The Jealousies of a Country Town: The Collection of Antiquities by Honoré de Balzac

Les Rivalités: Le Cabinet des Antiques
The Jealousies of a Country Town: The Collection of Antiquities
Also translated as The Jealousies of a Country Town: The Cabinet of Antiquities

Note: The Collection of Antiquities follows The Old Maid, continuing the story of certain characters. In some editions the character of Du Bousquier in The Old Maid is called Croisier in The Collection of Antiquities.

The Marquis d’Esgrignon (or Des Grignons as it was formerly) from The Chouans and his family are featured in this novel. Mlle (Armande) d’Esgrignon from The Old Maid is his half-sister and at one time was barely recognized by him because her mother, their father’s second wife, was not of the nobility.

Maitre Chesnel was in The Old Maid as Rose’s notary. At the time of the Revolution he was the faithful steward of the d’Esgrignons and saved much of their property by purchasing it in his own name.

When the Marquis returned after the Revolution he gave shelter to a Baron and his daughter, later marrying the daughter who died in childbirth. The child, a son, was named Victurnien and Armande took charge of the infant.

At this time Armande was a beautiful woman in her late twenties. It was around this time that Chesnel, now a notary, came to the d’Esgrignons with Croisier/Du Bousquier’s offer of marriage to Armande. A bad day for Chesnel as Croisier blamed him for Armande’s refusal and became his mortal enemy. D’Esgrignon continued to treat him in a grateful manner for all he had done regarding their property but no longer with any seeming friendship.

When Victurnien was five, Armande refused a marriage into an old family saying that she was a mother. This prompted the old Marquis to make her very happy when he kissed her hand and said, “My sister, you are a d’Esgrignon.”

Portions of this story are related by Emile Blondet who appears in several of Balzac’s other works. Blondet grew up in Alencon and very much admired the lovely Armande, even going so far as to call her one of my religions. He does though recall laughing at the nickname given to the d’Esgrignon salon: The Collection of Antiquities. He tells how the windows of the d’Esgrignon drawing room faced on the street and on the square. The occupants could be plainly seen and Blondet and his young friends often spied on the proceedings. Blondet confesses to a measure of envy regarding Victurnien who seemed to be of a different and higher order.

Alencon, like other country towns is full of hatreds and jealousies bred of party spirit. Unlike in Paris, the politics are taken personally.

The Marquis lives without the slightest ostentation but also like a noble. Armande is very frugal and her brother never realizes how tight their finances actually are. His main splurge is on Victurnien’s education as he is his great hope for future glory in serving the King and making a good marriage. The whole set feels this to be true; only Chesnel can see the situation clearly.

Armande is Victurnien’s aunt, not his mother and is unable to scold him. He has been taught that he is better than most people and the only person above him is the King. Chevalier de Valois, a man of the old days, along with other cronies of the d’Esgrignon set, fill Victurnien’s head with tales of their youth. They caution him always to behave like a noble and they never dream he could act in a dishonorable manner.

The loyal Chesnel spends eighty thousand francs in a three year period for the benefit of Victurnien without telling even Armande. This just reinforces Victurnien’s feeling that he can get away with anything. It also stirs up bad feelings in Alencon. Du Croisier and his adherents secretly foster the bad feelings and du Ronceret’s son, who is one of Victurnien’s companions, acts as instigator and spy.

In October 1822, the Marquis and Chevalier de Valois talk and it is decided to send Victurnien to Court, but money is needed. The Chevalier tells the Marquis about some of Victurnien’s pranks and indiscretions and how Chesnel has bailed him out. The Marquis can’t bring himself to ask Chesnel for funds to send Victurnien to Paris and when the Chevalier tells him it is a necessity, the Marquis tells Armande she will have to be the one to speak with Chesnel.

Chesnel tells Armande how Victurnien has been the plaything of du Croisier’s faction and used with the aid of young Ronceret. Chesnel’s money is gone but he tells Armande that he has borrowed a hundred thousand francs. Later that night, Chesnel writes to his friend in Paris, Maitre Sorbier, begging him as the only favor he ever asked, that he and his wife will watch out for Victurnien.

Throughout all the planning, Victurnien can barely contain his glee. He thinks the allowance of two thousand francs a month is a princely sum. Meanwhile the du Croisier faction is furious that their prey is escaping.

