The Government Clerks/Chapter VII
|←Chapter VI||The Government Clerks by , translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley
Chapter VII: SCENES FROM DOMESTIC LIFE
Parisian households are literally eaten up with the desire to be in keeping with the luxury that surrounds them on all sides, and few there are who have the wisdom to let their external situation conform to their internal revenue. But this vice may perhaps denote a truly French patriotism, which seeks to maintain the supremacy of the nation in the matter of dress. France reigns through clothes over the whole of Europe; and every one must feel the importance of retaining a commercial sceptre that makes fashion in France what the navy is to England. This patriotic ardor which leads a nation to sacrifice everything to appearances—to the "paroistre," as d'Aubigne said in the days of Henri IV.—is the cause of those vast secret labors which employ the whole of a Parisian woman's morning, when she wishes, as Madame Rabourdin wished, to keep up on twelve thousand francs a year the style that many a family with thirty thousand does not indulge in. Consequently, every Friday,—the day of her dinner parties,—Madame Rabourdin helped the chambermaid to do the rooms; for the cook went early to market, and the man-servant was cleaning the silver, folding the napkins, and polishing the glasses. The ill-advised individual who might happen, through an oversight of the porter, to enter Madame Rabourdin's establishment about eleven o'clock in the morning would have found her in the midst of a disorder the reverse of picturesque, wrapped in a dressing-gown, her hair ill-dressed, and her feet in old slippers, attending to the lamps, arranging the flowers, or cooking in haste an extremely unpoetic breakfast. The visitor to whom the mysteries of Parisian life were unknown would certainly have learned for the rest of his life not to set foot in these greenrooms at the wrong moment; a woman caught in her matin mysteries would ever after point him out as a man capable of the blackest crimes; or she would talk of his stupidity and indiscretion in a manner to ruin him. The true Parisian woman, indulgent to all curiosity that she can put to profit, is implacable to that which makes her lose her prestige. Such a domiciliary invasion may be called, not only (as they say in police reports) an attack on privacy, but a burglary, a robbery of all that is most precious, namely, CREDIT. A woman is quite willing to let herself be surprised half-dressed, with her hair about her shoulders. If her hair is all her own she scores one; but she will never allow herself to be seen "doing" her own rooms, or she loses her pariostre,—that precious seeming-to-be!
Madame Rabourdin was in full tide of preparation for her Friday dinner, standing in the midst of provisions the cook had just fished from the vast ocean of the markets, when Monsieur des Lupeaulx made his way stealthily in. The general-secretary was certainly the last man Madame Rabourdin expected to see, and so, when she heard his boots creaking in the ante-chamber, she exclaimed, impatiently, "The hair-dresser already!"—an exclamation as little agreeable to des Lupeaulx as the sight of des Lupeaulx was agreeable to her. She immediately escaped into her bedroom, where chaos reigned; a jumble of furniture to be put out of sight, with other heterogeneous articles of more or rather less elegance,—a domestic carnival, in short. The bold des Lupeaulx followed the handsome figure, so piquant did she seem to him in her dishabille. There is something indescribably alluring to the eye in a portion of flesh seen through an hiatus in the undergarment, more attractive far than when it rises gracefully above the circular curve of the velvet bodice, to the vanishing line of the prettiest swan's-neck that ever lover kissed before a ball. When the eye dwells on a woman in full dress making exhibition of her magnificent white shoulders, do we not fancy that we see the elegant dessert of a grand dinner? But the glance that glides through the disarray of muslins rumpled in sleep enjoys, as it were, a feast of stolen fruit glowing between the leaves on a garden wall.
"Stop! wait!" cried the pretty Parisian, bolting the door of the disordered room.
She rang for Therese, called for her daughter, the cook, and the man-servant, wishing she possessed the whistle of the machinist at the Opera. Her call, however, answered the same purpose. In a moment, another phenomenon! the salon assumed a piquant morning look, quite in keeping with the becoming toilet hastily got together by the fugitive; we say it to her glory, for she was evidently a clever woman, in this at least.
"You!" she said, coming forward, "at this hour? What has happened?"
"Very serious things," answered des Lupeaulx. "You and I must understand each other now."
Celestine looked at the man behind his glasses, and understood the matter.
"My principle vice," she said, "is oddity. For instance, I do not mix up affections with politics; let us talk politics,—business, if you will,—the rest can come later. However, it is not really oddity nor a whim that forbids me to mingle ill-assorted colors and put together things that have no affinity, and compels me to avoid discords; it is my natural instinct as an artist. We women have politics of our own."
Already the tones of her voice and the charm of her manners were producing their effect on the secretary and metamorphosing his roughness into sentimental courtesy; she had recalled him to his obligations as a lover. A clever pretty woman makes an atmosphere about her in which the nerves relax and the feelings soften.
"You are ignorant of what is happening," said des Lupeaulx, harshly, for he still thought it best to make a show of harshness. "Read that."
He gave the two newspapers to the graceful woman, having drawn a line in red ink round each of the famous articles.
"Good heavens!" she exclaimed, "but this is dreadful! Who is this Baudoyer?"
"A donkey," answered des Lupeaulx; "but, as you see, he uses means,—he gives monstrances; he succeeds, thanks to some clever hand that pulls the wires."
The thought of her debts crossed Madame Rabourdin's mind and blurred her sight, as if two lightning flashes had blinded her eyes at the same moment; her ears hummed under the pressure of the blood that began to beat in her arteries; she remained for a moment quite bewildered, gazing at a window which she did not see.
"But are you faithful to us?" she said at last, with a winning glance at des Lupeaulx, as if to attach him to her.
"That is as it may be," he replied, answering her glance with an interrogative look which made the poor woman blush.
