The Middle Classes/Part I/Chapter XVI

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The Middle Classes by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley
Part I/Chapter XVI: DU PORTAIL

The next day Cerizet did not fail to appear at the rendezvous given to him. Examined, at first, through the wicket of the door, he was admitted, after giving his name, into the house, and was ushered immediately to the study of Monsieur du Portail, whom he found at his desk.

Without rising, and merely making a sign to his guest to take a chair, the little old man continued the letter he was then writing. After sealing it with wax, with a care and precision that denoted a nature extremely fastidious and particular, or else a man accustomed to discharge diplomatic functions, du Portail rang for Bruneau, his valet, and said, as he gave him the letter:—

"For the justice-of-peace of the arrondissement."

Then he carefully wiped the steel pen he had just used, restored to their places, symmetrically, all the displaced articles on his desk, and it was only when these little arrangements were completed that he turned to Cerizet, and said:—

"You know, of course, that we lost that poor Monsieur Toupillier last night?"

"No, really?" said Cerizet, putting on the most sympathetic air he could manage. "This is my first knowledge of it."

"But you probably expected it. When one gives a dying man an immense bowl of hot wine, which has also been narcotized,—for the Perrache woman slept all night in a sort of lethargy after drinking a small glass of it,—it is evident that the catastrophe has been hastened."

"I am ignorant, monsieur," said Cerizet, with dignity, "of what Madame Cardinal may have given to her uncle. I have no doubt committed a great piece of thoughtlessness in assisting this woman to obtain an inheritance to which she assured me she had legal rights; but as to attempting the life of that old pauper, I am quite incapable of such a thing; nothing of the kind ever entered my mind."

"You wrote me this letter, I think," said du Portail, abruptly, taking from beneath a bohemian glass bowl a paper which he offered to Cerizet.

"A letter?" replied Cerizet, with the hesitation of a man who doesn't know whether to lie or speak the truth.

"I am quite sure of what I say," continued du Portail. "I have a mania for autographs, and I possess one of yours, obtained at the period when the Opposition exalted you to the glorious rank of martyr. I have compared the two writings, and I find that you certainly wrote me, yesterday, the letter which you hold in your hand, informing me of the money embarrassments of young la Peyrade at the present moment."

"Well," said Cerizet, "knowing that you had given a home to Mademoiselle de la Peyrade, who is probably cousin of Theodose, I thought I recognized in you the mysterious protector from whom, on more than one occasion, my friend has received the most generous assistance. Now, as I have a sincere affection for that poor fellow, it was in his interests that I permitted myself—"

"You did quite right," interrupted du Portail. "I am delighted to have fallen in with a friend of la Peyrade. I ought not to conceal from you that it was this particular fact which protected you last night. But tell me, what is this about notes for twenty-five thousand francs? Is our friend so badly off in his affairs? Is he leading a dissipated life?"

"On the contrary," replied Cerizet, "he's a puritan. Given to the deepest piety, he did not choose to take, as a barrister, any other cases but those of the poor. He is now on the point of making a rich marriage."

"Ah! is he going to be married? and to whom?"

"To a Demoiselle Colleville, daughter of the secretary of the mayor of the 12th arrondissement. In herself, the girl has no fortune, but a certain Monsieur Thuillier, her godfather, member of the Council-general of the Seine, has promised her a suitable 'dot.'"

"Who has handled this affair?"

"La Peyrade has been devoted to the Thuillier family, into which he was introduced by Monsieur Dutocq, clerk of the justice-of-peace of their arrondissement."

"But you wrote me that these notes were signed in favor of Monsieur Dutocq. The affair is a bit of matrimonial brokerage, in short?"

"Well, something of that kind," replied Cerizet. "You know, monsieur, that in Paris such transactions are very common. Even the clergy won't disdain to have a finger in them."

"Is the marriage a settled thing?"

"Yes, and within the last few days especially."

