Esther Happy/Section 15
For some time Lucien, by his terrible Mentor's orders, had been very attentive to Madame de Serizy. It was, in fact, indispensable that Lucien should not be suspected of having kept a woman for his mistress. And in the pleasure of being loved, and the excitement of fashionable life, he found a spurious power of forgetting. He obeyed Mademoiselle Clotilde de Grandlieu by never seeing her excepting in the Bois or the Champs-Elysees.
On the day after Esther was shut up in the park-keeper's house, the being who was to her so enigmatic and terrible, who weighed upon her soul, came to desire her to sign three pieces of stamped paper, made terrible by these fateful words: on the first, accepted payable for sixty thousand francs; on the second, accepted payable for a hundred and twenty thousand francs; on the third, accepted payable for a hundred and twenty thousand francs—three hundred thousand francs in all. By writing Bon pour, you simply promise to pay. The word accepted constitutes a bill of exchange, and makes you liable to imprisonment. The word entails, on the person who is so imprudent as to sign, the risk of five years' imprisonment—a punishment which the police magistrate hardly ever inflicts, and which is reserved at the assizes for confirmed rogues. The law of imprisonment for debt is a relic of the days of barbarism, which combines with its stupidity the rare merit of being useless, inasmuch as it never catches swindlers.
"The point," said the Spaniard to Esther, "is to get Lucien out of his difficulties. We have debts to the tune of sixty thousand francs, and with these three hundred thousand francs we may perhaps pull through."
Having antedated the bills by six months, Carlos had had them drawn on Esther by a man whom the county court had "misunderstood," and whose adventures, in spite of the excitement they had caused, were soon forgotten, hidden, lost, in the uproar of the great symphony of July 1830.
This young fellow, a most audacious adventurer, the son of a lawyer's clerk of Boulogne, near Paris, was named Georges Marie Destourny. His father, obliged by adverse circumstances to sell his connection, died in 1824, leaving his son without the means of living, after giving him a brilliant education, the folly of the lower middle class. At twenty-three the clever young law-student had denied his paternity by printing on his cards
- Georges d'Estourny.
This card gave him an odor of aristocracy; and now, as a man of fashion, he was so impudent as to set up a tilbury and a groom and haunt the clubs. One line will account for this: he gambled on the Bourse with the money intrusted to him by the kept women of his acquaintance. Finally he fell into the hands of the police, and was charged with playing at cards with too much luck.
He had accomplices, youths whom he had corrupted, his compulsory satellites, accessory to his fashion and his credit. Compelled to fly, he forgot to pay his differences on the Bourse. All Paris—the Paris of the Stock Exchange and Clubs—was still shaken by this double stroke of swindling.
In the days of his splendor Georges d'Estourny, a handsome youth, and above all, a jolly fellow, as generous as a brigand chief, had for a few months "protected" La Torpille. The false Abbe based his calculations on Esther's former intimacy with this famous scoundrel, an incident peculiar to women of her class.
Georges d'Estourny, whose ambition grew bolder with success, had taken under his patronage a man who had come from the depths of the country to carry on a business in Paris, and whom the Liberal party were anxious to indemnify for certain sentences endured with much courage in the struggle of the press with Charles X.'s government, the persecution being relaxed, however, during the Martignac administration. The Sieur Cerizet had then been pardoned, and he was henceforth known as the Brave Cerizet.
Cerizet then, being patronized for form's sake by the bigwigs of the Left, founded a house which combined the business of a general agency with that of a bank and a commission agency. It was one of those concerns which, in business, remind one of the servants who advertise in the papers as being able and willing to do everything. Cerizet was very glad to ally himself with Georges d'Estourny, who gave him hints.
Esther, in virtue of the anecdote about Nonon, might be regarded as the faithful guardian of part of Georges d'Estourny's fortune. An endorsement in the name of Georges d'Estourny made Carlos Herrera master of the money he had created. This forgery was perfectly safe so long as Mademoiselle Esther, or some one for her, could, or was bound to pay.
After making inquiries as to the house of Cerizet, Carlos perceived that he had to do with one of those humble men who are bent on making a fortune, but—lawfully. Cerizet, with whom d'Estourny had really deposited his moneys, had in hand a considerable sum with which he was speculating for a rise on the Bourse, a state of affairs which allowed him to style himself a banker. Such things are done in Paris; a man may be despised,—but money, never.
Carlos went off to Cerizet intending to work him after his manner; for, as it happened, he was master of all this worthy's secrets—a meet partner for d'Estourny.
Cerizet the Brave lived in an entresol in the Rue du Gros-Chenet, and Carlos, who had himself mysteriously announced as coming from Georges d'Estourny, found the self-styled banker quite pale at the name. The Abbe saw in this humble private room a little man with thin, light hair; and recognized him at once, from Lucien's description, as the Judas who had ruined David Sechard.
"Can we talk here without risk of being overheard?" said the Spaniard, now metamorphosed into a red-haired Englishman with blue spectacles, as clean and prim as a Puritan going to meeting.
