The Two Brothers by Honore de Balzac
Towards four o'clock the following day, the officers of the old army who were at Issoudun or its environs, were sauntering about the place du Marche, in front of an eating-house kept by a man named Lacroix, and waiting the arrival of Colonel Philippe Bridau. The banquet in honor of the coronation was to take place with military punctuality at five o'clock. Various groups of persons were talking of Max's discomfiture, and his dismissal from old Rouget's house; for not only were the officers to dine at Lacroix's, but the common soldiers had determined on a meeting at a neighboring wine-shop. Among the officers, Potel and Renard were the only ones who attempted to defend Max.
"Is it any of our business what takes place among the old man's heirs?" said Renard.
"Max is weak with women," remarked the cynical Potel.
"There'll be sabres unsheathed before long," said an old sub- lieutenant, who cultivated a kitchen-garden in the upper Baltan. "If Monsieur Maxence Gilet committed the folly of going to live under old Rouget's roof, he would he a coward if he allowed himself to be turned off like a valet without asking why."
"Of course," said Mignonnet dryly. "A folly that doesn't succeed becomes a crime."
At this moment Max joined the old soldiers of Napoleon, and was received in significant silence. Potel and Renard each took an arm of their friend, and walked about with him, conversing. Presently Philippe was seen approaching in full dress; he trailed his cane after him with an imperturbable air which contrasted with the forced attention Max was paying to the remarks of his two supporters. Bridau's hand was grasped by Mignonnet, Carpentier, and several others. This welcome, so different from that accorded to Max, dispelled the last feeling of cowardice, or, if you prefer it, wisdom, which Flore's entreaties, and above all, her tendernesses, had awakened in the latter's mind.
"We shall fight," he said to Renard, "and to the death. Therefore don't talk to me any more; let me play my part well."
After these words, spoken in a feverish tone, the three Bonapartists returned to the group of officers and mixed among them. Max bowed first to Bridau, who returned his bow, and the two exchanged a frigid glance.
"Come, gentlemen, let us take our seats," said Potel.
"And drink to the health of the Little Corporal, who is now in the paradise of heroes," cried Renard.
The company poured into the long, low dining-hall of the restaurant Lacroix, the windows of which opened on the market-place. Each guest took his seat at the table, where, in compliance with Philippe's request, the two adversaries were placed directly opposite to each other. Some young men of the town, among them several Knights of Idleness, anxious to know what might happen at the banquet, were walking about the street and discussing the critical position into which Philippe had contrived to force Max. They all deplored the crisis, though each considered the duel to be inevitable.
Everything went off well until the dessert, though the two antagonists displayed, in spite of the apparent joviality of the dinner, a certain vigilance that resembled disquietude. While waiting for the quarrel that both were planning, Philippe showed admirable coolness, and Max a distracting gayety; but to an observer, each was playing a part.
When the desert was served Philippe rose and said: "Fill your glasses, my friends! I ask permission to propose the first toast."
"He said my friends, don't fill your glass," whispered Renard to Max.
Max poured out some wine.
"To the Grand Army!" cried Philippe, with genuine enthusiasm.
"To the Grand Army!" was repeated with acclamation by every voice.
At this moment eleven private soldiers, among whom were Benjamin and Kouski, appeared at the door of the room and repeated the toast,--
"To the Grand Army!"
"Come in, my sons; we are going to drink His health."
The old soldiers came in and stood behind the officers.
"You see He is not dead!" said Kouski to an old sergeant, who had perhaps been grieving that the Emperor's agony was over.
"I claim the second toast," said Mignonnet, as he rose. "Let us drink to those who attempted to restore his son!"
Every one present, except Maxence Gilet, bowed to Philippe Bridau, and stretched their glasses towards him.
"One word," said Max, rising.
"It is Max! it is Max!" cried voices outside; and then a deep silence reigned in the room and in the street, for Gilet's known character made every one expect a taunt.
"May we all meet again at this time next year," said Max, bowing ironically to Philippe.
"It's coming!" whispered Kouski to his neighbor.
"The Paris police would never allow a banquet of this kind," said Potel to Philippe.
"Why do the devil to you mention the police to Colonel Bridau?" said Maxence insolently.
