BY HONORE DE BALZAC
Translated By Katharine Prescott Wormeley
To Monsieur le Comte Jules de Castellane.
Leon de Lora, our celebrated landscape painter, belongs to one of the
noblest families of the Roussillon (Spanish originally) which, although
distinguished for the antiquity of its race, has been doomed for a century
to the proverbial poverty of hidalgos. Coming, light-footed, to Paris from
the department of the Eastern Pyrenees, with the sum of eleven francs in
his pocket for all viaticum, he had in some degree forgotten the miseries
and privations of his childhood and his family amid the other privations
and miseries which are never lacking to "rapins," whose whole fortune
consists of intrepid vocation. Later, the cares of fame and those of success
were other causes of forgetfulness.
If you have followed the capricious and meandering course of these
studies, perhaps you will remember Mistigris, Schinner's pupil, one of the
heroes of "A Start in Life" (Scenes from Private Life), and his brief
apparitions in other Scenes. In 1845, this landscape painter, emulator of
the Hobbemas, Ruysdaels, and Lorraines, resembles no more the shabby,
frisky rapin whom we then knew. Now an illustrious man, he owns a
charming house in the rue de Berlin, not far from the hotel de Brambourg,
where his friend Brideau lives, and quite close to the house of Schinner,
his early master. He is a member of the Institute and an officer of the
Legion of honor; he is thirty-six years old, has an income of twenty
thousand francs from the Funds, his pictures sell for their weight in gold,
and (what seems to him more extraordinary than the invitations he
receives occasionally to court balls) his name and fame, mentioned so
often for the last sixteen years by the press of Europe, has at last
penetrated to the valley of the Eastern Pyrenees, where vegetate three
veritable Loras: his father, his eldest brother, and an old paternal aunt,
Mademoiselle Urraca y Lora.
In the maternal line the painter has no relation left except a cousin, the
nephew of his mother, residing in a small manufacturing town in the
department. This cousin was the first to bethink himself of Leon. But it
was not until 1840 that Leon de Lora received a letter from Monsieur
Sylvestre Palafox-Castal-Gazonal (called simply Gazonal) to which he
replied that he was assuredly himself,--that is to say, the son of the late
Leonie Gazonal, wife of Comte Fernand Didas y Lora.
During the summer of 1841 cousin Sylvestre Gazonal went to inform
the illustrious unknown family of Lora that their little Leon had not gone
to the Rio de la Plata, as they supposed, but was now one of the greatest
geniuses of the French school of painting; a fact the family did not believe.
The eldest son, Don Juan de Lora assured his cousin Gazonal that he was
certainly the dupe of some Parisian wag.
Now the said Gazonal was intending to go to Paris to prosecute a
lawsuit which the prefect of the Eastern Pyrenees had arbitrarily removed
from the usual jurisdiction, transferring it to that of the Council of State.
The worthy provincial determined to investigate this act, and to ask his
Parisian cousin the reason of such high-handed measures. It thus happened
that Monsieur Gazonal came to Paris, took shabby lodgings in the rue
Croix-des-Petits-Champs, and was amazed to see the palace of his cousin
in the rue de Berlin. Being told that the painter was then travelling in Italy,
he renounced, for the time being, the intention of asking his advice, and
doubted if he should ever find his maternal relationship acknowledged by
so great a man.
During the years 1843 and 1844 Gazonal attended to his lawsuit. This
suit concerned a question as to the current and level of a stream of water
and the necessity of removing a dam, in which dispute the administration,
instigated by the abutters on the river banks, had meddled. The removal of
the dam threatened the existence of Gazonal's manufactory. In 1845,
Gazonal considered his cause as wholly lost; the secretary of the Master of
Petitions, charged with the duty of drawing up the report, had confided to
him that the said report would assuredly be against him, and his own
lawyer confirmed the statement. Gazonal, though commander of the
National Guard in his own town and one of the most capable
manufacturers of the department, found himself of so little account in
Paris, and he was, moreover, so frightened by the costs of living and the
dearness of even the most trifling things, that he kept himself, all this time,
secluded in his shabby lodgings. The Southerner, deprived of his sun,
execrated Paris, which he called a manufactory of rheumatism. As he
added up the costs of his suit and his living, he vowed within himself to
poison the prefect on his return, or to minotaurize him. In his moments of
deepest sadness he killed the prefect outright; in gayer mood he contented
himself with minotaurizing him.
One morning as he ate his breakfast and cursed his fate, he picked up a
newspaper savagely. The following lines, ending an article, struck Gazonal
as if the mysterious voice which speaks to gamblers before they win had
sounded in his ear: "Our celebrated landscape painter, Leon de Lora, lately
returned from Italy, will exhibit several pictures at the Salon; thus the
exhibition promises, as we see, to be most brilliant." With the suddenness
of action that distinguishes the sons of the sunny South, Gazonal sprang
from his lodgings to the street, from the street to a street-cab, and drove to
the rue de Berlin to find his cousin.
Leon de Lora sent word by a servant to his cousin Gazonal that he
invited him to breakfast the next day at the Cafe de Paris, but he was now
engaged in a matter which did not allow him to receive his cousin at the
present moment. Gazonal, like a true Southerner, recounted all his troubles
to the valet.
