame Godollo's influence was against his marriage, and said that if the friendship was to continue the matter must be settled within two weeks. Brigitte, on being consulted, agreed, saying nevertheless that these machinations were not to her taste; and Celeste was told that she must decide between Peyrade and Felix within that time.

At first the liberty to follow her own inclinations pleased the young girl, but De la Peyrade had not miscalculated the force of her religious convictions. The two quarreled, and the quarrel would have been irreconcilable had it not been for the interference of Madame Godollo, which brought the affair to a standstill. By this, De la Peyrade became fully certain of the hostility of the Countess, and determined to try his powers upon her. On the day Celeste's decision was to be announced, he called upon her in her magnificent rooms in the entresol.

He was kept waiting some time in the reception-room, and, chancing to look out of the window, he beheld a little old man decorated with many orders stepping into an emblazoned carriage. The Countess entered, with apologies for tardiness on account of another visitor of importance. Her attitude to him-self was one of mystery and possible coquetry. When he left her he thought that a secret love for himself might be the cause of her behavior. This from a woman skilled in the arts of attraction, surrounded as she was with the evidences of wealth, influenced him, although in his dealings with women he was usually guided merely by motives of policy. Her management of him had been so adroit that later, when Thuillier told him that Celeste accepted him, but entirely as a sacrifice to their wishes, he allowed his cold judgment to be warped, and instead of clinching the matter himself he suggested waiting a little longer.

The great pamphlet was at length finished, and Thuillier haunted the book-stalls to witness the extent of its sale. To his humiliation, only four copies were sold. The bookseller then suggested a breakfast to the press, which the misguided man gave, and which contributed still more to his humiliation, as almost nobody came and those who did come were of the lowest order.

In the midst of this sad feast, the news was brought that the whole edition had been seized, as containing illegal printed matter. Thuillier and his companion immediately withdrew, the former in the greatest agitation.

In the despair following this bit of ill luck, Peyrade again sought the Countess. At this second visit she led him conclusively to believe in her love for him. She declared also that she had great influence in high quarters, and told him that it was at her behest the pamphlets had been seized. Peyrade was all the more ready to believe in this influence from another glimpse of the little old man, decorated with orders, going from her door, and from seeing letters addressed to the Commandant waiting to be posted in the foyer.

The Countess intimated that what she had done was for the purpose of deterring him from the match with the little bourgeoise and mating him with a nobler, more congenial soul in herself. Losing his head entirely, Peyrade declared to her that the struggle was over and that she had won. He then rushed from the house in a mood of great exaltation.

The next morning he disclosed to Thuillier that the seizure of the pamphlets was an irremediable misfortune, and took the high hand with him in a quarrel, in which Brigitte soon participated. He renounced his claim to Celeste, and gave Brigitte no great satisfaction when she coarsely reminded him of the ten thousand francs given for the promised cross, which had not been forthcoming.

De la Peyrade had fallen completely into the Countess Godollo's trap. Having done her work, she now disappeared, leaving a letter giving the information that by embroiling him with the Thuilliers and Collevilles she had blessed him in disguise, for a richer bride than Celeste awaited him. She referred him to M. du Portail, Rue Honore-Chevalier, who was expecting him.

The shock of this disappointment was too much for the Provencal. His health gave way, and an attack of fever con-fined him to his room for some time. The Thuilliers, on their part, reveled in the freedom resulting from his absence. The brother strutted like a turkey-cock, and Brigitte indulged in all her petty economies and bourgeois tricks.

Still another turn in the wheel brought to Thuillier the opportunity of buying a journal, L'Echo de la Bievre. De la Peyrade had formed some feeble resolutions of leading a respectable life after his illness, but could not resist this chance of regaining his ascendancy. Meeting Thuillier opportunely, he proposed to him to buy the journal and to install himself as editor-inchief, at an excellent salary, with Cerizet as manager. The pretense was that it would insure Thuillier's election to the Chamber. The latter, inflated with success, and in spite of his former experiences with the adroit Peyrade, yielded to his clever arguments, and fell more completely under his power than before.

Du Portail now had occasion to interview Cerizet again. He discovered him to be deeply in debt. His debts must be paid before he could take the place offered.

"I see I've got to stand the money myself," said Du Portail, "but the question is, whether your presence in the affair is worth it."

