A glance rapidly thrown over the past life of this household will strengthen the ideas which ought to have been suggested by the friendly altercation of the two personages in this scene. While picturing the manners and customs of retail shopkeepers, this sketch will also show by what singular chances Cesar Birotteau became deputy-mayor and perfumer, retired officer of the National Guard, and chevalier of the Legion of honor. In bringing to light the depths of his character and the causes of his rise, we shall show that fortuitous commercial events which strong brains dominate, may become irreparable catastrophes for weak ones. Events are never absolute; their results depend on individuals. Misfortune is a stepping-stone for genius, the baptismal font of Christians, a treasure for the skilful man, an abyss for the feeble.
A vine-dresser in the neighborhood of Chinon, named Jean Birotteau, married the waiting-maid of a lady whose vines he tilled. He had three sons; his wife died in giving birth to the last, and the poor man did not long survive her. The mistress had been fond of the maid, and brought up with her own sons the eldest child, Francois, and placed him in a seminary. Ordained priest, Francois Birotteau hid himself during the Revolution, and led the wandering life of priests not sworn by the Republic, hunted like wild beasts and guillotined at the first chance. At the time when this history begins he was vicar of the cathedral of Tours, and had only once left that city to visit his brother Cesar. The bustle of Paris so bewildered the good priest that he was afraid to leave his room. He called the cabriolets "half-coaches," and wondered at all he saw. After a week's stay he went back to Tours resolving never to revisit the capital.
The second son of the vine-dresser, Jean Birotteau, was drafted into the militia, and won the rank of captain early in the wars of the Revolution. At the battle of Trebia, Macdonald called for volunteers to carry a battery. Captain Jean Birotteau advanced with his company, and was killed. The destiny of the Birotteaus demanded, no doubt, that they should be oppressed by men, or by circumstances, wheresoever they planted themselves.
The last child is the hero of this story. When Cesar at fourteen years of age could read, write, and cipher, he left his native place and came to Paris on foot to seek his fortune, with one louis in his pocket. The recommendation of an apothecary at Tours got him a place as shop-boy with Monsieur and Madame Ragon, perfumers. Cesar owned at this period a pair of hob-nailed shoes, a pair of breeches, blue stockings, a flowered waistcoat, a peasant's jacket, three coarse shirts of good linen, and his travelling cudgel. If his hair was cut like that of a choir-boy, he at least had the sturdy loins of a Tourangian; if he yielded sometimes to the native idleness of his birthplace, it was counterbalanced by his desire to make his fortune; if he lacked cleverness and education, he possessed an instinctive rectitude and delicate feelings, which he inherited from his mother,—a being who had, in Tourangian phrase, a "heart of gold." Cesar received from the Ragons his food, six francs a month as wages, and a pallet to sleep upon in the garret near the cook. The clerks who taught him to pack the goods, to do the errands, and sweep up the shop and the pavement, made fun of him as they did so, according to the manners and customs of shop-keeping, in which chaff is a principal element of instruction. Monsieur and Madame Ragon spoke to him like a dog. No one paid attention to his weariness, though many a night his feet, blistered by the pavements of Paris, and his bruised shoulders, made him suffer horribly. This harsh application of the maxim "each for himself,"—the gospel of large cities,—made Cesar think the life of Paris very hard. At night he cried as he thought of Touraine, where the peasant works at his ease, where the mason lays a stone between breakfast and dinner, and idleness is wisely mingled with labor; but he always fell asleep without having time to think of running away, for he had his errands to do in the morning, and obeyed his duty with the instinct of a watch-dog. If occasionally he complained, the head clerk would smile with a jovial air, and say,—
"Ah, my boy! all is not rose at 'The Queen of Roses.' Larks don't fall down roasted; you must run after them and catch them, and then you must find some way to cook them."
The cook, a big creature from Picardy, took the best bits for herself, and only spoke to Cesar when she wanted to complain of Monsieur and Madame Ragon, who left her nothing to steal. Towards the end of the first month this girl, who was forced to keep house of a Sunday, opened a conversation with Cesar. Ursula with the grease washed off seemed charming to the poor shop-boy, who, unless hindered by chance, was likely to strike on the first rock that lay hidden in his way. Like all unprotected boys, he loved the first woman who threw him a kind look. The cook took Cesar under her protection; and thence followed certain secret relations, which the clerks laughed at pitilessly. Two years later, the cook happily abandoned Cesar for a young recruit belonging to her native place who was then hiding in Paris,—a lad twenty years old, owning a few acres of land, who let Ursula marry him.
During those two years the cook had fed her little Cesar well, and had explained to him certain mysteries of Parisian life, which she made him look at from the bottom; and she impressed upon him, out of jealousy, a profound horror of evil places, whose dangers seemed not unknown to her. In 1792 the feet of the deserted Cesar were well-toughened to the pavements, his shoulders to the bales, and his mind to what he called the "humbugs" of Paris. So when Ursula abandoned him he was speedily consoled, for she had realized none of his instinctive ideas in relation to sentiment. Licentious and surly, wheedling and pilfering, selfish and a tippler, she clashed with the simple nature of Birotteau without offering him any compensating perspective. Sometimes the poor lad felt with pain that he was bound by ties that are strong enough to hold ingenuous hearts to a creature with whom he could not sympathize. By the time that he became master of his own heart he had reached his growth, and was sixteen years old. His mind, developed by Ursula and by the banter of the clerks, made him study commerce with an eye in which intelligence was veiled beneath simplicity: he observed the customers; asked in leisure moments for explanations about the merchandise, whose divers sorts and proper places he retained in his head. The day came when he knew all the articles, and their prices and marks, better than any new-comer; and from that time Monsieur and Madame Ragon made a practice of employing him in the business.
When the terrible levy of the year II. made a clean sweep in the shop of citizen Ragon, Cesar Birotteau, promoted to be second clerk, profited by the occasion to obtain a salary of fifty francs a month, and took his seat at the dinner-table of the Ragons with ineffable delight. The second clerk of "The Queen of Roses," possessing already six hundred francs, now had a chamber where he could put away, in long-coveted articles of furniture, the clothing he had little by little got together. Dressed like other young men of an epoch when fashion required the assumption of boorish manners, the gentle and modest peasant had an air and manner which rendered him at least their equal; and he thus passed the barriers which in other times ordinary life would have placed between himself and the bourgeoisie. Towards the end of this year his integrity won him a place in the counting-room. The dignified citoyenne Ragon herself looked after his linen, and the two shopkeepers became familiar with him.
