The Two Brothers by Honore de Balzac
At four o'clock, Joseph crossed the open space which separated the Rouget house from the Hochon house,--a sort of avenue of weakly lindens, two hundred feet long and of the same width as the rue Grande Narette. When the nephew arrived, Kouski, in polished boots, black cloth trousers, white waistcoat, and black coat, announced him. The table was set in the large hall, and Joseph, who easily distinguished his uncle, went up to him, kissed him, and bowed to Flore and Max.
"We have not seen each other since I came into the world, my dear uncle," said the painter gayly; "but better late than never."
"You are very welcome, my friend," said the old man, looking at his nephew in a dull way.
"Madame," Joseph said to Flore with an artist's vivacity, "this morning I was envying my uncle the pleasure he enjoys in being able to admire you every day."
"Isn't she beautiful?" said the old man, whose dim eyes began to shine.
"Beautiful enough to be the model of a great painter."
"Nephew," said Rouget, whose elbow Flore was nudging, "this is Monsieur Maxence Gilet; a man who served the Emperor, like your brother, in the Imperial Guard."
Joseph rose, and bowed.
"Your brother was in the dragoons, I believe," said Maxence. "I was only a dust-trotter."
"On foot or on horseback," said Flore, "you both of you risked your skins."
Joseph took note of Max quite as much as Max took note of Joseph. Max, who got his clothes from Paris, was dressed as the young dandies of that day dressed themselves. A pair of light-blue cloth trousers, made with very full plaits, covered his feet so that only the toes and the spurs of his boots were seen. His waist was pinched in by a white waistcoat with chased gold buttons, which was laced behind to serve as a belt. The waistcoat, buttoned to the throat, showed off his broad chest, and a black satin stock obliged him to hold his head high, in soldierly fashion. A handsome gold chain hung from a waistcoat pocket, in which the outline of a flat watch was barely seen. He was twisting a watch-key of the kind called a "criquet," which Breguet had lately invented.
"The fellow is fine-looking," thought Joseph, admiring with a painter's eye the eager face, the air of strength, and the intellectual gray eyes which Max had inherited from his father, the noble. "My uncle must be a fearful bore, and that handsome girl takes her compensations. It is a triangular household; I see that."
At this instant, Baruch and Francois entered.
"Have you been to see the tower of Issoudun?" Flore asked Joseph. "No? then if you would like to take a little walk before dinner, which will not be served for an hour, we will show you the great curiosity of the town."
"Gladly," said the artist, quite incapable of seeing the slightest impropriety in so doing.
While Flore went to put on her bonnet, gloves, and cashmere shawl, Joseph suddenly jumped up, as if an enchanter had touched him with his wand, to look at the pictures.
"Ah! you have pictures, indeed, uncle!" he said, examining the one that had caught his eye.
"Yes," answered the old man. "They came to us from the Descoings, who bought them during the Revolution, when the convents and churches in Berry were dismantled."
Joseph was not listening; he was lost in admiration of the pictures.
"Magnificent!" he cried. "Oh! what painting! that fellow didn't spoil his canvas. Dear, dear! better and better, as it is at Nicolet's--"
"There are seven or eight very large ones up in the garret, which were kept on account of the frames," said Gilet.
"Let me see them!" cried the artist; and Max took him upstairs.
Joseph came down wildly enthusiastic. Max whispered a word to the Rabouilleuse, who took the old man into the embrasure of a window, where Joseph heard her say in a low voice, but still so that he could hear the words:--
"Your nephew is a painter; you don't care for those pictures; be kind, and give them to him."
"It seems," said Jean-Jacques, leaning on Flore's arm to reach the place were Joseph was standing in ecstasy before an Albano, "--it seems that you are a painter--"
"Only a 'rapin,'" said Joseph.
"What may that be?" asked Flore.
"A beginner," replied Joseph.
"Well," continued Jean-Jacques, "if these pictures can be of any use to you in your business, I give them to you,--but without the frames. Oh! the frames are gilt, and besides, they are very funny; I will put--"
"Well done, uncle!" cried Joseph, enchanted; "I'll make you copies of the same dimensions, which you can put into the frames."
