The Government Clerks/Chapter III
|←Chapter II||The Government Clerks by , translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley
Chapter III: THE TEREDOS NAVALIS, OTHERWISE CALLED SHIP-WORM
While old Saillard was driving across Paris his son-in-law, Isidore Baudoyer, and his daughter, Elisabeth, Baudoyer's wife, were playing a virtuous game of boston with their confessor, the Abbe Gaudron, in company with a few neighbors and a certain Martin Falleix, a brass-founder in the fauborg Saint-Antoine, to whom Saillard had loaned the necessary money to establish a business. This Falleix, a respectable Auvergnat who had come to seek his fortune in Paris with his smelting-pot on his back, had found immediate employment with the firm of Brezac, collectors of metals and other relics from all chateaux in the provinces. About twenty-seven years of age, and spoiled, like others, by success, Martin Falleix had had the luck to become the active agent of Monsieur Saillard, the sleeping-partner in the working out of a discovery made by Falleix in smelting (patent of invention and gold medal granted at the exposition of 1825). Madame Baudoyer, whose only daughter was treading—to use an expression of old Saillard's—on the tail of her twelve years, laid claim to Falleix, a thickset, swarthy, active young fellow, of shrewd principles, whose education she was superintending. The said education, according to her ideas, consisted in teaching him to play boston, to hold his cards properly, and not to let others see his game; to shave himself regularly before he came to the house, and to wash his hands with good cleansing soap; not to swear, to speak her kind of French, to wear boots instead of shoes, cotton shirts instead of sacking, and to brush up his hair instead of plastering it flat. During the preceding week Elisabeth had finally succeeded in persuading Falleix to give up wearing a pair of enormous flat earrings resembling hoops.
"You go too far, Madame Baudoyer," he said, seeing her satisfaction at the final sacrifice; "you order me about too much. You make me clean my teeth, which loosens them; presently you will want me to brush my nails and curl my hair, which won't do at all in our business; we don't like dandies."
Elisabeth Baudoyer, nee Saillard, is one of those persons who escape portraiture through their utter commonness; yet who ought to be sketched, because they are specimens of that second-rate Parisian bourgeoisie which occupies a place above the well-to-do artisan and below the upper middle classes,—a tribe whose virtues are well-nigh vices, whose defects are never kindly, but whose habits and manners, dull and insipid though they be, are not without a certain originality. Something pinched and puny about Elisabeth Saillard was painful to the eye. Her figure, scarcely over four feet in height, was so thin that the waist measured less than twenty inches. Her small features, which clustered close about the nose, gave her face a vague resemblance to a weasel's snout. Though she was past thirty years old she looked scarcely more than sixteen. Her eyes, of porcelain blue, overweighted by heavy eyelids which fell nearly straight from the arch of the eyebrows, had little light in them. Everything about her appearance was commonplace: witness her flaxen hair, tending to whiteness; her flat forehead, from which the light did not reflect; and her dull complexion, with gray, almost leaden, tones. The lower part of the face, more triangular than oval, ended irregularly the otherwise irregular outline of her face. Her voice had a rather pretty range of intonation, from sharp to sweet. Elisabeth was a perfect specimen of the second-rate little bourgeoisie who lectures her husband behind the curtains; obtains no credit for her virtues; is ambitious without intelligent object, and solely through the development of her domestic selfishness. Had she lived in the country she would have bought up adjacent land; being, as she was, connected with the administration, she was determined to push her way. If we relate the life of her father and mother, we shall show the sort of woman she was by a picture of her childhood and youth.
Monsieur Saillard married the daughter of an upholsterer keeping shop under the arcades of the Market. Limited means compelled Monsieur and Madame Saillard at their start in life to bear constant privation. After thirty-three years of married life, and twenty-nine years of toil in a government office, the property of "the Saillards"—their circle of acquaintance called them so—consisted of sixty thousand francs entrusted to Falleix, the house in the place Royale, bought for forty thousand in 1804, and thirty-six thousand francs given in dowry to their daughter Elisabeth. Out of this capital about fifty thousand came to them by the will of the widow Bidault, Madame Saillard's mother. Saillard's salary from the government had always been four thousand five hundred francs a year, and no more; his situation was a blind alley that led nowhere, and had tempted no one to supersede him. Those ninety thousand francs, put together sou by sou, were the fruit therefore of a sordid economy unintelligently employed. In fact, the Saillards did not know how better to manage their savings than to carry them, five thousand francs at a time, to their notary, Monsieur Sorbier, Cardot's predecessor, and let him invest them at five per cent in first mortgages, with the wife's rights reserved in case the borrower was married! In 1804 Madame Saillard obtained a government office for the sale of stamped papers, a circumstance which brought a servant into the household for the first time. At the time of which we write, the house, which was worth a hundred thousand francs, brought in a rental of eight thousand. Falleix paid seven per cent for the sixty thousand invested in the foundry, besides an equal division of profits. The Saillards were therefore enjoying an income of not less than seventeen thousand francs a year. The whole ambition of the good man now centred on obtaining the cross of the Legion and his retiring pension.