In Vendemiaire, 1794, Cesar, who possessed a hundred louis d'or, changed them for six thousand francs in assignats, with which he bought into the Funds at thirty, paying for the investment on the very day before the paper began its course of depreciation at the Bourse, and locking up his securities with unspeakable satisfaction. From that day forward he watched the movement of stocks and public affairs with secret anxieties of his own, which made him quiver at each rumor of the reverses or successes that marked this period of our history. Monsieur Ragon, formerly perfumer to her majesty Queen Marie-Antoinette, confided to Cesar Birotteau, during this critical period, his attachment to the fallen tyrants. This disclosure was one of the cardinal events in Cesar's life. The nightly conversations when the shop was closed, the street quiet, the accounts regulated, made a fanatic of the Tourangian, who in becoming a royalist obeyed an inborn instinct. The recital of the virtuous deeds of Louis XVI., the anecdotes with which husband and wife exalted the memory of the queen, fired the imagination of the young man. The horrible fate of those two crowned heads, decapitated a few steps from the shop-door, roused his feeling heart and made him hate a system of government which was capable of shedding blood without repugnance. His commercial interests showed him the death of trade in the Maximum, and in political convulsions, which are always destructive of business. Moreover, like a true perfumer, he hated the revolution which made a Titus of every man and abolished powder. The tranquillity resulting from absolutism could alone, he thought, give life to money, and he grew bigoted on behalf of royalty. When Monsieur Ragon saw that Cesar was well-disposed on this point, he made him head-clerk and initiated him into the secrets of "The Queen of Roses," several of whose customers were the most active and devoted emissaries of the Bourbons, and where the correspondence between Paris and the West secretly went on. Carried away by the fervor of youth, electrified by his intercourse with the Georges, the Billardiere, Montauran, Bauvan, Longuy, Manda, Bernier, du Guenic, and the Fontaines, Cesar flung himself into the conspiracy by which the royalists and the terrorists combined on the 13th Vendemiaire against the expiring Convention.
On that day Cesar had the honor of fighting against Napoleon on the steps of Saint-Roch, and was wounded at the beginning of the affair. Every one knows the result of that attempt. If the aide-de-camp of Barras then issued from his obscurity, the obscurity of Birotteau saved the clerk's life. A few friends carried the belligerent perfumer to "The Queen of Roses," where he remained hidden in the garret, nursed by Madame Ragon, and happily forgotten. Cesar Birotteau never had but that one spurt of martial courage. During the month his convalescence lasted, he made solid reflections on the absurdity of an alliance between politics and perfumery. Although he remained royalist, he resolved to be, purely and simply, a royalist perfumer, and never more to compromise himself, body and soul, for his country.
On the 18th Brumaire, Monsieur and Madame Ragon, despairing of the royal cause, determined to give up perfumery, and live like honest bourgeois without meddling in politics. To recover the value of their business, it was necessary to find a man who had more integrity than ambition, more plain good sense than ability. Ragon proposed the affair to his head-clerk. Birotteau, now master at twenty years of age of a thousand francs a year from the public Funds, hesitated. His ambition was to live near Chinon as soon as he could get together an income of fifteen hundred francs, or whenever the First Consul should have consolidated the public debt by consolidating himself in the Tuileries. Why should he risk his honest and simple independence in commercial uncertainties? he asked himself. He had never expected to win so large a fortune, and he owed it to happy chances which only come in early youth; he intended to marry in Touraine some woman rich enough to enable him to buy and cultivate Les Tresorieres, a little property which, from the dawn of his reason, he had coveted, which he dreamed of augmenting, where he could make a thousand crowns a year, and where he would lead a life of happy obscurity. He was about to refuse the offer, when love suddenly changed all his resolutions by increasing tenfold the measure of his ambition.
After Ursula's desertion, Cesar had remained virtuous, as much through fear of the dangers of Paris as from application to his work. When the passions are without food they change their wants; marriage then becomes, to persons of the middle class, a fixed idea, for it is their only way of winning and appropriating a woman. Cesar Birotteau had reached that point. Everything at "The Queen of Roses" now rested on the head-clerk; he had not a moment to give to pleasure. In such a life wants become imperious, and a chance meeting with a beautiful young woman, of whom a libertine clerk would scarcely have dreamed, produced on Cesar an overpowering effect. On a fine June day, crossing by the Pont-Marie to the Ile Saint-Louis, he saw a young girl standing at the door of a shop at the angle of the Quai d'Anjou. Constance Pillerault was the forewoman of a linen-draper's establishment called Le Petit Matelot,—the first of those shops which have since been established in Paris with more or less of painted signs, floating banners, show-cases filled with swinging shawls, cravats arranged like houses of cards, and a thousand other commercial seductions, such as fixed prices, fillets of suspended objects, placards, illusions and optical effects carried to such a degree of perfection that a shop-front has now become a commercial poem. The low price of all the articles called "Novelties" which were to be found at the Petit-Matelot gave the shop an unheard of vogue, and that in a part of Paris which was the least favorable to fashion and commerce. The young forewoman was at this time cited for her beauty, as was the case in later days with the beautiful lemonade-girl of the cafe of the Milles Colonnnes, and several other poor creatures who flattened more noses, young and old, against the window-panes of milliners, confectioners, and linen-drapers, than there are stones in the streets of Paris.
The head-clerk of "The Queen of Roses," living between Saint-Roch and the Rue de la Sourdiere, knew nothing of the existence of the Petit-Matelot; for the smaller trades of Paris are more or less strangers to each other. Cesar was so vigorously smitten by the beauty of Constance that he rushed furiously into the shop to buy six linen shirts, disputing the price a long time, and requiring volumes of linen to be unfolded and shown to him, precisely like an Englishwoman in the humor for "shopping." The young person deigned to take notice of Cesar, perceiving, by certain symptoms known to women, that he came more for the seller than the goods. He dictated his name and address to the young lady, who grew very indifferent to the admiration of her customer once the purchase was made. The poor clerk had had little to do to win the good graces of Ursula; in such matters he was as silly as a sheep, and love now made him sillier. He dared not utter a word, and was moreover too dazzled to observe the indifference which succeeded the smiles of the siren shopwoman.
For eight succeeding days Cesar mounted guard every evening before the Petit-Matelot, watching for a look as a dog waits for a bone at the kitchen door, indifferent to the derision of the clerks and the shop-girls, humbly stepping aside for the buyers and passers-by, and absorbed in the little revolving world of the shop. Some days later he again entered the paradise of his angel, less to purchase handkerchiefs than to communicate to her a luminous idea.
"If you should have need of perfumery, Mademoiselle, I could furnish you in the same manner," he said as he paid for the handkerchiefs.