"But that will take your time, and you will want canvas and colors," said Flore. "You will have to spend money. Come, Pere Rouget, offer your nephew a hundred francs for each copy; here are twenty-seven pictures, and I think there are eleven very big ones in the garret which ought to cost double,--call the whole four thousand francs. Oh, yes," she went on, turning to Joseph, "your uncle can well afford to pay you four thousand francs for making the copies, since he keeps the frames--but bless me! you'll want frames; and they say frames cost more than pictures; there's more gold on them. Answer, monsieur," she continued, shaking the old man's arm. "Hein? it isn't dear; your nephew will take four thousand francs for new pictures in the place of the old ones. It is," she whispered in his ear, "a very good way to give him four thousand francs; he doesn't look to me very flush--"
"Well, nephew, I will pay you four thousand francs for the copies--"
"No, no!" said the honest Joseph; "four thousand francs and the pictures, that's too much; the pictures, don't you see, are valuable--"
"Accept, simpleton!" said Flore; "he is your uncle, you know."
"Very good, I accept," said Joseph, bewildered by the luck that had befallen him; for he had recognized a Perugino.
The result was that the artist beamed with satisfaction as he went out of the house with the Rabouilleuse on his arm, all of which helped Maxence's plans immensely. Neither Flore, nor Rouget, nor Max, nor indeed any one in Issoudun knew the value of the pictures, and the crafty Max thought he had bought Flore's triumph for a song, as she paraded triumphantly before the eyes of the astonished town, leaning on the arm of her master's nephew, and evidently on the best of terms with him. People flocked to their doors to see the crab-girl's triumph over the family. This astounding event made the sensation on which Max counted; so that when they all returned at five o'clock, nothing was talked of in every household but the cordial understanding between Max and Flore and the nephew of old Rouget. The incident of the pictures and the four thousand francs circulated already. The dinner, at which Lousteau, one of the court judges, and the Mayor of Issoudun were present, was splendid. It was one of those provincial dinners lasting five hours. The most exquisite wines enlivened the conversation. By nine o'clock, at dessert, the painter, seated opposite to his uncle, and between Flore and Max, had fraternized with the soldier, and thought him the best fellow on earth. Joseph returned home at eleven o'clock somewhat tipsy. As to old Rouget, Kouski had carried him to his bed dead-drunk; he had eaten as though he were an actor from foreign parts, and had soaked up the wine like the sands of the desert.
"Well," said Max when he was alone with Flore, "isn't this better than making faces at them? The Bridaus are well received, they get small presents, and are smothered with attentions, and the end of it is they will sing our praises; they will go away satisfied and leave us in peace. To-morrow morning you and I and Kouski will take down all those pictures and send them over to the painter, so that he shall see them when he wakes up. We will put the frames in the garret, and cover the walls with one of those varnished papers which represent scenes from Telemachus, such as I have seen at Monsieur Mouilleron's."
"Oh, that will be much prettier!" said Flore.
On the morrow, Joseph did not wake up till midday. From his bed he saw the pictures, which had been brought in while he was asleep, leaning one against another on the opposite wall. While he examined them anew, recognizing each masterpiece, studying the manner of each painter, and searching for the signature, his mother had gone to see and thank her brother, urged thereto by old Hochon, who, having heard of the follies the painter had committed the night before, almost despaired of the Bridau cause.
"Your adversaries have the cunning of foxes," he said to Agathe. "In all my days I never saw a man carry things with such a high hand as that soldier; they say war educates young men! Joseph has let himself be fooled. They have shut his mouth with wine, and those miserable pictures, and four thousand francs! Your artist hasn't cost Maxence much!"
The long-headed old man instructed Madame Bridau carefully as to the line of conduct she ought to pursue,--advising her to enter into Maxence's ideas and cajole Flore, so as to set up a sort of intimacy with her, and thus obtain a few moments' interview with Jean-Jacques alone. Madame Bridau was very warmly received by her brother, to whom Flore had taught his lesson. The old man was in bed, quite ill from the excesses of the night before. As Agathe, under the circumstances, could scarcely begin at once to speak of family matters, Max thought it proper and magnanimous to leave the brother and sister alone together. The calculation was a good one. Poor Agathe found her brother so ill that she would not deprive him of Madame Brazier's care.
"Besides," she said to the old bachelor, "I wish to know a person to whom I am grateful for the happiness of my brother."
