The Middle Classes/Part I/Chapter XVIII

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The Middle Classes by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley
Part I/Chapter XVIII: SET A SAINT TO CATCH A SAINT

As he approached his own abode, Cerizet, who was nothing so little as courageous, felt an emotion of fear. He perceived a form ambushed near the door, which, as he came nearer, detached itself as if to meet him. Happily, it was only Dutocq. He came for his notes. Cerizet returned them in some ill-humor, complaining of the distrust implied in a visit at such an hour. Dutocq paid no attention to this sensitiveness, and the next morning, very early, he presented himself at la Peyrade's.

La Peyrade paid, as he had promised, on the nail, and to a few sentinel remarks uttered by Dutocq as soon as the money was in his pocket, he answered with marked coldness. His whole external appearance and behavior was that of a slave who has burst his chain and has promised himself not to make a gospel use of his liberty.

As he conducted his visitor to the door, the latter came face to face with a woman in servant's dress, who was just about to ring the bell. This woman was, apparently, known to Dutocq, for he said to her:—

"Ha ha! little woman; so we feel the necessity of consulting a barrister? You are right; at the family council very serious matters were brought up against you."

"Thank God, I fear no one. I can walk with my head up," said the person thus addressed.

"So much the better for you," replied the clerk of the justice-of-peace; "but you will probably be summoned before the judge who examines the affair. At any rate, you are in good hands here; and my friend la Peyrade will advise you for the best."

"Monsieur is mistaken," said the woman; "it is not for what he thinks that I have come to consult a lawyer."

"Well, be careful what you say and do, my dear woman, for I warn you you are going to be finely picked to pieces. The relations are furious against you, and you can't get the idea out of their heads that you have got a great deal of money."

While speaking thus, Dutocq kept his eye on Theodose, who bore the look uneasily, and requested his client to enter.

Here follows a scene which had taken place the previous afternoon between this woman and la Peyrade.

La Peyrade, we may remember, was in the habit of going to early mass at his parish church. For some little time he had felt himself the object of a singular attention which he could not explain on the part of the woman whom we have just seen entering his office, who daily attended the church at, as Dorine says, his "special hour." Could it be for love? That explanation was scarcely compatible with the maturity and the saintly, beatific air of this person, who, beneath a plain cap, called "a la Janseniste," by which fervent female souls of that sect were recognized, affected, like a nun, to hide her hair. On the other hand, the rest of her clothing was of a neatness that was almost dainty, and the gold cross at her throat, suspended by a black velvet ribbon, excluded the idea of humble and hesitating mendicity.

The morning of the day on which the dinner at the Rocher de Cancale was to take place, la Peyrade, weary of a performance which had ended by preoccupying his mind, went up to the woman and asked her pointblank if she had any request to make of him.

"Monsieur," she answered, in a tone of solemnity, "is, I think, the celebrated Monsieur de la Peyrade, the advocate of the poor?"

"I am la Peyrade; and I have had, it is true, an opportunity to render services to the indigent persons of this quarter."

"Would it, then, be asking too much of monsieur's goodness that he should suffer me to consult him?"

"This place," replied la Peyrade, "is not well chosen for such consultation. What you have to say to me seems important, to judge by the length of time you have been hesitating to speak to me. I live near here, rue Saint-Dominique d'Enfer, and if you will take the trouble to come to my office—"

"It will not annoy monsieur?"

"Not in the least; my business is to hear clients."

"At what hour—lest I disturb monsieur—?"

"When you choose; I shall be at home all the morning."

"Then I will hear another mass, at which I can take the communion. I did not dare to do so at this mass, for the thought of speaking to monsieur so distracted my mind. I will be at monsieur's house by eight o'clock, when I have ended my meditation, if that hour does not inconvenience him."

"No; but there is no necessity for all this ceremony," replied la Peyrade, with some impatience.

Perhaps a little professional jealousy inspired his ill-humor, for it was evident that he had to do with an antagonist who was capable of giving him points.

At the hour appointed, not a minute before nor a minute after, the pious woman rang the bell, and the barrister having, not without some difficulty, induced her to sit down, he requested her to state her case. She was then seized with that delaying little cough with which we obtain a respite when brought face to face with a difficult subject. At last, however, she compelled herself to approach the object of her visit.

"It is to ask monsieur," she said, "if he would be so very good as to inform me whether it is true that a charitable gentleman, now deceased, has bequeathed a fund to reward domestic servants who are faithful to their masters."

"Yes," replied la Peyrade; "that is to say, Monsieur de Montyon founded 'prizes for virtue,' which are frequently given to zealous and exemplary domestic servants. But ordinary good conduct is not sufficient; there must be some act or acts of great devotion, and truly Christian self-abnegation."

"Religion enjoins humility upon us," replied the pious woman, "and therefore I dare not praise myself; but inasmuch as for the last twenty years I have lived in the service of an old man of the dullest description, a savant, who has wasted his substance on inventions, so that I myself have had to feed and clothe him, persons have thought that I am not altogether undeserving of that prize."

"It is certainly under such conditions that the Academy selects its candidates," said la Peyrade. "What is your master's name?"

"Pere Picot; he is never called otherwise in our quarter; sometimes he goes out into the streets as if dressed for the carnival, and all the little children crowd about him, calling out: 'How d'ye do, Pere Picot! Good-morning, Pere Picot!' But that's how it is; he takes no care of his dignity; he goes about full of his own ideas; and though I kill myself trying to give him appetizing food, if you ask him what he has had for his dinner he can't tell you. Yet he's a man full of ability, and he has taught good pupils. Perhaps monsieur knows young Phellion, a professor in the College of Saint-Louis; he was one of his scholars, and he comes to see him very often."