The next day at ten o'clock, Gazonal, much too well-dressed for the
occasion (he had put on his bottle-blue coat with brass buttons, a frilled
shirt, a white waistcoat and yellow gloves), awaited his amphitryon a full
hour, stamping his feet on the boulevard, after hearing from the master of
the cafe that "these gentlemen" breakfasted habitually between eleven and
"Between eleven and half-past," he said when he related his
adventures to his cronies in the provinces, "two Parisians dressed in
simple frock-coats, looking like NOTHING AT ALL, called out when they
saw me on the boulevard, 'There's our Gazonal!'"
The speaker was Bixiou, with whom Leon de Lora had armed himself
to "bring out" his provincial cousin, in other words, to make him pose.
"'Don't be vexed, cousin, I'm at your service!' cried out that little Leon,
taking me in his arms," related Gazonal on his return home. "The breakfast
was splendid. I thought I was going blind when I saw the number of bits of
gold it took to pay that bill. Those fellows must earn their weight in gold,
for I saw my cousin give the waiter THIRTY SOUS--the price of a whole
During this monstrous breakfast--advisedly so called in view of six
dozen Osten oysters, six cutlets a la Soubise, a chicken a la Marengo,
lobster mayonnaise, green peas, a mushroom pasty, washed down with
three bottles of Bordeaux, three bottles of Champagne, plus coffee and
liqueurs, to say nothing of relishes--Gazonal was magnificent in his
diatribes against Paris. The worthy manufacturer complained of the length
of the four-pound bread-loaves, the height of the houses, the indifference
of the passengers in the streets to one another, the cold, the rain, the cost
of hackney-coaches, all of which and much else he bemoaned in so witty a
manner that the two artists took a mighty fancy to cousin Gazonal, and
made him relate his lawsuit from beginning to end.
"My lawsuit," he said in his Southern accent and rolling his r's, "is a
very simple thing; they want my manufactory. I've employed here in Paris
a dolt of a lawyer, to whom I give twenty francs every time he opens an
eye, and he is always asleep. He's a slug, who drives in his coach, while I
go afoot and he splashes me. I see now I ought to have had a carriage! On
the other hand, that Council of State are a pack of do-nothings, who leave
their duties to little scamps every one of whom is bought up by our prefect.
That's my lawsuit! They want my manufactory! Well, they'll get it! and
they must manage the best they can with my workmen, a hundred of 'em,
who'll make them sing another tune before they've done with them."
"Two years. Ha! that meddling prefect! he shall pay dear for this; I'll
have his life if I have to give mine on the scaffold--"
"Which state councillor presides over your section?"
"A former newspaper man,--doesn't pay ten sous in taxes,--his name is
The two Parisians exchanged glances.
"Who is the commissioner who is making the report?"
"Ha! that's still more queer; he's Master of Petitions, professor of
something or other at the Sorbonne,--a fellow who writes things in reviews,
and for whom I have the profoundest contempt."
"Claude Vignon," said Bixiou.
"Yes, that's his name," replied Gazonal. "Massol and Vignon--there
you have Social Reason, in which there's no reason at all."
"There must be some way out of it," said Leon de Lora. "You see,
cousin, all things are possible in Paris for good as well as for evil, for the
just as well as the unjust. There's nothing that can't be done, undone, and
"The devil take me if I stay ten days more in this hole of a place, the
dullest in all France!"
The two cousins and Bixiou were at this moment walking from one
end to the other of that sheet of asphalt on which, between the hours of
one and three, it is difficult to avoid seeing some of the personages in
honor of whom Fame puts one or the other of her trumpets to her lips.
Formerly that locality was the Place Royale; next it was the Pont Neuf; in
these days this privilege had been acquired by the Boulevard des Italiens.
"Paris," said the painter to his cousin, "is an instrument on which we
must know how to play; if we stand here ten minutes I'll give you your
first lesson. There, look!" he said, raising his cane and pointing to a couple
who were just then coming out from the Passage de l'Opera.
"Goodness! who's that?" asked Gazonal.
THAT was an old woman, in a bonnet which had spent six months in a
show-case, a very pretentious gown and a faded tartan shawl, whose face
had been buried twenty years of her life in a damp lodge, and whose
swollen hand-bag betokened no better social position than that of an exportress. With her was a slim little girl, whose eyes, fringed with black
lashes, had lost their innocence and showed great weariness; her face, of a
pretty shape, was fresh and her hair abundant, her forehead charming but
audacious, her bust thin,--in other words, an unripe fruit.
"That," replied Bixiou, "is a rat tied to its mother."
"A rat!--what's that?"
"That particular rat," said Leon, with a friendly nod to Mademoiselle
Ninette, "may perhaps win your suit for you."
Gazonal bounded; but Bixiou had held him by the arm ever since they
left the cafe, thinking perhaps that the flush on his face was rather vivid.
"That rat, who is just leaving a rehearsal at the Opera-house, is going
home to eat a miserable dinner, and will return about three o'clock to dress,
if she dances in the ballet this evening--as she will, to-day being Monday.