But, alas, the court favorites have changed over the decades:

And so it befell that the d’Esgrignons, all but princes under the Valois, and all-powerful in the time of Henri IV., had no fortune whatever at the court of Louis XVIII., which gave them not so much as a thought.

Once in Paris Victurnien realizes the situation and decides to win back his place by gaining the attention of all of Paris. He quickly falls in with a fast crowd. Houses are open to him because of his name–and because they think he is wealthy. Victurnien puts on a great show of wealth and soon learns that Parisians–his relatives included–do not like supplicants. He also learned that there was no suitable place for him at court, nor in the government, nor the army, nor, indeed, anywhere else. So he joined the world of pleasure.

Chesnel’s precaution of having the funds doled out carefully to Victurnien have come to naught as his friend M. Sorbier has died. His wife, seeing a business letter, passed it to his successor, Maitre Cardot who let Victurnien draw freely upon the money.

The young provincial gets in good with the Vidame de Pamiers, a gentleman of the old school. The Vidame introduces him to the salon of Mlle des Touches where he meets the Duchesse de Maufrigneuse. Quite taken by Victurnien, she decides to play the part of an innocent. Victurnien writes home about his glory and his conquest. They are overjoyed and his father asks to be remembered to M de Pamiers.

The next winter passes. Victurnien is told by Maitre Cardot that he has over-drawn his funds by thirty thousand francs and is put out when he can’t get a further advance as he has a gambling loss to pay. Cardot tells him to draw a bill on his father’s banker and he does–on Du Croisier! sending at the same time a rather offhand letter. He also writes Chesnel and his aunt.

When Victurnien happens to mention to Rastignac and De Marsay that he has invoices due for twenty thousand francs, De Marsay hands him the money. Victurnien uses it for pleasure though and that pleases the jealous De Marsay.

De Marsay tells Victurnien that the Duchess, far from being wealthy, owes one hundred thousand francs. Victurnien goes home in a melancholy mood and finds two letters awaiting him. He reads with delight a grovelling letter from du Croisier which seems to indicate an open cashbox full of coin at the service of the noble d’Esgrignon family. Chesnel’s letter says that his remaining fortune is two hundred thousand francs and he would be honored if Victurnien would accept it and begs him not to exceed that amount.

By the end of 1823, Victurnien had drawn two hundred thousand francs from du Croisier. He has been drawing small amounts from Chesnel and lying in letters to his family, so Chesnel and Armande are unaware of the heavy debt he is incurring. Du Croisier is delighted.

One evening as Chesnel is enjoying sitting in front of his fire after a heavy dinner, du Croisier arrives and demands two hundred twenty-seven thousand francs. To save the honor of the d’Esgrignons, Chesnel sells his land to du Croisier. He now has nothing but his business and his home–and yet, his concern is still all for Victurien.

Chesnel dreads breaking the news to Armande. The Marquis arrives right after he does so and, by a look, Chesnel and Armande agree to keep the devastating news from him. Armande pretends an illness in order to go to Paris to bring Victurnien home.

Du Croisier writes a letter to Victurnien telling him the the Kellers have been instructed not to advance him any more money. He purposely leaves a large space before his signature.

Victurnien is in dire straits. His furniture has already been seized and he must be gone in three days. He sees how he could cut off the top of the letter and fill in the blank space above the signature thus turning the letter into a bill. He and the Duchess could live well on three hundred thousand francs in another country. He decides to go through with the forgery if she agrees to leave Paris with him. He thinks that surely Chesnel and his family will hush up the matter to save the family honor.

Meanwhile, Duchesse de Maufrigneuse is pondering her own financial situation, which seems as dire as Victurnien’s. When he arrives, she says nothing of her woes and when he presents his plan, she agrees to follow him.

Victurnien forges the bill, collects the three hundred thousand francs and gives them to the Duchess who talks him into going to the opera. The next day she tells him that they shouldn’t go away and when Victurnien protests she claims he doesn’t love her. Victurnien is driving home in a fury of despair. As he turns into his street, Josephin stops him and tells him not to go home as they have come to arrest him, adding that Armande has arrived in Paris.

Victurnien rushes to the Hotel and he and Armande immediately leave for Alencon–leaving the three hundred thousand francs with the Duchess! Armande only knows of the debts, not the forgery but when Victurnien tells her he must hide and suggests Chesnel’s, she agrees and thinks that will make it easier to keep this tragedy from her brother.