Constance Pillerault was daily receiving brilliant proposals, in which there was no question of marriage; and though her heart was as pure as her forehead was white, it was only after six months of marches and counter-marches, in the course of which Cesar revealed his inextinguishable love, that she condescended to receive his attentions, and even then without committing herself to an answer,—a prudence suggested by the number of her swains, wholesale wine-merchants, rich proprietors of cafes, and others who made soft eyes at her. The lover was backed up in his suit by the guardian of Constance, Monsieur Claude-Joseph Pillerault, at that time an ironmonger on the Quai de la Ferraille, whom the young man had finally discovered by devoting himself to the subterraneous spying which distinguishes a genuine love.
The rapidity of this narrative compels us to pass over in silence the joys of Parisian love tasted with innocence, the prodigalities peculiar to clerkdom, such as melons in their earliest prime, choice dinners at Venua's followed by the theatre, Sunday jaunts to the country in hackney-coaches. Without being handsome, there was nothing in Cesar's person which made it difficult to love him. The life of Paris and his sojourn in a dark shop had dulled the brightness of his peasant complexion. His abundant black hair, his solid neck and shoulders like those of a Norman horse, his sturdy limbs, his honest and straightforward manner, all contributed to predispose others in his favor. The uncle Pillerault, whose duty it was to watch over the happiness of his brother's daughter, made inquiries which resulted in his sanctioning the wishes of the young Tourangian. In the year 1800, and in the pretty month of May, Mademoiselle Pillerault consented to marry Cesar Birotteau, who fainted with joy at the moment when, under a linden at Sceaux, Constance-Barbe-Josephine Pillerault accepted him as her husband.
"My little girl," said Monsieur Pillerault, "you have won a good husband. He has a warm heart and honorable feelings; he is true as gold, and as good as an infant Jesus,—in fact, a king of men."
Constance frankly abdicated the more brilliant destiny to which, like all shop-girls, she may at times have aspired. She wished to be an honest woman, a good mother of a family, and looked at life according to the religious programme of the middle classes. Such a career suited her own ideas far better than the dangerous vanities which seduce so many youthful Parisian imaginations. Constance, with her narrow intelligence, was a type of the petty bourgeoisie whose labors are not performed without grumbling; who begin by refusing what they desire, and end by getting angry when taken at their word; whose restless activity is carried into the kitchen and into the counting-room, into the gravest matters of business, and into the invisible darns of the household linen; who love while scolding, who conceive no ideas but the simplest (the small change of the mind); who argue about everything, fear everything, calculate everything, and fret perpetually over the future. Her cold but ingenuous beauty, her touching expression, her freshness and purity, prevented Birotteau from thinking of her defects, which moreover were more than compensated by a delicate sense of honor natural to women, by an excessive love of order, by a fanaticism for work, and by her genius as a saleswoman. Constance was eighteen years old, and possessed eleven thousand francs of her own. Cesar, inspired by his love with an excessive ambition, bought the business of "The Queen of Roses" and removed it to a handsome building near the Place Vendome. At the early age of twenty-one, married to a woman he adored, the proprietor of an establishment for which he had paid three quarters of the price down, he had the right to view, and did view, the future in glowing colors; all the more when he measured the path which led from his original point of departure. Roguin, notary of Ragon, who had drawn up the marriage contract, gave the new perfumer some sound advice, and prevented him from paying the whole purchase money down with the fortune of his wife.
"Keep the means of undertaking some good enterprise, my lad," he had said to him.
Birotteau looked up to the notary with admiration, fell into the habit of consulting him, and made him his friend. Like Ragon and Pillerault, he had so much faith in the profession that he gave himself up to Roguin without allowing himself a suspicion. Thanks to this advice, Cesar, supplied with the eleven thousand francs of his wife for his start in business, would have scorned to exchange his possessions for those of the First Consul, brilliant as the prospects of Napoleon might seem. At first the Birotteaus kept only a cook, and lived in the entresol above the shop,—a sort of den tolerably well decorated by an upholsterer, where the bride and bridegroom began a honeymoon that was never to end. Madame Cesar appeared to advantage behind the counter. Her celebrated beauty had an enormous influence upon the sales, and the beautiful Madame Birotteau became a topic among the fashionable young men of the Empire. If Cesar was sometimes accused of royalism, the world did justice to his honesty; if a few neighboring shopkeepers envied his happiness, every one at least thought him worthy of it. The bullet which struck him on the steps of Saint-Roch gave him the reputation of being mixed up with political secrets, and also of being a courageous man,—though he had no military courage in his heart, and not the smallest political idea in his brain. Upon these grounds the worthy people of the arrondissement made him captain of the National Guard; but he was cashiered by Napoleon, who, according to Birotteau, owed him a grudge for their encounter on the 13th Vendemiaire. Cesar thus obtained at a cheap rate a varnish of persecution, which made him interesting in the eyes of the opposition, and gave him a certain importance.
Such was the history of this household, lastingly happy through its feeling, and agitated only by commercial anxieties.
During the first year Cesar instructed his wife about the sales of their merchandise and the details of perfumery,—a business which she understood admirably. She really seemed to have been created and sent into the world to fit on the gloves of customers. At the close of that year the assets staggered our ambitious perfumer; all costs calculated, he would be able in less than twenty years to make a modest capital of one hundred thousand francs, which was the sum at which he estimated their happiness. He then resolved to reach fortune more rapidly, and determined to manufacture articles as well as retail them. Contrary to the advice of his wife, he hired some sheds, with the ground about them, in the Faubourg du Temple, and painted upon them in big letters, "Manufactory of Cesar Birotteau." He enticed a skilful workman from Grasse, with whom he began, on equal shares, the manufacture of soaps, essences, and eau-de-cologne. His connection with this man lasted only six months, and ended by losses which fell upon him alone. Without allowing himself to be discouraged, Birotteau determined to get better results at any price, solely to avoid being scolded by his wife,—to whom he acknowledged later that in those depressing days his head had boiled like a saucepan, and that several times, if it had not been for his religious sentiments, he should have flung himself into the Seine.