"If you demand caution-money you may lose all," she said, laughing; "I thought you more magnanimous than you are. And you, you thought me less a person than I am,—a sort of school-girl."
"You have misunderstood me," he said, with a covert smile; "I meant that I could not assist a man who plays against me just as l'Etourdi played against Mascarille."
"What can you mean?"
"This will prove to you whether I am magnanimous or not."
He gave Madame Rabourdin the memorandum stolen by Dutocq, pointing out to her the passage in which her husband had so ably analyzed him.
Celestine recognized the handwriting, read the paper, and turned pale under the blow.
"All the ministries, the whole service is treated in the same way," said des Lupeaulx.
"Happily," she said, "you alone possess this document. I cannot explain it, even to myself."
"The man who stole it is not such a fool as to let me have it without keeping a copy for himself; he is too great a liar to admit it, and too clever in his business to give it up. I did not even ask him for it."
"Who is he?"
"Your chief clerk."
"Dutocq! People are always punished through their kindnesses! But," she added, "he is only a dog who wants a bone."
"Do you know what the other side offer me, poor devil of a general-secretary?"
"I owe thirty-thousand and odd miserable francs,—you will despise me because it isn't more, but here, I grant you, I am significant. Well, Baudoyer's uncle has bought up my debts, and is, doubtless, ready to give me a receipt for them if Baudoyer is appointed."
"But all that is monstrous."
"Not at all; it is monarchical and religious, for the Grand Almoner is concerned in it. Baudoyer himself must appoint Colleville in return for ecclesiastical assistance."
"What shall you do?"
"What will you bid me do?" he said, with charming grace, holding out his hand.
Celestine no longer thought him ugly, nor old, nor white and chilling as a hoar-frost, nor indeed anything that was odious and offensive, but she did not give him her hand. At night, in her salon, she would have let him take it a hundred times, but here, alone and in the morning, the action seemed too like a promise that might lead her far.
"And they say that statesmen have no hearts!" she cried enthusiastically, trying to hide the harshness of her refusal under the grace of her words. "The thought used to terrify me," she added, assuming an innocent, ingenuous air.
"What a calumny!" cried des Lupeaulx. "Only this week one of the stiffest of diplomatists, a man who has been in the service ever since he came to manhood, has married the daughter of an actress, and has introduced her at the most iron-bound court in Europe as to quarterings of nobility."
"You will continue to support us?"
"I am to draw up your husband's appointment— But no cheating, remember."
She gave him her hand to kiss, and tapped him on the cheek as she did so. "You are mine!" she said.
Des Lupeaulx admired the expression.
[That night, at the Opera, the old coxcomb related the incident as follows: "A woman who did not want to tell a man she would be his,—an acknowledgment a well-bred woman never allows herself to make,—changed the words into 'You are mine.' Don't you think the evasion charming?"]
"But you must be my ally," he answered. "Now listen, your husband has spoken to the minister of a plan for the reform of the administration; the paper I have shown you is a part of that plan. I want to know what it is. Find out, and tell me to-night."
"I will," she answered, wholly unaware of the important nature of the errand which brought des Lupeaulx to the house that morning.
"Madame, the hair-dresser."
"At last!" thought Celestine. "I don't see how I should have got out of it if he had delayed much longer."
"You do not know to what lengths my devotion can go," said des Lupeaulx, rising. "You shall be invited to the first select party given by his Excellency's wife."
"Ah, you are an angel!" she cried. "And I see now how much you love me; you love me intelligently."
"To-night, dear child," he said, "I shall find out at the Opera what journalists are conspiring for Baudoyer, and we will measure swords together."
"Yes, but you must dine with us, will you not? I have taken pains to get the things you like best—"
"All that is so like love," said des Lupeaulx to himself as he went downstairs, "that I am willing to be deceived in that way for a long time. Well, if she IS tricking me I shall know it. I'll set the cleverest of all traps before the appointment is fairly signed, and I'll read her heart. Ah! my little cats, I know you! for, after all, women are just what we men are. Twenty-eight years old, virtuous, and living here in the rue Duphot!—a rare piece of luck and worth cultivating," thought the elderly butterfly as he fluttered down the staircase.
"Good heavens! that man, without his glasses, must look funny enough in a dressing-gown!" thought Celestine, "but the harpoon is in his back and he'll tow me where I want to go; I am sure now of that invitation. He has played his part in my comedy."
When, at five o'clock in the afternoon, Rabourdin came home to dress for dinner, his wife presided at his toilet and presently laid before him the fatal memorandum which, like the slipper in the Arabian Nights, the luckless man was fated to meet at every turn.
"Who gave you that?" he asked, thunderstruck.
"Monsieur des Lupeaulx."
"So he has been here!" cried Rabourdin, with a look which would certainly have made a guilty woman turn pale, but which Celestine received with unruffled brow and a laughing eye.
"And he is coming back to dinner," she said. "Why that startled air?"
"My dear," replied Rabourdin, "I have mortally offended des Lupeaulx; such men never forgive, and yet he fawns upon me! Do you think I don't see why?"
"The man seems to me," she said, "to have good taste; you can't expect me to blame him. I really don't know anything more flattering to a woman than to please a worn-out palate. After—"
"A truce to nonsense, Celestine. Spare a much-tried man. I cannot get an audience of the minister, and my honor is at stake."
"Good heavens, no! Dutocq can have the promise of a good place as soon as you are named head of the division."
"Ah! I see what you are about, dear child," said Rabourdin; "but the game you are playing is just as dishonorable as the real thing that is going on around us. A lie is a lie, and an honest woman—"
"Let me use the weapons employed against us."
"Celestine, the more that man des Lupeaulx feels he is foolishly caught in a trap, the more bitter he will be against me."