Meanwhile, Chesnel has made arrangements to sell his practice for one hundred thousand francs, but as ill-luck would have it, the purchaser, who is of du Crosier’s faction, spots Victurnien arriving in Alencon.

Chesnel almost collapses when Victurnien tells him of the forgery but rallies, hides the young man and immediately sets off for Paris. The magnificent man not only obtains the three hundred thousand francs from the Duchess but also persuades her to use her influence to try and save Victurnien.

Chesnel goes to Josephin and retrieves some letters to Victurnien from du Croisier and the Kellers. He then rushes back to Alencon. Although he has only been gone three days, he istoo late, arriving just as they are taking Victurnien from his house. His last hope is to speak with du Croisier.

The du Croisiers were entertaining and his close friends who know all were just waiting until Rose should retire and visitors they don’t trust to leave so they can gossip and gloat. President du Ronceret now announces that the Count has been arrested this evening and the d’Esgrignons dishonored.

The Camusots are among the guests at du Croisier’s. As they leave, they meet Chesnel on his way to see du Croisier. Chesnel immediately takes a hard line. He mentions numerous influential people in Paris who will aid Camusot in his career if he is for the house of d’Esgrignon and adds that if Camusot is hostile, he will go to Paris the next day and lodge a complaint of corruption.

Arriving at du Croisier’s, Chesnel calls out, “In the King’s name!” to the servant who is just closing the door and offers the man one hundred crowns if he will wake Mme du Croisier (Rose) and send her to him.

Du Croisier is pacing in the drawing-room when when his hated enemy of twenty years enters. Chesnel goes down on his knees and offers all but life and honor to du Croisier if he will stop the legal proceedings. Du Croisier seems to be thinking of accepting the lands and castle when his wife enters.

When Rose hears of the proceedings, she pleads for the d’Escrignons. Her husband’s pride takes over, although he says he is doing it for France and for the bourgeoisie. He reminds them that Rose earlier refused to marry him and that the d’Esgrignons refuse to admit him to their society. Rose is shocked to see her husband’s true character.

Du Croisier offers conditions. Chesnel agrees on the voting and says somehow he will have the du Croisiers accepted into the d’Esgrignon salon. But he balks when du Croisier mentions a marriage between his grand-niece, Mlle. Duval, and the Count Victurnien. When Chesnel blurts out “Never!” to the last, du Crosier stomps out, secretly pleased and Chesnel wonders why he didn’t just lie to such a man.

Alone with Rose, Chesnel tells her that there is a way and gives her the three hundred thousand francs in return for a receipt stating that she received the money several days before the forgery. When she is concerned that it might compromise her husband, Chesnel, lying again, assures her it won’t. Rose says she will consult her director, l’Abbe Couturier and follow his advice. This prompts Chesnel to rush to rouse Armande and tell her to get the Bishop in on the situation.

Some of the court officials have no ambition and others are anxious to be promoted and go to Paris. Most are stuck in the provinces forever. President du Ronceret is one of these and belongs to neither faction. He and his wife entertain once a week through necessity, but it seems they are dreary affairs held in his gloomy home.

Old Judge Blondet is currently vice-president and is at times another victim of Ronceret’s dealings as both would like to wed their son to Mlle. Blandureau, a wealthy heiress. Blondet is more interested in his garden than his career. When he was forty, he married a young girl of eighteen and a year later his favorite son, Joseph was born. Emile, the journalist in Paris, was born a few years later and it is common knowledge that the Judge is not Emile’s father. As soon as his wife died the Judge shipped Emile off to school with the barest of allowances. Emile wouldn’t have survived on it but his biological father, now deceased, aided him. The Judge’s will leaves everything possible to Joseph. He so ignores Emile that he knows nothing of his success in Paris. Emile’s mother was a distant relative of the de Troisvilles and introduced Emile to them where he made friends with the eldest daughter. She is now married to Comte de Montcornet but remains close to Emile.

The other member of the Judge’s household is Mlle Cadot who was a maid at the time when the Judge’s wife was alive. She is now the trusted housekeeper and even eats at the table with the family.

Francois Michu is one of the Alencon judges. (This is the son of the Michus who played a large part in The Gondreville Mystery). He is very sharp, but appears to care more for the social aspect of his life than his career.

