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The Lesser Bourgeoisie, a novel by Honore de Balzac

Part 1. The Lesser Bourgeois Of Paris - Chapter 7. The Worthy Phellions

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The house to which Theodose de la Peyrade now bent his steps had been the "hoc erat in votis" of Monsieur Phellion for twenty years; it was the house of the Phellions, just as much as Cerizet's frogged coat was the necessary complement of his personality.

This dwelling was stuck against the side of a large house, but only to the depth of one room (about twenty feet or so), and terminated at each end in a sort of pavilion with one window. Its chief charm was a garden, one hundred and eighty feet square, longer than the facade of the house by the width of a courtyard which opened on the street, and a little clump of lindens. Beyond the second pavilion, the courtyard had, between itself and the street, an iron railing, in the centre of which was a little gate opening in the middle.

This building, of rouge stone covered with stucco, and two storeys in height, had received a coat of yellow-wash; the blinds were painted green, and so were the shutters on the lower storey. The kitchen occupied the ground-floor of the pavilion on the courtyard, and the cook, a stout, strong girl, protected by two enormous dogs, performed the functions of portress. The facade, composed of five windows, and the two pavilions, which projected nine feet, were in the style Phellion. Above the door the master of the house had inserted a tablet of white marble, on which, in letters of gold, were read the words, "Aurea mediocritas." Above the sun-dial, affixed to one panel of the facade, he had also caused to be inscribed this sapient maxim: "Umbra mea vita, sic!"

The former window-sills had recently been superceded by sills of red Languedoc marble, found in a marble shop. At the bottom of the garden could be seen a colored statue, intended to lead casual observers to imagine that a nurse was carrying a child. The ground-floor of the house contained only the salon and the dining-room, separated from each other by the well of the staircase and the landing, which formed a sort of antechamber. At the end of the salon, in the other pavilion, was a little study occupied by Phellion.

On the first upper floor were the rooms of the father and mother and that of the young professor. Above were the chambers of the children and the servants; for Phellion, on consideration of his own age and that of his wife, had set up a male domestic, aged fifteen, his son having by that time entered upon his duties of tuition. To right, on entering the courtyard, were little offices where wood was stored, and where the former proprietor had lodged a porter. The Phellions were no doubt awaiting the marriage of their son to allow themselves that additional luxury.

This property, on which the Phellions had long had their eye, cost them eighteen thousand francs in 1831. The house was separated from the courtyard by a balustrade with a base of freestone and a coping of tiles; this little wall, which was breast-high, was lined with a hedge of Bengal roses, in the middle of which opened a wooden gate opposite and leading to the large gates on the street. Those who know the cul-de-sac of the Feuillantines, will understand that the Phellion house, standing at right angles to the street, had a southern exposure, and was protected on the north by the immense wall of the adjoining house, against which the smaller structure was built. The cupola of the Pantheon and that of the Val-de-Grace looked from there like two giants, and so diminished the sky space that, walking in the garden, one felt cramped and oppressed. No place could be more silent than this blind street.

Such was the retreat of the great unknown citizen who was now tasting the sweets of repose, after discharging his duty to the nation in the ministry of finance, from which he had retired as registration clerk after a service of thirty-six years. In 1832 he had led his battalion of the National Guard to the attack on Saint-Merri, but his neighbors had previously seen tears in his eyes at the thought of being obliged to fire on misguided Frenchmen. The affair was already decided by the time his legion crossed the pont Notre-Dame at a quick step, after debouching by the flower-market. This noble hesitation won him the respect of his whole quarter, but he lost the decoration of the Legion of honor; his colonel told him in a loud voice that, under arms, there was no such thing as deliberation,--a saying of Louis-Philippe to the National Guard of Metz. Nevertheless, the bourgeois virtues of Phellion, and the great respect in which he was held in his own quarter had kept him major of the battalion for eight years. He was now nearly sixty, and seeing the moment coming when he must lay off the sword and stock, he hoped that the king would deign to reward his services by granting him at last the Legion of honor.

