A Start in Life by Honoré de Balzac

Un Début dans la vie
A Start in Life

One of the coach operators on the Paris to l’Isle-Adam route is Pierrotin, a forty-year-old family man. He uses The Silver Lion Inn as his Paris base, overpacks his coach and flagrantly violates travel regulations but is much beloved by his loyal regulars. It is one Saturday in the fall of 1822 and Pierrotin is complaining that he only has four passengers and no parcels booked on this fine day. He is thrilled when a servant asks him to hold a place for his master, the Comte de Serizy. Pierrotin carries a lot of parcels for the Count’s estate manager, Moreau, and is always generously tipped. The servant emphasizes that the Count wishes to travel incognito.

The Comte de Serizy was a bigwig under both Napoleon and the Bourbons. At age forty he married a young widow of twenty from a disguished family. He spoiled her; she ruled him and although she esteemed her husband and admired his wit, she ungratefully continued to live her own independent life.

The Count is interested in purchasing parcels of land which adjoin, and in come cases are completely surrounded by, his estate of Presles. The owner, Margueron, wants an appointment for his son and Moreau has warned his employer that the tenant whose lease is expiring is sneaky. Serizy consults Crottat and Derville who advise him to go in person to Presles and invite Margueron to dinner armed with a sale form, a cheque and the letter of appointment for Margueron’s son. Derville adds that peasants are very cunning. And, in fact, the tenant Leger wants to purchase the land himself in order to resell it to Serizy at a profit.

The Count also to check on renovations which are to be a surprise for his wife. They are being overseen by the popular architect Grindot.

Moreau’s father had saved the property and life of both Serizy and his father and was then executed by opposing factions. When the current Moreau became involved in the conspiracies, he was sentenced to death, but Serizy engineered his escape and later was able to obtain a pardon for Moreau whom he then hired.

After Moreau married the Comtesse de Serizy’s maid, he asked to be appointed steward at Presles and was sent there under very favorable terms. For eight years Moreau served faithfully but after the birth of his third child he began to accept bribes and kickbacks, justifying his conduct as being a sort of pension plan. He purchased a farm of his own, invested in funds and at the time of our story had accumulated a fortune of approximately two hundred and eighty thousand francs with an income of sixteen thousand francs a year.
Leger has offered Moreau forty thousand francs to assist with the transaction scam and with additional money he expects to receive from Serizy, Moreau tells his wife they could retire to the charming Pavillon de Nogent at l’Isle-Adam which they admire. Moreau might even be able to obtain an appointment as Justice of the Peace. So, Moreau sends a letter to the Count telling him to let him handle things regarding the property.

A retired officer named De Reybert is the mortal enemy of Moreau and he has been watching the steward and noting his double dealings. De Reybert secretly sends his wife to Paris to see the Count and tell him that he is being tricked in the land business and that, in fact, Margueron will be too ill to come to dinner. She adds her husband, who she claims knows nothing of her visit, would like to be steward at Presles and they would both serve him faithfully. The Count is cold, not liking informers, but recalls Derville’s warning and, after reading the letter from Moreau, sees his steward in a different light. He tells Mme de Reybert to return to Presles with his notary.

Back at the Silver Lion, Mme Clapert arrives with her son Oscar who is traveling alone for the first time and she commends him, with numerous instructions, to the care of Pierrotin. Pierrotin has often delivered game and farm produce sent on the sly by Moreau to the mother who was formerly the well-known and very popular Mme Husson. Her first husband, Husson, was driven into bankruptcy by Napoleon in 1802 and drowned himself in the Seine. She was twenty-two and pregnant with Oscar at the time. There is an intimation that Moreau would have married her then except that he was under a sentence of death himself at the time.

Mme Husson then married Clapert who she found handsome and full of promise. Alas, he married her because he thought she was still wealthy and he didn’t have the intelligence to rise to a higher official standing. Moreau was able to obtain a half-scholarship for Oscar who was teased and bullied as a charity-boy. Oscar has just finished his studies and Moreau hopes to introduce him to the Count as his successor.

Two young men who are a few years older than Oscar are witness to Mme Clapert’s admonishments and advice and take the opportunity to indulge in teasing him. One of the young men teasing Oscar is Georges and he will also be traveling in the coach. Oscar admires his clothing and appearance and is envious of his bearing and composure.