"Well, my good sir, I rely on you to put an end to it. I have other views for Theodose,—another marriage to propose to him."

"Excuse me!" said Cerizet, "to break up this marriage would make it impossible for him to pay his notes; and I have the honor to call your attention to the fact that these particular bills of exchange are serious matters. Monsieur Dutocq is in the office of the justice-of-peace; in other words, he couldn't be easily defeated in such a matter."

"The debt to Monsieur Dutocq you shall buy off yourself," replied du Portail. "Make arrangements with him to that effect. Should Theodose prove reluctant to carry out my plans, those notes may become a useful weapon in our hands. You will take upon yourself to sue him for them, and you shall have no money responsibility in the matter. I will pay you the amount of the notes for Dutocq, and your costs in suing Theodose."

"You are square in business, monsieur," said Cerizet. "There's some pleasure in being your agent. Now, if you think the right moment has come, I should be glad if you would give me some better light on the mission you are doing me the honor to place in my hands."

"You spoke just now," replied du Portail, "of the cousin of Theodose, Mademoiselle Lydie de la Peyrade. This young woman, who is not in her first youth, for she is nearly thirty, is the natural daughter of the celebrated Mademoiselle Beaumesnil of the Theatre Francais and Peyrade, the commissary-general of police under the Empire, and the uncle of our friend. Until his death, which occurred suddenly, leaving his daughter, whom he loved tenderly, without means of support, I was bound to that excellent man with the warmest friendship."

Glad to show that he had some knowledge of du Portail's interior life, Cerizet hastened to remark:—

"And you have secretly fulfilled the duties of that friendship, monsieur; for, in taking into your home that interesting orphan you assumed a difficult guardianship. Mademoiselle de la Peyrade's state of health requires, I am told, a care not only affectionate, but persevering."

"Yes," replied du Portail, "the poor girl, after the death of her father, was so cruelly tried that her mind has been somewhat affected; but a fortunate change has lately occurred in her condition, and only yesterday I called in consultation Doctor Bianchon and the two physicians-in-charge of Bicetre and the Salpetriere. These gentlemen unanimously declare that marriage and the birth of a first child would undoubtedly restore her to perfect health. You can readily understand that the remedy is too easy and agreeable not to be attempted."

"Then," said Cerizet, "it is to Mademoiselle Lydie de la Peyrade, his cousin, that you wish to marry Theodose."

"You have said it," returned du Portail, "and you must not think that our young friend, if he accepts the marriage, will be called upon to show a gratuitous devotion. Lydie is very agreeable in person; she has talents, a charming disposition, and she can bring to bear, in her husband's interest, a strong influence in public life. She has, moreover, a pretty fortune, consisting of what her mother left her, and of my entire property, which, having no heirs myself, I intend to secure to her in the marriage contract. Besides all this, she has this very night acquired a not inconsiderable legacy."

"What!" exclaimed Cerizet, "do you mean that old Toupillier—"

"By a will in his own handwriting, which I have here, that old pauper constitutes her his sole legatee. You see, therefore, that I showed some kindness in not proceeding against you and Madame Cardinal for your little attempt last night; it was simply our property that you were trying to pillage."

"Heavens!" cried Cerizet, "I won't pretend to excuse Madame Cardinal's misconduct; and yet, as one of the legal heirs, dispossessed by a stranger, she had, it seems to me, some right to the indulgence which you certainly showed to her."

"In that you are mistaken," said du Portail; "the apparent liberality of the old beggar to Mademoiselle de la Peyrade happens to be only a restitution."

"A restitution!" exclaimed Cerizet, in a tone of curiosity.

"A restitution," repeated du Portail, "and nothing is easier than to prove it. Do you remember the robbery of some diamonds from one of our dramatic celebrities about ten years ago?"

"Yes," replied Cerizet. "I was manager of one of my newspapers at the time, and I used to write the 'Paris items.' But stay, I remember, the actress who lost them was Mademoiselle Beaumesnil."

