The Marriage Contract by Honoré de Balzac


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Page 1

Paul de Manerville, coming home from the college of Vendome in 1810,
lived under close paternal discipline for three years. The tyranny by
which the old man of seventy oppressed his heir influenced,
necessarily, a heart and a character which were not yet formed. Paul,
the son, without lacking the physical courage which is vital in the
air of Gascony, dared not struggle against his father, and
consequently lost that faculty of resistance which begets moral
courage. His thwarted feelings were driven to the depths of his heart,
where they remained without expression; later, when he felt them to be
out of harmony with the maxims of the world, he could only think
rightly and act mistakenly. He was capable of fighting for a mere word
or look, yet he trembled at the thought of dismissing a servant,--his
timidity showing itself in those contests only which required a
persistent will. Capable of doing great things to fly from
persecution, he would never have prevented it by systematic
opposition, nor have faced it with the steady employment of force of
will. Timid in thought, bold in actions, he long preserved that inward
simplicity which makes a man the dupe and the voluntary victim of
things against which certain souls hesitate to revolt, preferring to
endure them rather than complain. He was, in point of fact, imprisoned
by his father's old mansion, for he had not enough money to consort
with young men; he envied their pleasures while unable to share them.

The old gentleman took him every evening, in an old carriage drawn by
ill-harnessed old horses, attended by ill-dressed old servants, to
royalist houses, where he met a society composed of the relics of the
parliamentary nobility and the martial nobility. These two nobilities
coalescing after the Revolution, had now transformed themselves into a
landed aristocracy. Crushed by the vast and swelling fortunes of the
maritime cities, this Faubourg Saint-Germain of Bordeaux responded by
lofty disdain to the sumptuous displays of commerce, government
administrations, and the military. Too young to understand social
distinctions and the necessities underlying the apparent assumption
which they create, Paul was bored to death among these ancients,
unaware that the connections of his youth would eventually secure to
him that aristocratic pre-eminence which Frenchmen will forever
desire.

He found some slight compensations for the dulness of these evenings
in certain manual exercises which always delight young men, and which
his father enjoined upon him. The old gentleman considered that to
know the art of fencing and the use of arms, to ride well on
horseback, to play tennis, to acquire good manners,--in short, to
possess all the frivolous accomplishments of the old nobility,--made a
young man of the present day a finished gentleman. Accordingly, Paul
took a fencing-lesson every morning, went to the riding-school, and
practised in a pistol-gallery. The rest of his time was spent in
reading novels, for his father would never have allowed the more
abstruse studies now considered necessary to finish an education.

So monotonous a life would soon have killed the poor youth if the
death of the old man had not delivered him from this tyranny at the
moment when it was becoming intolerable. Paul found himself in
possession of considerable capital, accumulated by his father's
avarice, together with landed estates in the best possible condition.
But he now held Bordeaux in horror; neither did he like Lanstrac,
where his father had taken him to spend the summers, employing his
whole time from morning till night in hunting.

As soon as the estate was fairly settled, the young heir, eager for
enjoyment, bought consols with his capital, left the management of the
landed property to old Mathias, his father's notary, and spent the
next six years away from Bordeaux. At first he was attached to the
French embassy at Naples; after that he was secretary of legation at
Madrid, and then in London,--making in this way the tour of Europe.

After seeing the world and life, after losing several illusions, after
dissipating all the loose capital which his father had amassed, there
came a time when, in order to continue his way of life, Paul was
forced to draw upon the territorial revenues which his notary was
laying by. At this critical moment, seized by one of the so-called
virtuous impulses, he determined to leave Paris, return to Bordeaux,
regulate his affairs, lead the life of a country gentleman at
Lanstrac, improve his property, marry, and become, in the end, a
deputy.

Paul was a count; nobility was once more of matrimonial value; he
could, and he ought to make a good marriage. While many women desire a
title, many others like to marry a man to whom a knowledge of life is
familiar. Now Paul had acquired, in exchange for the sum of seven
hundred thousand francs squandered in six years, that possession,
which cannot be bought and is practically of more value than gold and
silver; a knowledge which exacts long study, probation, examinations,
friends, enemies, acquaintances, certain manners, elegance of form and
demeanor, a graceful and euphonious name,--a knowledge, moreover,
which means many love-affairs, duels, bets lost on a race-course,
disillusions, deceptions, annoyances, toils, and a vast variety of
undigested pleasures. In short, he had become what is called elegant.
But in spite of his mad extravagance he had never made himself a mere
fashionable man. In the burlesque army of men of the world, the man of
fashion holds the place of a marshal of France, the man of elegance is
the equivalent of a lieutenant-general. Paul enjoyed his lesser
reputation, of elegance, and knew well how to sustain it. His servants
were well-dressed, his equipages were cited, his suppers had a certain
vogue; in short, his bachelor establishment was counted among the
seven or eight whose splendor equalled that of the finest houses in
Paris.

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