Truth compels us to say, in spite of the stain this pettiness will put upon so fine a character, that Commander Phellion rose upon the tips of his toes at the receptions in the Tuileries, and did all that he could to put himself forward, even eyeing the citizen-king perpetually when he dined at his table. In short, he intrigued in a dumb sort of way; but had never yet obtained a look in return from the king of his choice. The worthy man had more than once thought, but was not yet decided, to beg Monsieur Minard to assist him in obtaining his secret desire.

Phellion, a man of passive obedience, was stoical in the matter of duty, and iron in all that touched his conscience. To complete this picture by a sketch of his person, we must add that at fifty-nine years of age Phellion had "thickened," to use a term of the bourgeois vocabulary. His face, of one monotonous tone and pitted with the small-pox, had grown to resemble a full moon; so that his lips, formerly large, now seemed of ordinary size. His eyes, much weakened, and protected by glasses, no longer showed the innocence of their light-blue orbs, which in former days had often excited a smile; his white hair now gave gravity to much that twelve years earlier had looked like silliness, and lent itself to ridicule. Time, which does such damage to faces with refined and delicate features, only improves those which, in their youth, have been course and massive. This was the case with Phellion. He occupied the leisure of his old age in making an abridgment of the History of France; for Phellion was the author of several works adopted by the University.

When la Peyrade presented himself, the family were all together. Madame Barniol was just telling her mother about one of her babies, which was slightly indisposed. They were dressed in their Sunday clothes, and were sitting before the fireplace of the wainscoted salon on chairs bought at a bargain; and they all felt an emotion when Genevieve, the cook and portress, announced the personage of whom they were just then speaking in connection with Celeste, whom, we must here state, Felix Phellion loved, to the extent of going to mass to behold her. The learned mathematician had made that effort in the morning, and the family were joking him about it in a pleasant way, hoping in their hearts that Celeste and her parents might understand the treasure that was thus offered to them.

"Alas! the Thuilliers seem to me infatuated with a very dangerous man," said Madame Phellion. "He took Madame Colleville by the arm this morning after church, and they went together to the Luxembourg."

"There is something about that lawyer," remarked Felix Phellion, "that strikes me as sinister. He might be found to have committed some crime and I shouldn't be surprised."

"That's going too far," said old Phellion. "He is cousin-germain to Tartuffe, that immortal figure cast in bronze by our honest Moliere; for Moliere, my children, had honesty and patriotism for the basis of his genius."

It was at that instant that Genevieve came in to say, "There's a Monsieur de la Peyrade out there, who wants to see monsieur."

"To see me!" exclaimed Phellion. "Ask him to come in," he added, with that solemnity in little things which gave him even now a touch of absurdity, though it always impressed his family, which accepted him as king.

Phellion, his two sons, and his wife and daughter, rose and received the circular bow made by the lawyer.

"To what do we owe the honor of your visit, monsieur?" asked Phellion, stiffly.

"To your importance in this arrondissement, my dear Monsieur Phellion, and to public interests," replied Theodose.

"Then let us go into my study," said Phellion.

"No, no, my friend," said the rigid Madame Phellion, a small woman, flat as a flounder, who retained upon her features the grim severity with which she taught music in boarding-schools for young ladies; "we will leave you."

An upright Erard piano, placed between the two windows and opposite to the fireplace, showed the constant occupation of a proficient.

"Am I so unfortunate as to put you to flight?" said Theodose, smiling in a kindly way at the mother and daughter. "You have a delightful retreat here," he continued. "You only lack a pretty daughter-in-law to pass the rest of your days in this 'aurea mediocritas,' the wish of the Latin poet, surrounded by family joys. Your antecedents, my dear Monsieur Phellion, ought surely to win you such rewards, for I am told that you are not only a patriot but a good citizen."

"Monsieur," said Phellion, embarrassed, "monsieur, I have only done my duty." At the word "daughter-in-law," uttered by Theodose, Madame Barniol, who resembled her mother as much as one drop of water is like another, looked at Madame Phellion and at Felix as if she would say, "Were we mistaken?"

