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The Lesser Bourgeoisie, a novel by Honore de Balzac

Part 2. The Parvenus - Chapter 13. The Man Who Thinks The Star Too Bright

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The next morning Minard paid a visit to Phellion in his study. The great citizen and his son Felix were at that moment engaged in a conversation which seemed to have some unusual interest for them.

"My dear Felix," cried the mayor of the eleventh arrondissement, offering his hand warmly to the young professor, "it is you who bring me here this morning; I have come to offer you my congratulations."

"What has occurred?" asked Phellion. "Have the Thuilliers--"

"It has nothing to do with the Thuilliers," interrupted the mayor. "But," he added, looking hard at Felix, "can that sly fellow have concealed the thing even from you?"

"I do not think," said Phellion, "that ever, in his life, has my son concealed a thing from me."

"Then you know about the sublime astronomical discovery which he communicated to the Academy of Sciences yesterday?"

"Your kindness for me, Monsieur le maire," said Felix, hastily, "has led you astray; I was only the reader of the communication."

"Oh! let me alone!" said Minard; "reader, indeed! I know all about it."

"But see," said Felix, offering Minard the "Constitutionnel," "here's the paper; not only does it announce that Monsieur Picot is the maker of the discovery, but it mentions the rewards which, without losing a moment, the government has bestowed upon him."

"Felix is right," said Phellion; "that journal is to be trusted. On this occasion I think the government has acted very properly."

"But, my dear commander, I repeat to you that the truth of the affair has got wind, and your son is shown to be a most admirable fellow. To put his own discovery to the credit of his old professor so as to obtain for him the recognition and favor of the authorities--upon my word, in all antiquity I don't know a finer trait!"

"Felix!" said Phellion, beginning to show some emotion, "these immense labors to which you have devoted so much time of late, these continual visits to the Observatory--"

"But, father," interrupted Felix, "Monsieur Minard has been misinformed."

"Misinformed!" cried Minard, "when I know the whole affair from Monsieur Picot himself!"

At this argument, stated in a way to leave no possible doubt, the truth began to dawn upon Phellion.

"Felix, my son!" he said, rising to embrace him.

But he was obliged to sit down again; his legs refused to bear his weight; he turned pale; and that nature, ordinarily so impassible, seemed about to give way under the shock of this happiness.

"My God!" said Felix, terrified, "he is ill; ring the bell, I entreat you, Monsieur Minard."

And he ran to the old man, loosened his cravat and unfastened the collar of his shirt, striking him in the palms of his hands. But the sudden faintness was but momentary; almost immediately himself again, Phellion gathered his son to his heart, and holding him long in his embrace, he said, in a voice broken by the tears that came to put an end to this shock of joy:--

"Felix, my noble son! so great in heart, so great in mind!"

The bell had been rung by Minard with magisterial force, and with such an accent that the whole household was alarmed, and came running in.

"It is nothing, it is nothing," said Phellion to the servants, sending them away. But almost at the same moment, seeing his wife, who now entered the room, he resumed his habitual solemnity.

"Madame Phellion," he said, pointing to Felix, "how many years is it since you brought that young man into the world?"

Madame Phellion, bewildered by the question, hesitated a moment, and then said:--

"Twenty-five years next January."

"Have you not thought, until now, that God had amply granted your maternal desires by making this child of your womb an honest man, a pious son, and by gifting him for mathematics, that Science of sciences, with an aptitude sufficiently remarkable?"

"I have," said Madame Phellion, understanding less and less what her husband was coming to.

"Well," continued Phellion, "you owe to God an additional thanksgiving, for He has granted that you be the mother of a man of genius; his toil, which lately we rebuked, and which made us fear for the reason of our child, was the way--the rough and jagged way--by which men come to fame."

"Ah ca!" cried Madame Phellion, "can't you stop coming yourself to an explanation of what you mean, and get there?"

"Your son," said Minard, cautious this time in measuring the joy he was about to bestow, fearing another fainting-fit of happiness, "has just made a very important scientific discovery."

"Is it true?" said Madame Phellion, going up to Felix, and taking him by both hands as she looked at him lovingly.