Elisabeth, the only child, had toiled steadily from infancy in a home where the customs of life were rigid and the ideas simple. A new hat for Saillard was a matter of deliberation; the time a coat could last was estimated and discussed; umbrellas were carefully hung up by means of a brass buckle. Since 1804 no repairs of any kind had been done to the house. The Saillards kept the ground-floor in precisely the state in which their predecessor left it. The gilding of the pier-glasses was rubbed off; the paint on the cornices was hardly visible through the layers of dust that time had collected. The fine large rooms still retained certain sculptured marble mantel-pieces and ceilings, worthy of Versailles, together with the old furniture of the widow Bidault. The latter consisted of a curious mixture of walnut armchairs, disjointed, and covered with tapestry; rosewood bureaus; round tables on single pedestals, with brass railings and cracked marble tops; one superb Boulle secretary, the value of which style had not yet been recognized; in short, a chaos of bargains picked up by the worthy widow,—pictures bought for the sake of the frames, china services of a composite order; to wit, a magnificent Japanese dessert set, and all the rest porcelains of various makes, unmatched silver plate, old glass, fine damask, and a four-post bedstead, hung with curtains and garnished with plumes.
Amid these curious relics, Madame Saillard always sat on a sofa of modern mahogany, near a fireplace full of ashes and without fire, on the mantel-shelf of which stood a clock, some antique bronzes, candelabra with paper flowers but no candles, for the careful housewife lighted the room with a tall tallow candle always guttering down into the flat brass candlestick which held it. Madame Saillard's face, despite its wrinkles, was expressive of obstinacy and severity, narrowness of ideas, an uprightness that might be called quadrangular, a religion without piety, straightforward, candid avarice, and the peace of a quiet conscience. You may see in certain Flemish pictures the wives of burgomasters cut out by nature on the same pattern and wonderfully reproduced on canvas; but these dames wear fine robes of velvet and precious stuffs, whereas Madame Saillard possessed no robes, only that venerable garment called in Touraine and Picardy "cottes," elsewhere petticoats, or skirts pleated behind and on each side, with other skirts hanging over them. Her bust was inclosed in what was called a "casaquin," another obsolete name for a short gown or jacket. She continued to wear a cap with starched wings, and shoes with high heels. Though she was now fifty-seven years old, and her lifetime of vigorous household work ought now to be rewarded with well-earned repose, she was incessantly employed in knitting her husband's stockings and her own, and those of an uncle, just as her countrywomen knit them, moving about the room, talking, pacing up and down the garden, or looking round the kitchen to watch what was going on.
The Saillard's avarice, which was really imposed on them in the first instance by dire necessity, was now a second nature. When the cashier got back from the office, he laid aside his coat, and went to work in the large garden, shut off from the courtyard by an iron railing, and which the family reserved to itself. For years Elisabeth, the daughter, went to market every morning with her mother, and the two did all the work of the house. The mother cooked well, especially a duck with turnips; but, according to Saillard, no one could equal Elisabeth in hashing the remains of a leg of mutton with onions. "You might eat your boots with those onions and not know it," he remarked. As soon as Elisabeth knew how to hold a needle, her mother had her mend the household linen and her father's coats. Always at work, like a servant, she never went out alone. Though living close by the boulevard du Temple, where Franconi, La Gaite, and l'Ambigu-Comique were within a stone's throw, and, further on, the Porte-Saint-Martin, Elisabeth had never seen a comedy. When she asked to "see what it was like" (with the Abbe Gaudron's permission, be it understood), Monsieur Baudoyer took her—for the glory of the thing, and to show her the finest that was to be seen—to the Opera, where they were playing "The Chinese Laborer." Elisabeth thought "the comedy" as wearisome as the plague of flies, and never wished to see another. On Sundays, after walking four times to and fro between the place Royale and Saint-Paul's church (for her mother made her practise the precepts and the duties of religion), her parents took her to the pavement in front of the Cafe Ture, where they sat on chairs placed between a railing and the wall. The Saillards always made haste to reach the place early so as to choose the best seats, and found much entertainment in watching the passers-by. In those days the Cafe Ture was the rendezvous of the fashionable society of the Marais, the faubourg Saint-Antoine, and the circumjacent regions.
Elisabeth never wore anything but cotton gowns in summer and merino in the winter, which she made herself. Her mother gave her twenty francs a month for her expenses, but her father, who was very fond of her, mitigated this rigorous treatment with a few presents. She never read what the Abbe Gaudron, vicar of Saint-Paul's and the family director, called profane books. This discipline had borne fruit. Forced to employ her feelings on some passion or other, Elisabeth became eager after gain. Though she was not lacking in sense or perspicacity, religious theories, and her complete ignorance of higher emotions had encircled all her faculties with an iron hand; they were exercised solely on the commonest things of life; spent in a few directions they were able to concentrate themselves on a matter in hand. Repressed by religious devotion, her natural intelligence exercised itself within the limits marked out by cases of conscience, which form a mine of subtleties among which self-interest selects its subterfuges. Like those saintly personages in whom religion does not stifle ambition, Elisabeth was capable of requiring others to do a blamable action that she might reap the fruits; and she would have been, like them again, implacable as to her dues and dissembling in her actions. Once offended, she watched her adversaries with the perfidious patience of a cat, and was capable of bringing about some cold and complete vengeance, and then laying it to the account of God. Until her marriage the Saillards lived without other society than that of the Abbe Gaudron, a priest from Auvergne appointed vicar of Saint-Paul's after the restoration of Catholic worship. Besides this ecclesiastic, who was a friend of the late Madame Bidault, a paternal uncle of Madame Saillard, an old paper-dealer retired from business ever since the year II. of the Republic, and now sixty-nine years old, came to see them on Sundays only, because on that day no government business went on.
