The Two Brothers by Honore de Balzac
By February, 1822, Madame Bridau had settled into the attic room recently occupied by Philippe, which was over the kitchen of her former appartement. The painter's studio and bedroom was opposite, on the other side of the staircase. When Joseph saw his mother thus reduced, he was determined to make her as comfortable as possible. After his brother's departure he assisted in the re-arrangement of the garret room, to which he gave an artist's touch. He added a rug; the bed, simple in character but exquisite in taste, had something monastic about it; the walls, hung with a cheap glazed cotton selected with taste, of a color which harmonized with the furniture and was newly covered, gave the room an air of elegance and nicety. In the hallway he added a double door, with a "portiere" to the inner one. The window was shaded by a blind which gave soft tones to the light. If the poor mother's life was reduced to the plainest circumstances that the life of any woman could have in Paris, Agathe was at least better off than all others in a like case, thanks to her son.
To save his mother from the cruel cares of such reduced housekeeping, Joseph took her every day to dine at a table-d'hote in the rue de Beaune, frequented by well-bred women, deputies, and titled people, where each person's dinner cost ninety francs a month. Having nothing but the breakfast to provide, Agathe took up for her son the old habits she had formerly had with the father. But in spite of Joseph's pious lies, she discovered the fact that her dinner was costing him nearly a hundred francs a month. Alarmed at such enormous expense, and not imaging that her son could earn much money by painting naked women, she obtained, thanks to her confessor, the Abbe Loraux, a place worth seven hundred francs a year in a lottery-office belonging to the Comtesse de Bauvan, the widow of a Chouan leader. The lottery-offices of the government, the lot, as one might say, of privileged widows, ordinarily sufficed for the support of the family of each person who managed them. But after the Restoration the difficulty of rewarding, within the limits of constitutional government, all the services rendered to the cause, led to the custom of giving to reduced women of title not only one but two lottery-offices, worth, usually, from six to ten thousand a year. In such cases, the widow of a general or nobleman thus "protected" did not keep the lottery-office herself; she employed a paid manager. When these managers were young men they were obliged to employ an assistant; for, according to law, the offices had to be kept open till midnight; moreover, the reports required by the minister of finance involved considerable writing. The Comtesse de Bauvan, to whom the Abbe Loraux explained the circumstances of the widow Bridau, promised, in case her manager should leave, to give the place to Agathe; meantime she stipulated that the widow should be taken as assistant, and receive a salary of six hundred francs. Poor Agathe, who was obliged to be at the office by ten in the morning, had scarcely time to get her dinner. She returned to her work at seven in the evening, remaining there till midnight. Joseph never, for two years, failed to fetch his mother at night, and bring her back to the rue Mazarin; and often he went to take her to dinner; his friends frequently saw him leave the opera or some brilliant salon to be punctually at midnight at the office in the rue Vivienne.
Agathe soon acquired the monotonous regularity of life which becomes a stay and a support to those who have endured the shock of violent sorrows. In the morning, after doing up her room, in which there were no longer cats and little birds, she prepared the breakfast at her own fire and carried it into the studio, where she ate it with her son. She then arranged Joseph's bedroom, put out the fire in her own chamber, and brought her sewing to the studio, where she sat by the little iron stove, leaving the room if a comrade or a model entered it. Though she understood nothing whatever of art, the silence of the studio suited her. In the matter of art she made not the slightest progress; she attempted no hypocrisy; she was utterly amazed at the importance they all attached to color, composition, drawing. When the Cenacle friends or some brother-painter, like Schinner, Pierre Grassou, Leon de Lora,--a very youthful "rapin" who was called at that time Mistigris,--discussed a picture, she would come back afterwards, examine it attentively, and discover nothing to justify their fine words and their hot disputes. She made her son's shirts, she mended his stockings, she even cleaned his palette, supplied him with rags to wipe his brushes, and kept things in order in the studio. Seeing how much thought his mother gave to these little details, Joseph heaped attentions upon her in return. If mother and son had no sympathies in the matter of art, they were at least bound together by signs of tenderness. The mother had a purpose. One morning as she was petting Joseph while he was sketching a large picture (finished in after years and never understood), she said, as it were, casually and aloud,--
"My God! what is he doing?"
"Oh, ah! he's sowing his wild oats; that fellow will make something of himself by and by."
