Esther Happy/Section 14
Two days after this scene, which Europe related far more amusingly than it can be written, because she told it with much mimicry, Carlos and Lucien were breakfasting tete-a-tete.
"My dear boy, neither the police nor anybody else must be allowed to poke a nose into our concerns," said Herrera in a low voice, as he lighted his cigar from Lucien's. "It would not agree with us. I have hit on a plan, daring but effectual, to keep our Baron and his agents quiet. You must go to see Madame de Serizy, and make yourself very agreeable to her. Tell her, in the course of conversation, that to oblige Rastignac, who has long been sick of Madame de Nucingen, you have consented to play fence for him to conceal a mistress. Monsieur de Nucingen, desperately in love with this woman Rastignac keeps hidden—that will make her laugh—has taken it into his head to set the police to keep an eye on you—on you, who are innocent of all his tricks, and whose interest with the Grandlieus may be seriously compromised. Then you must beg the Countess to secure her husband's support, for he is a Minister of State, to carry you to the Prefecture of Police.
"When you have got there, face to face with the Prefet, make your complaint, but as a man of political consequence, who will sooner or later be one of the motor powers of the huge machine of government. You will speak of the police as a statesman should, admiring everything, the Prefet included. The very best machines make oil-stains or splutter. Do not be angry till the right moment. You have no sort of grudge against Monsieur le Prefet, but persuade him to keep a sharp lookout on his people, and pity him for having to blow them up. The quieter and more gentlemanly you are, the more terrible will the Prefet be to his men. Then we shall be left in peace, and we may send for Esther back, for she must be belling like the does in the forest."
The Prefet at that time was a retired magistrate. Retired magistrates make far too young Prefets. Partisans of the right, riding the high horse on points of law, they are not light-handed in arbitary action such as critical circumstances often require; cases in which the Prefet should be as prompt as a fireman called to a conflagration. So, face to face with the Vice-President of the Council of State, the Prefet confessed to more faults than the police really has, deplored its abuses, and presently was able to recollect the visit paid to him by the Baron de Nucingen and his inquiries as to Peyrade. The Prefet, while promising to check the rash zeal of his agents, thanked Lucien for having come straight to him, promised secrecy, and affected to understand the intrigue.
A few fine speeches about personal liberty and the sacredness of home life were bandied between the Prefet and the Minister; Monsieur de Serizy observing in conclusion that though the high interests of the kingdom sometimes necessitated illegal action in secret, crime began when these State measures were applied to private cases.
Next day, just as Peyrade was going to his beloved Cafe David, where he enjoyed watching the bourgeois eat, as an artist watches flowers open, a gendarme in private clothes spoke to him in the street.
"I was going to fetch you," said he in his ear. "I have orders to take you to the Prefecture."
Peyrade called a hackney cab, and got in without saying a single word, followed by the gendarme.
The Prefet treated Peyrade as though he were the lowest warder on the hulks, walking to and fro in a side path of the garden of the Prefecture, which at that time was on the Quai des Orfevres.
"It is not without good reason, monsieur, that since 1830 you have been kept out of office. Do not you know to what risk you expose us, not to mention yourself?"
The lecture ended in a thunderstroke. The Prefet sternly informed poor Peyrade that not only would his yearly allowance be cut off, but that he himself would be narrowly watched. The old man took the shock with an air of perfect calm. Nothing can be more rigidly expressionless than a man struck by lightning. Peyrade had lost all his stake in the game. He had counted on getting an appointment, and he found himself bereft of everything but the alms bestowed by his friend Corentin.
"I have been the Prefet of Police myself; I think you perfectly right," said the old man quietly to the functionary who stood before him in his judicial majesty, and who answered with a significant shrug.
"But allow me, without any attempt to justify myself, to point out that you do not know me at all," Peyrade went on, with a keen glance at the Prefet. "Your language is either too severe to a man who has been the head of the police in Holland, or not severe enough for a mere spy. But, Monsieur le Prefet," Peyrade added after a pause, while the other kept silence, "bear in mind what I now have the honor to telling you: I have no intention of interfering with your police nor of attempting to justify myself, but you will presently discover that there is some one in this business who is being deceived; at this moment it is your humble servant; by and by you will say, 'It was I.'"