The desire to talk this incident over carried all four personages into the garden, for, in March, 1840, the weather was spring-like, at least in Paris.

"Commander," said Theodose, as soon as he was alone with Phellion, who was always flattered by that title, "I have come to speak to you about the election--"

"Yes, true; we are about to nominate a municipal councillor," said Phellion, interrupting him.

"And it is apropos of that candidacy that I have come to disturb your Sunday joys; but perhaps in so doing we shall not go beyond the limits of the family circle."

It would be impossible for Phellion to be more Phellion than Theodose was Phellion at that moment.

"I shall not let you say another word," replied the commander, profiting by the pause made by Theodose, who watched for the effect of his speech. "My choice is made."

"We have had the same idea!" exclaimed Theodose; "men of the same character agree as well as men of the same mind."

"In this case I do not believe in that phenomenon," replied Phellion. "This arrondissement had for its representative in the municipal council the most virtuous of men, as he was the noblest of magistrates. I allude to the late Monsieur Popinot, the deceased judge of the Royal courts. When the question of replacing him came up, his nephew, the heir to his benevolence, did not reside in this quarter. He has since, however, purchased, and now occupies, the house where his uncle lived in the rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve; he is the physician of the Ecole Polytechnique and that of our hospitals; he does honor to this quarter; for these reasons, and to pay homage in the person of the nephew to the memory of the uncle, we have decided to nominate Doctor Horace Bianchon, member of the Academy of Sciences, as you are aware, and one of the most distinguished young men in the illustrious faculty of Paris. A man is not great in our eyes solely because he is celebrated; to my mind the late Councillor Popinot was almost another Saint Vincent de Paul."

"But a doctor is not an administrator," replied Theodose; "and, besides, I have come to ask your vote for a man to whom your dearest interests require that you should sacrifice a predilection, which, after all, is quite unimportant to the public welfare."

"Monsieur!" cried Phellion, rising and striking an attitude like that of Lafon in "Le Glorieux," "Do you despise me sufficiently to suppose that my personal interests could ever influence my political conscience? When a matter concerns the public welfare, I am a citizen --nothing more, and nothing less."

Theodose smiled to himself at the thought of the battle which was now to take place between the father and the citizen.

"Do not bind yourself to your present ideas, I entreat you," he said, "for this matter concerns the happiness of your dear Felix."

"What do you mean by those words?" asked Phellion, stopping short in the middle of the salon and posing, with his hand thrust through the bosom of his waistcoat from right to left, in the well-known attitude of Odilon Barrot.

"I have come in behalf of our mutual friend, the worthy and excellent Monsieur Thuillier, whose influence on the destiny of that beautiful Celeste Colleville must be well known to you. If, as I think, your son, whose merits are incontestable, and of whom both families may well be proud, if, I say, he is courting Celeste with a view to a marriage in which all expediencies may be combined, you cannot do more to promote that end than to obtain Thuillier's eternal gratitude by proposing your worthy friend to the suffrages of your fellow-citizens. As for me, though I have lately come into the quarter, I can, thanks to the influence I enjoy through certain legal benefits done to the poor, materially advance his interests. I might, perhaps, have put myself forward for this position; but serving the poor brings in but little money; and, besides, the modesty of my life is out of keeping with such distinctions. I have devoted myself, monsieur, to the service of the weak, like the late Councillor Popinot,--a sublime man, as you justly remarked. If I had not already chosen a career which is in some sort monastic, and precludes all idea of marriage and public office, my taste, my second vocation, would lead me to the service of God, to the Church. I do not trumpet what I do, like the philanthropists; I do not write about it; I simply act; I am pledged to Christian charity. The ambition of our friend Thuillier becoming known to me, I have wished to contribute to the happiness of two young people who seem to me made for each other, by suggesting to you the means of winning the rather cold heart of Monsieur Thuillier."

Phellion was bewildered by this tirade, admirably delivered; he was dazzled, attracted; but he remained Phellion; he walked up to the lawyer and held out his hand, which la Peyrade took.