"But he has gone through the lesson of poverty; perhaps it was poverty which changed him to what he is. If he were prosperous he would be good--"
"You think, my dear mother, that he suffered during that journey of his. You are mistaken; he kept carnival in New York just as he does here--"
"But if he is suffering at this moment, near to us, would it not be horrible?"
"Yes," replied Joseph. "For my part, I will gladly give him some money; but I don't want to see him; he killed our poor Descoings."
"So," resumed Agathe, "you would not be willing to paint his portrait?"
"For you, dear mother, I'd suffer martyrdom. I can make myself remember nothing except that he is my brother."
"His portrait as a captain of dragoons on horseback?"
"Yes, I've a copy of a fine horse by Gros and I haven't any use for it."
"Well, then, go and see that friend of his and find out what has become of him."
Agathe rose; her scissors and work fell at her feet; she went and kissed Joseph's head, and dropped two tears on his hair.
"He is your passion, that fellow," said the painter. "We all have our hopeless passions."
That afternoon, about four o'clock, Joseph went to the rue du Sentier and found his brother, who had taken Giroudeau's place. The old dragoon had been promoted to be cashier of a weekly journal established by his nephew. Although Finot was still proprietor of the other newspaper, which he had divided into shares, holding all the shares himself, the proprietor and editor "de visu" was one of his friends, named Lousteau, the son of that very sub-delegate of Issoudun on whom the Bridaus' grandfather, Doctor Rouget, had vowed vengeance; consequently he was the nephew of Madame Hochon. To make himself agreeable to his uncle, Finot gave Philippe the place Giroudeau was quitting; cutting off, however, half the salary. Moreover, daily, at five o'clock, Giroudeau audited the accounts and carried away the receipts. Coloquinte, the old veteran, who was the office boy and did errands, also kept an eye on the slippery Philippe; who was, however, behaving properly. A salary of six hundred francs, and the five hundred of his cross sufficed him to live, all the more because, living in a warm office all day and at the theatre on a free pass every evening, he had only to provide himself with food and a place to sleep in. Coloquinte was departing with the stamped papers on his head, and Philippe was brushing his false sleeves of green linen, when Joseph entered.
"Bless me, here's the cub!" cried Philippe. "Well, we'll go and dine together. You shall go to the opera; Florine and Florentine have got a box. I'm going with Giroudeau; you shall be of the party, and I'll introduce you to Nathan."
He took his leaded cane, and moistened a cigar.
"I can't accept your invitation; I am to take our mother to dine at a table d'hote."
"Ah! how is she, the poor, dear woman?"
"She is pretty well," answered the painter, "I have just repainted our father's portrait, and aunt Descoings's. I have also painted my own, and I should like to give our mother yours, in the uniform of the dragoons of the Imperial Guard."
"You will have to come and sit."
"I'm obliged to be in this hen-coop from nine o'clock till five."
"Two Sundays will be enough."
"So be it, little man," said Napoleon's staff officer, lighting his cigar at the porter's lamp.
When Joseph related Philippe's position to his mother, on their way to dinner in the rue de Beaune, he felt her arm tremble in his, and joy lighted up her worn face; the poor soul breathed like one relieved of a heavy weight. The next day, inspired by joy and gratitude, she paid Joseph a number of little attentions; she decorated his studio with flowers, and bought him two stands of plants. On the first Sunday when Philippe was to sit, Agathe arranged a charming breakfast in the studio. She laid it all out on the table; not forgetting a flask of brandy, which, however, was only half full. She herself stayed behind a screen, in which she made a little hole. The ex-dragoon sent his uniform the night before, and she had not refrained from kissing it. When Philippe was placed, in full dress, on one of those straw horses, all saddled, which Joseph had hired for the occasion, Agathe, fearing to betray her presence, mingled the soft sound of her tears with the conversation of the two brothers. Philippe posed for two hours before and two hours after breakfast. At three o'clock in the afternoon, he put on his ordinary clothes and, as he lighted a cigar, he proposed to his brother to go and dine together in the Palais-Royal, jingling gold in his pocket as he spoke.
"No," said Joseph, "it frightens me to see gold about you."
"Ah! you'll always have a bad opinion of me in this house," cried the colonel in a thundering voice. "Can't I save my money, too?"