"What if I get him dismissed altogether?"
Rabourdin looked at his wife in amazement.
"I am thinking only of your advancement; it was high time, my poor husband," continued Celestine. "But you are mistaking the dog for the game," she added, after a pause. "In a few days des Lupeaulx will have accomplished all that I want of him. While you are trying to speak to the minister, and before you can even see him on business, I shall have seen him and spoken with him. You are worn out in trying to bring that plan of your brain to birth,—a plan which you have been hiding from me; but you will find that in three months your wife has accomplished more than you have done in six years. Come, tell me this fine scheme of yours."
Rabourdin, continuing to shave, cautioned his wife not to say a word about his work, and after assuring her that to confide a single idea to des Lupeaulx would be to put the cat near the milk-jug, he began an explanation of his labors.
"Why didn't you tell me this before, Rabourdin?" said Celestine, cutting her husband short at his fifth sentence. "You might have saved yourself a world of trouble. I can understand that a man should be blinded by an idea for a moment, but to nurse it up for six or seven years, that's a thing I cannot comprehend! You want to reduce the budget,—a vulgar and commonplace idea! The budget ought, on the contrary, to reach two hundred millions. Then, indeed, France would be great. If you want a new system let it be one of loans, as Monsieur de Nucingen keeps saying. The poorest of all treasuries is the one with a surplus that it never uses; the mission of a minister of finance is to fling gold out of the windows. It will come back to him through the cellars; and you, you want to hoard it! The thing to do is to increase the offices and all government employments, instead of reducing them! So far from lessening the public debt, you ought to increase the creditors. If the Bourbons want to reign in peace, let them seek creditors in the towns and villages, and place their loans there; above all, they ought not to let foreigners draw interest away from France; some day an alien nation might ask us for the capital. Whereas if capital and interest are held only in France, neither France nor credit can perish. That's what saved England. Your plan is the tradesman's plan. An ambitious public man should produce some bold scheme,—he should make himself another Law, without Law's fatal ill-luck; he ought to exhibit the power of credit, and show that we should reduce, not principal, but interest, as they do in England."
"Come, come, Celestine," said Rabourdin; "mix up ideas as much as you please, and make fun of them,—I'm accustomed to that; but don't criticise a work of which you know nothing as yet."
"Do I need," she asked, "to know a scheme the essence of which is to govern France with a civil service of six thousand men instead of twenty thousand? My dear friend, even allowing it were the plan of a man of genius, a king of France who attempted to carry it out would get himself dethroned. You can keep down a feudal aristocracy by levelling a few heads, but you can't subdue a hydra with thousands. And is it with the present ministers—between ourselves, a wretched crew—that you expect to carry out your reform? No, no; change the monetary system if you will, but do not meddle with men, with little men; they cry out too much, whereas gold is dumb."
"But, Celestine, if you will talk, and put wit before argument, we shall never understand each other."
"Understand! I understand what that paper, in which you have analyzed the capacities of the men in office, will lead to," she replied, paying no attention to what her husband said. "Good heavens! you have sharpened the axe to cut off your own head. Holy Virgin! why didn't you consult me? I could have at least prevented you from committing anything to writing, or, at any rate, if you insisted on putting it to paper, I would have written it down myself, and it should never have left this house. Good God! to think that he never told me! That's what men are! capable of sleeping with the wife of their bosom for seven years, and keeping a secret from her! Hiding their thoughts from a poor woman for seven years!—doubting her devotion!"
"But," cried Rabourdin, provoked, "for eleven years and more I have been unable to discuss anything with you because you insist on cutting me short and substituting your ideas for mine. You know nothing at all about my scheme."
"Nothing! I know all."
"Then tell it to me!" cried Rabourdin, angry for the first time since his marriage.
"There! it is half-past six o'clock; finish shaving and dress at once," she cried hastily, after the fashion of women when pressed on a point they are not ready to talk of. "I must go; we'll adjourn the discussion, for I don't want to be nervous on a reception-day. Good heavens! the poor soul!" she thought, as she left the room, "it is hard to be in labor for seven years and bring forth a dead child! And not trust his wife!"
She went back into the room.
"If you had listened to me you would never had interceded to keep your chief clerk; he stole that abominable paper, and has, no doubt, kept a fac-simile of it. Adieu, man of genius!"
Then she noticed the almost tragic expression of her husband's grief; she felt she had gone too far, and ran to him, seized him just as he was, all lathered with soap-suds, and kissed him tenderly.
"Dear Xavier, don't be vexed," she said. "To-night, after the people are gone, we will study your plan; you shall speak at your ease,—I will listen just as long as you wish me to. Isn't that nice of me? What do I want better than to be the wife of Mohammed?"
She began to laugh; and Rabourdin laughed too, for the soapsuds were clinging to Celestine's lips, and her voice had the tones of the purest and most steadfast affection.
"Go and dress, dear child; and above all, don't say a word of this to des Lupeaulx. Swear you will not. That is the only punishment that I impose—"
"Impose!" she cried. "Then I won't swear anything."
"Come, come, Celestine, I said in jest a really serious thing."
"To-night," she said, "I mean your general-secretary to know whom I am really intending to attack; he has given me the means."
"The minister," she answered, drawing himself up. "We are to be invited to his wife's private parties."
In spite of his Celestine's loving caresses, Rabourdin, as he finished dressing, could not prevent certain painful thoughts from clouding his brow.