"Monsieur," said the commander, with emotion, "I have misjudged you. What you have done me the honor to confide to me will die _there_," laying his hand on his heart. "You are one of the men of whom we have too few,--men who console us for many evils inherent in our social state. Righteousness is seen so seldom that our too feeble natures distrust appearances. You have in me a friend, if you will allow me the honor of assuming that title. But you must learn to know me, monsieur. I should lose my own esteem if I nominated Thuillier. No, my son shall never own his happiness to an evil action on his father's part. I shall not change my candidate because my son's interests demand it. That is civic virtue, monsieur."

La Peyrade pulled out his handkerchief and rubbed it in his eye so that it drew a tear, as he said, holding out his hand to Phellion, and turning aside his head:--

"Ah! monsieur, how sublime a struggle between public and private duty! Had I come here only to see this sight, my visit would not have been wasted. You cannot do otherwise! In your place, I should do the same. You are that noblest thing that God has made--a righteous man! a citizen of the Jean-Jacques type! With many such citizens, oh France! my country! what mightest thou become! It is I, monsieur, who solicit, humbly, the honor to be your friend."

"What can be happening?" said Madame Phellion, watching the scene through the window. "Do see your father and that horrid man embracing each other."

Phellion and la Peyrade now came out and joined the family in the garden.

"My dear Felix," said the old man, pointing to la Peyrade, who was bowing to Madame Phellion, "be very grateful to that admirable young man; he will prove most useful to you."

The lawyer walked for about five minutes with Madame Barniol and Madame Phellion beneath the leafless lindens, and gave them (in consequence of the embarrassing circumstances created by Phellion's political obstinacy) a piece of advice, the effects of which were to bear fruit that evening, while its first result was to make both ladies admire his talents, his frankness, and his inappreciable good qualities. When the lawyer departed the whole family conducted him to the street gate, and all eyes followed him until he had turned the corner of the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Jacques. Madame Phellion then took the arm of her husband to return to the salon, saying:--

"Hey! my friend! what does this mean? You, such a good father, how can you, from excessive delicacy, stand in the way of such a fine marriage for our Felix?"

"My dear," replied Phellion, "the great men of antiquity, Brutus and others, were never fathers when called upon to be citizens. The bourgeoisie has, even more than the aristocracy whose place it has been called upon to take, the obligations of the highest virtues. Monsieur de Saint-Hilaire did not think of his lost arm in presence of the dead Turenne. We must give proof of our worthiness; let us give it at every state of the social hierarchy. Shall I instruct my family in the highest civic principles only to ignore them myself at the moment for applying them? No, my dear; weep, if you must, to-day, but to-morrow you will respect me," he added, seeing tears in the eyes of his starched better half.

These noble words were said on the sill of the door, above which was written, "Aurea mediocritas."

"I ought to have put, 'et digna,'" added Phellion, pointing to the tablet, "but those two words would imply self-praise."

"Father," said Marie-Theodore Phellion, the future engineer of "ponts et chaussees," when the family were once more seated in the salon, "it seems to me that there is nothing dishonorable in changing one's determination about a choice which is of no real consequence to public welfare."

"No consequence, my son!" cried Phellion. "Between ourselves I will say, and Felix shares my opinion, Monsieur Thuillier is absolutely without capacity; he knows nothing. Monsieur Horace Bianchon is an able man; he will obtain a thousand things for our arrondissement, and Thuillier will obtain none! Remember this, my son; to change a good determination for a bad one from motives of self-interest is one of those infamous actions which escape the control of men but are punished by God. I am, or I think I am, void of all blame before my conscience, and I owe it to you, my children, to leave my memory unstained among you. Nothing, therefore, can make me change my determination."

"Oh, my good father!" cried the little Barniol woman, flinging herself on a cushion at Phellion's knees, "don't ride your high horse! There are many fools and idiots in the municipal council, and France gets along all the same. That old Thuillier will adopt the opinions of those about him. Do reflect that Celeste will probably have five hundred thousand francs."