Harassed by some unprofitable enterprise, he was lounging one day along the boulevard on his way to dinner,—for the Parisian lounger is as often a man filled with despair as an idler,—when among a parcel of books for six sous a-piece, laid out in a hamper on the pavement, his eyes lighted on the following title, yellow with dust: "Abdeker, or the Art of Preserving Beauty." He picked up the so-called Arab book, a sort of romance written by a physician of the preceding century, and happened on a page which related to perfumes. Leaning against a tree on the boulevard to turn over the leaves at his ease, he read a note by the author which explained the nature of the skin and the cuticle, and showed that a certain soap, or a certain paste, often produced effects quite contrary to those expected of them, if the soap and the paste toned up a skin which needed relaxing, or relaxed a skin which required tones. Birotteau bought the book, in which he saw his fortune. Nevertheless, having little confidence in his own lights, he consulted a celebrated chemist, Vauquelin, from whom he naively inquired how to mix a two-sided cosmetic which should produce effects appropriate to the diversified nature of the human epidermis. Truly scientific men—men who are really great in the sense that they never attain in their lifetime the renown which their immense and unrecognized labors deserve—are nearly always kind, and willing to serve the poor in spirit. Vauquelin accordingly patronized the perfumer, and allowed him to call himself the inventor of a paste to whiten the hands, the composition of which he dictated to him. Birotteau named this cosmetic the "Double Paste of Sultans." To complete the work, he applied the same recipe to the manufacture of a lotion for the complexion, which he called the "Carminative Balm." He imitated in his own line the system of the Petit-Matelot, and was the first perfumer to display that redundancy of placards, advertisements, and other methods of publication which are called, perhaps unjustly, charlatanism.
The Paste of Sultans and the Carminative Balm were ushered into the world of fashion and commerce by colored placards, at the head of which were these words, "Approved by the Institute." This formula, used for the first time, had a magical effect. Not only all France, but the continent flaunted with the posters, yellow, red, and blue, of the monarch of the "The Queen of Roses," who kept in stock, supplied, and manufactured, at moderate prices, all that belonged to his trade. At a period when nothing was talked of but the East, to name any sort of cosmetic the "Paste of Sultans" thus divining the magic force of such words in a land where every man hoped to be a sultan as much as every woman longed to be a sultana, was an inspiration which could only have come to a common man or a man of genius. The public always judges by results. Birotteau passed for a superior man, commercially speaking; all the more because he compiled a prospectus whose ridiculous phraseology was an element of success. In France they only made fun of things which occupy the public mind, and the public does not occupy itself with things that do not succeed. Though Birotteau perpetrated this folly in good faith and not as a trick, the world gave him credit for knowing how to play the fool for a purpose. We have found, not without difficulty, a copy of this prospectus at the establishment of Popinot and Co., druggists, Rue des Lombards. This curious document belongs to the class which, in a higher sphere, historians call pieces justificatives. We give it here:
THE DOUBLE PASTE OF SULTANS
AND CARMINATIVE BALM
Of Cesar Birotteau.
Approved by the Institute of France.
"For many years a paste for the hands and a lotion for the face offering superior results to those obtained from Eau-de-Cologne in the domain of the toilet, has been widely sought by both sexes in Europe. Devoting long vigils to the study of the skin and cuticle of the two sexes, each of whom, one as much as the other, attach the utmost importance to the softness, suppleness, brilliancy, and velvet texture of the complexion, the Sieur Birotteau, perfumer, favorably known in this metropolis and abroad, has discovered a Paste and a Lotion justly hailed as marvellous by the fashion and elegance of Paris. In point of fact, this Paste and this Lotion possess amazing properties which act upon the skin without prematurely wrinkling it,—the inevitable result of drugs thoughtlessly employed, and sold in these days by ignorance and cupidity. This discovery rests upon diversities of temperament, which divide themselves into two great classes, indicated by the color of the Paste and the Lotion, which will be found pink for the skin and cuticle of persons of lymphatic habit, and white for those possessed of a sanguine temperament.
"This Paste is named the 'Paste of Sultans,' because the discovery was originally made for the Seraglio by an Arabian physician. It has been approved by the Institute on the recommendation of our illustrious chemist, Vauquelin; together with the Lotion, fabricated on the same principles which govern the composition of the Paste.
"This precious Paste, exhaling as it does the sweetest perfumes, removes all blotches, even those that are obstinately rebellious, whitens the most recalcitrant epidermis, and dissipates the perspirations of the hand, of which both sexes equally complain.
"The Carminative Balm will disperse the little pimples which appear inopportunely at certain times, and interfere with a lady's projects for a ball; it refreshes and revives the color by opening or shutting the pores of the skin according to the exigencies of the individual temperament. It is so well known already for its effect in arresting the ravages of time that many, out of gratitude, have called it the 'Friend of Beauty.'
"Eau-de-Cologne is, purely and simply, a trivial perfume without special efficacy of any kind; while the Double Paste of Sultans and the Carminative Balm are two operative compounds, of a motive power which acts without risk upon the internal energies and seconds them. Their perfumes (essentially balsamic, and of a stimulating character which admirably revives the heart and brain) awake ideas and vivify them; they are as wonderful for their simplicity as for their merits. In short, they offer one attraction the more to women, and to men a means of seduction which it is within their power to secure.
"The daily use of the Balm will relieve the smart occasioned by the heat of the razor; it will protect the lips from chapping, and restore their color; it dispels in time all discolorations, and revives the natural tones of the skin. Such results demonstrate in man a perfect equilibrium of the juices of life, which tends to relieve all persons subject to headache from the sufferings of that horrible malady. Finally, the Carminative Balm, which can be employed by women in all stages of their toilet, will prevent cutaneous diseases by facilitating the transpiration of the tissues, and communicating to them a permanent texture like that of velvet.
"Address, post-paid, Monsieur Cesar Birotteau, successor to Ragon, former perfumer to the Queen Marie Antoinette, at The Queen of Roses, Rue Saint-Honore, Paris, near the Place Vendome.
"The price of a cake of Paste is three francs; that of the bottle six francs.
"Monsieur Cesar Birotteau, to avoid counterfeits, informs the public that the Paste is wrapped in paper bearing his signature, and that the bottles have a stamp blown in the glass."
The success was owing, without Cesar's suspecting it, to Constance, who advised him to send cases of the Carminative Balm and the Paste of Sultans to all perfumers in France and in foreign cities, offering them at the same time a discount of thirty per cent if they would buy the two articles by the gross. The Paste and the Balm were, in reality, worth more than other cosmetics of the sort; and they captivated ignorant people by the distinctions they set up among the temperaments. The five hundred perfumers of France, allured by the discount, each bought annually from Birotteau more than three hundred gross of the Paste and the Lotion,—a consumption which, if it gave only a limited profit on each article, became enormous considered in bulk. Cesar was then able to buy the huts and the land in the Faubourg du Temple; he built large manufactories, and decorated his shop at "The Queen of Roses" with much magnificence; his household began to taste the little joys of competence, and his wife no longer trembled as before.