"Will she ever appreciate me?" he said to himself. "She does not even understand that she is the sole incentive of my whole work. How wrong-headed, and yet how excellent a mind!—If I had not married I might now have been high in office and rich. I could have saved half my salary; my savings well-invested would have given me to-day ten thousand francs a year outside of my office, and I might then have become, through a good marriage— Yes, that is all true," he exclaimed, interrupting himself, "but I have Celestine and my two children." The man flung himself back on his happiness. To the best of married lives there come moments of regret. He entered the salon and looked around him. "There are not two women in Paris who understand making life pleasant as she does. To keep such a home as this on twelve thousand francs a year!" he thought, looking at the flower-stands bright with bloom, and thinking of the social enjoyments that were about to gratify his vanity. "She was made to be the wife of a minister. When I think of his Excellency's wife, and how little she helps him! the good woman is a comfortable middle-class dowdy, and when she goes to the palace or into society—" He pinched his lips together. Very busy men are apt to have very ignorant notions about household matters, and you can make them believe that a hundred thousand francs afford little or that twelve thousand afford all.
Though impatiently expected, and in spite of the flattering dishes prepared for the palate of the gourmet-emeritus, des Lupeaulx did not come to dinner; in fact he came in very late, about midnight, an hour when company dwindles and conversations become intimate and confidential. Andoche Finot, the journalist, was one of the few remaining guests.
"I now know all," said des Lupeaulx, when he was comfortably seated on a sofa at the corner of the fireplace, a cup of tea in his hand and Madame Rabourdin standing before him with a plate of sandwiches and some slices of cake very appropriately called "leaden cake." "Finot, my dear and witty friend, you can render a great service to our gracious queen by letting loose a few dogs upon the men we were talking of. You have against you," he said to Rabourdin, lowering his voice so as to be heard only by the three persons whom he addressed, "a set of usurers and priests—money and the church. The article in the liberal journal was instituted by an old money-lender to whom the paper was under obligations; but the young fellow who wrote it cares nothing about it. The paper is about to change hands, and in three days more will be on our side. The royalist opposition,—for we have, thanks to Monsieur de Chateaubriand, a royalist opposition, that is to say, royalists who have gone over to the liberals,—however, there's no need to discuss political matters now,—these assassins of Charles X. have promised me to support your appointment at the price of our acquiescence in one of their amendments. All my batteries are manned. If they threaten us with Baudoyer we shall say to the clerical phalanx, 'Such and such a paper and such and such men will attack your measures and the whole press will be against you' (for even the ministerial journals which I influence will be deaf and dumb, won't they, Finot?). 'Appoint Rabourdin, a faithful servant, and public opinion is with you—'"
"Hi, hi!" laughed Finot.
"So, there's no need to be uneasy," said des Lupeaulx. "I have arranged it all to-night; the Grand Almoner must yield."
"I would rather have had less hope, and you to dinner," whispered Celestine, looking at him with a vexed air which might very well pass for an expression of wounded love.
"This must win my pardon," he returned, giving her an invitation to the ministry for the following Tuesday.
Celestine opened the letter, and a flush of pleasure came into her face. No enjoyment can be compared to that of gratified vanity.
"You know what the countess's Tuesdays are," said des Lupeaulx, with a confidential air. "To the usual ministerial parties they are what the 'Petit-Chateau' is to a court ball. You will be at the heart of power! You will see there the Comtesse Feraud, who is still in favor notwithstanding Louis XVIII.'s death, Delphine de Nucingen, Madame de Listomere, the Marquise d'Espard, and your dear Firmiani; I have had her invited to give you her support in case the other women attempt to black-ball you. I long to see you in the midst of them."
Celestine threw up her head like a thoroughbred before the race, and re-read the invitation just as Baudoyer and Saillard had re-read the articles about themselves in the newspapers, without being able to quaff enough of it.
"There first, and next at the Tuileries," she said to des Lupeaulx, who was startled by the words and by the attitude of the speaker, so expressive were they of ambition and security.
"Can it be that I am only a stepping-stone?" he asked himself. He rose, and went into Madame Rabourdin's bedroom, where she followed him, understanding from a motion of his head that he wished to speak to her privately.
"Well, your husband's plan," he said; "what of it?"
"Bah! the useless nonsense of an honest man!" she replied. "He wants to suppress fifteen thousand offices and do the work with five or six thousand. You never heard of such nonsense; I will let you read the whole document when copied; it is written in perfect good faith. His analysis of the officials was prompted only by his honesty and rectitude,—poor dear man!"
Des Lupeaulx was all the more reassured by the genuine laugh which accompanied these jesting and contemptuous words, because he was a judge of lying and knew that Celestine spoke in good faith.
"But still, what is at the bottom of it all?" he asked.
"Well, he wants to do away with the land-tax and substitute taxes on consumption."
"Why it is over a year since Francois Keller and Nucingen proposed some such plan, and the minister himself is thinking of a reduction of the land-tax."
"There!" exclaimed Celestine, "I told him there was nothing new in his scheme."
"No; but he is on the same ground with the best financier of the epoch,—the Napoleon of finance. Something may come of it. Your husband must surely have some special ideas in his method of putting the scheme into practice."
"No, it is all commonplace," she said, with a disdainful curl of her lip. "Just think of governing France with five or six thousand offices, when what is really needed is that everybody in France should be personally enlisted in the support of the government."
Des Lupeaulx seemed satisfied that Rabourdin, to whom in his own mind he had granted remarkable talents, was really a man of mediocrity.
"Are you quite sure of the appointment? You don't want a bit of feminine advice?" she said.
"You women are greater adepts than we in refined treachery," he said, nodding.
"Well, then, say Baudoyer to the court and clergy, to divert suspicion and put them to sleep, and then, at the last moment, write Rabourdin."
"There are some women who say yes as long as they need a man, and no when he has played his part," returned des Lupeaulx, significantly.
"I know they do," she answered, laughing; "but they are very foolish, for in politics everything recommences. Such proceedings may do with fools, but you are a man of sense. In my opinion the greatest folly any one can commit is to quarrel with a clever man."