This rat is already an old rat for she is thirteen years of age. Two years
from now that creature may be worth sixty thousand francs; she will be all
or nothing, a great danseuse or a marcheuse, a celebrated person or a
vulgar courtesan. She has worked hard since she was eight years old. Such
as you see her, she is worn out with fatigue; she exhausted her body this
morning in the dancing- class, she is just leaving a rehearsal where the
evolutions are as complicated as a Chinese puzzle; and she'll go through
them again to- night. The rat is one of the primary elements of the Opera;
she is to the leading danseuse what a junior clerk is to a notary. The rat is--
"Who produces the rat?" asked Gazonal.
"Porters, paupers, actors, dancers," replied Bixiou. "Only the lowest
depths of poverty could force a child to subject her feet and joints to
positive torture, to keep herself virtuous out of mere speculation until she
is eighteen years of age, and to live with some horrible old crone like a
beautiful plant in a dressing of manure. You shall see now a procession
defiling before you, one after the other, of men of talent, little and great,
artists in seed or flower, who are raising to the glory of France that everyday monument called the Opera, an assemblage of forces, wills, and forms
of genius, nowhere collected as in Paris.
"I have already seen the Opera," said Gazonal, with a self-sufficient
"Yes, from a three-francs-sixty-sous seat among the gods," replied the
landscape painter; "just as you have seen Paris in the rue Croix-des- PetitsChamps, without knowing anything about it. What did they give at the
Opera when you were there?"
"Well," said Leon, "Matilde's grand DUO must have delighted you.
What do you suppose that charming singer did when she left the stage?"
"She ate two bloody mutton-chops which her servant had ready for
"Malibran kept up on brandy--but it killed her in the end. Another
thing! You have seen the ballet, and you'll now see it defiling past you in
its every-day clothes, without knowing that the face of your lawsuit
depends on a pair of those legs."
"See, cousin, here comes what is called a marcheuse."
Leon pointed to one of those handsome creatures who at twenty-five
years of age have lived sixty, and whose beauty is so real and so sure of
being cultivated that they make no display of it. She was tall, and walked
well, with the arrogant look of a dandy; her toilet was remarkable for its
"That is Carabine," said Bixiou, who gave her, as did Leon, a slight
nod to which she responded by a smile.
"There's another who may possibly get your prefect turned out."
"A marcheuse!--but what is that?"
"A marcheuse is a rat of great beauty whom her mother, real or
fictitious, has sold as soon as it was clear she would become neither first,
second, nor third danseuse, but who prefers the occupation of coryphee to
any other, for the main reason that having spent her youth in that
employment she is unfitted for any other. She has been rejected at the
minor theatres where they want danseuses; she has not succeeded in the
three towns where ballets are given; she has not had the money, or perhaps
the desire to go to foreign countries--for perhaps you don't know that the
great school of dancing in Paris supplies the whole world with male and
female dancers. Thus a rat who becomes a marcheuse,--that is to say, an
ordinary figurante in a ballet,--must have some solid attachment which
keeps her in Paris: either a rich man she does not love or a poor man she
loves too well. The one you have just seen pass will probably dress and
redress three times this evening,--as a princess, a peasant-girl, a Tyrolese;
by which she will earn about two hundred francs a month."
"She is better dressed than my prefect's wife."
"If you should go to her house," said Bixiou, "you would find there a
chamber-maid, a cook, and a man-servant. She occupies a fine apartment
in the rue Saint-Georges; in short, she is, in proportion to French fortunes
of the present day compared with those of former times, a relic of the
eighteenth century 'opera-girl.' Carabine is a power; at this moment she
governs du Tillet, a banker who is very influential in the Chamber of
"And above these two rounds in the ballet ladder what comes next?"
"Look!" said his cousin, pointing to an elegant caleche which was
turning at that moment from the boulevard into the rue Grange- Bateliere,
"there's one of the leading danseuses whose name on the posters attracts
all Paris. That woman earns sixty thousand francs a year and lives like a
princess; the price of your manufactory all told wouldn't suffice to buy you
the privilege of bidding her good-morning a dozen times."
"Do you see," said Bixiou, "that young man who is sitting on the front
seat of her carriage? Well, he's a viscount who bears a fine old name; he's
her first gentleman of the bed-chamber; does all her business with the
newspapers; carries messages of peace or war in the morning to the
director of the Opera; and takes charge of the applause which salutes her
as she enters or leaves the stage."
"Well, well, my good friends, that's the finishing touch! I see now that
I knew nothing of the ways of Paris."
"At any rate, you are learning what you can see in ten minutes in the
Passage de l'Opera," said Bixiou. "Look there."
Two persons, a man and a woman, came out of the Passage at that
moment. The woman was neither plain nor pretty; but her dress had that
distinction of style and cut and color which reveals an artist; the man had
the air of a singer.