This little old man, with a livid face blazoned by the red nose of a tippler and lighted by two gleaming vulture eyes, allowed his gray hair to hang loose under a three-cornered hat, wore breeches with straps that extended beyond the buckles, cotton stockings of mottled thread knitted by his niece, whom he always called "the little Saillard," stout shoes with silver buckles, and a surtout coat of mixed colors. He looked very much like those verger-beadle-bell-ringing-grave-digging-parish-clerks who are taken to be caricatures until we see them performing their various functions. On the present occasion he had come on foot to dine with the Saillards, intending to return in the same way to the rue Greneta, where he lived on the third floor of an old house. His business was that of discounting commercial paper in the quartier Saint-Martin, where he was known by the nickname of "Gigonnet," from the nervous convulsive movement with which he lifted his legs in walking, like a cat. Monsieur Bidault began this business in the year II. in partnership with a dutchman named Werbrust, a friend of Gobseck.
Some time later Saillard made the acquaintance of Monsieur and Madame Transon, wholesale dealers in pottery, with an establishment in the rue de Lesdiguieres, who took an interest in Elisabeth and introduced young Isadore Baudoyer to the family with the intention of marrying her. Gigonnet approved of the match, for he had long employed a certain Mitral, uncle of the young man, as clerk. Monsieur and Madame Baudoyer, father and mother of Isidore, highly respected leather-dressers in the rue Censier, had slowly made a moderate fortune out of a small trade. After marrying their only son, on whom they settled fifty thousand francs, they determined to live in the country, and had lately removed to the neighborhood of Ile-d'Adam, where after a time they were joined by Mitral. They frequently came to Paris, however, where they kept a corner in the house in the rue Censier which they gave to Isidore on his marriage. The elder Baudoyers had an income of about three thousand francs left to live upon after establishing their son.
Mitral was a being with a sinister wig, a face the color of Seine water, lighted by a pair of Spanish-tobacco-colored eyes, cold as a well-rope, always smelling a rat, and close-mouthed about his property. He probably made his fortune in his own hole and corner, just as Werbrust and Gigonnet made theirs in the quartier Saint-Martin.
Though the Saillards' circle of acquaintance increased, neither their ideas nor their manners and customs changed. The saint's-days of father, mother, daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild were carefully observed, also the anniversaries of birth and marriage, Easter, Christmas, New Year's day, and Epiphany. These festivals were preceded by great domestic sweepings and a universal clearing up of the house, which added an element of usefulness to the ceremonies. When the festival day came, the presents were offered with much pomp and an accompaniment of flowers,—silk stockings or a fur cap for old Saillard; gold earrings and articles of plate for Elisabeth or her husband, for whom, little by little, the parents were accumulating a whole silver service; silk petticoats for Madame Saillard, who laid the stuff by and never made it up. The recipient of these gifts was placed in an armchair and asked by those present for a certain length of time, "Guess what we have for you!" Then came a splendid dinner, lasting at least five hours, to which were invited the Abbe Gaudron, Falleix, Rabourdin, Monsieur Godard, under-head-clerk to Monsieur Baudoyer, Monsieur Bataille, captain of the company of the National Guard to which Saillard and his son-in-law belonged. Monsieur Cardot, who was invariably asked, did as Rabourdin did, namely, accepted one invitation out of six. The company sang at dessert, shook hands and embraced with enthusiasm, wishing each other all manner of happiness; the presents were exhibited and the opinion of the guests asked about them. The day Saillard received his fur cap he wore it during the dessert, to the satisfaction of all present. At night, mere ordinary acquaintances were bidden, and dancing went on till very late, formerly to the music of one violin, but for the last six years Monsieur Godard, who was a great flute player, contributed the piercing tones of a flageolet to the festivity. The cook, Madame Baudoyer's nurse, and old Catherine, Madame Saillard's woman-servant, together with the porter or his wife, stood looking on at the door of the salon. The servants always received three francs on these occasions to buy themselves wine or coffee.
This little circle looked upon Saillard and Baudoyer as transcendent beings; they were government officers; they had risen by their own merits; they worked, it was said, with the minister himself; they owed their fortune to their talents; they were politicians. Baudoyer was considered the more able of the two; his position as head of a bureau presupposed labor that was more intricate and arduous than that of a cashier. Moreover, Isidore, though the son of a leather-dresser, had had the genius to study and to cast aside his father's business and find a career in politics, which had led him to a post of eminence. In short, silent and uncommunicative as he was, he was looked upon as a deep thinker, and perhaps, said the admiring circle, he would some day become deputy of the eighth arrondissement. As Gigonnet listened to such remarks as these, he pressed his already pinched lips closer together, and threw a glance at his great-niece, Elisabeth.