"When I say important," continued Minard, "I am only sparing your maternal emotions; it is, in truth, a sublime, a dazzling discovery. He is only twenty-five years old, but his name, from henceforth, is immortal."

"And this is the man," said Madame Phellion, half beside herself, and kissing Felix with effusion, "to whom that la Peyrade is preferred!"

"No, not preferred, madame," said Minard, "for the Thuilliers are not the dupes of that adventurer. But he has made himself necessary to them. Thuillier fancies that without la Peyrade he could not be elected; the election is still doubtful, and they are sacrificing everything to it."

"But isn't it odious," cried Madame Phellion, "to consider such interests before the happiness of their child!"

"Ah!" said Minard, "but Celeste is not their child, only their adopted daughter."

"Brigitte's, if you like," said Madame Phellion; "but as for Thuillier--"

"My good wife," said Phellion, "no censoriousness. The good God has just sent us a great consolation; and, indeed, though certainly far advanced, this marriage, about which I regret to say Felix does not behave with all the philosophy I could desire, may still not take place."

Seeing that Felix shook his head with a look of incredulity, Minard hastened to say:--

"Yes, yes, the commander is quite right. Last night there was a hitch about signing the contract, and it was not signed. You were not there, by the bye, and your absence was much remarked upon."

"We were invited," said Phellion, "and up to the last moment we hesitated whether to go or not. But, as you will readily see, our position was a false one; besides, Felix--and I see now it must have been in consequence of his lecture at the Academy--was completely worn out with fatigue and emotion. To present ourselves without him would have seemed very singular; therefore we decided that it would be wisest and best to absent ourselves."

The presence of the man whom he had just declared immortal did not deter Minard, when the occasion was thus made for him, from plunging eagerly into one of the most precious joys of bourgeois existence, namely, the retailing of gossip.

"Just imagine!" he began; "last night at the Thuilliers' the most extraordinary things took place, one after another."

First he related the curious episode of pere Picot. Then he told of the hearty approbation given to Felix's conduct by the Abbe Gondrin, and the desire the young preacher had expressed to meet him.

"I'll go and see him," said Felix; "do you know where he lives?"

"Rue de la Madeleine, No. 8," replied Minard. "But the great event of the evening was the spectacle of that fine company assembled to listen to the marriage-contract, and waiting in expectation a whole hour for the notary, who--never came!"

"Then the contract is not signed?" said Felix, eagerly.

"Not even read, my friend. Suddenly some one came in and told Brigitte that the notary had started for Brussels."

"Ah! no doubt," said Phellion, naively; "some very important business."

"Most important," replied Minard; "a little bankruptcy of five hundred thousand francs which the gentleman leaves behind him."

"But who is this public officer," demanded Phellion, "so recreant, in this scandalous manner, to the sacred duties of his calling?"

"Parbleu! your neighbor in the rue Saint-Jacques, the notary Dupuis."

"What!" said Madame Phellion, "that pious man? Why, he is churchwarden of the parish!"

"Eh! madame, those are the very ones," said Minard, "to run off--there are many precedents for that."

"But," said Phellion, "such news cast suddenly among the company must have fallen like a thunderbolt."

"Especially," said Minard, "as it was brought in the most unexpected and singular manner."

"Tell us all about it," said Madame Phellion, with animation.

"Well, it seems," continued Minard, "that this canting swindler had charge of the savings of a number of servants, and that Monsieur de la Peyrade--because, you see, they are all of a clique, these pious people--was in the habit of recruiting clients for him in that walk of life--"

"I always said so!" interrupted Madame Phellion. "I knew that Provencal was no good at all."

"It seems," continued the mayor, "that he had placed in Dupuis's hands all the savings of an old housekeeper, pious herself, amounting to a pretty little sum. Faith! I think myself it was worth some trouble. How much do you suppose it was? Twenty-five thousand francs, if you please! This housekeeper, whose name is Madame Lambert--"

"Madame Lambert!" cried Felix; "why, that's Monsieur Picot's housekeeper; close cap, pale, thin face, speaks always with her eyes lowered, shows no hair?"

"That's she," said Minard,--"a regular hypocrite!"