In 1810 Madame Cesar, foreseeing a rise in rents, pushed her husband into becoming chief tenant of the house where they had hitherto occupied only the shop and the entresol, and advised him to remove their own appartement to the first floor. A fortunate event induced Constance to shut her eyes to the follies which Birotteau committed for her sake in fitting up the new appartement. The perfumer had just been elected judge in the commercial courts: his integrity, his well-known sense of honor, and the respect he enjoyed, earned for him this dignity, which ranked him henceforth among the leading merchants of Paris. To improve his knowledge, he rose daily at five o'clock, and read law-reports and books treating of commercial litigation. His sense of justice, his rectitude, his conscientious intentions,—qualities essential to the understanding of questions submitted for consular decision,—soon made him highly esteemed among the judges. His defects contributed not a little to his reputation. Conscious of his inferiority, Cesar subordinated his own views to those of his colleagues, who were flattered in being thus deferred to. Some sought the silent approbation of a man held to be sagacious, in his capacity of listener; others, charmed with his modesty and gentleness, praised him publicly. Plaintiffs and defendants extolled his kindness, his conciliatory spirit; and he was often chosen umpire in contests where his own good sense would have suggested the swift justice of a Turkish cadi. During his whole period in office he contrived to use language which was a medley of commonplaces mixed with maxims and computations served up in flowing phrases mildly put forth, which sounded to the ears of superficial people like eloquence. Thus he pleased that great majority, mediocre by nature, who are condemned to perpetual labor and to views which are of the earth earthy. Cesar, however, lost so much time in court that his wife obliged him finally to resign the expensive dignity.
Towards 1813, the Birotteau household, thanks to its constant harmony, and after steadily plodding on through life, saw the dawn of an era of prosperity which nothing seemed likely to interrupt. Monsieur and Madame Ragon, their predecessors, the uncle Pillerault, Roguin the notary, the Messrs. Matifat, druggists in the Rue des Lombards and purveyors to "The Queen of Roses," Joseph Lebas, woollen draper and successor to the Messrs. Guillaume at the Maison du Chat-qui-pelote (one of the luminaries of the Rue Saint-Denis), Popinot the judge, brother of Madame Ragon, Chiffreville of the firm of Protez & Chiffreville, Monsieur and Madame Cochin, employed in the treasury department and sleeping partners in the house of Matifat, the Abbe Loraux, confessor and director of the pious members of this coterie, with a few other persons, made up the circle of their friends. In spite of the royalist sentiments of Birotteau, public opinion was in his favor; he was considered very rich, though in fact he possessed only a hundred thousand francs over and above his business. The regularity of his affairs, his punctuality, his habit of making no debts, of never discounting his paper, and of taking, on the contrary, safe securities from those whom he could thus oblige, together with his general amiability, won him enormous credit. His household cost him nearly twenty thousand francs a year, and the education of Cesarine, an only daughter, idolized by Constance as well as by himself, necessitated heavy expenses. Neither husband nor wife considered money when it was a question of giving pleasure to their child, from whom they had never been willing to separate. Imagine the happiness of the poor parvenu peasant as he listened to his charming Cesarine playing a sonata of Steibelt's on the piano, and singing a ballad; or when he found her writing the French language correctly, or reading Racine, father and son, and explaining their beauties, or sketching a landscape, or painting in sepia! What joy to live again in a flower so pure, so lovely, which had never left the maternal stem; an angel whose budding graces and whose earliest developments he had passionately watched; an only daughter, incapable of despising her father, or of ridiculing his defective education, so truly was she an ingenuous young girl.
When he first came to Paris, Cesar had known how to read, write, and cipher, but his education stopped there; his laborious life had kept him from acquiring ideas and knowledge outside the business of perfumery. Mixing wholly with people to whom science and letters were of no importance, and whose information did not go beyond their specialty, having no time to give to higher studies, the perfumer had become a merely practical man. He adopted necessarily the language, blunders, and opinions of the bourgeois of Paris, who admires Moliere, Voltaire, and Rousseau on faith, and buys their books without ever reading them; who maintains that people should say ormoires, because women put away their gold and their dresses and moire in those articles of furniture, and that it is only a corruption of the language to say armoires. Potier, Talma, and Mademoiselle Mars were ten times millionaires, and did not live like other human beings; the great tragedian ate raw meat, and Mademoiselle Mars sometimes drank dissolved pearls, in imitation of a celebrated Egyptian actress. The Emperor had leather pockets in his waistcoat, so that he could take his snuff by the handful; he rode on horseback at full gallop up the stairway of the orangery at Versailles. Writers and artists died in the hospital, as a natural consequence of their eccentricities; they were, moreover, all atheists, and people should be very careful not to admit them into their households. Joseph Lebas cited with horror the history of his step-sister Augustine's marriage with the painter Sommervieux. Astronomers lived on spiders.
These striking points of information on the French language, on dramatic art, politics, literature, and science, will explain the bearings of the bourgeois intellect. A poet passing through the Rue des Lombards may dream of Araby as he inhales certain perfumes. He may admire the danseuses in a chauderie, as he breathes the odors of an Indian root. Dazzled by the blaze of cochineal, he recalls the poems of the Veda, the religion of Brahma and its castes; brushing against piles of ivory in the rough, he mounts the backs of elephants; seated in a muslin cage, he makes love like the King of Lahore. But the little retail merchant is ignorant from whence have come, or where may grow, the products in which he deals. Birotteau, perfumer, did not know an iota of natural history, nor of chemistry. Though regarding Vauquelin as a great man, he thought him an exception,—of about the same capacity as the retired grocer who summed up a discussion on the method of importing teas, by remarking with a knowing air, "There are but two ways: tea comes either by caravan, or by Havre." According to Birotteau aloes and opium were only to be found in the Rue des Lombards. Rosewater, said to be brought from Constantinople, was made in Paris like eau-de-cologne. The names of these places were shams, invented to please Frenchmen who could not endure the things of their own country. A French merchant must call his discoveries English to make them fashionable, just as in England the druggists attribute theirs to France.
Nevertheless, Cesar was incapable of being wholly stupid or a fool. Honesty and goodness cast upon all the acts of his life a light which made them creditable; for noble conduct makes even ignorance seem worthy. Success gave him confidence. In Paris confidence is accepted as power, of which it is the outward sign. As for Madame Birotteau, having measured Cesar during the first three years of their married life, she was a prey to continual terror. She represented in their union the sagacious and fore-casting side,—doubt, opposition, and fear; while Cesar, on the other hand, was the embodiment of audacity, energy, and the inexpressible delights of fatalism. Yet in spite of these appearances the husband often quaked, while the wife, in reality, was possessed of patience and true courage.