"You are mistaken," said des Lupeaulx, "for such a man pardons. The real danger is with the petty spiteful natures who have nothing to do but study revenge,—I spend my life among them."
When all the guests were gone, Rabourdin came into his wife's room, and after asking for her strict attention, he explained his plan and made her see that it did not cut down the revenue but on the contrary increased it; he showed her in what ways the public funds were employed, and how the State could increase tenfold the circulation of money by putting its own, in the proportion of a third, or a quarter, into the expenditures which would be sustained by private or local interests. He finally proved to her plainly that his plan was not mere theory, but a system teeming with methods of execution. Celestine, brightly enthusiastic, sprang into her husband's arms and sat upon his knee in the chimney-corner.
"At last I find the husband of my dreams!" she cried. "My ignorance of your real merit has saved you from des Lupeaulx's claws. I calumniated you to him gloriously and in good faith."
The man wept with joy. His day of triumph had come at last. Having labored for many years to satisfy his wife, he found himself a great man in the eyes of his sole public.
"To one who knows how good you are, how tender, how equable in anger, how loving, you are tenfold greater still. But," she added, "a man of genius is always more or less a child; and you are a child, a dearly beloved child," she said, caressing him. Then she drew that invitation from that particular spot where women put what they sacredly hide, and showed it to him.
"Here is what I wanted," she said; "Des Lupeaulx has put me face to face with the minister, and were he a man of iron, his Excellency shall be made for a time to bend the knee to me."
The next day Celestine began her preparations for entrance into the inner circle of the ministry. It was her day of triumph, her own! Never courtesan took such pains with herself as this honest woman bestowed upon her person. No dressmaker was ever so tormented as hers. Madame Rabourdin forgot nothing. She went herself to the stable where she hired carriages, and chose a coupe that was neither old, nor bourgeois, nor showy. Her footman, like the footmen of great houses, had the dress and appearance of a master. About ten on the evening of the eventful Tuesday, she left home in a charming full mourning attire. Her hair was dressed with jet grapes of exquisite workmanship,—an ornament costing three thousand francs, made by Fossin for an Englishwoman who had left Paris before it was finished. The leaves were of stamped iron-work, as light as the vine-leaves themselves, and the artist had not forgotten the graceful tendrils, which twined in the wearer's curls just as, in nature, they catch upon the branches. The bracelets, necklace, and earrings were all what is called Berlin iron-work; but these delicate arabesques were made in Vienna, and seemed to have been fashioned by the fairies who, the stories tell us, are condemned by a jealous Carabosse to collect the eyes of ants, or weave a fabric so diaphanous that a nutshell can contain it. Madame Rabourdin's graceful figure, made more slender still by the black draperies, was shown to advantage by a carefully cut dress, the two sides of which met at the shoulders in a single strap without sleeves. At every motion she seemed, like a butterfly, to be about to leave her covering; but the gown held firmly on by some contrivance of the wonderful dressmaker. The robe was of mousseline de laine—a material which the manufacturers had not yet sent to the Paris markets; a delightful stuff which some months later was to have a wild success, a success which went further and lasted longer than most French fashions. The actual economy of mousseline de laine, which needs no washing, has since injured the sale of cotton fabrics enough to revolutionize the Rouen manufactories. Celestine's little feet, covered with fine silk stockings and turk-satin shoes (for silk-satin is inadmissible in deep mourning) were of elegant proportions. Thus dressed, she was very handsome. Her complexion, beautified by a bran-bath, was softly radiant. Her eyes, suffused with the light of hope, and sparkling with intelligence, justified her claims to the superiority which des Lupeaulx, proud and happy on this occasion, asserted for her.
She entered the room well (women will understand the meaning of that expression), bowed gracefully to the minister's wife, with a happy mixture of deference and of self-respect, and gave no offence by a certain reliance on her own dignity; for every beautiful woman has the right to seem a queen. With the minister himself she took the pretty air of sauciness which women may properly allow themselves with men, even when they are grand dukes. She reconnoitred the field, as it were, while taking her seat, and saw that she was in the midst of one of those select parties of few persons, where the women eye and appraise each other, and every word said echoes in all ears; where every glance is a stab, and conversation a duel with witnesses; where all that is commonplace seems commoner still, and where every form of merit or distinction is silently accepted as though it were the natural level of all present. Rabourdin betook himself to the adjoining salon in which a few persons were playing cards; and there he planted himself on exhibition, as it were, which proved that he was not without social intelligence.
"My dear," said the Marquise d'Espard to the Comtesse Feraud, Louis XVIII.'s last mistress, "Paris is certainly unique. It produces—whence and how, who knows?—women like this person, who seems ready to will and to do anything."
"She really does will, and does do everything," put in des Lupeaulx, puffed up with satisfaction.
At this moment the wily Madame Rabourdin was courting the minister's wife. Carefully coached the evening before by des Lupeaulx, who knew all the countess's weak spots, she was flattering her without seeming to do so. Every now and then she kept silence; for des Lupeaulx, in love as he was, knew her defects, and said to her the night before, "Be careful not to talk too much,"—words which were really an immense proof of attachment. Bertrand Barrere left behind him this sublime axiom: "Never interrupt a woman when dancing to give her advice," to which we may add (to make this chapter of the female code complete), "Never blame a woman for scattering her pearls."