"Yes, yes!" cried Agathe, coming out of her hiding-place, and kissing her son. "Let us go and dine with him, Joseph!"
Joseph dared not scold his mother. He went and dressed himself; and Philippe took them to the Rocher de Cancale, where he gave them a splendid dinner, the bill for which amounted to a hundred francs.
"The devil!" muttered Joseph uneasily; "with an income of eleven hundred francs you manage, like Ponchard in the 'Dame Blance,' to save enough to buy estates."
"Bah, I'm on a run of luck," answered the dragoon, who had drunk enormously.
Hearing this speech just as they were on the steps of the cafe, and before they got into the carriage to go to the theatre,--for Philippe was to take his mother to the Cirque-Olympique (the only theatre her confessor allowed her to visit),--Joseph pinched his mother's arm. She at once pretended to feel unwell, and refused to go the theatre; Philippe accordingly took them back to the rue Mazarin, where, as soon as she was alone with Joseph in her garret, Agathe fell into a gloomy silence.
The following Sunday Philippe came again. This time his mother was visibly present at the sitting. She served the breakfast, and put several questions to the dragoon. She then learned that the nephew of old Madame Hochon, the friend of her mother, played a considerable part in literature. Philippe and his friend Giroudeau lived among a circle of journalists, actresses, and booksellers, where they were regarded in the light of cashiers. Philippe, who had been drinking kirsch before posing, was loquacious. He boasted that he was about to become a great man. But when Joseph asked a question as to his pecuniary resources he was dumb. It so happened that there was no newspaper on the following day, it being a fete, and to finish the picture Philippe proposed to sit again on the morrow. Joseph told him that the Salon was close at hand, and as he did not have the money to buy two frames for the pictures he wished to exhibit, he was forced to procure it by finishing a copy of a Rubens which had been ordered by Elie Magus, the picture-dealer. The original belonged to a wealthy Swiss banker, who had only lent it for ten days, and the next day was the last; the sitting must therefore be put off till the following Sunday.
"Is that it?" asked Philippe, pointing to a picture by Rubens on an easel.
"Yes," replied Joseph; "it is worth twenty thousand francs. That's what genius can do. It will take me all to-morrow to get the tones of the original and make the copy look so old it can't be distinguished from it."
"Adieu, mother," said Philippe, kissing Agathe. "Next Sunday, then."
The next day Elie Magus was to come for his copy. Joseph's friend, Pierre Grassou, who was working for the same dealer, wanted to see it when finished. To play him a trick, Joseph, when he heard his knock, put the copy, which was varnished with a special glaze of his own, in place of the original, and put the original on his easel. Pierre Grassou was completely taken in; and then amazed and delighted at Joseph's success.
"Do you think it will deceive old Magus?" he said to Joseph.
"We shall see," answered the latter.
The dealer did not come as he had promised. It was getting late; Agathe dined that day with Madame Desroches, who had lately lost her husband, and Joseph proposed to Pierre Grassou to dine at his table d'hote. As he went out he left the key of his studio with the concierge.
An hour later Philippe appeared and said to the concierge,--
"I am to sit this evening; Joseph will be in soon, and I will wait for him in the studio."
The woman gave him the key; Philippe went upstairs, took the copy, thinking it was the original, and went down again; returned the key to the concierge with the excuse that he had forgotten something, and hurried off to sell his Rubens for three thousand francs. He had taken the precaution to convey a message from his brother to Elie Magus, asking him not to call till the following day.
That evening when Joseph returned, bringing his mother from Madame Desroches's, the concierge told him of Philippe's freak,--how he had called intending to wait, and gone away again immediately.
"I am ruined--unless he has had the delicacy to take the copy," cried the painter, instantly suspecting the theft. He ran rapidly up the three flights and rushed into his studio. "God be praised!" he ejaculated. "He is, what he always has been, a vile scoundrel."
Agathe, who had followed Joseph, did not understand what he was saying; but when her son explained what had happened, she stood still, with the tears in her eyes.
"Have I but one son?" she said in a broken voice.
"We have never yet degraded him to the eyes of strangers," said Joseph; "but we must now warn the concierge. In future we shall have to keep the keys ourselves. I'll finish his blackguard face from memory; there's not much to do to it."