"Captain Potel--he--meant no insult," said Philippe, smiling coldly. The stillness was so profound that the buzzing of a fly could have been heard if there had been one.
"The police were sufficiently afraid of me," resumed Philippe, "to send me to Issoudun,--a place where I have had the pleasure of meeting old comrades, but where, it must be owned, there is a dearth of amusement. For a man who doesn't despise folly, I'm rather restricted. However, it is certainly economical, for I am not one of those to whom feather-beds give incomes; Mariette of the Grand Opera cost me fabulous sums."
"Is that remark meant for me, my dear colonel?" asked Max, sending a glance at Philippe which was like a current of electricity.
"Take it as you please," answered Bridau.
"Colonel, my two friends here, Renard and Potel, will call to-morrow on--"
"--on Mignonnet and Carpentier," answered Philippe, cutting short Max's sentence, and motioning towards his two neighbors.
"Now," said Max, "let us go on with the toasts."
The two adversaries had not raised their voices above the tone of ordinary conversation; there was nothing solemn in the affair except the dead silence in which it took place.
"Look here, you others!" cried Philippe, addressing the soldiers who stood behind the officers; "remember that our affairs don't concern the bourgeoisie--not a word, therefore, on what goes on here. It is for the Old Guard only."
"They'll obey orders, colonel," said Renard. "I'll answer for them."
"Long live His little one! May he reign over France!" cried Potel.
"Death to Englishmen!" cried Carpentier.
That toast was received with prodigious applause.
"Shame on Hudson Lowe," said Captain Renard.
The dessert passed off well; the libations were plentiful. The antagonists and their four seconds made it a point of honor that a duel, involving so large a fortune, and the reputation of two men noted for their courage, should not appear the result of an ordinary squabble. No two gentlemen could have behaved better than Philippe and Max; in this respect the anxious waiting of the young men and townspeople grouped about the market-place was balked. All the guests, like true soldiers, kept silence as to the episode which took place at dessert. At ten o'clock that night the two adversaries were informed that the sabre was the weapon agreed upon by the seconds; the place chosen for the rendezvous was behind the chancel of the church of the Capuchins at eight o'clock the next morning. Goddet, who was at the banquet in his quality of former army surgeon, was requested to be present at the meeting. The seconds agreed that, no matter what might happen, the combat should last only ten minutes.
At eleven o'clock that night, to Colonel Bridau's amazement, Monsieur Hochon appeared at his rooms just as he was going to bed, escorting Madame Hochon.
"We know what has happened," said the old lady, with her eyes full of tears, "and I have come to entreat you not to leave the house to- morrow morning without saying your prayers. Lift your soul to God!"
"Yes, madame," said Philippe, to whom old Hochon made a sign from behind his wife's back.
"That is not all," said Agathe's godmother. "I stand in the place of your poor mother, and I divest myself, for you, of a thing which I hold most precious,--here," she went on, holding towards Philippe a tooth, fastened upon a piece of black velvet embroidered in gold, to which she had sewn a pair of green strings. Having shown it to him, she replaced it in a little bag. "It is a relic of Sainte Solange, the patron saint of Berry," she said, "I saved it during the Revolution; wear it on your breast to-morrow."
"Will it protect me from a sabre-thrust?" asked Philippe.
"Yes," replied the old lady.
"Then I have no right to wear that accoutrement any more than if it were a cuirass," cried Agathe's son.
"What does he mean?" said Madame Hochon.
"He says it is not playing fair," answered Hochon.
"Then we will say no more about it," said the old lady, "I shall pray for you."
"Well, madame, prayer--and a good point--can do no harm," said Philippe, making a thrust as if to pierce Monsieur Hochon's heart.
The old lady kissed the colonel on his forehead. As she left the house, she gave thirty francs--all the money she possessed--to Benjamin, requesting him to sew the relic into the pocket of his master's trousers. Benjamin did so,--not that he believed in the virtue of the tooth, for he said his master had a much better talisman than that against Gilet, but because his conscience constrained him to fulfil a commission for which he had been so liberally paid. Madame Hochon went home full of confidence in Saint Solange.