The conversation became general. From time to time Madame Rabourdin joined in, just as a well-trained cat puts a velvet paw on her mistress's laces with the claws carefully drawn in. The minister, in matters of the heart, had few emotions. There was not another statesman under the Restoration who had so completely done with gallantry as he; even the opposition papers, the "Miroir," "Pandora," and "Figaro," could not find a single throbbing artery with which to reproach him. Madame Rabourdin knew this, but she knew also that ghosts return to old castles, and she had taken it into her head to make the minister jealous of the happiness which des Lupeaulx was appearing to enjoy. The latter's throat literally gurgled with the name of his divinity. To launch his supposed mistress successfully, he was endeavoring to persuade the Marquise d'Espard, Madame de Nucingen, and the countess, in an eight-ear conversation, that they had better admit Madame Rabourdin to their coalition; and Madame de Camps was supporting him. At the end of the hour the minister's vanity was greatly tickled; Madame Rabourdin's cleverness pleased him, and she had won his wife, who, delighted with the siren, invited her to come to all her receptions whenever she pleased.
"For your husband, my dear," she said, "will soon be director; the minister intends to unite the two divisions and place them under one director; you will then be one of us, you know."
His Excellency carried off Madame Rabourdin on his arm to show her a certain room, which was then quite celebrated because the opposition journals blamed him for decorating it extravagantly; and together they laughed over the absurdities of journalism.
"Madame, you really must give the countess and myself the pleasure of seeing you here often."
And he went on with a round of ministerial compliments.
"But, Monseigneur," she replied, with one of those glances which women hold in reserve, "it seems to me that that depends on you."
"You alone can give me the right to come here."
"No; I said to myself before I came that I would certainly not have the bad taste to seem a petitioner."
"No, no, speak freely. Places asked in this way are never out of place," said the minister, laughing; for there is no jest too silly to amuse a solemn man.
"Well, then, I must tell you plainly that the wife of the head of a bureau is out of place here; a director's wife is not."
"That point need not be considered," said the minister, "your husband is indispensable to the administration; he is already appointed."
"Is that a veritable fact?"
"Would you like to see the papers in my study? They are already drawn up."
"Then," she said, pausing in a corner where she was alone with the minister, whose eager attentions were now very marked, "let me tell you that I can make you a return."
She was on the point of revealing her husband's plan, when des Lupeaulx, who had glided noiselessly up to them, uttered an angry sound, which meant that he did not wish to appear to have overheard what, in fact, he had been listening to. The minister gave an ill-tempered look at the old beau, who, impatient to win his reward, had hurried, beyond all precedent, the preliminary work of the appointment. He had carried the papers to his Excellency that evening, and desired to take himself, on the morrow, the news of the appointment to her whom he was now endeavoring to exhibit as his mistress. Just then the minister's valet approached des Lupeaulx in a mysterious manner, and told him that his own servant wished him to deliver to him at once a letter of the utmost importance.
The general-secretary went up to a lamp and read a note thus worded:—
Contrary to my custom, I am waiting in your ante-chamber to see
you; you have not a moment to lose if you wish to come to terms
Your obedient servant,
The secretary shuddered when he saw the signature, which we regret we cannot give in fac-simile, for it would be valuable to those who like to guess character from what may be called the physiognomy of signature. If ever a hieroglyphic sign expressed an animal, it was assuredly this written name, in which the first and the final letter approached each other like the voracious jaws of a shark,—insatiable, always open, seeking whom to devour, both strong and weak. As for the wording of the note, the spirit of usury alone could have inspired a sentence so imperative, so insolently curt and cruel, which said all and revealed nothing. Those who had never heard of Gobseck would have felt, on reading words which compelled him to whom they were addressed to obey, yet gave no order, the presence of the implacable money-lender of the rue des Gres. Like a dog called to heel by the huntsman, des Lupeaulx left his present quest and went immediately to his own rooms, thinking of his hazardous position. Imagine a general to whom an aide-de-camp rides up and says: "The enemy with thirty thousand fresh troops is attacking on our right flank."
A very few words will serve to explain this sudden arrival of Gigonnet and Gobseck on the field of battle,—for des Lupeaulx found them both waiting. At eight o'clock that evening, Martin Falleix, returning on the wings of the wind,—thanks to three francs to the postboys and a courier in advance,—had brought back with him the deeds of the property signed the night before. Taken at once to the Cafe Themis by Mitral, these securities passed into the hands of the two usurers, who hastened (though on foot) to the ministry. It was past eleven o'clock. Des Lupeaulx trembled when he saw those sinister faces, emitting a simultaneous look as direct as a pistol shot and as brilliant as the flash itself.
"What is it, my masters?" he said.
The two extortioners continued cold and motionless. Gigonnet silently pointed to the documents in his hand, and then at the servant.
"Come into my study," said des Lupeaulx, dismissing his valet by a sign.
"You understand French very well," remarked Gigonnet, approvingly.
"Have you come here to torment a man who enabled each of you to make a couple of hundred thousand francs?"
"And who will help us to make more, I hope," said Gigonnet.
"Some new affair?" asked des Lupeaulx. "If you want me to help you, consider that I recollect the past."
"So do we," answered Gigonnet.
"My debts must be paid," said des Lupeaulx, disdainfully, so as not to seem worsted at the outset.
"True," said Gobseck.
"Let us come to the point, my son," said Gigonnet. "Don't stiffen your chin in your cravat; with us all that is useless. Take these deeds and read them."
The two usurers took a mental inventory of des Lupeaulx's study while he read with amazement and stupefaction a deed of purchase which seemed wafted to him from the clouds by angels.
"Don't you think you have a pair of intelligent business agents in Gobseck and me?" asked Gigonnet.
"But tell me, to what do I owe such able co-operation?" said des Lupeaulx, suspicious and uneasy.
"We knew eight days ago a fact that without us you would not have known till to-morrow morning. The president of the chamber of commerce, a deputy, as you know, feels himself obliged to resign."
Des Lupeaulx's eyes dilated, and were as big as daisies.
