The Marriage Contract by Honoré de Balzac


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Page 2

But--he had not caused the wretchedness of any woman; he gambled
without losing; his luck was not notorious; he was far too upright to
deceive or mislead any one, no matter who, even a wanton; never did he
leave his billets-doux lying about, and he possessed no coffer or desk
for love-letters which his friends were at liberty to read while he
tied his cravat or trimmed his beard. Moreover, not willing to dip
into his Guienne property, he had not that bold extravagance which
leads to great strokes and calls attention at any cost to the
proceedings of a young man. Neither did he borrow money, but he had
the folly to lend to friends, who then deserted him and spoke of him
no more either for good or evil. He seemed to have regulated his
dissipations methodically. The secret of his character lay in his
father's tyranny, which had made him, as it were, a social mongrel.

So, one morning, he said to a friend named de Marsay, who afterwards
became celebrated:--

"My dear fellow, life has a meaning."

"You must be twenty-seven years of age before you can find it out,"
replied de Marsay, laughing.

"Well, I am twenty-seven; and precisely because I am twenty-seven I
mean to live the life of a country gentleman at Lanstrac. I'll
transport my belongings to Bordeaux into my father's old mansion, and
I'll spend three months of the year in Paris in this house, which I
shall keep."

"Will you marry?"

"I will marry."

"I'm your friend, as you know, my old Paul," said de Marsay, after a
moment's silence, "and I say to you: settle down into a worthy father
and husband and you'll be ridiculous for the rest of your days. If you
could be happy and ridiculous, the thing might be thought of; but you
will not be happy. You haven't a strong enough wrist to drive a
household. I'll do you justice and say you are a perfect horseman; no
one knows as well as you how to pick up or thrown down the reins, and
make a horse prance, and sit firm to the saddle. But, my dear fellow,
marriage is another thing. I see you now, led along at a slapping pace
by Madame la Comtesse de Manerville, going whither you would not,
oftener at a gallop than a trot, and presently unhorsed!--yes,
unhorsed into a ditch and your legs broken. Listen to me. You still
have some forty-odd thousand francs a year from your property in the
Gironde. Good. Take your horses and servants and furnish your house in
Bordeaux; you can be king of Bordeaux, you can promulgate there the
edicts that we put forth in Paris; you can be the correspondent of our
stupidities. Very good. Play the rake in the provinces; better still,
commit follies; follies may win you celebrity. But--don't marry. Who
marries now-a-days? Only merchants, for the sake of their capital, or
to be two to drag the cart; only peasants who want to produce children
to work for them; only brokers and notaries who want a wife's 'dot' to
pay for their practice; only miserable kings who are forced to
continue their miserable dynasties. But we are exempt from the pack,
and you want to shoulder it! And why DO you want to marry? You ought
to give your best friend your reasons. In the first place, if you
marry an heiress as rich as yourself, eighty thousand francs a year
for two is not the same thing as forty thousand francs a year for one,
because the two are soon three or four when the children come. You
haven't surely any love for that silly race of Manerville which would
only hamper you? Are you ignorant of what a father and mother have to
be? Marriage, my old Paul, is the silliest of all the social
immolations; our children alone profit by it, and don't know its price
until their horses are nibbling the flowers on our grave. Do you
regret your father, that old tyrant who made your first years
wretched? How can you be sure that your children will love you? The
very care you take of their education, your precautions for their
happiness, your necessary sternness will lessen their affection.
Children love a weak or a prodigal father, whom they will despise in
after years. You'll live betwixt fear and contempt. No man is a good
head of a family merely because he wants to be. Look round on all our
friends and name to me one whom you would like to have for a son. We
have known a good many who dishonor their names. Children, my dear
Paul, are the most difficult kind of merchandise to take care of.
Yours, you think, will be angels; well, so be it! Have you ever
sounded the gulf which lies between the lives of a bachelor and a
married man? Listen. As a bachelor you can say to yourself: 'I shall
never exhibit more than a certain amount of the ridiculous; the public
will think of me what I choose it to think.' Married, you'll drop into
the infinitude of the ridiculous! Bachelor, you can make your own
happiness; you enjoy some to-day, you do without it to-morrow;
married, you must take it as it comes; and the day you want it you
will have to go without it. Marry, and you'll grow a blockhead; you'll
calculate dowries; you'll talk morality, public and religious; you'll
think young men immoral and dangerous; in short, you'll become a
social academician. It's pitiable! The old bachelor whose property the
heirs are waiting for, who fights to his last breath with his nurse
for a spoonful of drink, is blest in comparison with a married man.
I'm not speaking of all that will happen to annoy, bore, irritate,
coerce, oppose, tyrannize, narcotize, paralyze, and idiotize a man in
marriage, in that struggle of two beings always in one another's
presence, bound forever, who have coupled each other under the strange
impression that they were suited. No, to tell you those things would
be merely a repetition of Boileau, and we know him by heart. Still,
I'll forgive your absurd idea if you will promise me to marry "en
grand seigneur"; to entail your property; to have two legitimate
children, to give your wife a house and household absolutely distinct
from yours; to meet her only in society, and never to return from a
journey without sending her a courier to announce it. Two hundred
thousand francs a year will suffice for such a life and your
antecedents will enable you to marry some rich English woman hungry
for a title. That's an aristocratic life which seems to me thoroughly
French; the only life in which we can retain the respect and
friendship of a woman; the only life which distinguishes a man from
the present crowd,--in short, the only life for which a young man
should even think of resigning his bachelor blessings. Thus
established, the Comte de Manerville may advise his epoch, place
himself above the world, and be nothing less than a minister or an
ambassador. Ridicule can never touch him; he has gained the social
advantages of marriage while keeping all the privileges of a
bachelor."

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Sun 15th Sep 2019, 16:38