Next to arrive is a young artist accompanied by a confident lad of sixteen who he calls by the nickname of Mistigris. They are dressed in shabby but clean clothes and are not concerned by their appearance.

The next passenger is the tenant and perpetrator of the land scam, Leger.  He weighs around three hundred pounds and there are many jolly remarks as he is hoisted into the carriage by Pierrotin and his stableman. He takes it in good humour.

All are loaded and at the gate of the Silver Lion, Pierrotin introduces the Comte de Serizy by saying, “Pere Leger, would you mind giving your place up to Monsieur le Comte? It will trim the chaise better.” The incognito travel isn’t spoiled as it seems the passengers think he is a “respectable citizen called Lecomte”. The Count says not to disturb anyone as he will ride in front with Pierrotin. The young artist has Mistigris give his seat to the Count who sits with the “expression of a good-natured tradesman”. Leger and the Count only know each other by name, so the Count knows who the farmer is from the introduction, but Leger has no idea about the Count’s identity.

Georges first complains about the slowness of the journey and then he ponders how to pass himself off to his fellow passenges. He decides to pose as a soldier just back from the East. Georges mentions that he was at Waterloo and then served under Ali, the Pasha of Janina where he was quite famous and even given a seraglio (harem).

When the coach stops for a break at an inn famous for its cheesecake, the Count who was “puzzled by the truth and nonsense” with which Georges had been regaling the passengers, takes the opportunity to look at his portfolio. He sees it is labled “Maitre Crottat, Notaire.” Fearing that Leger may have the same idea should he get the chance, the Count takes the Moulineau farm paper and puts it in his coat pocket before rejoining the rest of the party in the inn. He is just in time to hear the elder artist introduce himself as Schinner. However, the artist isn’t Schinner at all but another young man making himself out to be someone of importance!

At the next rest stop, Comte de Serizy overhears the innkeeper and Leger discussing the property scam on les Moulineaux and laughing about cheating him. He overhears that his steward Moreau is involved, although he doesn’t want to believe it. Back at the coach, the Count promises Pierrotin the thousand francs he needs for his fancy new coach if he tells absolutely no one his identity, including at l’Isle-Adam.

As the journey continues, the boys become even more absurd and Oscar is teased so mercilessly that he says he knows the Count and rides with his son almost daily. He continues to talk about the De Serizys until, after he almost disparages the Countess, the Count orders him to stop, telling him he is a friend of her brother. Silence now reigns.

When the passengers alight at the next stop, the Count asks Pierrotin where Oscar is going and is told he is going to stay with his Steward Moreau. Leger asks Pierrotin who the Count is and is told that he doesn’t know and he’s never ridden with him before.

The final leg of the journey is a total farce as no one aside from Leger wants anyone else to know where they are going. Georges says he is going to les Moulineau and is astounded when Leger announces that is his home. Then as Leger watches Oscar getting lost at Presles, Georges takes the opportunity to vanish.

Moreau finds the three boys and their luggage and has the lodge-keeper take the two artists to their rooms while he greets Oscar and then has one of his sons take Oscar to Mme Moreau while he heads off to les Moulineaux.

The lodge and its furnishings are very nice and the Moreaus have presented themselves as rich and managing a friend’s estate for pleasure.” Moreau has been able to use the Count’s influence to obtain benefits for several locals. Estelle wants to be taken for the mistress of the chateau and is very unhappy at the thought of the arrival of her former mistress (the Countess). When the Reyberts moved to the area a few years previously, Estelle, fearing for her supremacy, had not been gracious and in retaliation, Mme de Reybert had mentioned that Estelle was formerly a lady’s maid. Those on Estelle’s side had made life so miserable for the Reyberts that for the past four years they have dreamed of revenge.

The artist is actually Joseph Bridau and his apprentice is Leon de Lora. The boys notice Mme Moreau’s patronizing tone and rapidly discover that she pretends to much more knowledge than she has. This prompts them to agree to make sport of her as their entertainment during their stay. The maid rushes in to say that the Count has arrived and the youngest Moreau boy arrives with Oscar. A turmoil ensues when the maid returns to say that the Count has ordered dinner for eight. All three boys now realize that the Count was the man in the coach with them. The artists take it in stride but Oscar is speechless and devasted.