"Your minister has been tricking you about this event," said the concise Gobseck.
"You master me," said the general-secretary, bowing with an air of profound respect, bordering however, on sarcasm.
"True," said Gobseck.
"Can you mean to strangle me?"
"Well, then, begin your work, executioners," said the secretary, smiling.
"You will see," resumed Gigonnet, "that the sum total of your debts is added to the sum loaned by us for the purchase of the property; we have bought them up."
"Here are the deeds," said Gobseck, taking from the pocket of his greenish overcoat a number of legal papers.
"You have three years in which to pay off the whole sum," said Gigonnet.
"But," said des Lupeaulx, frightened at such kindness, and also by so apparently fantastic an arrangement. "What do you want of me?"
"La Billardiere's place for Baudoyer," said Gigonnet, quickly.
"That's a small matter, though it will be next to impossible for me to do it," said des Lupeaulx. "I have just tied my hands."
"Bite the cords with your teeth," said Gigonnet.
"They are sharp," added Gobseck.
"Is that all?" asked des Lupeaulx.
"We keep the title-deeds of the property till the debts are paid," said Gigonnet, putting one of the papers before des Lupeaulx; "and if the matter of the appointment is not satisfactorily arranged within six days our names will be substituted in place of yours."
"You are deep," cried the secretary.
"Exactly," said Gobseck.
"And this is all?" exclaimed des Lupeaulx.
"All," said Gobseck.
"You agree?" asked Gigonnet.
Des Lupeaulx nodded his head.
"Well, then, sign this power of attorney. Within two days Baudoyer is to be nominated; within six your debts will be cleared off, and—"
"And what?" asked des Lupeaulx.
"Guarantee!—what?" said the secretary, more and more astonished.
"Your election to the Chamber," said Gigonnet, rising on his heels. "We have secured a majority of fifty-two farmers' and mechanics' votes, which will be thrown precisely as those who lend you this money dictate."
Des Lupeaulx wrung Gigonnet's hand.
"It is only such as we who never misunderstand each other," he said; "this is what I call doing business. I'll make you a return gift."
"Right," said Gobseck.
"What is it?" asked Gigonnet.
"The cross of the Legion of honor for your imbecile of a nephew."
"Good," said Gigonnet, "I see you know him well."
The pair took leave of des Lupeaulx, who conducted them to the staircase.
"They must be secret envoys from foreign powers," whispered the footmen to each other.
Once in the street, the two usurers looked at each other under a street lamp and laughed.
"He will owe us nine thousand francs interest a year," said Gigonnet; "that property doesn't bring him in five."
"He is under our thumb for a long time," said Gobseck.
"He'll build; he'll commit extravagancies," continued Gigonnet; "Falleix will get his land."
"His interest is only to be made deputy; the old fox laughs at the rest," said Gobseck.
These dry little exclamations served as a laugh to the two old men, who took their way back (always on foot) to the Cafe Themis.
Des Lupeaulx returned to the salon and found Madame Rabourdin sailing with the wind of success, and very charming; while his Excellency, usually so gloomy, showed a smooth and gracious countenance.
"She performs miracles," thought des Lupeaulx. "What a wonderfully clever woman! I must get to the bottom of her heart."
"Your little lady is decidedly handsome," said the Marquise to the secretary; "now if she only had your name."
"Yes, her defect is that she is the daughter of an auctioneer. She will fail for want of birth," replied des Lupeaulx, with a cold manner that contrasted strangely with the ardor of his remarks about Madame Rabourdin not half an hour earlier.
The marquise looked at him fixedly.
"The glance you gave them did not escape me," she said, motioning towards the minister and Madame Rabourdin; "it pierced the mask of your spectacles. How amusing you both are, to quarrel over that bone!"
As the marquise turned to leave the room the minister joined her and escorted her to the door.
"Well," said des Lupeaulx to Madame Rabourdin, "what do you think of his Excellency?"
"He is charming. We must know these poor ministers to appreciate them," she added, slightly raising her voice so as to be heard by his Excellency's wife. "The newspapers and the opposition calumnies are so misleading about men in politics that we are all more or less influenced by them; but such prejudices turn to the advantage of statesmen when we come to know them personally."
"He is very good-looking," said des Lupeaulx.
"Yes, and I assure you he is quite lovable," she said, heartily.
"Dear child," said des Lupeaulx, with a genial, caressing manner; "you have actually done the impossible."
"What is that?"
"Resuscitated the dead. I did not think that man had a heart; ask his wife. But he may have just enough for a passing fancy. Therefore profit by it. Come this way, and don't be surprised." He led Madame Rabourdin into the boudoir, placed her on a sofa, and sat down beside her. "You are very sly," he said, "and I like you the better for it. Between ourselves, you are a clever woman. Des Lupeaulx served to bring you into this house, and that is all you wanted of him, isn't it? Now when a woman decides to love a man for what she can get out of him it is better to take a sexagenarian Excellency than a quadragenarian secretary; there's more profit and less annoyance. I'm a man with spectacles, grizzled hair, worn out with dissipation,—a fine lover, truly! I tell myself all this again and again. It must be admitted, of course, that I can sometimes be useful, but never agreeable. Isn't that so? A man must be a fool if he cannot reason about himself. You can safely admit the truth and let me see to the depths of your heart; we are partners, not lovers. If I show some tenderness at times, you are too superior a woman to pay any attention to such follies; you will forgive me,—you are not a school-girl, or a bourgeoise of the rue Saint-Denis. Bah! you and I are too well brought up for that. There's the Marquise d'Espard who has just left the room; this is precisely what she thinks and does. She and I came to an understanding two years ago [the coxcomb!], and now she has only to write me a line and say, 'My dear des Lupeaulx, you will oblige me by doing such and such a thing,' and it is done at once. We are engaged at this very moment in getting a commission of lunacy on her husband. Ah! you women, you can get what you want by the bestowal of a few favors. Well, then, my dear child, bewitch the minister. I'll help you; it is my interest to do so. Yes, I wish he had a woman who could influence him; he wouldn't escape me,—for he does escape me quite often, and the reason is that I hold him only through his intellect. Now if I were one with a pretty woman who was also intimate with him, I should hold him by his weaknesses, and that is much the firmest grip. Therefore, let us be friends, you and I, and share the advantages of the conquest you are making."