"Precisely; the mother of Mademoiselle de la Peyrade."

"Consequently, this miserable old Toupillier—no, I remember that the thief was convicted; his name was Charles Crochard. It was said, under the rose, that he was the natural son of a great personage, the Comte de Granville, attorney-general under the Restoration." [See "A Double Life."]

"Well," said du Portail, "this is how it happened. The robbery was committed in a house in the rue de Tournon, occupied by Mademoiselle Beaumesnil. Charles Crochard, who was a handsome fellow, was said to have the run of it—"

"Yes, yes," cried Cerizet, "I remember Mademoiselle Beaumesnil's embarrassment when she gave her testimony—and also the total extinction of voice that attacked her when the judge asked her age."

"The robbery," continued du Portail, "was audaciously committed in the daytime; and no sooner did Charles Crochard get possession of the casket than he went to the church of Saint-Sulpice, where he had an appointment with an accomplice, who, being supplied with a passport, was to start immediately with the diamonds for foreign parts. It so chanced that on entering the church, instead of meeting the man he expected, who was a trifle late, Charles Crochard came face to face with a celebrated agent of the detective force, who was well known to him, inasmuch as the young rascal was not at his first scrimmage with the police. The absence of his accomplice, this encounter with the detective, and, lastly, a rapid movement made by the latter, by the merest chance, toward the door, induced the robber to fancy he was being watched. Losing his head under this idea, he wanted, at any cost, to put the casket out of his possession, knowing that if arrested, as he expected, at the door of the church, it would be a damning proof against him. Catching sight at that moment of Toupillier, who was then the giver of holy water, 'My man,' said he, making sure that no one overheard their colloquy, 'will you take care of this little package for me? It is a box of lace. I am going near by to a countess who is slow to pay her bill; and if I have the lace with me she'll want to see it, for it is a new style, and she'll ask me to leave it with her on credit, instead of paying the bill; therefore I don't want to take it. But,' he added, 'be sure not to touch the paper that wraps the box, for there's nothing harder than to do up a package in the same folds—'"

"The booby!" cried Cerizet, naively; "why, that very caution would make the man want to open it."

"You are an able casuist," said du Portail. "Well, an hour later, Charles Crochard, finding that nothing happened to him, returned to the church to obtain his deposit, but Toupillier was no longer there. You can imagine the anxiety with which Charles Crochard attended early mass the next day, and approached the giver of holy water, who was there, sure enough, attending to his functions. But night, they say, brings counsel; the worthy beggar audaciously declared that he had received no package, and did not know what his interlocutor meant."

"And there was no possibility of arguing with him, for that would be exposure," remarked Cerizet, who was not far from sympathizing in a trick so boldly played.

"No doubt," resumed du Portail; "the robbery was already noised about, and Toupillier, who was a very able fellow, had calculated that Charles Crochard would not dare to publicly accuse him, for that would reveal the theft. In fact, on his trial Charles Crochard never said a word of his mishap, and during the six years he spent at the galleys (he was condemned to ten, but four were remitted) he did not open his lips to a single soul about the treachery of which he had been a victim."

"That was pretty plucky," said Cerizet; the tale excited him, and he showed openly that he saw the matter as an artist and a connoisseur.

"In that interval," continued du Portail, "Madame Beaumesnil died, leaving her daughter a few fragments of a once great fortune, and the diamonds which the will expressly stated Lydie was to receive 'in case they were recovered.'"