"Twenty-five thousand francs of savings!" said Felix. "I don't wonder that poor pere Picot is always out of money."

"And that someone had to meddle with the sale of his book," said Minard, slyly. "However that may be, you can imagine that the woman was in a fine state of mind on hearing of the flight of the notary. Off she went to la Peyrade's lodgings; there she was told he was dining at the Thuilliers'; to the Thuilliers' she came, after running about the streets--for they didn't give her quite the right address --till ten o'clock; but she got there while the company were still sitting round waiting for the notary, and gaping at each other, no one knowing what to say and do, for neither Brigitte nor Thuillier have faculty enough to get out of such a scrape with credit; and we all missed the voice of Madame de Godollo and the talent of Madame Phellion."

"Oh! you are too polite, Monsieur le maire," said Madame Phellion, bridling.

"Well, as I said," continued Minard, "at ten o'clock Madame Lambert reached the antechamber of Monsieur the general-councillor, and there she asked, in great excitement, to see la Peyrade."

"That was natural," said Phellion; "he being the intermediary of the investment, this woman had a right to question him."

"You should just have seen that Tartuffe!" continued Minard. "He had no sooner gone out than he returned, bringing the news. As everybody was longing to get away, there followed a general helter-skelter. And then what does our man do? He goes back to Madame Lambert, who was crying that she was ruined! she was lost!--which might very well be true, but it might also be only a scene arranged between them in presence of the company, whom the woman's outcries detained in the antechamber. 'Don't be anxious, my good woman,' said la Peyrade; 'the investment was made at your request, consequently, I owe you nothing; BUT it is enough that the money passed through my hands to make my conscience tell me I am responsible. If the notary's assets are not enough to pay you I will do so.'"

"Yes," said Phellion, "that was my idea as you told it; the intermediary is or ought to be responsible. I should not have hesitated to do as Monsieur de la Peyrade did, and I do not think that after such conduct as that he ought to be taxed with Jesuitism."

"Yes, you would have done so," said Minard, "and so should I, but we shouldn't have done it with a brass band; we should have paid our money quietly, like gentlemen. But this electoral manager, how is he going to pay it? Out of the 'dot'?"

At this moment the little page entered the room and gave a letter to Felix Phellion. It came from pere Picot, and was written at his dictation by Madame Lambert, for which reason we will not reproduce the orthography. The writing of Madame Lambert was of those that can never be forgotten when once seen. Recognizing it instantly, Felix hastened to say:--

"A letter from the professor"; then, before breaking the seal, he added, "Will you permit me, Monsieur le maire."

"He'll rate you finely," said Minard, laughing. "I never saw anything so comical as his wrath last night."

Felix, as he read the letter, smiled to himself. When he had finished it, he passed it to his father, saying:--

"Read it aloud if you like."

Whereupon, with his solemn voice and manner, Phellion read as follows:--

My dear Felix,--I have just received your note; it came in the nick of time, for I was, as they say, in a fury with you. You tell me that you were guilty of that abuse of confidence (about which I intended to write you a piece of my mind) in order to give a knock-down blow to my relations by proving that a man capable of making such complicated calculations as your discovery required was not a man to put in a lunatic asylum or drag before a judiciary council. That argument pleases me, and it makes such a good answer to the infamous proceedings of my relations that I praise you for having had the idea. But you sold it to me, that argument, pretty dear when you put me in company with a star, for you know very well _that_ propinquity wouldn't please me at all. It is not at my age, and after solving the great problem of perpetual motion, that a man could take up with such rubbish as that,--good only for boys and greenhorns like you; and that is what I have taken the liberty this morning to go and tell the minister of public instruction, by whom I must say I was received with the most perfect urbanity. I asked him to see whether, as he had made a mistake and sent them to the wrong address, he could not take back his cross and his pension,--though to be sure, as I told him, I deserved them for other things.

"The government," he replied, "is not in the habit of making mistakes; what it does is always properly done, and it never annuls an ordinance signed by the hand of his Majesty. Your great labors have deserved the two favors the King has granted you; it is a long-standing debt, which I am happy to pay off in his name."