At eight o'clock the next morning, December third, the weather being cloudy, Max, accompanied by his seconds and the Pole, arrived on the little meadow which then surrounded the apse of the church of the Capuchins. There he found Philippe and his seconds, with Benjamin, waiting for him. Potel and Mignonnet paced off twenty-four feet; at each extremity, the two attendants drew a line on the earth with a spade: the combatants were not allowed to retreat beyond that line, on pain of being thought cowardly. Each was to stand at his own line, and advance as he pleased when the seconds gave the word.
"Do we take off our coats?" said Philippe to his adversary coldly.
"Of course," answered Maxence, with the assumption of a bully.
They did so; the rosy tints of their skin appearing through the cambric of their shirts. Each, armed with a cavalry sabre selected of equal weight, about three pounds, and equal length, three feet, placed himself at his own line, the point of his weapon on the ground, awaiting the signal. Both were so calm that, in spite of the cold, their muscles quivered no more than if they had been made of iron. Goddet, the four seconds, and the two soldiers felt an involuntary admiration.
"They are a proud pair!"
The exclamation came from Potel.
Just as the signal was given, Max caught sight of Fario's sinister face looking at them through the hole which the Knights of Idleness had made for the pigeons in the roof of the church. Those eyes, which sent forth streams of fire, hatred, and revenge, dazzled Max for a moment. The colonel went straight to his adversary, and put himself on guard in a way that gained him an advantage. Experts in the art of killing, know that, of two antagonists, the ablest takes the "inside of the pavement,"--to use an expression which gives the reader a tangible idea of the effect of a good guard. That pose, which is in some degree observant, marks so plainly a duellist of the first rank that a feeling of inferiority came into Max's soul, and produced the same disarray of powers which demoralizes a gambler when, in presence of a master or a lucky hand, he loses his self-possession and plays less well than usual.
"Ah! the lascar!" thought Max, "he's an expert; I'm lost!"
He attempted a "moulinet," and twirled his sabre with the dexterity of a single-stick. He wanted to bewilder Philippe, and strike his weapon so as to disarm him; but at the first encounter he felt that the colonel's wrist was iron, with the flexibility of a steel string. Maxence was then forced, unfortunate fellow, to think of another move, while Philippe, whose eyes were darting gleams that were sharper than the flash of their blades, parried every attack with the coolness of a fencing-master wearing his plastron in an armory.
Between two men of the calibre of these combatants, there occurs a phenomenon very like that which takes place among the lower classes, during the terrible tussle called "the savante," which is fought with the feet, as the name implies. Victory depends on a false movement, on some error of the calculation, rapid as lightning, which must be made and followed almost instinctively. During a period of time as short to the spectators as it seems long to the combatants, the contest lies in observation, so keen as to absorb the powers of mind and body, and yet concealed by preparatory feints whose slowness and apparent prudence seem to show that the antagonists are not intending to fight. This moment, which is followed by a rapid and decisive struggle, is terrible to a connoisseur. At a bad parry from Max the colonel sent the sabre spinning from his hand.
"Pick it up," he said, pausing; "I am not the man to kill a disarmed enemy."
There was something atrocious in the grandeur of these words; they seemed to show such consciousness of superiority that the onlookers took them for a shrewd calculation. In fact, when Max replaced himself in position, he had lost his coolness, and was once more confronted with his adversary's raised guard which defended the colonel's whole person while it menaced his. He resolved to redeem his shameful defeat by a bold stroke. He no longer guarded himself, but took his sabre in both hands and rushed furiously on his antagonist, resolved to kill him, if he had to lose his own life. Philippe received a sabre-cut which slashed open his forehead and a part of his face, but he cleft Max's head obliquely by the terrible sweep of a "moulinet," made to break the force of the annihilating stroke Max aimed at him. These two savage blows ended the combat, at the ninth minute. Fario came down to gloat over the sight of his enemy in the convulsions of death; for the muscles of a man of Maxence Gilet's vigor quiver horribly. Philippe was carried back to his uncle's house.
Thus perished a man destined to do great deeds had he lived his life amid environments which were suited to him; a man treated by Nature as a favorite child, for she gave him courage, self-possession, and the political sagacity of a Cesar Borgia. But education had not bestowed upon him that nobility of conduct and ideas without which nothing great is possible in any walk of life. He was not regretted, because of the perfidy with which his adversary, who was a worse man than he, had contrived to bring him into disrepute. His death put an end to the exploits of the Order of Idleness, to the great satisfaction of the town of Issoudun. Philippe therefore had nothing to fear in consequence of the duel, which seemed almost the result of divine vengeance: its circumstances were related throughout that whole region of country, with unanimous praise for the bravery of the two combatants.