These words gave evident pleasure to the old man, who rang for Madame Flore. Flore, as we may well believe, was not far off. The female antagonists bowed to each other. The Rabouilleuse showed the most servile attentions and the utmost tenderness to her master; fancied his head was too low, beat up the pillows, and took care of him like a bride of yesterday. The poor creature received it with a rush of feeling.
"We owe you much gratitude, mademoiselle," said Agathe, "for the proofs of attachment you have so long given to my brother, and for the way in which you watch over his happiness."
"That is true, my dear Agathe," said the old man; "she has taught me what happiness is; she is a woman of excellent qualities."
"And therefore, my dear brother, you ought to have recompensed Mademoiselle by making her your wife. Yes! I am too sincere in my religion not to wish to see you obey the precepts of the church. You would each be more tranquil in mind if you were not at variance with morality and the laws. I have come here, dear brother, to ask for help in my affliction; but do not suppose that we wish to make any remonstrance as to the manner in which you may dispose of your property--"
"Madame," said Flore, "we know how unjust your father was to you. Monsieur, here, can tell you," she went on, looking fixedly at her victim, "that the only quarrels we have ever had were about you. I have always told him that he owes you part of the fortune he received from his father, and your father, my benefactor,--for he was my benefactor," she added in a tearful voice; "I shall ever remember him! But your brother, madame, has listened to reason--"
"Yes," said the old man, "when I make my will you shall not be forgotten."
"Don't talk of these things, my dear brother; you do not yet know my nature."
After such a beginning, it is easy to imagine how the visit went on. Rouget invited his sister to dinner on the next day but one.
We may here mention that during these three days the Knights of Idleness captured an immense quantity of rats and mice, which were kept half-famished until they were let loose in the grain one fine night, to the number of four hundred and thirty-six, of which some were breeding mothers. Not content with providing Fario's store-house with these boarders, the Knights made holes in the roof of the old church and put in a dozen pigeons, taken from as many different farms. These four-footed and feathered creatures held high revels,--all the more securely because the watchman was enticed away by a fellow who kept him drunk from morning till night, so that he took no care of his master's property.
Madame Bridau believed, contrary to the opinion of old Hochon, that her brother has as yet made no will; she intended asking him what were his intentions respecting Mademoiselle Brazier, as soon as she could take a walk with him alone,--a hope which Flore and Maxence were always holding out to her, and, of course, always disappointing.
Meantime the Knights were searching for a way to put the Parisians to flight, and finding none that were not impracticable follies.
At the end of a week--half the time the Parisians were to stay in Issoudun--the Bridaus were no farther advanced in their object than when they came.
"Your lawyer does not understand the provinces," said old Hochon to Madame Bridau. "What you have come to do can't be done in two weeks, nor in two years; you ought never to leave your brother, but live here and try to give him some ideas of religion. You cannot countermine the fortifications of Flore and Maxence without getting a priest to sap them. That is my advice, and it is high time to set about it."
"You certainly have very singular ideas about the clergy," said Madame Hochon to her husband.
"Bah!" exclaimed the old man, "that's just like you pious women."
"God would never bless an enterprise undertaken in a sacrilegious spirit," said Madame Bridau. "Use religion for such a purpose! Why, we should be more criminal than Flore."
This conversation took place at breakfast,--Francois and Baruch listening with all their ears.
"Sacrilege!" exclaimed old Hochon. "If some good abbe, keen as I have known many of them to be, knew what a dilemma you are in, he would not think it sacrilege to bring your brother's lost soul back to God, and call him to repentance for his sins, by forcing him to send away the woman who causes the scandal (with a proper provision, of course), and showing him how to set his conscience at rest by giving a few thousand francs a year to the seminary of the archbishop and leaving his property to the rightful heirs."
The passive obedience which the old miser had always exacted from his children, and now from his grandchildren (who were under his guardianship and for whom he was amassing a small fortune, doing for them, he said, just as he would for himself), prevented Baruch and Francois from showing signs of surprise or disapproval; but they exchanged significant glances expressing how dangerous and fatal such a scheme would be to Max's interest.
"The fact is, madame," said Baruch, "that if you want to secure your brother's property, the only sure and true way will be to stay in Issoudun for the necessary length of time--"
"Mother," said Joseph hastily, "you had better write to Desroches about all this. As for me, I ask nothing more than what my uncle has already given me."