"She might have millions," said Phellion, "and I might see them there at my feet before I would propose Thuillier, when I owe to the memory of the best of men to nominate, if possible, Horace Bianchon, his nephew. From the heaven above us Popinot is contemplating and applauding me!" cried Phellion, with exaltation. "It is by such considerations as you suggest that France is being lowered, and the bourgeoisie are bringing themselves into contempt."

"My father is right," said Felix, coming out of a deep reverie. "He deserves our respect and love; as he has throughout the whole course of his modest and honored life. I would not owe my happiness either to remorse in his noble soul, or to a low political bargain. I love Celeste as I love my own family; but, above all that, I place my father's honor, and since this question is a matter of conscience with him it must not be spoken of again."

Phellion, with his eyes full of tears, went up to his eldest son and took him in his arms, saying, "My son! my son!" in a choking voice.

"All that is nonsense," whispered Madame Phellion in Madame Barniol's ear. "Come and dress me; I shall make an end of this; I know your father; he has put his foot down now. To carry out the plan that pious young man, Theodose, suggested, I want your help; hold yourself ready to give it, my daughter."

At this moment, Genevieve came in and gave a letter to Monsieur Phellion.

"An invitation for dinner to-day, for Madame Phellion and Felix and myself, at the Thuilliers'," he said.

The magnificent and surprising idea of Thuillier's municipal advancement, put forth by the "advocate of the poor" was not less upsetting in the Thuillier household than it was in the Phellion salon. Jerome Thuillier, without actually confiding anything to his sister, for he made it a point of honor to obey his Mephistopheles, had rushed to her in great excitement to say:--

"My dearest girl" (he always touched her heart with those caressing words), "we shall have some big-wigs at dinner to-day. I'm going to ask the Minards; therefore take pains about your dinner. I have written to Monsieur and Madame Phellion; it is rather late; but there's no need of ceremony with them. As for the Minards, I must throw a little dust in their eyes; I have a particular need of them."

"Four Minards, three Phellions, four Collevilles, and ourselves; that makes thirteen--"

"La Peyrade, fourteen; and it is worth while to invite Dutocq; he may be useful to us. I'll go up and see him."

"What are you scheming?" cried his sister. "Fifteen to dinner! There's forty francs, at the very least, waltzing off."

"You won't regret them, my dearest. I want you to be particularly agreeable to our young friend, la Peyrade. There's a friend, indeed! you'll soon have proofs of that! If you love me, cosset him well."

So saying, he departed, leaving Brigitte bewildered.

"Proofs, indeed! yes, I'll look out for proofs," she said. "I'm not to be caught with fine words, not I! He is an amiable fellow; but before I take him into my heart I shall study him a little closer."

After inviting Dutocq, Thuillier, having bedizened himself, went to the hotel Minard, rue des Macons-Sorbonne, to capture the stout Zelie, and gloss over the shortness of the invitation.

Minard had purchased one of those large and sumptuous habitations which the old religious orders built about the Sorbonne, and as Thuillier mounted the broad stone steps with an iron balustrade, that proved how arts of the second class flourished under Louis XIII., he envied both the mansion and its occupant,--the mayor.

This vast building, standing between a courtyard and garden, is noticeable as a specimen of the style, both noble and elegant, of the reign of Louis XIII., coming singularly, as it did, between the bad taste of the expiring renaissance and the heavy grandeur of Louis XIV., at its dawn. This transition period is shown in many public buildings. The massive scroll-work of several facades--that of the Sorbonne, for instance,--and columns rectified according to the rules of Grecian art, were beginning to appear in this architecture.

A grocer, a lucky adulterator, now took the place of the former ecclesiastical governor of an institution called in former times L'Economat; an establishment connected with the general agency of the old French clergy, and founded by the long-sighted genius of Richelieu. Thuillier's name opened for him the doors of the salon, where sat enthroned in velvet and gold, amid the most magnificent "Chineseries," the poor woman who weighed with all her avoirdupois on the hearts and minds of princes and princesses at the "popular balls" of the palace.

"Isn't she a good subject for 'La Caricature'?" said a so-called lady of the bedchamber to a duchess, who could hardly help laughing at the aspect of Zelie, glittering with diamonds, red as a poppy, squeezed into a gold brocade, and rolling along like the casts of her former shop.