Thus it happened that a man who was both mediocre and pusillanimous, without education, without ideas, without knowledge, without force of character, and who might be expected not to succeed in the slipperiest city in the world, came by his principles of conduct, by his sense of justice, by the goodness of a heart that was truly Christian, and through his love for the only woman he had really won, to be considered as a remarkable man, courageous, and full of resolution. The public saw results only. Excepting Pillerault and Popinot the judge, all the people of his own circle knew him superficially, and were unable to judge him. Moreover, the twenty or thirty friends he had collected about him talked the same nonsense, repeated the same commonplaces, and all thought themselves superior in their own line. The women vied with each other in dress and good dinners; each had said her all when she dropped a contemptuous word about her husband. Madame Birotteau alone had the good sense to treat hers with honor and respect in public; she knew him to be a man who, in spite of his secret disabilities, had earned their fortune, and whose good name she shared. It is true that she sometimes asked herself what sort of world this could be, if all the men who were thought superior were like her husband. Such conduct contributed not a little to maintain the respectful esteem bestowed upon the perfumer in a community where women are much inclined to complain of their husbands and bring them into discredit.
The first days of the year 1814, so fatal to imperial France, were marked at the Birotteaus by two events, not especially remarkable in other households, but of a nature to impress such simple souls as Cesar and his wife, who casting their eyes along the past could find nothing but tender memories. They had taken as head-clerk a young man twenty-two years of age, named Ferdinand du Tillet. This lad—who had just left a perfumery where he was refused a share in the business, and who was reckoned a genius—had made great efforts to get employed at "The Queen of Roses," whose methods, facilities, and customs were well known to him. Birotteau took him, and gave him a salary of a thousand francs, intending to make him eventually his successor.
Ferdinand had so great an influence on the destinies of this family that it is necessary to say a few words about him. In the first place he was named simply Ferdinand, without surname. This anonymous condition seemed to him an immense advantage at the time when Napoleon conscripted all families to fill the ranks. He was, however, born somewhere, as the result of some cruel and voluptuous caprice. The following are the only facts preserved about his civil condition. In 1793 a poor girl of Tillet, a village near Andelys, came by night and gave birth to a child in the garden of the curate of the church at Tillet, and after rapping on the window-shutters went away and drowned herself. The good priest took the child, gave him the name of the saint inscribed on the calendar for that day, and fed and brought him up as his own son. The curate died in 1804, without leaving enough property to carry on the education he had begun. Ferdinand, thrown upon Paris, led a filibustering life whose chances might bring him to the scaffold, to fortune, the bar, the army, commerce, or domestic life. Obliged to live like a Figaro, he was first a commercial traveller, then a perfumer's clerk in Paris, where he turned up after traversing all France, having studied the world and made up his mind to succeed at any price.
In 1813 Ferdinand thought it necessary to register his age, and obtain a civil standing by applying to the courts at Andelys for a judgment, which should enable his baptismal record to be transferred from the registry of the parish to that of the mayor's office; and he obtained permission to rectify the document by inserting the name of du Tillet, under which he was known, and which legally belonged to him through the fact of his exposure and abandonment in that township. Without father, mother, or other guardian than the procureur imperial, alone in the world and owing no duty to any man, he found society a hard stepmother, and he handled it, in his turn, without gloves,—as the Turks the Moors; he knew no guide but his own interests, and any means to fortune he considered good. This young Norman, gifted with dangerous abilities, coupled his desires for success with the harsh defects which, justly or unjustly, are attributed to the natives of his province. A wheedling manner cloaked a quibbling mind, for he was in truth a hard judicial wrangler. But if he boldly contested the rights of others, he certainly yielded none of his own; he attacked his adversary at the right moment, and wearied him out with his inflexible persistency. His merits were those of the Scapins of ancient comedy; he had their fertility of resource, their cleverness in skirting evil, their itching to lay hold of all that was good to keep. In short, he applied to his own poverty a saying which the Abbe Terray uttered in the name of the State,—he kept a loophole to become in after years an honest man. Gifted with passionate energy, with a boldness that was almost military in requiring good as well as evil actions from those about him, and justifying such demands on the theory of personal interest, he despised men too much, believing them all corruptible, he was too unscrupulous in the choice of means, thinking all equally good, he was too thoroughly convinced that the success of money was the absolution of all moral mechanism, not to attain his ends sooner or later.
Such a man, standing between the hulks and a vast fortune, was necessarily vindictive, domineering, quick in decisions, yet as dissimulating as a Cromwell planning to decapitate the head of integrity. His real depth was hidden under a light and jesting mind. Mere clerk as he was, his ambition knew no bounds. With one comprehensive glance of hatred he had taken in the whole of society, saying boldly to himself, "Thou shalt be mine!" He had vowed not to marry till he was forty, and kept his word. Physically, Ferdinand was a tall, slender young man, with a good figure and adaptive manners, which enabled him to take, on occasion, the key-note of the various societies in which he found himself. His ignoble face was rather pleasant at first sight; but later, on closer acquaintance, expressions were caught such as come to the surface of those who are ill at ease in their own minds, and whose consciences groan at certain times. His complexion, which was sanguine under the soft skin of a Norman, had a crude or acrid color. The glance of his eye, whose iris was circled with a whitish rim as if it were lined with silver, was evasive yet terrible when he fixed it straight upon his victim. His voice had a hollow sound, like that of a man worn out with much speaking. His thin lips were not wanting in charm, but his pointed nose and slightly projecting forehead showed defects of race; and his hair, of a tint like hair that has been dyed black, indicated a mongrel descent, through which he derived his mental qualities from some libertine lord, his low instincts from a seduced peasant-girl, his knowledge from an incomplete education, and his vices from his deserted and abandoned condition.
Birotteau discovered with much amazement that his clerk went out in the evening very elegantly dressed, came home late, and was seen at the balls of bankers and notaries. Such habits displeased Cesar, according to whose ideas clerks should study the books of the firm and think only of their business. The worthy man was shocked by trifles, and reproached du Tillet gently for wearing linen that was too fine, for leaving cards on which his name was inscribed, F. du Tillet,—a fashion, according to commercial jurisprudence, which belonged only to the great world. Ferdinand had entered the employ of this Orgon with the intentions of a Tartuffe. He paid court to Madame Cesar, tried to seduce her, and judged his master very much as the wife judged him herself, and all with alarming rapidity. Though discreet, reserved, and accustomed to say only what he meant to say, du Tillet unbosomed his opinions on men and life in a way to shock a scrupulous woman who shared the religious feelings of her husband, and who thought it a crime to do the least harm to a neighbor. In spite of Madame Birotteau's caution, du Tillet suspected the contempt in which she held him. Constance, to whom Ferdinand had written a few love-letters, soon noticed a change in his manners, which grew presuming, as if intended to convey the idea of a mutual good understanding. Without giving the secret reason to her husband, she advised him to send Ferdinand away. Birotteau agreed with his wife, and the dismissal was determined upon.