"But they had better both have been killed," remarked Monsieur Mouilleron; "it would have been a good riddance for the Government."
The situation of Flore Brazier would have been very embarrassing were it not for the condition into which she was thrown by Max's death. A brain-fever set in, combined with a dangerous inflammation resulting from her escapade to Vatan. If she had had her usual health, she might have fled the house where, in the room above her, Max's room, and in Max's bed, lay and suffered Max's murderer. She hovered between life and death for three months, attended by Monsieur Goddet, who was also attending Philippe.
As soon as Philippe was able to hold a pen, he wrote the following letters:--
To Monsieur Giroudeau, care of Mademoiselle Florentine. Rue de Vendome, Marais:
Agathe, informed by Madame Hochon of what had happened, rushed to Issoudun, and was received by her brother, who gave her Philippe's former room. The poor mother's tenderness for the worthless son revived in all its maternal strength; a few happy days were hers at last, as she listened to the praises which the whole town bestowed upon her hero.
"After all, my child," said Madame Hochon on the day of her arrival, "youth must have its fling. The dissipations of a soldier under the Empire must, of course, be greater than those of young men who are looked after by their fathers. Oh! if you only knew what went on here at night under that wretched Max! Thanks to your son, Issoudun now breathes and sleeps in peace. Philippe has come to his senses rather late; he told us frankly that those three months in the Luxembourg sobered him. Monsieur Hochon is delighted with his conduct here; every one thinks highly of it. If he can be kept away from the temptations of Paris, he will end by being a comfort to you."
Hearing these consolatory words Agathe's eyes filled with tears.
Philippe played the saint to his mother, for he had need of her. That wily politician did not wish to have recourse to Cesarine unless he continued to be an object of horror to Mademoiselle Brazier. He saw that Flore had been thoroughly broken to harness by Max; he knew she was an essential part of his uncle's life, and he greatly preferred to use her rather than send for the ballet-girl, who might take it into her head to marry the old man. Fouche advised Louis XVIII. to sleep in Napoleon's sheets instead of granting the charter; and Philippe would have liked to remain in Gilet's sheets; but he was reluctant to risk the good reputation he had made for himself in Berry. To take Max's place with the Rabouilleuse would be as odious on his part as on hers. He could, without discredit and by the laws of nepotism, live in his uncle's house and at his uncle's expense; but he could not have Flore unless her character were whitewashed. Hampered by this difficulty, and stimulated by the hope of finally getting hold of the property, the idea came into his head of making his uncle marry the Rabouilleuse. With this in view he requested his mother to go and see the girl and treat her in a sisterly manner.
"I must confess, my dear mother," he said, in a canting tone, looking at Monsieur and Madame Hochon who accompanied her, "that my uncle's way of life is not becoming; he could, however, make Mademoiselle Brazier respected by the community if he chose. Wouldn't it be far better for her to be Madame Rouget than the servant-mistress of an old bachelor? She had better obtain a definite right to his property by a marriage contract then threaten a whole family with disinheritance. If you, or Monsieur Hochon, or some good priest would speak of the matter to both parties, you might put a stop to the scandal which offends decent people. Mademoiselle Brazier would be only too happy if you were to welcome her as a sister, and I as an aunt."
On the morrow Agathe and Madame Hochon appeared at Flore's bedside, and repeated to the sick girl and to Rouget, the excellent sentiments expressed by Philippe. Throughout Issoudun the colonel was talked of as a man of noble character, especially because of his conduct towards Flore. For a month, the Rabouilleuse heard Goddet, her doctor, the individual who has paramount influence over a sick person, the respectable Madame Hochon, moved by religious principle, and Agathe, so gentle and pious, all representing to her the advantages of a marriage with Rouget. And when, attracted by the idea of becoming Madame Rouget, a dignified and virtuous bourgeoisie, she grew eager to recover, so that the marriage might speedily be celebrated, it was not difficult to make her understand that she would not be allowed to enter the family of the Rougets if she intended to turn Philippe from its doors.