"Why, monsieur?" said Cerizet. "Who are you?"
"Mr. William Barker, a creditor of M. d'Estourny's; and I can prove to you the necessity for keeping your doors closed if you wish it. We know, monsieur, all about your connections with the Petit-Clauds, the Cointets, and the Sechards of Angouleme——"
On hearing these words, Cerizet rushed to the door and shut it, flew to another leading into a bedroom and bolted it; then he said to the stranger:
"Speak lower, monsieur," and he studied the sham Englishman as he asked him, "What do you want with me?"
"Dear me," said William Barker, "every one for himself in this world. You had the money of that rascal d'Estourny.—Be quite easy, I have not come to ask for it; but that scoundrel, who deserves hanging, between you and me, gave me these bills, saying that there might be some chance of recovering the money; and as I do not choose to prosecute in my own name, he told me you would not refuse to back them."
Cerizet looked at the bills.
"But he is no longer at Frankfort," said he.
"I know it," replied Barker, "but he may still have been there at the date of those bills——"
"I will not take the responsibility," said Cerizet.
"I do not ask such a sacrifice of you," replied Barker; "you may be instructed to receive them. Endorse them, and I will undertake to recover the money."
"I am surprised that d'Estourny should show so little confidence in me," said Cerizet.
"In his position," replied Barker, "you can hardly blame him for having put his eggs in different baskets."
"Can you believe——" the little broker began, as he handed back to the Englishman the bills of exchange formally accepted.
"I believe that you will take good care of his money," said Barker. "I am sure of it! It is already on the green table of the Bourse."
"My fortune depends——"
"On your appearing to lose it," said Barker.
"Sir!" cried Cerizet.
"Look here, my dear Monsieur Cerizet," said Barker, coolly interrupting him, "you will do me a service by facilitating this payment. Be so good as to write me a letter in which you tell me that you are sending me these bills receipted on d'Estourny's account, and that the collecting officer is to regard the holder of the letter as the possessor of the three bills."
"Will you give me your name?"
"No names," replied the English capitalist. "Put 'The bearer of this letter and these bills.'—You will be handsomely repaid for obliging me."
"How?" said Cerizet.
"In one word—You mean to stay in France, do not you?"
"Well, Georges d'Estourny will never re-enter the country."
"There are five persons at least to my knowledge who would murder him, and he knows it."
"Then no wonder he is asking me for money enough to start him trading to the Indies?" cried Cerizet. "And unfortunately he has compelled me to risk everything in State speculation. We already owe heavy differences to the house of du Tillet. I live from hand to mouth."
"Withdraw your stakes."
"Oh! if only I had known this sooner!" exclaimed Cerizet. "I have missed my chance!"
"One last word," said Barker. "Keep your own counsel, you are capable of that; but you must be faithful too, which is perhaps less certain. We shall meet again, and I will help you to make a fortune."
Having tossed this sordid soul a crumb of hope that would secure silence for some time to come, Carlos, still disguised as Barker, betook himself to a bailiff whom he could depend on, and instructed him to get the bills brought home to Esther.
"They will be paid all right," said he to the officer. "It is an affair of honor; only we want to do the thing regularly."
Barker got a solicitor to represent Esther in court, so that judgment might be given in presence of both parties. The collecting officer, who was begged to act with civility, took with him all the warrants for procedure, and came in person to seize the furniture in the Rue Taitbout, where he was received by Europe. Her personal liability once proved, Esther was ostensibly liable, beyond dispute, for three hundred and more thousand francs of debts.
In all this Carlos displayed no great powers of invention. The farce of false debts is often played in Paris. There are many sub-Gobsecks and sub-Gigonnets who, for a percentage, will lend themselves to this subterfuge, and regard the infamous trick as a jest. In France everything—even a crime—is done with a laugh. By this means refractory parents are made to pay, or rich mistresses who might drive a hard bargain, but who, face to face with flagrant necessity, or some impending dishonor, pay up, if with a bad grace. Maxime de Trailles had often used such means, borrowed from the comedies of the old stage. Carlos Herrera, who wanted to save the honor of his gown, as well as Lucien's, had worked the spell by a forgery not dangerous for him, but now so frequently practised that Justice is beginning to object. There is, it is said, a Bourse for falsified bills near the Palais Royal, where you may get a forged signature for three francs.
Before entering on the question of the hundred thousand crowns that were to keep the door of the bedroom, Carlos determined first to extract a hundred thousand more from M. de Nucingen.
And this was the way: By his orders Asie got herself up for the Baron's benefit as an old woman fully informed as to the unknown beauty's affairs.
Hitherto, novelists of manners have placed on the stage a great many usurers; but the female money-lender has been overlooked, the Madame la Ressource of the present day—a very singular figure, euphemistically spoken of as a "ward-robe purchaser"; a part that the ferocious Asie could play, for she had two old-clothes shops managed by women she could trust—one in the Temple, and the other in the Rue Neuve-Saint-Marc.
"You must get into the skin of Madame de Saint-Esteve," said he.