After fully recognizing the great value of his thirty-nine pictures, Joseph had carefully unnailed the canvases and fastened paper over them, gumming it at the edges with ordinary glue; he then laid them one above another in an enormous wooden box, which he sent to Desroches by the carrier's waggon, proposing to write him a letter about it by post. The precious freight had been sent off the night before.
"You are satisfied with a pretty poor bargain," said Monsieur Hochon.
"I can easily get a hundred and fifty thousand francs for those pictures," replied Joseph.
"Painter's nonsense!" exclaimed old Hochon, giving Joseph a peculiar look.
"Mother," said Joseph, "I am going to write to Desroches and explain to him the state of things here. If he advises you to remain, you had better do so. As for your situation, we can always find you another like it."
"My dear Joseph," said Madame Hochon, following him as he left the table, "I don't know anything about your uncle's pictures, but they ought to be good, judging by the places from which they came. If they are worth only forty thousand francs,--a thousand francs apiece,--tell no one. Though my grandsons are discreet and well-behaved, they might, without intending harm, speak of this windfall; it would be known all over Issoudun; and it is very important that our adversaries should not suspect it. You behave like a child!"
In fact, before evening many persons in Issoudun, including Max, were informed of this estimate, which had the immediate effect of causing a search for all the old paintings which no one had ever cared for, and the appearance of many execrable daubs. Max repented having driven the old man into giving away the pictures, and the rage he felt against the heirs after hearing from Baruch old Hochon's ecclesiastical scheme, was increased by what he termed his own stupidity. The influence of religion upon such a feeble creature as Rouget was the one thing to fear. The news brought by his two comrades decided Maxence Gilet to turn all Rouget's investments into money, and to borrow upon his landed property, so as to buy into the Funds as soon as possible; but he considered it even more important to get rid of the Parisians at once. The genius of the Mascarilles and Scapins out together would hardly have solved the latter problem easily.
Flore, acting by Max's advice, pretended that Monsieur was too feeble to take walks, and that he ought, at his age, to have a carriage. This pretext grew out of the necessity of not exciting inquiry when they went to Bourges, Vierzon, Chateauroux, Vatan, and all the other places where the project of withdrawing investments obliged Max and Flore to betake themselves with Rouget. At the close of the week, all Issoudun was amazed to learn that the old man had gone to Bourges to buy a carriage,--a step which the Knights of Idleness regarded as favorable to the Rabouilleuse. Flore and Max selected a hideous "berlingot," with cracked leather curtains and windows without glass, aged twenty- two years and nine campaigns, sold on the decease of a colonel, the friend of grand-marshal Bertrand, who, during the absence of that faithful companion of the Emperor, was left in charge of the affairs of Berry. This "berlingot," painted bright green, was somewhat like a caleche, though shafts had taken the place of a pole, so that it could be driven with one horse. It belonged to a class of carriages brought into vogue by diminished fortunes, which at that time bore the candid name of "demi-fortune"; at its first introduction it was called a "seringue." The cloth lining of this demi-fortune, sold under the name of caleche, was moth-eaten; its gimps looked like the chevrons of an old Invalide; its rusty joints squeaked,--but it only cost four hundred and fifty francs; and Max bought a good stout mare, trained to harness, from an officer of a regiment then stationed at Bourges. He had the carriage repainted a dark brown, and bought a tolerable harness at a bargain. The whole town of Issoudun was shaken to its centre in expectation of Pere Rouget's equipage; and on the occasion of its first appearance, every household was on its door-step and curious faces were at all the windows.
The second time the old bachelor went out he drove to Bourges, where, to escape the trouble of attending personally to the business, or, if you prefer it, being ordered to do so by Flore, he went before a notary and signed a power of attorney in favor of Maxence Gilet, enabling him to make all the transfers enumerated in the document. Flore reserved to herself the business of making Monsieur sell out the investments in Issoudun and its immediate neighborhood. The principal notary in Bourges was requested by Rouget to get him a loan of one hundred and forty thousand francs on his landed estate. Nothing was known at Issoudun of these proceedings, which were secretly and cleverly carried out. Maxence, who was a good rider, went with his own horse to Bourges and back between five in the morning and five in the afternoon. Flore never left the old bachelor. Rouget consented without objection to the action Flore dictated to him; but he insisted that the investment in the Funds, producing fifty thousand francs a year, should stand in Flore's name as holding a life-interest only, and in his as owner of the principal. The tenacity the old man displayed in the domestic disputes which this idea created caused Max a good deal of anxiety; he thought he could see the result of reflections inspired by the sight of the natural heirs.