"Leave it as it is; it will pain me too much ever to look at it," answered the mother, heart-stricken and stupefied at such wickedness.
Philippe had been told how the money for this copy was to be expended; moreover he knew the abyss into which he would plunge his brother through the loss of the Rubens; but nothing restrained him. After this last crime Agathe never mentioned him; her face acquired an expression of cold and concentrated and bitter despair; one thought took possession of her mind.
"Some day," she said to herself, "we shall hear of a Bridau in the police courts."
Two months later, as Agathe was about to start for her office, an old officer, who announced himself as a friend of Philippe on urgent business, called on Madame Bridau, who happened to be in Joseph's studio.
When Giroudeau gave his name, mother and son trembled, and none the less because the ex-dragoon had the face of a tough old sailor of the worst type. His fishy gray eyes, his piebald moustache, the remains of his shaggy hair fringing a skull that was the color of fresh butter, all gave an indescribably debauched and libidinous expression to his appearance. He wore an old iron-gray overcoat decorated with the red ribbon of an officer of the Legion of honor, which met with difficulty over a gastronomic stomach in keeping with a mouth that stretched from ear to ear, and a pair of powerful shoulders. The torso was supported by a spindling pair of legs, while the rubicund tints on the cheek- bones bore testimony to a rollicking life. The lower part of the cheeks, which were deeply wrinkled, overhung a coat-collar of velvet the worse for wear. Among other adornments, the ex-dragoon wore enormous gold rings in his ears.
"What a 'noceur'!" thought Joseph, using a popular expression, meaning a "loose fish," which had lately passed into the ateliers.
"Madame," said Finot's uncle and cashier, "your son is in so unfortunate a position that his friends find it absolutely necessary to ask you to share the somewhat heavy expense which he is to them. He can no longer do his work at the office; and Mademoiselle Florentine, of the Porte-Saint-Martin, has taken him to lodge with her, in a miserable attic in the rue de Vendome. Philippe is dying; and if you and his brother are not able to pay for the doctor and medicines, we shall be obliged, for the sake of curing him, to have him taken to the hospital of the Capuchins. For three hundred francs we would keep him where he is. But he must have a nurse; for at night, when Mademoiselle Florentine is at the theatre, he persists in going out, and takes things that are irritating and injurious to his malady and its treatment. As we are fond of him, this makes us really very unhappy. The poor fellow has pledged the pension of his cross for the next three years; he is temporarily displaced from his office, and he has literally nothing. He will kill himself, madame, unless we can put him into the private asylum of Doctor Dubois. It is a decent hospital, where they will take him for ten francs a day. Florentine and I will pay half, if you will pay the rest; it won't be for more than two months."
"Monsieur, it is difficult for a mother not to be eternally grateful to you for your kindness to her son," replied Agathe; "but this son is banished from my heart, and as for money, I have none. Not to be a burden on my son whom you see here, who works day and night and deserves all the love his mother can give him, I am the assistant in a lottery-office--at my age!"
"And you, young man," said the old dragoon to Joseph; "can't you do as much for your brother as a poor dancer at the Porte-Saint-Martin and an old soldier?"
"Look here!" said Joseph, out of patience; "do you want me to tell you in artist language what I think of your visit? Well, you have come to swindle us on false pretences."
"To-morrow your brother shall go to the hospital."
"And he will do very well there," answered Joseph. "If I were in like case, I should go there too."