And he bowed to the chief, who sat passive to conceal his amazement.
Peyrade returned home, his legs and arms feeling broken, and full of cold fury with the Baron. Nobody but that burly banker could have betrayed a secret contained in the minds of Contenson, Peyrade, and Corentin. The old man accused the banker of wishing to avoid paying now that he had gained his end. A single interview had been enough to enable him to read the astuteness of this most astute of bankers.
"He tries to compound with every one, even with us; but I will be revenged," thought the old fellow. "I have never asked a favor of Corentin; I will ask him now to help me to be revenged on that imbecile money-box. Curse the Baron!—Well, you will know the stuff I am made of one fine morning when you find your daughter disgraced!—But does he love his daughter, I wonder?"
By the evening of the day when this catastrophe had upset the old man's hopes he had aged by ten years. As he talked to his friend Corentin, he mingled his lamentations with tears wrung from him by the thought of the melancholy prospects he must bequeath to his daughter, his idol, his treasure, his peace-offering to God.
"We will follow the matter up," said Corentin. "First of all, we must be sure that it was the Baron who peached. Were we wise in enlisting Gondreville's support? That old rascal owes us too much not to be anxious to swamp us; indeed, I am keeping an eye on his son-in-law Keller, a simpleton in politics, and quite capable of meddling in some conspiracy to overthrow the elder Branch to the advantage of the younger.—I shall know to-morrow what is going on at Nucingen's, whether he has seen his beloved, and to whom we owe this sharp pull up.—Do not be out of heart. In the first place, the Prefet will not hold his appointment much longer; the times are big with revolution, and revolutions make good fishing for us."
A peculiar whistle was just then heard in the street.
"That is Contenson," said Peyrade, who put a light in the window, "and he has something to say that concerns me."
A minute later the faithful Contenson appeared in the presence of the two gnomes of the police, whom he revered as though they were two genii.
"What is up?" asked Corentin.
"A new thing! I was coming out of 113, where I lost everything, when whom do I spy under the gallery? Georges! The man has been dismissed by the Baron, who suspects him of treachery."
"That is the effect of a smile I gave him," said Peyrade.
"Bah! when I think of all the mischief I have known caused by smiles!" said Corentin.
"To say nothing of that caused by a whip-lash," said Peyrade, referring to the Simeuse case. (In Une Tenebreuse affaire.) "But come, Contenson, what is going on?"
"This is what is going on," said Contenson. "I made Georges blab by getting him to treat me to an endless series of liqueurs of every color—I left him tipsy; I must be as full as a still myself!—Our Baron has been to the Rue Taitbout, crammed with Pastilles du Serail. There he found the fair one you know of; but—a good joke! The English beauty is not his fair unknown!—And he has spent thirty thousand francs to bribe the lady's-maid, a piece of folly!
"That creature thinks itself a great man because it does mean things with great capital. Reverse the proposition, and you have the problem of which a man of genius is the solution.—The Baron came home in a pitiable condition. Next day Georges, to get his finger in the pie, said to his master:
"'Why, Monsieur le Baron, do you employ such blackguards? If you would only trust to me, I would find the unknown lady, for your description of her is enough. I shall turn Paris upside down.'—'Go ahead,' says the Baron; 'I shall reward you handsomely!'—Georges told me the whole story with the most absurd details. But—man is born to be rained upon!
"Next day the Baron received an anonymous letter something to this effect: 'Monsieur de Nucingen is dying of love for an unknown lady; he has already spent a great deal utterly in vain; if he will repair at midnight to the end of the Neuilly Bridge, and get into the carriage behind which the chasseur he saw at Vincennes will be standing, allowing himself to be blindfolded, he will see the woman he loves. As his wealth may lead him to suspect the intentions of persons who proceed in such a fashion, he may bring, as an escort, his faithful Georges. And there will be nobody in the carriage.'—Off the Baron goes, taking Georges with him, but telling him nothing. They both submit to have their eyes bound up and their heads wrapped in veils; the Baron recognizes the man-servant.