"But Felix?" I said; "because after all for a young man it is not such a bad discovery."

"Monsieur Felix Phellion," replied the minister, "will receive in the course of the day his appointment to the rank of Chevalier of the Legion of honor; I will have it signed this morning by the king. Moreover, there is a vacant place at the Academy of Sciences, and if you are not a candidate for it--"

"I, in the Academy!" I interrupted, with the frankness of speech you know I always use; "I execrate academies; they are stiflers, extinguishers, assemblages of sloths, idlers, shops with big signs and nothing to sell inside--"

"Well, then," said the minister, smiling, "I think that at the next election Monsieur Felix Phellion will have every chance, and among those chances I count the influence of the government which is secured to him."

There, my poor boy, is all that I have been able to do to reward your good intentions and to prove to you that I am no longer angry. I think the relations are going to pull a long face. Come and talk about it to-day at four o'clock,--for I don't dine after bedtime, as I saw some people doing last night in a house where I had occasion to mention your talents in a manner that was very advantageous to you. Madame Lambert, who does better with a saucepan than with pen and ink, shall distinguish herself, though it is Friday, and she never lets me off a fast day. But she has promised us a fish dinner worthy of an archbishop, with a fine half-bottle of champagne (doubled if need be) to wash it down.

Your old professor and friend,
Picot (Nepomucene),
Chevalier of the Legion of honor.

P.S.--Do you think you could obtain from your respectable mother a little flask of that old and excellent cognac you once gave me? Not a drop remains, and yesterday I was forced to drink some stuff only fit to bathe horses' feet, as I did not hesitate to say to the beautiful Hebe who served it to me.

"Of course he shall have some," said Madame Phellion; "not a flask, but a gallon."

"And I," said Minard, "who pique myself on mine, which didn't come from Brigitte's grocer either, I'll send him several bottles; but don't tell him who sent them, Monsieur le chevalier, for you never can tell how that singular being will take things."

"Wife," said Phellion, suddenly, "get me my black coat and a white cravat."

"Where are you going?" asked Madame Phellion. "To the minister, to thank him?"

"Bring me, I say, those articles of habiliment. I have an important visit to make; and Monsieur le maire will, I know, excuse me."

"I myself must be off," said Minard. "I, too, have important business, though it isn't about a star."

Questioned in vain by Felix and his wife, Phellion completed his attire with a pair of white gloves, sent for a carriage, and, at the end of half an hour, entered the presence of Brigitte, whom he found presiding over the careful putting away of the china, glass, and silver which had performed their several functions the night before. Leaving these housekeeping details, she received her visitor.

"Well, papa Phellion," she said, when they were both seated in the salon, "you broke your word yesterday; you were luckier than the rest. Do you know what a trick that notary played us?"

"I know all," said Phellion; "and it is the check thus unexpectedly given to the execution of your plans that I shall take for the text of an important conversation which I desire to have with you. Sometimes Providence would seem to take pleasure in counteracting our best-laid schemes; sometimes, also, by means of the obstacles it raises in our path, it seems to intend to indicate that we are bearing too far to the right or to the left, and should pause to reflect upon our way."

"Providence!" said Brigitte the strong-minded,--"Providence has something else to do than to look after us."

"That is one opinion," said Phellion; "but I myself am accustomed to see its decrees in the little as well as the great things of life; and certainly, if it had allowed the fulfilment of your engagements with Monsieur de la Peyrade to be even partially begun yesterday, you would not have seen me here to-day."

"Then," said Brigitte, "do you think that by default of a notary the marriage will not take place? They do say that for want of a monk the abbey won't come to a standstill."

"Dear lady," said the great citizen, "you will do me the justice to feel that neither I, nor my wife, have ever attempted to influence your decision; we have allowed our young people to love each other without much consideration as to where that attachment would lead--"

"It led to upsetting their minds," said Brigitte; "that's what love is, and that's why I deprived myself of it."

"What you say is, indeed, true of my unfortunate son," resumed Phellion; "for, notwithstanding the noble distractions he has endeavored to give to his sorrow, he is to-day so miserably overcome by it that this morning, in spite of the glorious success he has just obtained, he was speaking to me of undertaking a voyage of circumnavigation around the globe,--a rash enterprise which would detain him from his native land at least three years, if, indeed, he escaped the dangers of so prolonged a journey."