"Will you pardon me, fair lady," began Thuillier, twisting his body, and pausing in pose number two of his imperial repertory, "for having allowed this invitation to remain in my desk, thinking, all the while, that it was sent? It is for to-day, but perhaps I am too late?"

Zelie examined her husband's face as he approached them to receive Thuillier; then she said:--

"We intended to drive into the country and dine at some chance restaurant; but we'll give up that idea and all the more readily because, in my opinion, it is getting devilishly vulgar to drive out of Paris on Sundays."

"We will have a little dance to the piano for the young people, if enough come, as I hope they will. I have sent a line to Phellion, whose wife is intimate with Madame Pron, the successor--"

"Successor_ess_," interrupted Madame Minard.

"No," said Thuillier, "it ought to be success'ress; just as we say may'ress, dropping the O, you know."

"Is it full dress?" asked Madame Minard.

"Heavens! no," replied Thuillier; "you would get me finely scolded by my sister. No, it is only a family party. Under the Empire, madame, we all devoted ourselves to dancing. At that great epoch of our national life they thought as much of a fine dancer as they did of a good soldier. Nowadays the country is so matter-of-fact."

"Well, we won't talk politics," said the mayor, smiling. "The King is grand; he is very able. I have a deep admiration for my own time, and for the institutions which we have given to ourselves. The King, you may be sure, knows very well what he is doing by the development of industries. He is struggling hand to hand against England; and we are doing him more harm during this fruitful peace than all the wars of the Empire would have done."

"What a deputy Minard would make!" cried Zelie, naively. "He practises speechifying at home. You'll help us to get him elected, won't you, Thuillier?"

"We won't talk politics now," replied Thuillier. "Come at five."

"Will that little Vinet be there?" asked Minard; "he comes, no doubt, for Celeste."

"Then he may go into mourning," replied Thuillier. "Brigitte won't hear of him."

Zelie and Minard exchanged a smile of satisfaction.

"To think that we must hob-nob with such common people, all for the sake of our son!" cried Zelie, when Thuillier was safely down the staircase, to which the mayor had accompanied him.

"Ha! he thinks to be deputy!" thought Thuillier, as he walked away. "These grocers! nothing satisfies them. Heavens! what would Napoleon say if he could see the government in the hands of such people! I'm a trained administrator, at any rate. What a competitor, to be sure! I wonder what la Peyrade will say?"

The ambitious ex-beau now went to invite the whole Laudigeois family for the evening, after which he went to the Collevilles', to make sure that Celeste should wear a becoming gown. He found Flavie rather pensive. She hesitated about coming, but Thuillier overcame her indecision.

"My old and ever young friend," he said, taking her round the waist, for she was alone in her little salon, "I won't have any secret from you. A great affair is in the wind for me. I can't tell you more than that, but I can ask you to be particularly charming to a certain young man--"

"Who is it?"

"La Peyrade."

"Why, Charles?"

"He holds my future in his hands. Besides, he's a man of genius. I know what that is. He's got this sort of thing,"--and Thuillier made the gesture of a dentist pulling out a back tooth. "We must bind him to us, Flavie. But, above all, don't let him see his power. As for me, I shall just give and take with him."

"Do you want me to be coquettish?"

"Not too much so, my angel," replied Thuillier, with a foppish air.

And he departed, not observing the stupor which overcame Flavie.

"That young man is a power," she said to herself. "Well, we shall see!"

For these reasons she dressed her hair with marabouts, put on her prettiest gown of gray and pink, which allowed her fine shoulders to be seen beneath a pelerine of black lace, and took care to keep Celeste in a little silk frock made with a yoke and a large plaited collarette, telling her to dress her hair plainly, a la Berthe. _

Read next: Part 1. The Lesser Bourgeois Of Paris: Chapter 8. Ad Majorem Theodosis Gloriam

Read previous: Part 1. The Lesser Bourgeois Of Paris: Chapter 6. A Keynote

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