"Two hours later, the carriage, going at the pace of Louis XVIII.—God rest his soul! He knew what was meant by the police, he did!—pulled up in the middle of a wood. The Baron had the handkerchief off, and saw, in a carriage standing still, his adored fair—when, whiff! she vanished. And the carriage, at the same lively pace, brought him back to the Neuilly Bridge, where he found his own.
"Some one had slipped into Georges' hand a note to this effect: 'How many banknotes will the Baron part with to be put into communication with his unknown fair? Georges handed this to his master; and the Baron, never doubting that Georges was in collusion with me or with you, Monsieur Peyrade, to drive a hard bargain, turned him out of the house. What a fool that banker is! He ought not to have sent away Georges before he had known the unknown!"
"Then Georges saw the woman?" said Corentin.
"Yes," replied Contenson.
"Well," cried Peyrade, "and what is she like?"
"Oh," said Contenson, "he said but one word—'A sun of loveliness.'"
"We are being tricked by some rascals who beat us at the game," said Peyrade. "Those villains mean to sell their woman very dear to the Baron."
"Ja, mein Herr," said Contenson. "And so, when I heard you got slapped in the face at the Prefecture, I made Georges blab."
"I should like very much to know who it is that has stolen a march on me," said Peyrade. "We would measure our spurs!"
"We must play eavesdropper," said Contenson.
"He is right," said Peyrade. "We must get into chinks to listen, and wait——"
"We will study that side of the subject," cried Corentin. "For the present, I am out of work. You, Peyrade, be a very good boy. We must always obey Monsieur le Prefet!"
"Monsieur de Nucingen wants bleeding," said Contenson; "he has too many banknotes in his veins."
"But it was Lydie's marriage-portion I looked for there!" said Peyrade, in a whisper to Corentin.
"Now, come along, Contenson, let us be off, and leave our daddy to by-bye, by-bye!"
"Monsieur," said Contenson to Corentin on the doorstep, "what a queer piece of brokerage our good friend was planning! Heh!—What, marry a daughter with the price of——Ah, ha! It would make a pretty little play, and very moral too, entitled 'A Girl's Dower.'"
"You are highly organized animals, indeed," replied Corentin. "What ears you have! Certainly Social Nature arms all her species with the qualities needed for the duties she expects of them! Society is second nature."
"That is a highly philosophical view to take," cried Contenson. "A professor would work it up into a system."
"Let us find out all we can," replied Corentin with a smile, as he made his way down the street with the spy, "as to what goes on at Monsieur de Nucingen's with regard to this girl—the main facts; never mind the details——"
"Just watch to see if his chimneys are smoking!" said Contenson.
"Such a man as the Baron de Nucingen cannot be happy incognito," replied Corentin. "And besides, we for whom men are but cards, ought never to be tricked by them."
"By gad! it would be the condemned jail-bird amusing himself by cutting the executioner's throat."
"You always have something droll to say," replied Corentin, with a dim smile, that faintly wrinkled his set white face.
This business was exceedingly important in itself, apart from its consequences. If it were not the Baron who had betrayed Peyrade, who could have had any interest in seeing the Prefet of Police? From Corentin's point of view it seemed suspicious. Were there any traitors among his men? And as he went to bed, he wondered what Peyrade, too, was considering.
"Who can have gone to complain to the Prefet? Whom does the woman belong to?"
And thus, without knowing each other, Jacques Collin, Peyrade, and Corentin were converging to a common point; while the unhappy Esther, Nucingen, and Lucien were inevitably entangled in the struggle which had already begun, and of which the point of pride, peculiar to police agents, was making a war to the death.
Thanks to Europe's cleverness, the more pressing half of the sixty thousand francs of debt owed by Esther and Lucien was paid off. The creditors did not even lose confidence. Lucien and his evil genius could breathe for a moment. Like some pool, they could start again along the edge of the precipice where the strong man was guiding the weak man to the gibbet or to fortune.
"We are staking now," said Carlos to his puppet, "to win or lose all. But, happily, the cards are beveled, and the punters young."