In person, Isidore was a tall, stout man of thirty-seven, who perspired freely, and whose head looked as if he had water on the brain. This enormous head, covered with chestnut hair cropped close, was joined to the neck by rolls of flesh which overhung the collar of his coat. He had the arms of Hercules, hands worthy of Domitian, a stomach which sobriety held within the limits of the majestic, to use a saying of Brillaet-Savarin. His face was a good deal like that of the Emperor Alexander. The Tartar type was in the little eyes and the flattened nose turned slightly up, in the frigid lips and the short chin. The forehead was low and narrow. Though his temperament was lymphatic, the devout Isidore was under the influence of a conjugal passion which time did not lessen.
In spite, however, of his resemblance to the handsome Russian Emperor and the terrible Domitian, Isidore Baudoyer was nothing more than a political office-holder, of little ability as head of his department, a cut-and-dried routine man, who concealed the fact that he was a flabby cipher by so ponderous a personality that no scalpel could cut deep enough to let the operator see into him. His severe studies, in which he had shown the patience and sagacity of an ox, and his square head, deceived his parents, who firmly believed him an extraordinary man. Pedantic and hypercritical, meddlesome and fault-finding, he was a terror to the clerks under him, whom he worried in their work, enforcing the rules rigorously, and arriving himself with such terrible punctuality that not one of them dared to be a moment late. Baudoyer wore a blue coat with gilt buttons, a chamois waistcoat, gray trousers and cravats of various colors. His feet were large and ill-shod. From the chain of his watch depended an enormous bunch of old trinkets, among which in 1824 he still wore "American beads," which were very much the fashion in the year VII.
In the bosom of this family, bound together by the force of religious ties, by the inflexibility of its customs, by one solitary emotion, that of avarice, a passion which was now as it were its compass, Elisabeth was forced to commune with herself, instead of imparting her ideas to those around her, for she felt herself without equals in mind who could comprehend her. Though facts compelled her to judge her husband, her religious duty led her to keep up as best she could a favorable opinion of him; she showed him marked respect; honored him as the father of her child, her husband, the temporal power, as the vicar of Saint-Paul's told her. She would have thought it a mortal sin to make a single gesture, or give a single glance, or say a single word which would reveal to others her real opinion of the imbecile Baudoyer. She even professed to obey passively all his wishes. But her ears were receptive of many things; she thought them over, weighed and compared them in the solitude of her mind, and judged so soberly of men and events that at the time when our history begins she was the hidden oracle of the two functionaries, her husband and father, who had, unconsciously, come to do nothing whatever without consulting her. Old Saillard would say, innocently, "Isn't she clever, that Elisabeth of mine?" But Baudoyer, too great a fool not to be puffed up by the false reputation the quartier Saint-Antoine bestowed upon him, denied his wife's cleverness all the while that he was making use of it.
Elisabeth had long felt sure that her uncle Bidault, otherwise called Gigonnet, was rich and handled vast sums of money. Enlightened by self-interest, she had come to understand Monsieur des Lupeaulx far better than the minister understood him. Finding herself married to a fool, she never allowed herself to think that life might have gone better with her, she only imagined the possibility of better things without expecting or wishing to attain them. All her best affections found their vocation in her love for her daughter, to whom she spared the pains and privations she had borne in her own childhood; she believed that in this affection she had her full share in the world of feeling. Solely for her daughter's sake she had persuaded her father to take the important step of going into partnership with Falleix. Falleix had been brought to the Saillard's house by old Bidault, who lent him money on his merchandise. Falleix thought his old countryman extortionate, and complained to the Saillards that Gigonnet demanded eighteen per cent from an Auvergnat. Madame Saillard ventured to remonstrate with her uncle.
"It is just because he is an Auvergnat that I take only eighteen per cent," said Gigonnet, when she spoke of him.
Falleix, who had made a discovery at the age of twenty-eight, and communicated it to Saillard, seemed to carry his heart in his hand (an expression of old Saillard's), and also seemed likely to make a great fortune. Elisabeth determined to husband him for her daughter and train him herself, having, as she calculated, seven years to do it in. Martin Falleix felt and showed the deepest respect for Madame Baudoyer, whose superior qualities he was able to recognize. If he were fated to make millions he would always belong to her family, where he had found a home. The little Baudoyer girl was already trained to bring him his tea and to take his hat.
On the evening of which we write, Monsieur Saillard, returning from the ministry, found a game of boston in full blast; Elisabeth was advising Falleix how to play; Madame Saillard was knitting in the chimney-corner and overlooking the cards of the vicar; Monsieur Baudoyer, motionless as a mile-stone, was employing his mental capacity in calculating how the cards were placed, and sat opposite to Mitral, who had come up from Ile-d'Adam for the Christmas holidays. No one moved as the cashier entered, and for some minutes he walked up and down the room, his fat face contracted with unaccustomed thought.