Madame Rabourdin listened in amazement to this singular profession of rascality. The apparent artlessness of this political swindler prevented her from suspecting a trick.
"Do you believe he really thinks of me?" she asked, falling into the trap.
"I know it; I am certain of it."
"Is it true that Rabourdin's appointment is signed?"
"I gave him the papers this morning. But it is not enough that your husband should be made director; he must be Master of petitions."
"Yes," she said.
"Well, then, go back to the salon and coquette a little more with his Excellency."
"It is true," she said, "that I never fully understood you till to-night. There is nothing commonplace about you."
"We will be two old friends," said des Lupeaulx, "and suppress all tender nonsense and tormenting love; we will take things as they did under the Regency. Ah! they had plenty of wit and wisdom in those days!"
"You are really strong; you deserve my admiration," she said, smiling, and holding out her hand to him, "one does more for one's friend, you know, than for one's—"
She left him without finishing her sentence.
"Dear creature!" thought des Lupeaulx, as he saw her approach the minister, "des Lupeaulx has no longer the slightest remorse in turning against you. To-morrow evening when you offer me a cup of tea, you will be offering me a thing I no longer care for. All is over. Ah! when a man is forty years of age women may take pains to catch him, but they won't love him."
He looked himself over in a mirror, admitting honestly that though he did very well as a politician he was a wreck on the shores of Cythera. At the same moment Madame Rabourdin was gathering herself together for a becoming exit. She wished to make a last graceful impression on the minds of all, and she succeeded. Contrary to the usual custom in society, every one cried out as soon as she was gone, "What a charming woman!" and the minister himself took her to the outer door.
"I am quite sure you will think of me to-morrow," he said, alluding to the appointment.
"There are so few high functionaries who have agreeable wives," remarked his Excellency on re-entering the room, "that I am very well satisfied with our new acquisition."
"Don't you think her a little overpowering?" said des Lupeaulx with a piqued air.
The women present all exchanged expressive glances; the rivalry between the minister and his secretary amused them and instigated one of those pretty little comedies which Parisian women play so well. They excited and led on his Excellency and des Lupeaulx by a series of comments on Madame Rabourdin: one thought her too studied in manner, too eager to appear clever; another compared the graces of the middle classes with the manners of high life, while des Lupeaulx defended his pretended mistress as we all defend an enemy in society.
"Do her justice, ladies," he said; "is it not extraordinary that the daughter of an auctioneer should appear as well as she does? See where she came from, and what she is. She will end in the Tuileries; that is what she intends,—she told me so."
"Suppose she is the daughter of an auctioneer," said the Comtesse Feraud, smiling, "that will not hinder her husband's rise to power."
"Not in these days, you mean," said the minister's wife, tightening her lips.
"Madame," said his Excellency to the countess, sternly, "such sentiments and such speeches lead to revolutions; unhappily, the court and the great world do not restrain them. You would hardly believe, however, how the injudicious conduct of the aristocracy in this respect displeases certain clear-sighted personages at the palace. If I were a great lord, instead of being, as I am, a mere country gentleman who seems to be placed where he is to transact your business for you, the monarchy would not be as insecure as I now think it is. What becomes of a throne which does not bestow dignity on those who administer its government? We are far indeed from the days when a king could make men great at will,—such men as Louvois, Colbert, Richelieu, Jeannin, Villeroy, Sully,—Sully, in his origin, was no greater than I. I speak to you thus because we are here in private among ourselves. I should be very paltry indeed if I were personally offended by such speeches. After all, it is for us and not for others to make us great."
"You are appointed, dear," cried Celestine, pressing her husband's hand as they drove away. "If it had not been for des Lupeaulx I should have explained your scheme to his Excellency. But I will do it next Tuesday, and it will help the further matter of making you Master of petitions."
In the life of every woman there comes a day when she shines in all her glory; a day which gives her an unfading recollection to which she recurs with happiness all her life. As Madame Rabourdin took off one by one the ornaments of her apparel, she thought over the events of this evening, and marked the day among the triumphs and glories of her life,—all her beauties had been seen and envied, she had been praised and flattered by the minister's wife, delighted thus to make the other women jealous of her; but, above all, her grace and vanities had shone to the profit of conjugal love. Her husband was appointed.
"Did you think I looked well to-night?" she said to him, joyously.
At the same instant Mitral, waiting at the Cafe Themis, saw the two usurers returning, but was unable to perceive the slightest indications of the result on their impassible faces.
"What of it?" he said, when they were all seated at table.
"Same as ever," replied Gigonnet, rubbing his hands, "victory with gold."
"True," said Gobseck.
Mitral took a cabriolet and went straight to the Saillards and Baudoyers, who were still playing boston at a late hour. No one was present but the Abbe Gaudron. Falleix, half-dead with the fatigue of his journey, had gone to bed.
"You will be appointed, nephew," said Mitral; "and there's a surprise in store for you."
"What is it?" asked Saillard.
"The cross of the Legion of honor?" cried Mitral.
"God protects those who guard his altars," said Gaudron.
Thus the Te Deum was sung with equal joy and confidence in both camps.