Two days before it was carried into effect, on a Saturday night when Birotteau was making up his monthly accounts, three thousand francs were found to be missing. His consternation was dreadful, less for the loss than for the suspicions which fell upon three clerks, one cook, a shop-boy, and several habitual workmen. On whom should he lay the blame? Madame Birotteau never left her counter. The clerk who had charge of the desk was a nephew of Monsieur Ragon named Popinot, a young man nineteen years old, who lived with the Birotteaus and was integrity itself. His figures, which disagreed with the money in the desk, revealed the deficit, and showed that the abstraction had been made after the balance had been added up. Husband and wife resolved to keep silence and watch the house. On the following day, Sunday, they received their friends. The families who made up their coterie met at each other's houses for little festivities, turn and turn about. While playing at bouillote, Roguin the notary placed on the card-table some old louis d'or which Madame Cesar had taken only a few days before from a bride, Madame d'Espart.
"Have you been robbing the poor-box?" asked the perfumer, laughing.
Roguin replied that he had won the money, at the house of a banker, from du Tillet, who confirmed the answer without blushing. Cesar, on the other hand, grew scarlet. When the evening was over, and just as Ferdinand was going to bed, Birotteau took him into the shop on a pretext of business.
"Du Tillet," said the worthy man, "three thousand francs are missing from the desk. I suspect no one; but the circumstance of the old louis seems too much against you not to oblige me to speak of it. We will not go to bed till we have found where the error lies,—for, after all, it may be only an error. Perhaps you took something on account of your salary?"
Du Tillet said at once that he had taken the louis. The perfumer opened his ledger and found that his clerk's account had not been debited.
"I was in a hurry; but I ought to have made Popinot enter the sum," said Ferdinand.
"That is true," said Birotteau, bewildered by the cool unconcern of the Norman, who well knew the worthy people among whom he had come meaning to make his fortune. The perfumer and his clerk passed the whole night in examining accounts, a labor which the good man knew to be useless. In coming and going about the desk Cesar slipped three bills of a thousand francs each into the money-drawer, catching them against the top of it; then he pretended to be much fatigued and to fall asleep and snore. Du Tillet awoke him triumphantly, with an excessive show of joy at discovering the error. The next day Birotteau scolded Popinot and his little wife publicly, as if very angry with them for their negligence. Fifteen days later Ferdinand du Tillet got a situation with a stockbroker. He said perfumery did not suit him, and he wished to learn banking. In leaving Birotteau, he spoke of Madame Cesar in a way to make people suppose that his master had dismissed him out of jealousy. A few months later, however, du Tillet went to see Birotteau and asked his endorsement for twenty thousand francs, to enable him to make up the securities he needed in an enterprise which was to put him on the high-road to fortune. Observing the surprise which Cesar showed at this impudence, du Tillet frowned, and asked if he had no confidence in him. Matifat and two other merchants, who were present on business with Birotteau, also observed the indignation of the perfumer, who repressed his anger in their presence. Du Tillet, he thought, might have become an honest man; his previous fault might have been committed for some mistress in distress or from losses at cards; the public reprobation of an honest man might drive one still young, and possibly repentant, into a career of crime. So this angel took up his pen and endorsed du Tillet's notes, telling him that he was heartily willing thus to oblige a lad who had been very useful to him. The blood rushed to his face as he uttered the falsehood. Du Tillet could not meet his eye, and no doubt vowed to him at that moment the undying hatred which the spirits of darkness feel towards the angels of light.
From this time du Tillet held his balance-pole so well as he danced the tight-rope of financial speculation, that he was rich and elegant in appearance before he became so in reality. As soon as he got hold of a cabriolet he was always in it; he kept himself in the high sphere of those who mingle business with pleasure, and make the foyer of the opera-house a branch of the Bourse,—in short, the Turcarets of the period. Thanks to Madame Roguin, whom he had known at the Birotteau's, he was received at once among people of the highest standing in finance; and, at the moment of which we write, he had reached a prosperity in which there was nothing fictitious. He was on the best terms with the house of Nucingen, to which Roguin had introduced him, and he had promptly become connected with the brothers Keller and with several other great banking-houses. No one knew from whence this youth had derived the immense capital which he handled, but every one attributed his success to his intelligence and his integrity.
The Restoration made Cesar a personage, and the turmoil of political crises naturally lessened his recollection of these domestic misadventures. The constancy of his royalist opinions (to which he had become exceedingly indifferent since his wound, though he remained faithful to them out of decency) and the memory of his devotion in Vendemiaire won him very high patronage, precisely because he had asked for none. He was appointed major in the National Guard, although he was utterly incapable of giving the word of command. In 1815 Napoleon, always his enemy, dismissed him. During the Hundred Days Birotteau was the bugbear of the liberals of his quarter; for it was not until 1815 that differences of political opinion grew up among merchants, who had hitherto been unanimous in their desires for public tranquillity, of which, as they knew, business affairs stood much in need.
At the second Restoration the royal government was obliged to remodel the municipality of Paris. The prefect wished to nominate Birotteau as mayor. Thanks to his wife, the perfumer would only accept the place of deputy-mayor, which brought him less before the public. Such modesty increased the respect generally felt for him, and won him the friendship of the new mayor, Monsieur Flamet de la Billardiere. Birotteau, who had seen him in the shop in the days when "The Queen of Roses" was the headquarters of royalist conspiracy, mentioned him to the prefect of the Seine when that official consulted Cesar on the choice to be made. Monsieur and Madame Birotteau were therefore never forgotten in the invitations of the mayor. Madame Birotteau frequently took up the collections at Saint-Roch in the best of good company. La Billardiere warmly supported Birotteau when the question of bestowing the crosses given to the municipality came up, and dwelt upon his wound at Saint-Roch, his attachment to the Bourbons, and the respect which he enjoyed. The government, wishing on the one hand to cheapen Napoleon's order by lavishing the cross of the Legion of honor, and on the other to win adherents and rally to the Bourbons the various trades and men of arts and sciences, included Birotteau in the coming promotion. This honor, which suited well with the show that Cesar made in his arrondissement, put him in a position where the ideas of a man accustomed to succeed naturally enlarged themselves. The news which the mayor had just given him of his preferment was the determining reason that decided him to plunge into the scheme which he now for the first time revealed to his wife; he believed it would enable him to give up perfumery all the more quickly, and rise into the regions of the higher bourgeoisie of Paris.