"He is always so when he dines at the ministry," remarked Madame Saillard; "happily, it is only twice a year, or he'd die of it. Saillard was never made to be in the government— Well, now, I do hope, Saillard," she continued in a loud tone, "that you are not going to keep on those silk breeches and that handsome coat. Go and take them off; don't wear them at home, my man."
"Your father has something on his mind," said Baudoyer to his wife, when the cashier was in his bedroom, undressing without any fire.
"Perhaps Monsieur de la Billardiere is dead," said Elisabeth, simply; "and as he is anxious you should have the place, it worries him."
"Can I be useful in any way?" said the vicar of Saint-Paul's; "if so, pray use my services. I have the honor to be known to Madame la Dauphine. These are days when public offices should be given only to faithful men, whose religious principles are not to be shaken."
"Dear me!" said Falleix, "do men of merit need protectors and influence to get places in the government service? I am glad I am an iron-master; my customers know where to find a good article—"
"Monsieur," interrupted Baudoyer, "the government is the government; never attack it in this house."
"You speak like the 'Constitutionel,'" said the vicar.
"The 'Constitutionel' never says anything different from that," replied Baudoyer, who never read it.
The cashier believed his son-in-law to be as superior in talent to Rabourdin as God was greater than Saint-Crepin, to use his own expression; but the good man coveted this appointment in a straightforward, honest way. Influenced by the feeling which leads all officials to seek promotion,—a violent, unreflecting, almost brutal passion,—he desired success, just as he desired the cross of the Legion of honor, without doing anything against his conscience to obtain it, and solely, as he believed, on the strength of his son-in-law's merits. To his thinking, a man who had patiently spent twenty-five years in a government office behind an iron railing had sacrificed himself to his country and deserved the cross. But all that he dreamed of doing to promote his son-in-law's appointment in La Billardiere's place was to say a word to his Excellency's wife when he took her the month's salary.
"Well, Saillard, you look as if you had lost all your friends! Do speak; do, pray, tell us something," cried his wife when he came back into the room.
Saillard, after making a little sign to his daughter, turned on his heel to keep himself from talking politics before strangers. When Monsieur Mitral and the vicar had departed, Saillard rolled back the card-table and sat down in an armchair in the attitude he always assumed when about to tell some office-gossip,—a series of movements which answered the purpose of the three knocks given at the Theatre-Francais. After binding his wife, daughter, and son-in-law to the deepest secrecy,—for, however petty the gossip, their places, as he thought, depended on their discretion,—he related the incomprehensible enigma of the resignation of a deputy, the very legitimate desire of the general-secretary to get elected to the place, and the secret opposition of the minister to this wish of a man who was one of his firmest supporters and most zealous workers. This, of course, brought down an avalanche of suppositions, flooded with the sapient arguments of the two officials, who sent back and forth to each other a wearisome flood of nonsense. Elisabeth quietly asked three questions:—
"If Monsieur des Lupeaulx is on our side, will Monsieur Baudoyer be appointed in Monsieur de la Billardiere's place?"
"Heavens! I should think so," cried the cashier.
"My uncle Bidault and Monsieur Gobseck helped in him 1814," thought she. "Is he in debt?" she asked, aloud.
"Yes," cried the cashier with a hissing and prolonged sound on the last letter; "his salary was attached, but some of the higher powers released it by a bill at sight."
"Where is the des Lupeaulx estate?"
"Why, don't you know? in the part of the country where your grandfather and your great-uncle Bidault belong, in the arrondissement of the deputy who wants to resign."
When her colossus of a husband had gone to bed, Elisabeth leaned over him, and though he always treated her remarks as women's nonsense, she said, "Perhaps you will really get Monsieur de la Billardiere's place."
"There you go with your imaginations!" said Baudoyer; "leave Monsieur Gaudron to speak to the Dauphine and don't meddle with politics."
At eleven o'clock, when all were asleep in the place Royale, Monsieur des Lupeaulx was leaving the Opera for the rue Duphot. This particular Wednesday was one of Madame Rabourdin's most brilliant evenings. Many of her customary guests came in from the theatres and swelled the company already assembled, among whom were several celebrities, such as: Canalis the poet, Schinner the painter, Dr. Bianchon, Lucien de Rubempre, Octave de Camps, the Comte de Granville, the Vicomte de Fontaine, du Bruel the vaudevillist, Andoche Finot the journalist, Derville, one of the best heads in the law courts, the Comte du Chatelet, deputy, du Tillet, banker, and several elegant young men, such as Paul de Manerville and the Vicomte de Portenduere. Celestine was pouring out tea when the general-secretary entered. Her dress that evening was very becoming; she wore a black velvet robe without ornament of any kind, a black gauze scarf, her hair smoothly bound about her head and raised in a heavy braided mass, with long curls a l'Anglaise falling on either side of her face. The charms which particularly distinguished this woman were the Italian ease of her artistic nature, her ready comprehension, and the grace with which she welcomed and promoted the least appearance of a wish on the part of others. Nature had given her an elegant, slender figure, which could sway lightly at a word, black eyes of oriental shape, able, like those of the Chinese women, to see out of their corners. She well knew how to manage a soft, insinuating voice, which threw a tender charm into every word, even such as she merely chanced to utter; her feet were like those we see in portraits where the painter boldly lies and flatters his sitter in the only way which does not compromise anatomy. Her complexion, a little yellow by day, like that of most brunettes, was dazzling at night under the wax candles, which brought out the brilliancy of her black hair and eyes. Her slender and well-defined outlines reminded an artist of the Venus of the Middle Ages rendered by Jean Goujon, the illustrious sculptor of Diane de Poitiers.