Giroudeau withdrew, much disappointed, and also really mortified at being obliged to send to a hospital a man who had carried the Emperor's orders at the battle of Montereau. Three months later, at the end of July, as Agathe one morning was crossing the Pont Neuf to avoid paying a sou at the Pont des Arts, she saw, coming along by the shops of the Quai de l'Ecole, a man bearing all the signs of second- class poverty, who, she thought, resembled Philippe. In Paris, there are three distinct classes of poverty. First, the poverty of the man who preserves appearances, and to whom a future still belongs; this is the poverty of young men, artists, men of the world, momentarily unfortunate. The outward signs of their distress are not visible, except under the microscope of a close observer. These persons are the equestrian order of poverty; they continue to drive about in cabriolets. In the second order we find old men who have become indifferent to everything, and, in June, put the cross of the Legion of honor on alpaca overcoats; that is the poverty of small incomes,-- of old clerks, who live at Sainte-Perine and care no longer about their outward man. Then comes, in the third place, poverty in rags, the poverty of the people, the poverty that is poetic; which Callot, Hogarth, Murillo, Charlet, Raffet, Gavarni, Meissonier, Art itself adores and cultivates, especially during the carnival. The man in whom poor Agathe thought she recognized her son was astride the last two classes of poverty. She saw the ragged neck-cloth, the scurfy hat, the broken and patched boots, the threadbare coat, whose buttons had shed their mould, leaving the empty shrivelled pod dangling in congruity with the torn pockets and the dirty collar. Scraps of flue were in the creases of the coat, which showed plainly the dust that filled it. The man drew from the pockets of his seam-rent iron-gray trousers a pair of hands as black as those of a mechanic. A knitted woollen waistcoat, discolored by use, showed below the sleeves of his coat, and above the trousers, and no doubt served instead of a shirt. Philippe wore a green silk shade with a wire edge over his eyes; his head, which was nearly bald, the tints of his skin, and his sunken face too plainly revealed that he was just leaving the terrible Hopital du Midi. His blue overcoat, whitened at the seams, was still decorated with the ribbon of his cross; and the passers-by looked at the hero, doubtless some victim of the government, with curiosity and commiseration; the rosette attracted notice, and the fiercest "ultra" was jealous for the honor of the Legion. In those days, however much the government endeavored to bring the Order into disrepute by bestowing its cross right and left, there were not fifty-three thousand persons decorated.
Agathe trembled through her whole being. If it were impossible to love this son any longer, she could still suffer for him. Quivering with this last expression of motherhood, she wept as she saw the brilliant staff officer of the Emperor turn to enter tobacconist's and pause on the threshold; he had felt in his pocket and found nothing. Agathe left the bridge, crossed the quai rapidly, took out her purse, thrust it into Philippe's hand, and fled away as if she had committed a crime. After that, she ate nothing for two days; before her was the horrible vision of her son dying of hunger in the streets of Paris.
"When he has spent all the money in my purse, who will give him any?" she thought. "Giroudeau did not deceive us; Philippe is just out of that hospital."
She no longer saw the assassin of her poor aunt, the scourge of the family, the domestic thief, the gambler, the drunkard, the low liver of a bad life; she saw only the man recovering from illness, yet doomed to die of starvation, the smoker deprived of his tobacco. At forty-seven years of age she grew to look like a woman of seventy. Her eyes were dimmed with tears and prayers. Yet it was not the last grief this son was to bring upon her; her worst apprehensions were destined to be realized. A conspiracy of officers was discovered at the heart of the army, and articles from the "Moniteur" giving details of the arrests were hawked about the streets.
In the depths of her cage in the lottery-office of the rue Vivienne, Agathe heard the name of Philippe Bridau. She fainted, and the manager, understanding her trouble and the necessity of taking certain steps, gave her leave of absence for two weeks.
"Ah! my friend," she said to Joseph, as she went to bed that night, "it is our severity which drove him to it."
"I'll go and see Desroches," answered Joseph.
While the artist was confiding his brother's affairs to the younger Desroches,--who by this time had the reputation of being one of the keenest and most astute lawyers in Paris, and who, moreover, did sundry services for personages of distinction, among others for des Lupeaulx, then secretary of a ministry,--Giroudeau called upon the widow. This time, Agathe believed him.
"Madame," he said, "if you can produce twelve thousand francs your son will be set at liberty for want of proof. It is necessary to buy the silence of two witnesses."
"I will get the money," said the poor mother, without knowing how or where.
Inspired by this danger, she wrote to her godmother, old Madame Hochon, begging her to ask Jean-Jacques Rouget to send her the twelve thousand francs and save his nephew Philippe. If Rouget refused, she entreated Madame Hochon to lend them to her, promising to return them in two years. By return of courier, she received the following letter:--
This letter made a great impression on Agathe, who showed it, of course, to Joseph, to whom she had been forced to mention Giroudeau's proposal. The artist, who grew wary when it concerned his brother, pointed out to her that she ought to tell everything to Desroches.
Conscious of the wisdom of that advice, Agathe went with her son the next morning, at six o'clock, to find Desroches at his house in the rue de Bussy. The lawyer, as cold and stern as his late father, with a sharp voice, a rough skin, implacable eyes, and the visage of a fox as he licks his lips of the blood of chickens, bounded like a tiger when he heard of Giroudeau's visit and proposal.