The Comte de Serizy arrived at the gamekeeper’s hut where Moreau’s horse was waiting. Upon being innocently told that Moreau is going to les Molineaux before dinner, the evidence is too strong and the Count realizes Moreau is indeed guilty of deception. He quickly writes a note to M Margueron and sends the gamekeeper with it on Moreau’s horse. He then tells the gamekeeper’s wife that when Moreau comes for his horse to say that he, the Count, took it. As he walks toward the chateau, he sheds bitter tears.

Moreau meets Georges prior to seeing the Count but is left confused. He knocks on the Count’s door and is invited to enter but not to sit. The Comte de Serizy, wearing his orders, tells Moreau all that he heard that morning in the coach. He tells his steward that he forgives the money but not the gossip. The Count says they will part without quarreling because of what Moreau’s father did for his father and adds that Oscar is not to sleep under his roof at Presles.

When Maitre Crottat arrives from Paris he finds his downcast clerk Georges and the two artists in the drawing-room with Reybert, Margueron and a notary from Beaumont.

Comte de Serizy enters wearing his full court costume. He teases the boys and upon learning Joseph Bridau’s true identity mentions he knew his father, prompting Joseph to request the Count’s help for Philip who is to be on trial for conspiracy. The Count readily grants the request and then scolds Georges for leaving important papers unattended in the coach.

Meanwhile at the lodge, Moreau tells his wife they are ruined. When he confronts Oscar, the boy collapses to the floor. Moreau immediately sends Oscar home with the groom Brochon and a letter to Mme Clapart.

In Paris that night the Claparts are discussing Oscar and M Clapart is awaiting his friend Poiret for a game of dominoes. Poiret arrives at the same time as Oscar and Brochon. Mme Clapart faints after reading the letter from Moreau and, on awakening, orders Oscar, who is still stunned speechless, to go to bed. A good night’s sleep puts Oscar to rights, but not his mother. As Oscar’s mother lists his options for the future, tears come to both their eyes when they realize that becoming a soldier is his only choice. As a last hope she says they will visit Uncle Cardot whose deceased wife was Oscar’s aunt.

M Cardot has outlived two wives, settled his four children and now lives alone with an income of thirty thousand francs a year. His two long term servants take excellent care of him. He is always neatly dressed, rarely at home and enjoys private pleasures–including Mlle Florentine!–without a spot in his reputation. Cardot has told his children he is poor; only his son-in-law Camusot knows of his annuity. Cardot tells Oscar’s mother that the boy can study law and he will pay for his matriculation and preliminary fees. In addition if Oscar likes the work and does well, Cardot will have each of his children pay one quarter of the sum necessary to purchase a connection.

Moreau visits Mme Clapert and Oscar and lets her know how his circumstances have changed due to Oscar’s blunder. But he is in business with Leger and Margueron so should do well. He will help with Oscar’s expenses and get him placed with Desroches. For two years, under the supervision of Godeschal, Oscar keeps his nose to the grindstone with very little free time and only occasional entertainments. He breakfasts with Uncle Cardot once a month and spends Sundays with his mother.

It is now November, 1825, and Oscar has been promoted to second clerk. His replacement is a wealthy lad named Frederic Marest. When Godeschal announces this to his underlings, Oscar cries, “Bring out the Book.” This is a book of ancient antiquity which the clerks prepared some eighteen months ago as a prank. They wrote entries in it of fabulous breakfasts hosted by the newcomers. Using different handwritings and inks, they carefully aged it, even adding blots and blemishes. They have already fooled three newcomers so now have three actual breakfasts recorded.

But Frederic Marest is not fooled and says he will consult his cousin who is managing-clerk to Maitre Leopold Hannequin. The cousin turns out to be Georges who mentions he left Crottat’s in consequence of the affair in Pierrotin’s coach. Georges says that the Book is a farce but that he and his cousin can afford it and will treat everyone to a feast at the Rocher de Cancale and entertainment afterward with Madame la Marquise de la Florentinas y Cabirolos. In actuality she is simply Mademoiselle Agathe Florentine Cabirolle–Uncle Cardot’s Florentine! Also present at the feast are Giroudeau, Finot and du Bruel. It lasted in excess of four hours and was duly recorded in the Book. Godeschal left the party immediately signing his name due to another engagement and the office boy was so drunk that he had to be sent home to his mother in a cab. The rest of Desroches staff were so drunk that upon arriving at Florentine’s they readily believed that she was a geniuine Marquesa.