Cesar was now forty years old. The work he had undertaken in his manufactories had given him a few premature wrinkles, and had slightly silvered the thick tufts of hair on which the pressure of his hat left a shining circle. His forehead, where the hair grew in a way to mark five distinct points, showed the simplicity of his life. The heavy eyebrows were not alarming because the limpid glance of his frank blue eyes harmonized with the open forehead of an honest man. His nose, broken at the bridge and thick at the end, gave him the wondering look of a gaby in the streets of Paris. His lips were very thick, and his large chin fell in a straight line below them. His face, high-colored and square in outline, revealed, by the lines of its wrinkles and by the general character of its expression, the ingenuous craftiness of a peasant. The strength of his body, the stoutness of his limbs, the squareness of his shoulders, the width of his feet,—all denoted the villager transplanted to Paris. His powerful hairy hands, with their large square nails, would alone have attested his origin if other vestiges had not remained in various parts of his person. His lips wore the cordial smile which shopkeepers put on when a customer enters; but this commercial sunshine was really the image of his inward content, and pictured the state of his kindly soul. His distrust never went beyond the lines of his business, his craftiness left him on the steps of the Bourse, or when he closed the pages of his ledger. Suspicion was to him very much what his printed bill-heads were,—a necessity of the sale itself. His countenance presented a sort of comical assurance and conceit mingled with good nature, which gave it originality and saved it from too close a resemblance to the insipid face of a Parisian bourgeois. Without this air of naive self-admiration and faith in his own person, he would have won too much respect; he drew nearer to his fellows by thus contributing his quota of absurdity. When speaking, he habitually crossed his hands behind his back. When he thought he had said something striking or gallant, he rose imperceptibly on the points of his toes twice, and dropped back heavily on his heels, as if to emphasize what he said. In the midst of an argument he might be seen turning round upon himself and walking off a few steps, as if he had gone to find objections with which he returned upon his adversary brusquely. He never interrupted, and was sometimes a victim to this careful observance of civility; for others would take the words out of his mouth, and the good man had to yield his ground without opening his lips. His great experience in commercial matters had given him a few fixed habits, which some people called eccentricities. If a note were overdue he sent for the bailiff, and thought only of recovering capital, interest, and costs; and the bailiff was ordered to pursue the matter until the debtor went into bankruptcy. Cesar then stopped all proceedings, never appeared at any meeting of creditors, and held on to his securities. He adopted this system and his implacable contempt for bankrupts from Monsieur Ragon, who in the course of his commercial life had seen such loss of time in litigation that he had come to look upon the meagre and uncertain dividends obtained by such compromises as fully counterbalanced by a better employment of the time spent in coming and going, in making proposals, or in listening to excuses for dishonesty.
"If the bankrupt is an honest man, and recovers himself, he will pay you," Ragon would say. "If he is without means and simply unfortunate, why torment him? If he is a scoundrel, you will never get anything. Your known severity will make you seem uncompromising; it will be impossible to negotiate with you; consequently you are the one who will get paid as long as there is anything to pay with."
Cesar came to all appointments at the expected hour; but if he were kept waiting, he left ten minutes later with an inflexibility which nothing ever changed. Thus his punctuality compelled all persons who had dealings with him to be punctual themselves.
The dress adopted by the worthy man was in keeping with his manners and his countenance. No power could have made him give up the white muslin cravats, with ends embroidered by his wife or daughter, which hung down beneath his chin. His waistcoat of white pique, squarely buttoned, came down low over his stomach, which was rather protuberant, for he was somewhat fat. He wore blue trousers, black silk stockings, and shoes with ribbon ties, which were often unfastened. His surtout coat, olive-green and always too large, and his broad-brimmed hat gave him the air of a Quaker. When he dressed for the Sunday evening festivities he put on silk breeches, shoes with gold buckles, and the inevitable square waistcoat, whose front edges opened sufficiently to show a pleated shirt-frill. His coat, of maroon cloth, had wide flaps and long skirts. Up to the year 1819 he kept up the habit of wearing two watch-chains, which hung down in parallel lines; but he only put on the second when he dressed for the evening.
Such was Cesar Birotteau; a worthy man, to whom the fates presiding at the birth of men had denied the faculty of judging politics and life in their entirety, and of rising above the social level of the middle classes; who followed ignorantly the track of routine, whose opinions were all imposed upon him from the outside and applied by him without examination. Blind but good, not spiritual but deeply religious, he had a pure heart. In that heart there shone one love, the light and strength of his life; for his desire to rise in life, and the limited knowledge he had gained of the world, both came from his affection for his wife and for his daughter.
As for Madame Cesar, then thirty-seven years old, she bore so close a resemblance to the Venus of Milo that all who knew her recognized the likeness when the Duc de Riviere sent the beautiful statue to Paris. In a few months sorrows were to dim with yellowing tints that dazzling fairness, to hollow and blacken the bluish circle round the lovely greenish-gray eyes so cruelly that she then wore the look of an old Madonna; for amid the coming ruin she retained her gentle sincerity, her pure though saddened glance; and no one ever thought her less than a beautiful woman, whose bearing was virtuous and full of dignity. At the ball now planned by Cesar she was to shine with a last lustre of beauty, remarked upon at the time and long remembered.
Every life has its climax,—a period when causes are at work, and are in exact relation to results. This mid-day of life, when living forces find their equilibrium and put forth their productive powers with full effect, is common not only to organized beings but to cities, nations, ideas, institutions, commerce, and commercial enterprises, all of which, like noble races and dynasties, are born and rise and fall. From whence comes the vigor with which this law of growth and decay applies itself to all organized things in this lower world? Death itself, in times of scourge, has periods when it advances, slackens, sinks back, and slumbers. Our globe is perhaps only a rocket a little more continuing than the rest. History, recording the causes of the rise and fall of all things here below, could enlighten man as to the moment when he might arrest the play of all his faculties; but neither the conquerors, nor the actors, nor the women, nor the writers in the great drama will listen to the salutary voice.
Cesar Birotteau, who might with reason think himself at the apogee of his fortunes, used this crucial pause as the point of a new departure. He did not know, moreover neither nations nor kings have attempted to make known in characters ineffaceable, the cause of the vast overthrows with which history teems, and of which so many royal and commercial houses offer signal examples. Why are there no modern pyramids to recall ceaselessly the one principle which dominates the common-weal of nations and of individual life? When the effect produced is no longer in direct relation nor in equal proportion to the cause, disorganization has begun. And yet such monuments stand everywhere; it is tradition and the stones of the earth which tell us of the past, which set a seal upon the caprices of indomitable destiny, whose hand wipes out our dreams, and shows us that all great events are summed up in one idea. Troy and Napoleon are but poems. May this present history be the poem of middle-class vicissitudes, to which no voice has given utterance because they have seemed poor in dignity, enormous as they are in volume. It is not one man with whom we are now to deal, but a whole people, or world, of sorrows.