"There," said Bixiou, "is a baritone and a second danseuse. The
baritone is a man of immense talent, but a baritone voice being only an
accessory to the other parts he scarcely earns what the second danseuse
earns. The danseuse, who was celebrated before Taglioni and Ellsler
appeared, has preserved to our day some of the old traditions of the
character dance and pantomime. If the two others had not revealed in the
art of dancing a poetry hitherto unperceived, she would have been the
leading talent; as it is, she is reduced to the second line. But for all that,
she fingers her thirty thousand francs a year, and her faithful friend is a
peer of France, very influential in the Chamber. And see! there's a
danseuse of the third order, who, as a dancer, exists only through the
omnipotence of a newspaper. If her engagement were not renewed the
ministry would have one more journalistic enemy on its back. The corps
de ballet is a great power; consequently it is considered better form in the
upper ranks of dandyism and politics to have relations with dance than
with song. In the stalls, where the habitues of the Opera congregate, the
saying 'Monsieur is all for singing' is a form of ridicule."
A short man with a common face, quite simply dressed, passed them at
"There's the other half of the Opera receipts--that man who just went
by; the tenor. There is no longer any play, poem, music, or representation
of any kind possible unless some celebrated tenor can reach a certain note.
The tenor is love, he is the Voice that touches the heart, that vibrates in the
soul, and his value is reckoned at a much higher salary than that of a
minister. One hundred thousand francs for a throat, one hundred thousand
francs for a couple of ankle-bones,--those are the two financial scourges of
"I am amazed," said Gazonal, "at the hundreds of thousands of francs
walking about here."
"We'll amaze you a good deal more, my dear cousin," said Leon de
Lora. "We'll take Paris as an artist takes his violoncello, and show you
how it is played,--in short, how people amuse themselves in Paris."
"It is a kaleidoscope with a circumference of twenty miles," cried
"Before piloting monsieur about, I have to see Gaillard," said Bixiou.
"But we can use Gaillard for the cousin," replied Leon.
"What sort of machine is that?" asked Gazonal.
"He isn't a machine, he is a machinist. Gaillard is a friend of ours who
has ended a miscellaneous career by becoming the editor of a newspaper,
and whose character and finances are governed by movements comparable
to those of the tides. Gaillard can contribute to make you win your
"It is lost."
"That's the very moment to win it," replied Bixiou.
When they reached Theodore Gaillard's abode, which was now in the
rue de Menars, the valet ushered the three friends into a boudoir and asked
them to wait, as monsieur was in secret conference.
"With whom?" asked Bixiou.
"With a man who is selling him the incarceration of an UNSEIZABLE
debtor," replied a handsome woman who now appeared in a charming
"In that case, my dear Suzanne," said Bixiou, "I am certain we may go
"Oh! what a beautiful creature!" said Gazonal.
"That is Madame Gaillard," replied Leon de Lora, speaking low into
his cousin's ear. "She is the most humble-minded woman in Paris, for she
had the public and has contented herself with a husband."
"What is your will, messeigneurs?" said the facetious editor, seeing his
two friends and imitating Frederic Lemaitre.
Theodore Gaillard, formerly a wit, had ended by becoming a stupid
man in consequence of remaining constantly in one centre,--a moral
phenomenon frequently to be observed in Paris. His principal method of
conversation consisted in sowing his speeches with sayings taken from
plays then in vogue and pronounced in imitation of well-known actors.
"We have come to blague," said Leon.
"'Again, young men'" (Odry in the Saltimbauques).
"Well, this time, we've got him, sure," said Gaillard's other visitor,
apparently by way of conclusion.
"ARE you sure of it, pere Fromenteau?" asked Gaillard. "This it the
eleventh time you've caught him at night and missed him in the morning."
"How could I help it? I never saw such a debtor! he's a locomotive;
goes to sleep in Paris and wakes up in the Seine-et-Oise. A safety lock I
call him." Seeing a smile on Gaillard's face he added: "That's a saying in
our business. Pinch a man, means arrest him, lock him up. The criminal
police have another term. Vidoeq said to his man, 'You are served'; that's
funnier, for it means the guillotine."
A nudge from Bixiou made Gazonal all eyes and ears.
"Does monsieur grease my paws?" asked Fromenteau of Gaillard, in a
threatening but cool tone.
"'A question that of fifty centimes'" (Les Saltimbauques), replied the
editor, taking out five francs and offering them to Fromenteau.
"And the rapscallions?" said the man.
"What rapscallions?" asked Gaillard.
"Those I employ," replied Fromenteau calmly.
"Is there a lower depth still?" asked Bixiou.
"Yes, monsieur," said the spy. "Some people give us information
without knowing they do so, and without getting paid for it. I put fools and
ninnies below rapscallions."
"They are often original, and witty, your rapscallions!" said Leon.
"Do you belong to the police?" asked Gazonal, eying with uneasy
curiosity the hard, impassible little man, who was dressed like the third
clerk in a sheriff's office.
"Which police do you mean?" asked Fromenteau.
"There are several?"
"As many as five," replied the man. "Criminal, the head of which was
Vidoeq; secret police, which keeps an eye on the other police, the head of
it being always unknown; political police,--that's Fouche's. Then there's
the police of Foreign Affairs, and finally, the palace police (of the Emperor,
Louis XVIII., etc.), always squabbling with that of the quai Malaquais. It
came to an end under Monsieur Decazes. I belonged to the police of Louis
XVIII.; I'd been in it since 1793, with that poor Contenson."