"Besides," remarked the doctor, "you really owe him this good fortune. Max would never have allowed you to marry old Rouget. And," he added in her ear, "if you have children, you can revenge Max, for that will disinherit the Bridaus."
Two months after the fatal duel in February, 1823, the sick woman, urged by those about her, and implored by Rouget, consented to receive Philippe, the sight of whose scars made her weep, but whose softened and affectionate manner calmed her. By Philippe's wish they were left alone together.
"My dear child," said the soldier. "It is I, who, from the start, have advised your marriage with my uncle; if you consent, it will take place as soon as you are quite recovered."
"So they tell me," she replied.
"Circumstances have compelled me to give you pain, it is natural therefore that I should wish to do you all the good I can. Wealth, respect, and a family position are worth more than what you have lost. You wouldn't have been that fellow's wife long after my uncle's death, for I happen to know, through friends of his, that he intended to get rid of you. Come, my dear, let us understand each other, and live happily. You shall be my aunt, and nothing more than my aunt. You will take care that my uncle does not forget me in his will; on my side, you shall see how well I will have you treated in the marriage contract. Keep calm, think it over, and we will talk of it later. All sensible people, indeed the whole town, urge you to put an end to your illegal position; no one will blame you for receiving me. It is well understood in the world that interests go before feelings. By the day of your marriage you will be handsomer than ever. The pallor of illness has given you an air of distinction, and on my honor, if my uncle did not love you so madly, you should be the wife of Colonel Bridau."
Philippe left the room, having dropped this hint into Flore's mind to waken a vague idea of vengeance which might please the girl, who did, in fact, feel a sort of happiness as she saw this dreadful being at her feet. In this scene Philippe repeated, in miniature, that of Richard III. with the queen he had widowed. The meaning of it is that personal calculation, hidden under sentiment, has a powerful influence on the heart, and is able to dissipate even genuine grief. This is how, in individual life, Nature does that which in works of genius is thought to be consummate art: she works by self-interest,--the genius of money.
At the beginning of April, 1823, the hall of Jean-Jacques Rouget's house was the scene of a splendid dinner, given to celebrate the signing of the marriage contract between Mademoiselle Flore Brazier and the old bachelor. The guests were Monsieur Heron, the four witnesses, Messieurs Mignonnet, Carpentier, Hochon, and Goddet, the mayor and the curate, Agathe Bridau, Madame Hochon, and her friend Madame Borniche, the two old ladies who laid down the law to the society of Issoudun. The bride was much impressed by this concession, obtained by Philippe, and intended by the two ladies as a mark of protection to a repentant woman. Flore was in dazzling beauty. The curate, who for the last fortnight had been instructing the ignorant crab-girl, was to allow her, on the following day, to make her first communion. The marriage was the text of the following pious article in the "Journal du Cher," published at Bourges, and in the "Journal de l'Indre," published at Chateauroux:
By the marriage contract Rouget secured to Flore a dower of one hundred thousand francs, and a life annuity of thirty thousand more.
After the wedding, which was sumptuous, Agathe returned to Paris the happiest of mothers, and told Joseph and Desroches what she called the good news.
"Your son Philippe is too wily a man not to keep his paw on that inheritance," said the lawyer, when he had heard Madame Bridau to the end. "You and your poor Joseph will never get one penny of your brother's property."
"You, and Joseph too, will always be unjust to that poor boy," said the mother. "His conduct before the Court of Peers was worthy of a statesman; he succeeded in saving many heads. Philippe's errors came from his great faculties being unemployed. He now sees how faults of conduct injure the prospects of a man who has his way to make. He is ambitious; that I am sure of; and I am not the only one to predict his future. Monsieur Hochon firmly believes that Philippe has a noble destiny before him."
"Oh! if he chooses to apply his perverted powers to making his fortune, I have no doubt he will succeed: he is capable of everything; and such fellows go fast and far," said Desroches.
"Why do you suppose that he will not succeed by honest means?" demanded Madame Bridau.
"You will see!" exclaimed Desroches. "Fortunate or unfortunate, Philippe will remain the man of the rue Mazarin, the murderer of Madame Descoings, the domestic thief. But don't worry yourself; he will manage to appear honest to the world."