"Well," said Brigitte, "it isn't a bad idea; he'll return consoled, having discovered three or four more new stars."

"His present discovery suffices," said Phellion, with double his ordinary gravity, "and it is under the auspices of that triumph, which has placed his name at so great a height in the scientific world, that I have the assurance to say to you, point-blank: Mademoiselle, I have come to ask you, on behalf of my son, who loves as he is beloved, for the hand in marriage of Mademoiselle Celeste Colleville."

"But, my dear man," replied Brigitte, "it is too late; remember that we are _diametrically_ engaged to la Peyrade."

"It is never, they say, too late to do well, and yesterday it would have been in my judgment too early. My son, having to offer an equivalent for a fortune, could not say to you until to-day: 'Though Celeste, by your generosity has a "dot" which mine is far from equalling, yet I have the honor to be a member of the Royal order of the Legion of honor, and shortly, according to appearance, I shall be a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, one of the five branches of the Institute.'"

"Certainly," said Brigitte; "Felix is getting to be a very pretty match, but we have passed our word to la Peyrade; the banns are published at the mayor's office, and unless something extraordinary happens the contract will be signed. La Peyrade is very busy about Thuillier's election, which he has now got into good shape; we have capital engaged with him in the affair of this newspaper; and it would be impossible to go back on our promise, even if we wished to do so."

"So," said Phellion, "in one of the rare occasions of life when reason and inclination blend together, you think you must be guided solely by the question of material interests. Celeste, as we know, has no inclination for Monsieur de la Peyrade. Brought up with Felix--"

"Brought up with Felix!" interrupted Brigitte. "She was given a period of time to choose between Monsieur de la Peyrade and your son,--that's how we coerce her, if you please,--and she would not take Monsieur Felix, whose atheism is too well known."

"You are mistaken, mademoiselle, my son is not an atheist; for Voltaire himself doubted if there could be atheists; and no later than yesterday, in this house, an ecclesiastic, as admirable for his talents as for his virtues, after making a magnificent eulogy of my son, expressed the desire to know him."

"Parbleu! yes, to convert him," said Brigitte. "But as for this marriage, I am sorry to tell you that the mustard is made too late for the dinner; Thuillier will never renounce his la Peyrade."

"Mademoiselle," said Phellion, rising, "I feel no humiliation for the useless step I have this day taken; I do not even ask you to keep it secret, for I shall myself mention it to our friends and acquaintances."

"Tell it to whom you like, my good man," replied Brigitte, acrimoniously. "Because your son has discovered a star,--if, indeed, he did discover it, and not that old fool the government decorated--do you expect him to marry a daughter of the King of the French?"

"Enough," said Phellion, "we will say no more. I might answer that, without depreciating the Thuilliers, the Orleans family seems to me more distinguished; but I do not like to introduce acerbity into the conversation, and therefore, begging you to receive the assurance of my humble respects, I retire."

So saying, he made his exit majestically, and left Brigitte with the arrow of his comparison, discharged after the manner of the Parthian "in extremis," sticking in her mind, and she herself in a temper all the more savage because already, the evening before, Madame Thuillier, after the guests were gone, had the incredible audacity to say something in favor of Felix. Needless to relate that the poor helot was roughly put down and told to mind her own business. But this attempt at a will of her own in her sister-in-law had already put the old maid in a vile humor, and Phellion, coming to reopen the subject, exasperated her. Josephine, the cook, and the "male domestic," received the after-clap of the scene which had just taken place. Brigitte found that in her absence everything had been done wrong, and putting her own hand to the work, she hoisted herself on a chair, at the risk of her neck, to reach the upper shelves of the closet, where her choicest china, for gala days, was carefully kept under lock and key.

This day, which for Brigitte began so ill, was, beyond all gainsaying, one of the stormiest and most portentous of this narrative. _

Read next: Part 2. The Parvenus: Chapter 14. A Stormy Day

Read previous: Part 2. The Parvenus: Chapter 12. A Star

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