The four gentlemen looked at each other with one thought: "How
many heads he must have brought to the scaffold!"
"Now-a-days, they are trying to get on without us. Folly!" continued
the little man, who began to seem terrible. "Since 1830 they want honest
men at the prefecture! I resigned, and I've made myself a small vocation
by arresting for debt."
"He is the right arm of the commercial police," said Gaillard in
Bixiou's ear, "but you can never find out who pays him most, the debtor or
"The more rascally a business is, the more honor it needs. I'm for him
who pays me best," continued Fromenteau addressing Gaillard. "You want
to recover fifty thousand francs and you talk farthings to your means of
action. Give me five hundred francs and your man is pinched to- night, for
we spotted him yesterday!"
"Five hundred francs for you alone!" cried Theodore Gaillard.
"Lizette wants a shawl," said the spy, not a muscle of his face moving.
"I call her Lizette because of Beranger."
"You have a Lizette, and you stay in such a business!" cried the
"It is amusing! People may cry up the pleasures of hunting and fishing
as much as they like but to stalk a man in Paris is far better fun."
"Certainly," said Gazonal, reflectively, speaking to himself, "they must
have great talent."
"If I were to enumerate the qualities which make a man remarkable in
our vocation," said Fromenteau, whose rapid glance had enabled him to
fathom Gazonal completely, "you'd think I was talking of a man of genius.
First, we must have the eyes of a lynx; next, audacity (to tear into houses
like bombs, accost the servants as if we knew them, and propose
treachery--always agreed to); next, memory, sagacity, invention (to make
schemes, conceived rapidly, never the same--for spying must be guided by
the characters and habits of the persons spied upon; it is a gift of heaven);
and, finally, agility, vigor. All these facilities and qualities, monsieur, are
depicted on the door of the Gymnase-Amoros as Virtue. Well, we must
have them all, under pain of losing the salaries given us by the State, the
rue de Jerusalem, or the minister of Commerce."
"You certainly seem to me a remarkable man," said Gazonal.
Fromenteau looked at the provincial without replying, without
betraying the smallest sign of feeling, and departed, bowing to no one,--a
trait of real genius.
"Well, cousin, you have now seen the police incarnate," said Leon to
"It has something the effect of a dinner-pill," said the worthy
provincial, while Gaillard and Bixiou were talking together in a low voice.
"I'll give you an answer to-night at Carabine's," said Gaillard aloud, reseating himself at his desk without seeing or bowing to Gazonal.
"He is a rude fellow!" cried the Southerner as they left the room.
"His paper has twenty-two thousand subscribers," said Leon de Lora.
"He is one of the five great powers of the day, and he hasn't, in the
morning, the time to be polite. Now," continued Leon, speaking to Bixiou,
"if we are going to the Chamber to help him with his lawsuit let us take
the longest way round."
"Words said by great men are like silver-gilt spoons with the gilt
washed off; by dint of repetition they lose their brilliancy," said Bixiou.
"Where shall we go?"
"Here, close by, to our hatter?" replied Leon.
"Bravo!" cried Bixiou. "If we keep on in this way, we shall have an
amusing day of it."
"Gazonal," said Leon, "I shall make the man pose for you; but mind
that you keep a serious face, like the king on a five-franc piece, for you are
going to see a choice original, a man whose importance has turned his
head. In these days, my dear fellow, under our new political dispensation,
every human being tries to cover himself with glory, and most of them
cover themselves with ridicule; hence a lot of living caricatures quite new
to the world."
"If everybody gets glory, who can be famous?" said Gazonal.
"Fame! none but fools want that," replied Bixiou. "Your cousin wears
the cross, but I'm the better dressed of the two, and it is I whom people are
After this remark, which may explain why orators and other great
statesmen no longer put the ribbon in their buttonholes when in Paris,
Leon showed Gazonal a sign, bearing, in golden letters, the illustrious
name of "Vital, successor to Finot, manufacturer of hats" (no longer
"hatter" as formerly), whose advertisements brought in more money to the
newspapers than those of any half-dozen vendors of pills or sugarplums,--
the author, moreover, of an essay on hats.
"My dear fellow," said Bixiou to Gazonal, pointing to the splendors of
the show-window, "Vital has forty thousand francs a year from invested
"And he stays a hatter!" cried the Southerner, with a bound that almost
broke the arm which Bixiou had linked in his.
"You shall see the man," said Leon. "You need a hat and you shall
have one gratis."
"Is Monsieur Vital absent?" asked Bixiou, seeing no one behind the
"Monsieur is correcting proof in his study," replied the head clerk.
"Hein! what style!" said Leon to his cousin; then he added, addressing
the clerk: "Could we speak to him without injury to his inspiration?"
"Let those gentlemen enter," said a voice.
It was a bourgeois voice, the voice of one eligible to the Chamber, a
powerful voice, a wealthy voice.