Herrera wished to see Asie dressed.
The go-between arrived in a dress of flowered damask, made of the curtains of some dismantled boudoir, and one of those shawls of Indian design—out of date, worn, and valueless, which end their career on the backs of these women. She had a collar of magnificent lace, though torn, and a terrible bonnet; but her shoes were of fine kid, in which the flesh of her fat feet made a roll of black-lace stocking.
"And my waist buckle!" she exclaimed, displaying a piece of suspicious-looking finery, prominent on her cook's stomach, "There's style for you! and my front!—Oh, Ma'me Nourrisson has turned me out quite spiff!"
"Be as sweet as honey at first," said Carlos; "be almost timid, as suspicious as a cat; and, above all, make the Baron ashamed of having employed the police, without betraying that you quake before the constable. Finally, make your customer understand in more or less plain terms that you defy all the police in the world to discover his jewel. Take care to destroy your traces.
"When the Baron gives you a right to tap him on the stomach, and call him a pot-bellied old rip, you may be as insolent as you please, and make him trot like a footman."
Nucingen—threatened by Asie with never seeing her again if he attempted the smallest espionage—met the woman on his way to the Bourse, in secret, in a wretched entresol in the Rue Nueve-Saint-Marc. How often, and with what rapture, have amorous millionaires trodden these squalid paths! the pavements of Paris know. Madame de Saint-Esteve, by tossing the Baron from hope to despair by turns, brought him to the point when he insisted on being informed of all that related to the unknown beauty at ANY COST. Meanwhile, the law was put in force, and with such effect that the bailiffs, finding no resistance from Esther, put in an execution on her effects without losing a day.
Lucien, guided by his adviser, paid the recluse at Saint-Germain five or six visits. The merciless author of all these machinations thought this necessary to save Esther from pining to death, for her beauty was now their capital. When the time came for them to quit the park-keeper's lodge, he took Lucien and the poor girl to a place on the road whence they could see Paris, where no one could overhear them. They all three sat down in the rising sun, on the trunk of a felled poplar, looking over one of the finest prospects in the world, embracing the course of the Seine, with Montmartre, Paris, and Saint-Denis.
"My children," said Carlos, "your dream is over.—You, little one, will never see Lucien again; or if you should, you must have known him only for a few days, five years ago."
"Death has come upon me then," said she, without shedding a tear.
"Well, you have been ill these five years," said Herrera. "Imagine yourself to be consumptive, and die without boring us with your lamentations. But you will see, you can still live, and very comfortably too.—Leave us, Lucien—go and gather sonnets!" said he, pointing to a field a little way off.
Lucien cast a look of humble entreaty at Esther, one of the looks peculiar to such men—weak and greedy, with tender hearts and cowardly spirits. Esther answered with a bow of her head, which said: "I will hear the executioner, that I may know how to lay my head under the axe, and I shall have courage enough to die decently."
The gesture was so gracious, but so full of dreadful meaning, that the poet wept; Esther flew to him, clasped him in her arms, drank away the tears, and said, "Be quite easy!" one of those speeches that are spoken with the manner, the look, the tones of delirium.
Carlos then explained to her quite clearly, without attenuation, often with horrible plainness of speech, the critical position in which Lucien found himself, his connection with the Hotel Grandlieu, his splendid prospects if he should succeed; and finally, how necessary it was that Esther should sacrifice herself to secure him this triumphant future.
"What must I do?" cried she, with the eagerness of a fanatic.
"Obey me blindly," said Carlos. "And what have you to complain of? It rests with you to achieve a happy lot. You may be what Tullia is, what your old friends Florine, Mariette, and la Val-Noble are—the mistress of a rich man whom you need not love. When once our business is settled, your lover is rich enough to make you happy."
"Happy!" said she, raising her eyes to heaven.
"You have lived in Paradise for four years," said he. "Can you not live on such memories?"
"I will obey you," said she, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye. "For the rest, do not worry yourself. You have said it; my love is a mortal disease."
"That is not enough," said Carlos; "you must preserve your looks. At a little past two-and-twenty you are in the prime of your beauty, thanks to your past happiness. And, above all, be the 'Torpille' again. Be roguish, extravagant, cunning, merciless to the millionaire I put in your power. Listen to me! That man is a robber on a grand scale; he has been ruthless to many persons; he has grown fat on the fortunes of the widow and the orphan; you will avenge them!
"Asie is coming to fetch you in a hackney coach, and you will be in Paris this evening. If you allow any one to suspect your connection with Lucien, you may as well blow his brains out at once. You will be asked where you have been for so long. You must say that you have been traveling with a desperately jealous Englishman.—You used to have wit enough to humbug people. Find such wit again now."
Have you ever seen a gorgeous kite, the giant butterfly of childhood, twinkling with gilding, and soaring to the sky? The children forget the string that holds it, some passer-by cuts it, the gaudy toy turns head over heels, as the boys say, and falls with terrific rapidity. Such was Esther as she listened to Carlos.