"Ha! ha!" exclaimed Cerizet, "bad for Toupillier, because, having to do with a man of your calibre—"

"Charles Crochard's first object on being liberated was vengeance on Toupillier, and his first step was to denounce him to the police as receiver of the stolen property. Taken in hand by the law, Toupillier defended himself with such singular good-humor, being able to show that no proof whatever existed against him, that the examining judge let him off. He lost his place, however, as giver of holy water, obtaining, with great difficulty, permission to beg at the door of the church. For my part, I was certain of his guilt; and I managed to have the closest watch kept upon him; though I relied far more upon myself. Being a man of means and leisure, I stuck, as you may say, to the skin of my thief, and did, in order to unmask him, one of the cleverest things of my career. He was living at that time in the rue du Coeur-Volant. I succeeded in becoming the tenant of the room adjoining his; and one night, through a gimlet hole I had drilled in the partition, I saw my man take the case of diamonds from a very cleverly contrived hiding-place. He sat for an hour gazing at them and fondling them; he made them sparkle in the light, he pressed them passionately to his lips. The man actually loved those diamonds for themselves, and had never thought of turning them to money."

"I understand," said Cerizet,—"a mania like that of Cardillac, the jeweller, which has now been dramatized."

"That is just it," returned du Portail; "the poor wretch was in love with that casket; so that when, shortly after, I entered his room and told him I knew all, he proposed to me to leave him the life use of what he called the consolation of his old age, pledging himself to make Mademoiselle de la Peyrade his sole heir, revealing to me at the same time the existence of a hoard of gold (to which he was adding every day), and also the possession of a house and an investment in the Funds."

"If he made that proposal in good faith," said Cerizet, "it was a desirable one. The interest of the capital sunk in the diamonds was more than returned by that from the other property."

"You now see, my dear sir," said du Portail, "that I was not mistaken in trusting him. All my precautions were well taken; I exacted that he should occupy a room in the house I lived in, where I could keep a close eye upon him. I assisted him in making that hiding-place, the secret of which you discovered so cleverly; but what you did not find out was that in touching the spring that opened the iron safe you rang a bell in my apartment, which warned me of any attempt that was made to remove our treasure."

"Poor Madame Cardinal!" cried Cerizet, good-humoredly, "how far she was from suspecting it!"

"Now here's the situation," resumed du Portail. "On account of the interest I feel in the nephew of my old friend, and also, on account of the relationship, this marriage seems to me extremely desirable; in short, I unite Theodose to his cousin and her 'dot.' As it is possible that, considering the mental state of his future wife, Theodose may object to sharing my views, I have not thought it wise to make this proposal directly to himself. You have suddenly turned up upon my path; I know already that you are clever and wily, and that knowledge induces me to put this little matrimonial negotiation into your hands. Now, I think, you understand the matter thoroughly; speak to him of a fine girl, with one little drawback, but, on the other hand, a comfortable fortune. Do not name her to him; and come here and let me know how the proposal has been taken."

"Your confidence delights me as much as it honors me," replied Cerizet, "and I will justify it the best I can."

"We must not expect too much," said du Portail. "Refusal will be the first impulse of a man who has an affair on hand elsewhere; but we need not consider ourselves beaten. I shall not easily give up a plan which I know to be just, even if I push my zeal so far as to put la Peyrade under lock and key in Clichy. I am resolved not to take no for his answer to a proposal of which, in the end, he cannot fail to see the propriety. Therefore, in any case, buy up those notes from Monsieur Dutocq."

"At par?" asked Cerizet.

"Yes, at par, if you cannot do better; we are not going to haggle over a few thousand francs; only, when this transaction is arranged, Monsieur Dutocq must pledge us either his assistance, or, at the very least, his neutrality. After what you have said of the other marriage, it is unnecessary for me to warn you that there is not a moment to lose in putting our irons into the fire."

"Two days hence I have an appointment with la Peyrade," said Cerizet. "We have a little matter of business of our own to settle. Don't you think it would be best to wait till then, when I can introduce the proposal incidentally? In case of resistance, I think that arrangement would best conduce to OUR dignity."

"So be it," said du Portail; "it isn't much of a delay. Remember, monsieur, that if you succeed you have, in place of a man able to bring you to a stern account for your imprudent assistance to Madame Cardinal, a greatly obliged person, who will be ready at all times to serve you, and whose influence is greater than is generally supposed."

After these friendly words, the pair separated with a thoroughly good understanding, and well satisfied with each other.