Vital deigned to show himself, dressed entirely in black cloth, with a
splendid frilled shirt adorned with one diamond. The three friends
observed a young and pretty woman sitting near the desk, working at some
Vital is a man between thirty and forty years of age, with a natural
joviality now repressed by ambitious ideas. He is blessed with that
medium height which is the privilege of sound organizations. He is rather
plump, and takes great pains with his person. His forehead is getting bald,
but he uses that circumstance to give himself the air of a man consumed
by thought. It is easy to see by the way his wife looks at him and listens to
him that she believes in the genius and glory of her husband. Vital loves
artists, not that he has any taste for art, but from fellowship; for he feels
himself an artist, and makes this felt by disclaiming that title of nobility,
and placing himself with constant premeditation at so great a distance
from the arts that persons may be forced to say to him: "You have raised
the construction of hats to the height of a science."
"Have you at last discovered a hat to suit me?" asked Leon de Lora.
"Why, monsieur! in fifteen days?" replied Vital, "and for you! Two
months would hardly suffice to invent a shape in keeping with your
countenance. See, here is your lithographic portrait: I have studied it most
carefully. I would not give myself that trouble for a prince; but you are
more; you are an artist, and you understand me."
"This is one of our greatest inventors," said Bixiou presenting Gazonal.
"He might be as great as Jacquart if he would only let himself die. Our
friend, a manufacturer of cloth, has discovered a method of replacing the
indigo in old blue coats, and he wants to see you as another great
phenomenon, because he has heard of your saying, 'The hat is the man.'
That speech of yours enraptured him. Ah! Vital, you have faith; you
believe in something; you have enthusiasm for your work."
Vital scarcely listened; he grew pale with pleasure.
"Rise, my wife! Monsieur is a man of science."
Madame Vital rose at her husband's gesture. Gazonal bowed to her.
"Shall I have the honor to cover your head?" said Vital, with joyful
"At the same price as mine," interposed Bixiou.
"Of course, of course; I ask no other fee than to be quoted by you,
messieurs-- Monsieur needs a picturesque hat, something in the style of
Monsieur Lousteau's," he continued, looking at Gazonal with the eye of a
master. "I will consider it."
"You give yourself a great deal of trouble," said Gazonal.
"Oh! for a few persons only; for those who know how to appreciate
the value of the pains I bestow upon them. Now, take the aristocracy--
there is but one man there who has truly comprehended the Hat; and that is
the Prince de Bethune. How is it that men do not consider, as women do,
that the hat is the first thing that strikes the eye? And why have they never
thought of changing the present system, which is, let us say it frankly,
ignoble? Yes, ignoble; and yet a Frenchman is, of all nationalities, the one
most persistent in this folly! I know the difficulties of a change, messieurs.
I don't speak of my own writings on the matter, which, as I think, approach
it philosophically, but simply as a hatter. I have myself studied means to
accentuate the infamous head-covering to which France is now enslaved
until I succeed in overthrowing it.
So saying he pointed to the hideous hat in vogue at the present day.
"Behold the enemy, messieurs," he continued. "How is it that the
wittiest and most satirical people on earth will consent to wear upon their
heads a bit of stove-pipe?--as one of our great writers has called it. Here
are some of the infections I have been able to give to those atrocious
lines," he added, pointing to a number of his creations. "But, although I
am able to conform them to the character of each wearer--for, as you see,
there are the hats of a doctor, a grocer, a dandy, an artist, a fat man, a thin
man, and so forth--the style itself remains horrible. Seize, I beg of you, my
He took up a hat, low-crowned and wide-brimmed.
"This," he continued, "is the old hat of Claude Vignon, a great critic, in
the days when he was a free man and a free-liver. He has lately come
round to the ministry; they've made him a professor, a librarian; he writes
now for the Debats only; they've appointed him Master of Petitions with a
salary of sixteen thousand francs; he earns four thousand more out of his
paper, and he is decorated. Well, now see his new hat."
And Vital showed them a hat of a form and design which was truly
expressive of the juste-milieu.
"You ought to have made him a Punch and Judy hat!" cried Gazonal.
"You are a man of genius, Monsieur Vital," said Leon.
"Would you kindly tell me why the shops of your trade in Paris remain
open late at night,--later than the cafes and the wineshops? That fact
puzzles me very much," said Gazonal.
"In the first place, our shops are much finer when lighted up than they
are in the daytime; next, where we sell ten hats in the daytime we sell fifty
"Everything is queer in Paris," said Leon.
"Thanks to my efforts and my successes," said Vital, returning to the
course of his self-laudation, "we are coming to hats with round headpieces.
It is to that I tend!"
"What obstacle is there?" asked Gazonal.