The deputy public prosecutor is Sauvager. He is used by the du Croisier faction while the public prosecutor is away. Mme du Ronceret promises him a marriage with a wealthy heiress if he will do their bidding.

Mme Camusot (who we first met at a young age in The Vendetta) doesn’t like being stuck in the provinces and dreams of returning to Paris. With plenty of time on her hands she fathoms all the local intrigues.

The Duchesse de Maufrigneuse has arrived from Paris disguised as a young man. She gives Chesnel one hundred thousand francs which she obtained from the King’s privy purse and also some poison in case they are not able to stop the legal proceedings. She has notified the public prosecutor and he will be returning from Paris soon. Her passport is made out in the name of Felix de Vandenesse.

The Duchesse and Chesnel go to the Camusots. She knows Mme Camusot’s father as he is still an usher at Court. Chesnel tells Camusot of the receipt–the story is that he had given Rose the three hundred thousand francs in anticipation of Victurnien’s cashing the bill.

The ladies go to see Judge Blondet to whom they reveal the Duchesse’s identity. Mme Camusot tells him how du Ronceret is plotting against him in order to have his son marry the heiress which Blondet had in mind for his son Joseph. This is the same heiress, Mlle. Blandureau, which Mme du Ronceret promised to Sauvager. The Duchesse tells the Judge just what to do to save the situation and he is so thrilled that he recklessly begins gathering flowers for her.

Blondet, Camusot and Michu meet in the council chamber and hold a meeting with the door locked. Camusot mentions to Blondet about his son’s career and his marriage, but the honest Judge only wants to know if Victurnien is guilty or not. He is told the story of the three hundred thousand francs and led to believe that Victurnien did not intend to steal the funds.

A hearing is held that afternoon. The final question put to du Croisier is whether he knew that three hundred thousand francs had been given to his wife five days prior to the date of the bill. The confused du Croisier answers “that if the money had been deposited with him, there was no ground for the action.”

Du Croisier goes home in a fury to confront Rose who manages to keep from precisely lying by saying the money was given to her when he was not at home. She mentions that if his niece marries Victurnien and becomes Marquise d’Esgrignon, they would not want a taint on the name so he must behave well in this deplorable business. Du Croisier decides that he and Rose should leave immediately for the country.

The next morning the charges against Victurnien are dismissed and the watchers see him driving his tilbury and accompanied by a charming young man.

That evening Chesnel tells Victurnien that he must marry an heiress and the Duchesse concurs. She then tells Victurnien that they won’t see each other again and that he should live on his lands as the Paris air is not good for him.

The events were so trying to Chesnel that he died a month later. At Armande’s urging, the Marquis made up with Chesnel, although he never learned of Victurnien’s crime. Chesnel, a true servant of the old order, was buried in the castle chapel across the foot of the tomb which would be that of the Marquis.

Madame Camusot got her wish to return to Paris when her husband was appointed an assistant judge there. Once his father died, Victurnien married Mlle. Duval on whom Du Croisier settled three million francs. But he goes to Paris every winter and leads the life of a jolly bachelor.

Armande continued to reign over the remainder of the Collection of Antiquities. When Emile returned to Alencon to get the papers necessary for his marriage, he saw Armande and thought that she looked like she prayed to God to take her out of the world. Old Blondet was struck dumb with amazement upon learning the identity of Emile’s bride. When he heard that Emile was a prefect, he said, “You were born to it.”

 

Read it here

Summary by Dagny, March 2009

2 comments on “The Jealousies of a Country Town: The Collection of Antiquities by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This novel of Alencon was much harder to follow than its companion, “The Old Maid.” The spoiled child of the noble d’Esgrignon is allowed to ruin the fortune and name of his family through the sacrifices of his aunt and the family retainer Chesnel. And for what – Victurnien seems aimless and a bit dull. I suspect Balzac is envious of this sort of youth with a noble name and lots of money. Balzac gave himself a name, but he never got the money part right. However, he was never dull, LOL.

    Like

  2. […] within 24 hours.  Yes, you guessed it, Madame de Maufrigneuse owed Camusot for a favour, see La Cabinet des Antiques; Scenes de la vie de Province), and she’s in a position to make promises for future preferment […]

    Like

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