HONORE DE BALZAC
Toward the middle of the month of July, in the year 1838, one of
those vehicles called milords that had lately made their
appearance in Paris drove along the Rue de l’Université, carrying
a heavily built man of middle height in the uniform of a captain of
the National Guard.
Among Parisians, of whose intelligence we hear so much, there
are some who think themselves infinitely better men in uniform
than in their ordinary clothes, and who imagine that the taste of
women is so depraved that they will be favorably impressed—so
they fancy—by the sight of a busby and military trappings.
The features of this captain of the second company expressed a
self-satisfaction that gave a positive radiance to his ruddy
complexion and his rather chubby face. This halo, bestowed upon
the brows of retired tradesmen by money made in business,
marked him out as one of the elect of Paris—an ex–deputy mayor
of his district at least. And, needless to say, the ribbon of the
Legion of Honor adorned his chest, which was dashingly padded
out in the Prussian style.
Proudly ensconced in the corner of the milord, this decorated
gentleman allowed his attention to stray over the passers-by—
who, in Paris, often in this way come in for pleasant smiles meant
for beautiful eyes that are not present.
The milord stopped in the part of the road between the Rue de
Bellechasse and the Rue de Bourgogne, at the door of a large
house that had recently been built on part of the court of an old
mansion standing in its own garden. The mansion had been
preserved, and remained in its original condition at the end of the
court, whose size had been reduced by half.
The way in which the captain accepted the help of the driver as he
got down from the milord was enough in itself to betray a man in
his fifties. There are certain movements whose manifest heaviness
is as indiscreet as a birth certificate.
The captain drew his yellow glove on to his right hand again, and
without consulting the concierge, made his way toward the flight of
steps leading to the ground floor of the mansion, with an air that
meant “She is mine!”
Paris porters take things in at a glance; they never stop decorated
gentlemen of heavy gait who wear blue uniforms. In other words,
they recognize money when they see it.
This whole ground floor was occupied by the Baron Hulotd’Ervy,
Commissary-General under the Republic, late officer-in-charge of
the Army Commissariat, and now head of one of the principal
departments of the War Ministry, Councilor of State, a senior
officer of the Legion of Honor, and so on and so forth.
Baron Hulot had himself taken the name of d’Ervy, his birthplace,
in order to distinguish himself from his brother, the celebrated
General Hulot, colonel of the grenadiers of the Imperial Guard,
created Count de Forzheim by the Emperor after the campaign of
The elder brother, the Count, to whose charge the younger brother
had been committed, had, with paternal prudence, placed him in
military administration, in which, thanks to the services of both
brothers, the Baron had won, and indeed deserved, the favor of
Napoleon. From the year 1807 Baron Hulot had been Commissary
General of the armies in Spain.
After ringing, the bourgeois captain made desperate efforts to
straighten his coat, which had wrinkled up both in front and
behind—the result of a prominent corporation. Admitted on sight
by a manservant in uniform, this important and imposing man
followed the maid, who announced, as she opened the door of the
drawing room, “Monsieur Crevel!”
On hearing this name, so admirably suited to the figure of its
bearer, a tall, fair, well-preserved woman rose as if she had
received an electric shock.
“Hortense, my angel, go into the garden with your cousin Bette,”
she said quietly to her daughter, who was working at her
embroidery a little distance away.
After making a gracious bow to the captain, Mademoiselle
Hortense Hulot went out by a French window, taking with her a
dried-up spinster who looked older than the Baroness, although
she was five years younger.
“It is about your marriage,” Cousin Bette whispered in the ear of
her young cousin Hortense, without seeming to be in the least
offended by the way in which the Baroness had sent them away,
treating her as of almost no consequence.
This cousin’s style of dress would, if need be, have accounted for
this lack of ceremony.
The old maid was dressed in a maroon-colored merino dress,
whose cut and trimmings suggested the Restoration,an
embroidered collar worth about three francs, and a stitched straw
hat with blue satin bows edged with straw, of the kind worn by oldclothes women in the market. At the sight of her kid slippers,
whose style suggested a fourth-rate shoe shop, a stranger would
have hesitated before greeting Cousin Bette as a relation of the
family, for she looked just like a daily sewing woman.
Nevertheless, the old maid gave a little friendly nod to Monsieur
Crevel as she went out, a greeting to which that personage replied
with a look of mutual understanding.
Translated by Kathleen