"Cheapness, monsieur. In the first place, very handsome silk hats can
be built for fifteen francs, which kills our business; for in Paris no one
ever has fifteen francs in his pocket to spend on a hat. If a beaver hat costs
thirty, it is still the same thing-- When I say beaver, I ought to state that
there are not ten pounds of beaver skins left in France. That article is
worth three hundred and fifty francs a pound, and it takes an ounce for a
hat. Besides, a beaver hat isn't really worth anything; the skin takes a
wretched dye; gets rusty in ten minutes under the sun, and heat puts it out
of shape as well. What we call 'beaver' in the trade is neither more nor less
than hare's- skin. The best qualities are made from the back of the animal,
the second from the sides, the third from the belly. I confide to you these
trade secrets because you are men of honor. But whether a man has hare'sskin or silk on his head, fifteen or thirty francs in short, the problem is
always insoluble. Hats must be paid for in cash, and that is why the hat
remains what it is. The honor of vestural France will be saved on the day
that gray hats with round crowns can be made to cost a hundred francs. We
could then, like the tailors, give credit. To reach that result men must
resolve to wear buckles, gold lace, plumes, and the brims lined with satin,
as in the days of Louis XIII. and Louis XIV. Our business, which would
then enter the domain of fancy, would increase tenfold. The markets of the
world should belong to France; Paris will forever give the tone to women's
fashions, and yet the hats which all Frenchmen wear to-day are made in
every country on earth! There are ten millions of foreign money to be
gained annually for France in that question--"
"A revolution!" cried Bixiou, pretending enthusiasm.
"Yes, and a radical one; for the form must be changed."
"You are happy after the manner of Luther in dreaming of reform,"
"Yes, monsieur. Ah! if a dozen or fifteen artists, capitalists, or dandies
who set the tone would only have courage for twenty-four hours France
would gain a splendid commercial battle! To succeed in this reform I
would give my whole fortune! Yes, my sole ambition is to regenerate the
hat and disappear."
"The man is colossal," said Gazonal, as they left the shop; "but I assure
you that all your originals so far have a touch of the Southerner about
"Let us go this way," said Bixiou pointing to the rue Saint-Marc.
"Do you want to show me something else?"
"Yes; you shall see the usuress of rats, marcheuses and great ladies, --a
woman who possesses more terrible secrets than there are gowns hanging
in her window," said Bixiou.
And he showed Gazonal one of those untidy shops which made an
ugly stain in the midst of the dazzling show-windows of modern retail
commerce. This shop had a front painted in 1820, which some bankrupt
had doubtless left in a dilapidated condition. The color had disappeared
beneath a double coating of dirt, the result of usage, and a thick layer of
dust; the window-panes were filthy, the door-knob turned of itself, as
door-knobs do in all places where people go out more quickly than they
"What do you say of THAT? First cousin to Death, isn't she?" said
Leon in Gazonal's ear, showing him, at the desk, a terrible individual.
"Well, she calls herself Madame Nourrisson."
"Madame, how much is this guipure?" asked the manufacturer,
intending to compete in liveliness with the two artists.
"To you, monsieur, who come from the country, it will be only three
hundred francs," she replied. Then, remarking in his manner a sort of
eagerness peculiar to Southerners, she added, in a grieved tone, "It
formerly belonged to that poor Princess de Lamballe."
"What! do you dare exhibit it so near the palace?" cried Bixiou.
"Monsieur, THEY don't believe in it," she replied.
"Madame, we have not come to make purchases," said Bixiou, with a
show of frankness.
"So I see, monsieur," returned Madame Nourrisson.
"We have several things to sell," said the illustrious caricaturist. "I live
close by, rue de Richelieu, 112, sixth floor. If you will come round there
for a moment, you may perhaps make some good bargains."
Ten minutes later Madame Nourrisson did in fact present herself at
Bixiou's lodgings, where by that time he had taken Leon and Gazonal.
Madame Nourrisson found them all three as serious as authors whose
collaboration does not meet with the success it deserves.
"Madame," said the intrepid hoaxer, showing her a pair of women's
slippers, "these belonged formerly to the Empress Josephine."
He felt it incumbent on him to return change for the Prince de
"Those!" she exclaimed; "they were made this year; look at the mark."
"Don't you perceive that the slippers are only by way of preface?" said
Leon; "though, to be sure, they are usually the conclusion of a tale."
"My friend here," said Bixiou, motioning to Gazonal, "has an immense
family interest in ascertaining whether a young lady of a good and wealthy
house, whom he wishes to marry, has ever gone wrong."
"How much will monsieur give for the information," she asked,
looking at Gazonal, who was no longer surprised by anything.
"One hundred francs," he said.
"No, thank you!" she said with a grimace of refusal worthy of a
"Then say how much you want, my little Madame Nourrisson," cried
Bixiou catching her round the waist.
"In the first place, my dear gentlemen, I have never, since I've been in
the business, found man or woman to haggle over happiness. Besides," she
said, letting a cold smile flicker on her lips, and enforcing it by an icy
glance full of catlike distrust, "if it doesn't concern your happiness, it
concerns your fortune; and at the height where I find you lodging no man
haggles over a 'dot'-- Come," she said, "out with it! What is it you want to
know, my lambs?"
"About the Beunier family," replied Bixiou, very glad to find out
something in this indirect manner about persons in whom he was
"Oh! as for that," she said, "one louis is quite enough."