After breakfast, on the morning succeeding the marriage, Philippe took Madame Rouget by the arm when his uncle rose from table and went upstairs to dress,--for the pair had come down, the one in her morning-robe, and the other in his dressing-gown.
"My dear aunt," said the colonel, leading her into the recess of a window, "you now belong to the family. Thanks to me, the law has tied the knot. Now, no nonsense. I intend that you and I should play above board. I know the tricks you will try against me; and I shall watch you like a duenna. You will never go out of this house except on my arm; and you will never leave me. As to what passes within the house, damn it, you'll find me like a spider in the middle of his web. Here is something," he continued, showing the bewildered woman a letter, "which will prove to you that I could, while you were lying ill upstairs, unable to move hand or foot, have turned you out of doors without a penny. Read it."
He gave her the letter.
The letter shook in the trembling hands of Madame Rouget, and betrayed the terror of her mind and body. The aunt dared not look at the nephew, who fixed his eyes upon her with terrible meaning.
"I trust you," he said, "as you see; but I expect some return. I have made you my aunt intending to marry you some day. You are worth more to me than Esther in managing my uncle. In a year from now, we must be in Paris; the only place where beauty really lives. You will amuse yourself much better there than here; it is a perpetual carnival. I shall return to the army, and become a general, and you will be a great lady. There's our future; now work for it. But I must have a pledge to bind this agreement. You are to give me, within a month from now, a power of attorney from my uncle, which you must obtain under pretence of relieving him of the fatigues of business. Also, a month later, I must have a special power of attorney to transfer the income in the Funds. When that stands in my name, you and I have an equal interest in marrying each other. There it all is, my beautiful aunt, as plain as day. Between you and me there must be no ambiguity. I can marry my aunt at the end of a year's widowhood; but I could not marry a disgraced girl."
He left the room without waiting for an answer. When Vedie came in, fifteen minutes later, to clear the table, she found her mistress pale and moist with perspiration, in spite of the season. Flore felt like a woman who had fallen to the bottom of a precipice; the future loomed black before her; and on its blackness, in the far distance, were shapes of monstrous things, indistinctly perceptible, and terrifying. She felt the damp chill of vaults, instinctive fear of the man crushed her; and yet a voice cried in her ear that she deserved to have him for her master. She was helpless against her fate. Flore Brazier had had a room of her own in Rouget's house; but Madame Rouget belonged to her husband, and was now deprived of the free-will of a servant- mistress. In the horrible situation in which she now found herself, the hope of having a child came into her mind; but she soon recognized its impossibility. The marriage was to Jean-Jacques what the second marriage of Louis XII. was to that king. The incessant watchfulness of a man like Philippe, who had nothing to do and never quitted his post of observation, made any form of vengeance impossible. Benjamin was his innocent and devoted spy. The Vedie trembled before him. Flore felt herself deserted and utterly helpless. She began to fear death. Without knowing how Philippe might manage to kill her, she felt certain that whenever he suspected her of pregnancy her doom would be sealed. The sound of that voice, the veiled glitter of that gambler's eye, the slightest movement of the soldier, who treated her with a brutality that was still polite, made her shudder. As to the power of attorney demanded by the ferocious colonel, who in the eyes of all Issoudun was a hero, he had it as soon as he wanted it; for Flore fell under the man's dominion as France had fallen under that of Napoleon.
Like a butterfly whose feet are caught in the incandescent wax of a taper, Rouget rapidly dissipated his remaining strength. In presence of that decay, the nephew remained as cold and impassible as the diplomatists of 1814 during the convulsions of imperial France.
Philippe, who did not believe in Napoleon II., now wrote the following letter to the minister of war, which Mariette made the Duc de Maufrigneuse convey to that functionary:--
To this letter was joined a request for permission to go to Paris on urgent family business; and Monsieur Mouilleron annexed letters from the mayor, the sub-prefect, and the commissary of police at Issoudun, all bestowing many praises on Philippe's conduct, and dwelling upon the newspaper article relating to his uncle's marriage.
Two weeks later, Philippe received the desired permission, and a letter, in which the minister of war informed him that, by order of the King, he was, as a preliminary favor, reinstated lieutenant- colonel in the royal army.