Des Lupeaulx stopped in the doorway, and leaned against the woodwork. This ferret of ideas did not deny himself the pleasure of spying upon sentiment, and this woman interested him more than any of the others to whom he had attached himself. Des Lupeaulx had reached an age when men assert pretensions in regard to women. The first white hairs lead to the latest passions, all the more violent because they are astride of vanishing powers and dawning weakness. The age of forty is the age of folly,—an age when man wants to be loved for himself; whereas at twenty-five life is so full that he has no wants. At twenty-five he overflows with vigor and wastes it with impunity, but at forty he learns that to use it in that way is to abuse it. The thoughts that came into des Lupeaulx's mind at this moment were melancholy ones. The nerves of the old beau relaxed; the agreeable smile, which served as a mask and made the character of his countenance, faded; the real man appeared, and he was horrible. Rabourdin caught sight of him and thought, "What has happened to him? can he be disgraced in any way?" The general-secretary was, however, only thinking how the pretty Madame Colleville, whose intentions were exactly those of Madame Rabourdin, had summarily abandoned him when it suited her to do so. Rabourdin caught the sham statesman's eyes fixed on his wife, and he recorded the look in his memory. He was too keen an observer not to understand des Lupeaulx to the bottom, and he deeply despised him; but, as with most busy men, his feelings and sentiments seldom came to the surface. Absorption in a beloved work is practically equivalent to the cleverest dissimulation, and thus it was that the opinions and ideas of Rabourdin were a sealed book to des Lupeaulx. The former was sorry to see the man in his house, but he was never willing to oppose his wife's wishes. At this particular moment, while he talked confidentially with a supernumerary of his office who was destined, later, to play an unconscious part in a political intrigue resulting from the death of La Billardiere, he watched, though half-abstractedly, his wife and des Lupeaulx.
Here we must explain, as much for foreigners as for our own grandchildren, what a supernumerary in a government office in Paris means.
The supernumerary is to the administration what a choir-boy is to a church, what the company's child is to the regiment, what the figurante is to a theatre; something artless, naive, innocent, a being blinded by illusions. Without illusions what would become of any of us? They give strength to bear the res angusta domi of arts and the beginnings of all science by inspiring us with faith. Illusion is illimitable faith. Now the supernumerary has faith in the administration; he never thinks it cold, cruel, and hard, as it really is. There are two kinds of supernumeraries, or hangers-on,—one poor, the other rich. The poor one is rich in hope and wants a place, the rich one is poor in spirit and wants nothing. A wealthy family is not so foolish as to put its able men into the administration. It confides an unfledged scion to some head-clerk, or gives him in charge of a directory who initiates him into what Bilboquet, that profound philosopher, called the high comedy of government; he is spared all the horrors of drudgery and is finally appointed to some important office. The rich supernumerary never alarms the other clerks; they know he does not endanger their interests, for he seeks only the highest posts in the administration. About the period of which we write many families were saying to themselves: "What can we do with our sons?" The army no longer offered a chance for fortune. Special careers, such as civil and military engineering, the navy, mining, and the professorial chair were all fenced about by strict regulations or to be obtained only by competition; whereas in the civil service the revolving wheel which turned clerks into prefects, sub-prefects, assessors, and collectors, like the figures in a magic lantern, was subjected to no such rules and entailed no drudgery. Through this easy gap emerged into life the rich supernumeraries who drove their tilburys, dressed well, and wore moustachios, all of them as impudent as parvenus. Journalists were apt to persecute the tribe, who were cousins, nephews, brothers, or other relatives of some minister, some deputy, or an influential peer. The humbler clerks regarded them as a means of influence.