"Dame!" said Cerizet; "if I were only installed there, I would soon have De la Peyrade and Thuillier at logger-heads."

Accordingly, he was installed, for to checkmate Peyrade was what Du Portail wanted most.

The two concocted a story to be told Thuillier : that the twenty-five thousand francs, of which they had learned the history, had been obtained from the police, as a reward for De la Peyrade's inserting some traitorous paragraphs in the pamphlet, leading to its seizure.

Cerizet laid his plans with great skill to carry this out, and brought things to such a point that Thuillier demanded of Peyrade information as to where he got the twenty-five thousand francs which came in so opportunely for buying his acceptances from Dutocq.

The Provencal saw that without confession he would have the newly recovered future cut from beneath his feet. So he told them frankly that they were the savings of a domestic that had been confided to him, and offered to summon this person by a note.

Madame Lambert, the saintly thief, appeared. She at first denied the transaction, but on Peyrade's calling the others to witness that Madame, according to her own statement, never had twenty-five thousand francs, and consequently could not have given that sum to him; and that, as the notary, Depuis, with whom he fancied he had placed them, had left Paris that morning, carrying with him all his clients' money, he had a clear account with Madame, and "The notary Depuis has absconded!" cried Madame Lambert; "the wretch! the villain! when only this morning he took the communion!"

"That was doubtless to pray for a safe journey," replied Peyrade.

"Monsieur can talk lightly enough about it," continued Madame Lambert, "but that brigand has carried off all my savings."

De la Peyrade had triumphed once more. The marriage was again arranged and the day arrived when the ceremony was to be performed. The Provencal felt that his struggle to achieve respectability and fortune was over, as the wedding-party were gathered in the drawing-room preparatory to going to the notary's, when Henri came in to say that an aged gentleman, wearing decorations, had asked to be received on very urgent business.

The interview was enormously prolonged. Brigitte and even De la Peyrade himself were not above putting their eyes to the keyhole, to discover what was keeping Thuillier. At last the old gentleman was seen to get into an elegant carriage and drive rapidly away. Thuillier rejoined the others, and with a grave face thus addressed De la Peyrade:

" My dear De la Peyrade, you did not inform the that another proposal of marriage had been considered seriously by you. Were I in your place, I should go at once to see Monsieur du Portail."

"Again that name! It pursues me like remorse!" cried De la Peyrade.

"Yes, go to him at once; he awaits you. That is an indispensable preliminary before we proceed further. When you shall have seen this honest gentleman—well, if you persist in demanding Celeste's hand, we may carry out our plans; until then we shall take no further steps."

De la Peyrade had at last met his match. Du Portail confessed himself to be the great detective Corentin, and he disclosed to the Provencal his power. He it was who had pursued him from the beginning, who had sent the Godollo, an adventuress, to the Thuilliers, who had annulled the promise of the cross, who had had the pamphlets seized; and he added that it had been his care to incite all the journals to a persecution of M. Thuillier, which must end in his political defeat.

Corentin offered to De la Peyrade, as the sole field in which his abilities might now be exercised, a connection with the department of the police. The young man, seeing in every other direction he might turn only a cul-de-sac, felt this to be a not uncongenial solution of his difficulties.

When, later, Corentin confronted him with the darkest crime of his past, the ruin of his own cousin, Lydie, in the person of the girl herself, his yielding to the great man's domination was complete. He recalled and explained to him that chapter of his life, telling him that his uncle, victim of a diabolical intrigue, had fallen into a situation where his own daughter must be sacrificed, and that he, De la Peyrade, had been chosen to carry out this deadly plot. This was the secret of his determination that De la Peyrade should marry Lydie, for her father, De la Peyrade's uncle, had been his own dearest friend. De la Peyrade yielded to his fate and found thenceforth a legitimate outlet for his powers of intrigue in the service of the police.

His last attention to the Thuillier family was an editorial in L'Echo, in which he announced, in the name of the great statesman himself, that he had forever, and in the best interests of his constituency, renounced public life. To the great rage of that noble man, Thuillier, this resignation was completely effectual, and never again could he aspire to political distinction.

The Thuillier family soon moved back into the Latin Quarter, where they resumed their lives of sober, respectable, and worthy bourgeoisie, the honorable lives of the salvation of France—the Middle Classes.

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