Amid all these movements, which Max concealed from the knowledge of everyone, he forgot the Spaniard and his granary. Fario came back to Issoudun to deliver his corn, after various trips and business manoeuvres undertaken to raise the price of cereals. The morning after his arrival he noticed that the roof the church of the Capuchins was black with pigeons. He cursed himself for having neglected to examine its condition, and hurried over to look into his storehouse, where he found half his grain devoured. Thousands of mice-marks and rat-marks scattered about showed a second cause of ruin. The church was a Noah's-ark. But anger turned the Spaniard white as a bit of cambric when, trying to estimate the extent of the destruction and his consequence losses, he noticed that the grain at the bottom of the heap, near the floor, was sprouting from the effects of water, which Max had managed to introduce by means of tin tubes into the very centre of the pile of wheat. The pigeons and the rats could be explained by animal instinct; but the hand of man was plainly visible in this last sign of malignity.
Fario sat down on the steps of a chapel altar, holding his head between his hands. After half an hour of Spanish reflections, he spied the squirrel, which Goddet could not refrain from giving him as a guest, playing with its tail upon a cross-beam, on the middle of which rested one of the uprights that supported the roof. The Spaniard rose and turned to his watchman with a face that was as calm and cold as an Arab's. He made no complaint, but went home, hired laborers to gather into sacks what remained of the sound grain, and to spread in the sun all that was moist, so as to save as much as possible; then, after estimating that his losses amounted to about three fifths, he attended to filling his orders. But his previous manipulations of the market had raised the price of cereals, and he lost on the three fifths he was obliged to buy to fill his orders; so that his losses amounted really to more than half. The Spaniard, who had no enemies, at once attributed this revenge to Gilet. He was convinced that Maxence and some others were the authors of all the nocturnal mischief, and had in all probability carried his cart up the embankment of the tower, and now intended to amuse themselves by ruining him. It was a matter to him of over three thousand francs,--very nearly the whole capital he had scraped together since the peace. Driven by the desire for vengeance, the man now displayed the cunning and stealthy persistence of a detective to whom a large reward is offered. Hiding at night in different parts of Issoudun, he soon acquired proof of the proceedings of the Knights of Idleness; he saw them all, counted them, watched their rendezvous, and knew of their suppers at Mere Cognette's; after that he lay in wait to witness one of their deeds, and thus became well informed as to their nocturnal habits.
In spite of Max's journeys and pre-occupations, he had no intention of neglecting his nightly employments,--first, because he did not wish his comrades to suspect the secret of his operations with Pere Rouget's property; and secondly, to keep the Knights well in hand. They were therefore convened for the preparation of a prank which might deserve to be talked of for years to come. Poisoned meat was to be thrown on a given night to every watch-dog in the town and in the environs. Fario overheard them congratulating each other, as they came out from a supper at the Cognettes', on the probable success of the performance, and laughing over the general mourning that would follow this novel massacre of the innocents,--revelling, moreover, in the apprehensions it would excite as to the sinister object of depriving all the households of their guardian watch-dogs.
"It will make people forget Fario's cart," said Goddet.
Fario did not need that speech to confirm his suspicions; besides, his mind was already made up.
After three weeks' stay in Issoudun, Agathe was convinced, and so was Madame Hochon, of the truth of the old miser's observation, that it would take years to destroy the influence which Max and the Rabouilleuse had acquired over her brother. She had made no progress in Jean-Jacques's confidence, and she was never left alone with him. On the other hand, Mademoiselle Brazier triumphed openly over the heirs by taking Agathe to drive in the caleche, sitting beside her on the back seat, while Monsieur Rouget and his nephew occupied the front. Mother and son impatiently awaited an answer to the confidential letter they had written to Desroches. The day before the night on which the dogs were to be poisoned, Joseph, who was nearly bored to death in Issoudun, received two letters: the first from the great painter Schinner,--whose age allowed him a closer intimacy than Joseph could have with Gros, their master,--and the second from Desroches.