The poor supernumerary, on the other hand, who is the only real worker, is almost always the son of some former clerk's widow, who lives on a meagre pension and sacrifices herself to support her son until he can get a place as copying-clerk, and then dies leaving him no nearer the head of his department than writer of deeds, order-clerks, or, possibly, under-head-clerk. Living always in some locality where rents are low, this humble supernumerary starts early from home. For him the Eastern question relates only to the morning skies. To go on foot and not get muddied, to save his clothes, and allow for the time he may lose in standing under shelter during a shower, are the preoccupations of his mind. The street pavements, the flaggings of the quays and the boulevards, when first laid down, were a boon to him. If, for some extraordinary reason, you happen to be in the streets of Paris at half-past seven or eight o'clock of a winter's morning, and see through piercing cold or fog or rain a timid, pale young man loom up, cigarless, take notice of his pockets. You will be sure to see the outline of a roll which his mother has given him to stay his stomach between breakfast and dinner. The guilelessness of the supernumerary does not last long. A youth enlightened by gleams by Parisian life soon measures the frightful distance that separates him from the head-clerkship, a distance which no mathematician, neither Archimedes, nor Leibnitz, nor Laplace has ever reckoned, the distance that exists between 0 and the figure 1. He begins to perceive the impossibilities of his career; he hears talk of favoritism; he discovers the intrigues of officials: he sees the questionable means by which his superiors have pushed their way,—one has married a young woman who made a false step; another, the natural daughter of a minister; this one shouldered the responsibility of another's fault; that one, full of talent, risks his health in doing, with the perseverance of a mole, prodigies of work which the man of influence feels incapable of doing for himself, though he takes the credit. Everything is known in a government office. The incapable man has a wife with a clear head, who has pushed him along and got him nominated for deputy; if he has not talent enough for an office, he cabals in the Chamber. The wife of another has a statesman at her feet. A third is the hidden informant of a powerful journalist. Often the disgusted and hopeless supernumerary sends in his resignation. About three fourths of his class leave the government employ without ever obtaining an appointment, and their number is winnowed down to either those young men who are foolish or obstinate enough to say to themselves, "I have been here three years, and I must end sooner or later by getting a place," or to those who are conscious of a vocation for the work. Undoubtedly the position of supernumerary in a government office is precisely what the novitiate is in a religious order,—a trial. It is a rough trial. The State discovers how many of them can bear hunger, thirst, and penury without breaking down, how many can toil without revolting against it; it learns which temperaments can bear up under the horrible experience—or if you like, the disease—of government official life. From this point of view the apprenticeship of the supernumerary, instead of being an infamous device of the government to obtain labor gratis, becomes a useful institution.
The young man with whom Rabourdin was talking was a poor supernumerary named Sebastien de la Roche, who had picked his way on the points of his toes, without incurring the least splash upon his boots, from the rue du Roi-Dore in the Marais. He talked of his mamma, and dared not raise his eyes to Madame Rabourdin, whose house appeared to him as gorgeous as the Louvre. He was careful to show his gloves, well cleaned with india-rubber, as little as he could. His poor mother had put five francs in his pocket in case it became absolutely necessary that he should play cards; but she enjoined him to take nothing, to remain standing, and to be very careful not to knock over a lamp or the bric-a-brac from an etagere. His dress was all of the strictest black. His fair face, his eyes, of a fine shade of green with golden reflections, were in keeping with a handsome head of auburn hair. The poor lad looked furtively at Madame Rabourdin, whispering to himself, "How beautiful!" and was likely to dream of that fairy when he went to bed.
Rabourdin had noted a vocation for his work in the lad, and as he himself took the whole service seriously, he felt a lively interest in him. He guessed the poverty of his mother's home, kept together on a widow's pension of seven hundred francs a year—for the education of the son, who was just out of college, had absorbed all her savings. He therefore treated the youth almost paternally; often endeavoured to get him some fee from the Council, or paid it from his own pocket. He overwhelmed Sebastien with work, trained him, and allowed him to do the work of du Bruel's place, for which that vaudevillist, otherwise known as Cursy, paid him three hundred francs out of his salary. In the minds of Madame de la Roche and her son, Rabourdin was at once a great man, a tyrant, and an angel. On him all the poor fellow's hopes of getting an appointment depended, and the lad's devotion to his chief was boundless. He dined once a fortnight in the rue Duphot; but always at a family dinner, invited by Rabourdin himself; Madame asked him to evening parties only when she wanted partners.
At that moment Rabourdin was scolding poor Sebastien, the only human being who was in the secret of his immense labors. The youth copied and recopied the famous "statement," written on a hundred and fifty folio sheets, besides the corroborative documents, and the summing up (contained in one page), with the estimates bracketed, the captions in a running hand, and the sub-titles in a round one. Full of enthusiasm, in spite of his merely mechanical participation in the great idea, the lad of twenty would rewrite whole pages for a single blot, and made it his glory to touch up the writing, regarding it as the element of a noble undertaking. Sebastien had that afternoon committed the great imprudence of carrying into the general office, for the purpose of copying, a paper which contained the most dangerous facts to make known prematurely, namely, a memorandum relating to the officials in the central offices of all ministries, with facts concerning their fortunes, actual and prospective, together with the individual enterprises of each outside of his government employment.
All government clerks in Paris who are not endowed, like Rabourdin, with patriotic ambition or other marked capacity, usually add the profits of some industry to the salary of their office, in order to eke out a living. A number do as Monsieur Saillard did,—put their money into a business carried on by others, and spend their evenings in keeping the books of their associates. Many clerks are married to milliners, licensed tobacco dealers, women who have charge of the public lotteries or reading-rooms. Some, like the husband of Madame Colleville, Celestine's rival, play in the orchestra of a theatre; others like du Bruel, write vaudeville, comic operas, melodramas, or act as prompters behind the scenes. We may mention among them Messrs. Planard, Sewrin, etc. Pigault-Lebrun, Piis, Duvicquet, in their day, were in government employ. Monsieur Scribe's head-librarian was a clerk in the Treasury.