There were four tables of gambling. Fanny was introduced to Oscar as the Marquise d’Anglade, a name taken from a recent melodrama in which she was successful. She suggested going into partnership with Oscar and promptly lost not only his one hundred francs but the five hundred francs of Desroches money which he had been carrying for the copy of an important judgment which he had failed to obtain originally and was supposed to pick up the next morning–his first assignment since his promotion. Florentine, sincerely sorry for the lad, loaned him one thousand francs, telling him he could gamble with half of it but to be sure and hold back five hundred to pay for the judgment in the morning. Oscar lost all but one hundred francs and passed out in Florentine’s boudoir.

At eleven the next morning, Oscar, having been forgotten by Florentine, was awakened by his Uncle Cardot’s voice. Florentine took Oscar’s side and Uncle Cardot gave him five hundred francs and reimbursed Florentine but told Oscar he never wanted to hear his name again. Godeschal and his sister Mariette both tried to cover for Oscar, but Desroches discovered all and told Godeschal to get rid of him.

Moreau arrived at Desroches’ office and upon learning of Oscar’s folly in losing the money at gambling goes to Mme Clapart to soften the blow of the news. Oscar arrives and Moreau refuses to shake his hand. Mme Clapart says they can try Uncle Cardot again but faints when Oscar tells her all about his uncle’s doings.

At the conscription lottery, Oscar draws number 27. Moreau goes to the Comte de Serizy and begs him to take an interest in Oscar which results in Oscar’s being placed in the Count’s son’s cavalry unit where he does well and is a captain by 1832. When the Count’s son, now a lieutenant-colonel, is wounded and trapped under his dead horse, Oscar leads the charge to rescue him and personally carries him away on his own horse. Sadly the Count’s son dies later of his wounds but the Count still considers himself Oscar’s debtor.

It is now fifteen years since the story began and we are again outside the Silver Lion. Pierrotin now owns all the coach services for the Valley of the Oise. Oscar lost his arm from wounds received in the battle where he rescued the Count’s son and his mother is a widow. The Count, cured of his skin ailment and separated from his wife, obtained the post of collector at Beaumont for Oscar.

As Oscar, this time the incognito, and his mother wait with Pierrotin for the journey to begin, Georges shows up wanting a place in the coach. He has not aged well and his fancy clothes are shabby. Oscar only recognized him by his voice. Leger, now worth two million francs arrives, as does Reybert.

Joseph Bridau, now very famous and engaged to Leger’s daughter, arrives and is the one to recognize Oscar. The Moreaus have done well; indeed all of our original party seems to have made good fortunes by now except for Oscar and Georges.

Oscar soon courts and marries Pierrotin’s daughter whose fortune is one hundred and fifty thousand francs. He has become prudent and capable over the years and is expected to eventually be promoted to the post of Receiver-General.

Read it here

Summarized by Dagny, September – October, 2009


3 comments on “A Start in Life by Honoré de Balzac

  1. scamperpb says:

    This is a rather pleasant morality tale based on a story of Balzac’s sister Laure. There are two threads – what happens to the occupants of the stage coach, and the issue of the Comte de Serizy’s dishonest estate manager (which was not part of Laure’s story). Saintsbury comments that this story might lend itself to the stage better than most of Balzac’s works. But Balzac has a habit which is a bit unnerving to me – he carries the lives of the participants in many of stories on and on, well past the clear lines of the story. I thought the story of Oscar would never end. I think he has a compulsion to tie all has Human Comedy characters together at every opportunity and just can’t stop, LOL.


    • Bixiou says:

      I think this tale (a bildungsroman) is ruefully funny, filled with people showing off and getting themselves in trouble because of it. And the fact that Balzac follows his characters from their highs to their lows allows us to hear his great lesson—life goes on whether we are foolish or not, or greedy or not, or haughty or not. We are merely players in a long theatrical performance—and we are onstage for a moment and then we are gone.


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