"Because I hold all the mother's jewels and she's on tenter-hooks every
three months, I can tell you! It is hard work for her to pay the interest on
what I've lent her. Do you want to marry there, simpleton?" she added,
addressing Gazonal; "then pay me forty francs and I'll talk four hundred
Gazonal produced a forty-franc gold-piece, and Madame Nourrisson
gave him startling details as to the secret penury of certain so-called
fashionable women. This dealer in cast-off clothes, getting lively as she
talked, pictured herself unconsciously while telling of others. Without
betraying a single name or any secret, she made the three men shudder by
proving to them how little so-called happiness existed in Paris that did not
rest on the vacillating foundation of borrowed money. She possessed, laid
away in her drawers, the secrets of departed grandmothers, living children,
deceased husbands, dead granddaughters,--memories set in gold and
diamonds. She learned appalling stories by making her clients talk of one
another; tearing their secrets from them in moments of passion, of quarrels,
of anger, and during those cooler negotiations which need a loan to settle
"Why were you ever induced to take up such a business?" asked
"For my son's sake," she said naively.
Such women almost invariably justify their trade by alleging noble
motives. Madame Nourrisson posed as having lost several opportunities
for marriage, also three daughters who had gone to the bad, and all her
illusions. She showed the pawn-tickets of the Mont-de-Piete to prove the
risks her business ran; declared that she did not know how to meet the
"end of the month"; she was robbed, she said,--ROBBED.
The two artists looked at each other on hearing that expression, which
"Look here, my sons, I'll show you how we are DONE. It is not about
myself, but about my opposite neighbour, Madame Mahuchet, a ladies'
shoemaker. I had loaned money to a countess, a woman who has too many
passions for her means,--lives in a fine apartment filled with splendid
furniture, and makes, as we say, a devil of a show with her high and
mighty airs. She owed three hundred francs to her shoemaker, and was
giving a dinner no later than yesterday. The shoemaker, who heard of the
dinner from the cook, came to see me; we got excited, and she wanted to
make a row; but I said: 'My dear Madame Mahuchet, what good will that
do? you'll only get yourself hated. It is much better to obtain some security;
and you save your bile.' She wouldn't listen, but go she would, and asked
me to support her; so I went. 'Madame is not at home.'--'Up to that! we'll
wait,' said Madame Mahuchet, 'if we have to stay all night,'--and down we
camped in the antechamber. Presently the doors began to open and shut,
and feet and voices came along. I felt badly. The guests were arriving for
dinner. You can see the appearance it had. The countess sent her maid to
coax Madame Mahuchet: 'Pay you to-morrow!' in short, all the snares!
Nothing took. The countess, dressed to the nines, went to the dining-room.
Mahuchet heard her and opened the door. Gracious! when she saw that
table sparkling with silver, the covers to the dishes and the chandeliers all
glittering like a jewel-case, didn't she go off like soda-water and fire her
shot: 'When people spend the money of others they should be sober and
not give dinner-parties. Think of your being a countess and owing three
hundred francs to a poor shoemaker with seven children!' You can guess
how she railed, for the Mahuchet hasn't any education. When the countess
tried to make an excuse ('no money') Mahuchet screamed out: 'Look at all
your fine silver, madame; pawn it and pay me!'--'Take some yourself,' said
the countess quickly, gathering up a quantity of forks and spoons and
putting them into her hands. Downstairs we rattled!--heavens! like success
itself. No, before we got to the street Mahuchet began to cry--she's a kind
woman! She turned back and restored the silver; for she now understood
that countess' poverty--it was plated ware!"
"And she forked it over," said Leon, in whom the former Mistigris
"Ah! my dear monsieur," said Madame Nourrisson, enlightened by the
slang, "you are an artist, you write plays, you live in the rue du Helder and
are friends with Madame Anatolia; you have habits that I know all about.
Come, do you want some rarity in the grand style,-- Carabine or
Mousqueton, Malaga or Jenny Cadine?"
"Malaga, Carabine! nonsense!" cried Leon de Lora. "It was we who
"I assure you, my good Madame Nourrisson," said Bixiou, "that we
only wanted the pleasure of making your acquaintance, and we should like
very much to be informed as to how you ever came to slip into this
"I was confidential maid in the family of a marshal of France, Prince
d'Ysembourg," she said, assuming the airs of a Dorine. "One morning, one
of the most beplumed countesses of the Imperial court came to the house
and wanted to speak to the marshal privately. I put myself in the way of
hearing what she said. She burst into tears and confided to that booby of a
marshal--yes, the Conde of the Republic is a booby!-- that her husband,
who served under him in Spain, had left her without means, and if she
didn't get a thousand francs, or two thousand, that day her children must
go without food; she hadn't any for the morrow. The marshal, who was
always ready to give in those days, took two notes of a thousand francs
each out of his desk, and gave them to her. I saw that fine countess going
down the staircase where she couldn't see me. She was laughing with a
satisfaction that certainly wasn't motherly, so I slipped after her to the
peristyle where I heard her say to the coachman, 'To Leroy's.' I ran round
quickly to Leroy's, and there, sure enough, was the poor mother. I got
there in time to see her order and pay for a fifteen-hundred-franc dress;
you understand that in those days people were made to pay when they
bought. The next day but one she appeared at an ambassador's ball,
dressed to please all the world and some one in particular. That day I said
to myself: 'I've got a career! When I'm no longer young I'll lend money to
great ladies on their finery; for passion never c
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