Besides such information as this, Rabourdin's memorandum contained an inquiry into the moral and physical capacities and faculties necessary in those who were to examine the intelligence, aptitude for labor, and sound health of the applicants for government service,—three indispensable qualities in men who are to bear the burden of public affairs and should do their business well and quickly. But this careful study, the result of ten years' observation and experience, and of a long acquaintance with men and things obtained by intercourse with the various functionaries in the different ministries, would assuredly have, to those who did not see its purport and connection, an air of treachery and police espial. If a single page of these papers were to fall under the eye of those concerned, Monsieur Rabourdin was lost. Sebastien, who admired his chief without reservation, and who was, as yet, wholly ignorant of the evils of bureaucracy, had the follies of guilelessness as well as its grace. Blamed on a former occasion for carrying away these papers, he now bravely acknowledged his fault to its fullest extent; he related how he had put away both the memorandum and the copy carefully in a box in the office where no one would ever find them. Tears rolled from his eyes as he realized the greatness of his offence.
"Come, come!" said Rabourdin, kindly. "Don't be so imprudent again, but never mind now. Go to the office very early tomorrow morning; here is the key of a small safe which is in my roller secretary; it shuts with a combination lock. You can open it with the word 'sky'; put the memorandum and your copy into it and shut it carefully."
This proof of confidence dried the poor fellow's tears. Rabourdin advised him to take a cup of tea and some cakes.
"Mamma forbids me to drink tea, on account of my chest," said Sebastien.
"Well, then, my dear child," said the imposing Madame Rabourdin, who wished to appear gracious, "here are some sandwiches and cream; come and sit by me."
She made Sebastien sit down beside her, and the lad's heart rose in his throat as he felt the robe of this divinity brush the sleeve of his coat. Just then the beautiful woman caught sight of Monsieur des Lupeaulx standing in the doorway. She smiled, and not waiting till he came to her, she went to him.
"Why do you stay there as if you were sulking?" she asked.
"I am not sulking," he returned; "I came to announce some good news, but the thought has overtaken me that it will only add to your severity towards me. I fancy myself six months hence almost a stranger to you. Yes, you are too clever, and I too experienced,—too blase, if you like,—for either of us to deceive the other. Your end is attained without its costing you more than a few smiles and gracious words."
"Deceive each other! what can you mean?" she cried, in a hurt tone.
"Yes; Monsieur de la Billardiere is dying, and from what the minister told me this evening I judge that your husband will be appointed in his place."
He thereupon related what he called his scene at the ministry and the jealousy of the countess, repeating her remarks about the invitation he had asked her to send to Madame Rabourdin.
"Monsieur des Lupeaulx," said Madame Rabourdin, with dignity, "permit me to tell you that my husband is the oldest head-clerk as well as the most capable man in the division; also that the appointment of La Billardiere over his head made much talk in the service, and that my husband has stayed on for the last year expecting this promotion, for which he has really no competitor and no rival."
"That is true."
"Well, then," she resumed, smiling and showing her handsome teeth, "how can you suppose that the friendship I feel for you is marred by a thought of self-interest? Why should you think me capable of that?"
Des Lupeaulx made a gesture of admiring denial.
"Ah!" she continued, "the heart of woman will always remain a secret for even the cleverest of men. Yes, I welcomed you to my house with the greatest pleasure; and there was, I admit, a motive of self-interest behind my pleasure—"
"You have a career before you," she whispered in his ear, "a future without limit; you will be deputy, minister!" (What happiness for an ambitious man when such things as these are warbled in his ear by the sweet voice of a pretty woman!) "Oh, yes! I know you better than you know yourself. Rabourdin is a man who could be of immense service to you in such a career; he could do the steady work while you were in the Chamber. Just as you dream of the ministry, so I dream of seeing Rabourdin in the Council of State, and general director. It is therefore my object to draw together two men who can never injure, but, on the contrary, must greatly help each other. Isn't that a woman's mission? If you are friends, you will both rise the faster, and it is surely high time that each of you made hay. I have burned my ships," she added, smiling. "But you are not as frank with me as I have been with you."
"You would not listen to me if I were," he replied, with a melancholy air, in spite of the deep inward satisfaction her remarks gave him. "What would such future promotions avail me, if you dismiss me now?"
"Before I listen to you," she replied, with naive Parisian liveliness, "we must be able to understand each other."
And she left the old fop to go and speak with Madame de Chessel, a countess from the provinces, who seemed about to take leave.
"That is a very extraordinary woman," said des Lupeaulx to himself. "I don't know my own self when I am with her."
Accordingly, this man of no principle, who six years earlier had kept a ballet-girl, and who now, thanks to his position, made himself a seraglio with the pretty wives of the under-clerks, and lived in the world of journalists and actresses, became devotedly attentive all the evening to Celestine, and was the last to leave the house.
"At last!" thought Madame Rabourdin, as she undressed that night, "we have the place! Twelve thousand francs a year and perquisites, beside the rents of our farms at Grajeux,—nearly twenty thousand francs a year. It is not affluence, but at least it isn't poverty."