Here is the first, postmarked Beaumont-sur-Oise:--
Here follows the letter of Desroches:--
"That is what I call an opinion in good shape," exclaimed Monsieur Hochon, proud of being himself appreciated by a Parisian lawyer.
"Oh! Desroches is a famous fellow," answered Joseph.
"It would be well to read that letter to the two women," said the old man.
"There it is," said Joseph, giving it to him; "as to me, I want to be off to-morrow; and I am now going to say good-by to my uncle."
"Ah!" said Monsieur Hochon, "I see that Monsieur Desroches tells you in a postscript to burn the letter."
"You can burn it after showing it to my mother," said the painter.
Joseph dressed, crossed the little square, and called on his uncle, who was just finishing breakfast. Max and Flore were at table.
"Don't disturb yourself, my dear uncle; I have only come to say good- by."
"You are going?" said Max, exchanging glances with Flore.
"Yes; I have some work to do at the chateau of Monsieur de Serizy, and I am all the more glad of it because his arm is long enough to do a service to my poor brother in the Chamber of Peers."
"Well, well, go and work"; said old Rouget, with a silly air. Joseph thought him extraordinarily changed within a few days. "Men must work --I am sorry you are going."
"Oh! my mother will be here some time longer," remarked Joseph.
Max made a movement with his lips which the Rabouilleuse observed, and which signified: "They are going to try the plan Baruch warned me of."
"I am very glad I came," said Joseph, "for I have had the pleasure of making your acquaintance and you have enriched my studio--"
"Yes," said Flore, "instead of enlightening your uncle on the value of his pictures, which is now estimated at over one hundred thousand francs, you have packed them off in a hurry to Paris. Poor dear man! he is no better than a baby! We have just been told of a little treasure at Bourges,--what did they call it? a Poussin,--which was in the choir of the cathedral before the Revolution and is now worth, all by itself, thirty thousand francs."
"That was not right of you, my nephew," said Jean-Jacques, at a sign from Max, which Joseph could not see.
"Come now, frankly," said the soldier, laughing, "on your honor, what should you say those pictures were worth? You've made an easy haul out of your uncle! and right enough, too,--uncles are made to be pillaged. Nature deprived me of uncles, but damn it, if I'd had any I should have shown them no mercy."
"Did you know, monsieur," said Flore to Rouget, "what your pictures were worth? How much did you say, Monsieur Joseph?"
"Well," answered the painter, who had grown as red as a beetroot,-- "the pictures are certainly worth something."
"They say you estimated them to Monsieur Hochon at one hundred and fifty thousand francs," said Flore; "is that true?"
"Yes," said the painter, with childlike honesty.
"And did you intend," said Flore to the old man, "to give a hundred and fifty thousand francs to your nephew?"
"Never, never!" cried Jean-Jacques, on whom Flore had fixed her eye.
"There is one way to settle all this," said the painter, "and that is to return them to you, uncle."
"No, no, keep them," said the old man.
"I shall send them back to you," said Joseph, wounded by the offensive silence of Max and Flore. "There is something in my brushes which will make my fortune, without owing anything to any one, even an uncle. My respects to you, mademoiselle; good-day, monsieur--"
And Joseph crossed the square in a state of irritation which artists can imagine. The entire Hochon family were in the salon. When they saw Joseph gesticulating and talking to himself, they asked him what was the matter. The painter, who was as open as the day, related before Baruch and Francois the scene that had just taken place; and which, two hours later, thanks to the two young men, was the talk of the whole town, embroidered with various circumstances that were more or less ridiculous. Some persons insisted that the painter was maltreated by Max; others that he had misbehaved to Flore, and that Max had turned him out of doors.
"What a child your son is!" said Hochon to Madame Bridau; "the booby is the dupe of a scene which they have been keeping back for the last day of his visit. Max and the Rabouilleuse have known the value of those pictures for the last two weeks,--ever since he had the folly to tell it before my grandsons, who never rested till they had blurted it out to all the world. Your artist had better have taken himself off without taking leave."
"My son has done right to return the pictures if they are really so valuable," said Agathe.
"If they are worth, as he says, two hundred thousand francs," said old Hochon, "it was folly to put himself in the way of being obliged to return them. You might have had that, at least, out of the property; whereas, as things are going now, you won't get anything. And this scene with Joseph is almost a reason why your brother should refuse to see you again."