"And pray, mere Bridau," he cried, in his little cracked voice, "how long are you going to be duped by your cursed brigand of a son? Don't give him a farthing. Make yourself easy, I'll answer for Philippe. I should like to see him brought before the Court of Peers; it might save his future. You are afraid he will be condemned; but I say, may it please God his lawyer lets him be convicted. Go to Issoudun, secure the property for your children. If you don't succeed, if your brother has made a will in favor of that woman, and you can't make him revoke it,--well then, at least get all the evidence you can of undue influence, and I'll institute proceedings for you. But you are too honest a woman to know how to get at the bottom facts of such a matter. I'll go myself to Issoudun in the holidays,--if I can."
That "go myself" made Joseph tremble in his skin. Desroches winked at him to let his mother go downstairs first, and then the lawyer detained the young man for a single moment.
"Your brother is a great scoundrel; he is the cause of the discovery of this conspiracy,--intentionally or not, I can't say, for the rascal is so sly no one can find out the exact truth as to that. Fool or traitor,--take your choice. He will be put under the surveillance of the police, nothing more. You needn't be uneasy; no one knows this secret but myself. Go to Issoudun with your mother. You have good sense; try to save the property."
"Come, my poor mother, Desroches is right," said Joseph, rejoining Agathe on the staircase. "I have sold my two pictures, let us start for Berry; you have two weeks' leave of absence."
After writing to her godmother to announce their arrival, Agathe and Joseph started the next evening for their trip to Issoudun, leaving Philippe to his fate. The diligence rolled through the rue d'Enfer toward the Orleans highroad. When Agathe saw the Luxembourg, to which Philippe had been transferred, she could not refrain from saying,--
"If it were not for the Allies he would never be there!"
Many sons would have made an impatient gesture and smiled with pity; but the artist, who was alone with his mother in the coupe, caught her in his arms and pressed her to his heart, exclaiming:--
"Oh, mother! you are a mother just as Raphael was a painter. And you will always be a fool of a mother!"
Madame Bridau's mind, diverted before long from her griefs by the distractions of the journey, began to dwell on the purpose of it. She re-read the letter of Madame Hochon, which had so stirred up the lawyer Desroches. Struck with the words "concubine" and "slut," which the pen of a septuagenarian as pious as she was respectable had used to designate the woman now in process of getting hold of Jean-Jacques Rouget's property, struck also with the word "imbecile" applied to Rouget himself, she began to ask herself how, by her presence at Issoudun, she was to save the inheritance. Joseph, poor disinterested artist that he was, knew little enough about the Code, and his mother's last remark absorbed his mind.
"Before our friend Desroches sent us off to protect our rights, he ought to have explained to us the means of doing so," he exclaimed.
"So far as my poor head, which whirls at the thought of Philippe in prison,--without tobacco, perhaps, and about to appear before the Court of Peers!--leaves me any distinct memory," returned Agathe, "I think young Desroches said we were to get evidence of undue influence, in case my brother has made a will in favor of that--that--woman."
"He is good at that, Desroches is," cried the painter. "Bah! if we can make nothing of it I'll get him to come himself."
"Well, don't let us trouble our heads uselessly," said Agathe. "When we get to Issoudun my godmother will tell us what to do."
This conversation, which took place just after Madame Bridau and Joseph changed coaches at Orleans and entered the Sologne, is sufficient proof of the incapacity of the painter and his mother to play the part the inexorable Desroches had assigned to them.
In returning to Issoudun after thirty years' absence, Agathe was about to find such changes in its manners and customs that it is necessary to sketch, in a few words, a picture of that town. Without it, the reader would scarcely understand the heroism displayed by Madame Hochon in assisting her goddaughter, or the strange situation of Jean- Jacques Rouget. Though Doctor Rouget had taught his son to regard Agathe in the light of a stranger, it was certainly a somewhat extraordinary thing that for thirty years a brother should have given no signs of life to a sister. Such a silence was evidently caused by peculiar circumstances, and any other sister and nephew than Agathe and Joseph would long ago have inquired into them. There is, moreover, a certain connection between the condition of the city of Issoudun and the interests of the Bridau family, which can only be seen as the story goes on.