"Then," said la Peyrade, "your master is a mathematician?"

"Yes, monsieur; mathematics have been his bane; they have flung him into a set of ideas which don't seem to have any common-sense in them ever since he has been employed at the Observatory, near here."

"Well," said la Peyrade, "you must bring testimony proving your long devotion to this old man, and I will then draw up a memorial to the Academy and take the necessary steps to present it."

"How good monsieur is!" said the pious woman, clasping her hands; "and if he would also let me tell him of a little difficulty—"

"What is it?"

"They tell me, monsieur, that to get this prize persons must be really very poor."

"Not exactly; still, the Academy does endeavor to choose whose who are in straitened circumstances, and who have made sacrifices too heavy for their means."

"Sacrifices! I think I may indeed say I have made sacrifices, for the little property I inherited from my parents has all been spent in keeping the old man, and for fifteen years I have had no wages, which, at three hundred francs a year and compound interest, amount now to a pretty little sum; as monsieur, I am sure, will agree."

At the words "compound interest," which evidenced a certain amount of financial culture, la Peyrade looked at this Antigone with increased attention.

"In short," he said, "your difficulty is—"

"Monsieur will not think it strange," replied the saintly person, "that a very rich uncle dying in England, who had never done anything for his family in his lifetime, should have left me twenty-five thousand francs."

"Certainly," said the barrister, "there's nothing in that but what is perfectly natural and proper."

"But, monsieur, I have been told that the possession of this money will prevent the judges from considering my claims to the prize."

"Possibly; because seeing you in possession of a little competence, the sacrifices which you apparently intend to continue in favor of your master will be less meritorious."

"I shall never abandon him, poor, dear man, in spite of his faults, though I know that this poor little legacy which Heaven has given me is in the greatest danger from him."

"How so?" asked la Peyrade, with some curiosity.

"Eh! monsieur, let him only get wind of that money, and he'd snap it up at a mouthful; it would all go into his inventions of perpetual motion and other machines of various kinds which have already ruined him, and me, too."

"Then," said la Peyrade, "your desire is that this legacy should remain completely unknown, not only to your master but to the judges of the Academy?"

"How clever monsieur is, and how well he understands things!" she replied, smiling.

"And also," continued the barrister, "you don't want to keep that money openly in your possession?"

"For fear my master should find it out and get it away from me? Exactly. Besides, as monsieur will understand, I shouldn't be sorry, in order to supply the poor dear man with extra comforts, that the sum should bear interest."

"And the highest possible interest," said the barrister.

"Oh! as for that, monsieur, five or six per cent."

"Very good; then it is not only about the memorial to the Academy for the prize of virtue, but also about an investment of your legacy that you have so long been desirous of consulting me?"

"Monsieur is so kind, so charitable, so encouraging!"

"The memorial, after I have made a few inquiries, will be easy enough; but an investment, offering good security, the secret of which you desire to keep, is much less readily obtained."

"Ah! if I dared to—" said the pious woman, humbly.

"What?" asked la Peyrade.

"Monsieur understands me?"

"I? not the least in the world."

"And yet I prayed earnestly just now that monsieur might be willing to keep this money for me. I should feel such confidence if it were in his hands; I know he would return it to me, and never speak of it."

La Peyrade gathered, at this instant, the fruit of his comedy of legal devotion to the necessitous classes. The choir of porters chanting his praises to the skies could alone have inspired this servant-woman with the boundless confidence of which he found himself the object. His thoughts reverted instantly to Dutocq and his notes, and he was not far from thinking that this woman had been sent to him by Providence. But the more he was inclined to profit by this chance to win his independence, the more he felt the necessity of seeming to yield only to her importunity; consequently his objections were many.

Moreover, he had no great belief in the character of his client, and did not care, as the common saying is, to uncover Saint Peter to cover Saint Paul; in other words, to substitute for a creditor who, after all, was his accomplice, a woman who might at any time become exacting and insist in repayment in some public manner that would injure his reputation. He decided, therefore, to play the game with a high hand.

"My good woman," he said, "I am not in want of money, and I am not rich enough to pay interest on twenty-five thousand francs for which I have no use. All that I can do for you is to place that sum, in my name, with the notary Dupuis. He is a religious man; you can see him every Sunday in the warden's pew in our church. Notaries, you know, never give receipts, therefore I could not give you one myself; I can only promise to leave among my papers, in case of death, a memorandum which will secure the restitution of the money into your hands. The affair, you see, is one of blind confidence, and I am very unwilling to make it. If I do so, it is only to oblige a person whose piety and the charitable use she intends to make of the proceeds of her little fortune entitle her to my good-will."

"If monsieur thinks that the matter cannot be otherwise arranged—"

"This appears to me the only possible way," said la Peyrade. "I shall hope to get you six per cent interest, and you may rely that it will be paid with the utmost regularity. But remember, six months, or even a year, may elapse before the notary will be in a position to repay this money, because notaries invest such trust funds chiefly in mortgages which require a certain time to mature. Now, when you have obtained the prize for virtue, which, according to all appearance, I can readily do for you, there will be no reason to hide your little property any longer,—a reason which I fully understand; but you will not be able to withdraw it from the notary's hands immediately; and in case of any difficulty arising, I should be forced to explain the situation, the manner in which you have concealed your prosperity from your master, to whom you have been supposed to be wholly devoted. This, as you will see, would put you in the position of falsely professing virtue, and would do great harm to your reputation for piety."

"Oh! monsieur," said the saintly woman, "can it be that any one would think me a person who did not speak the truth?"

"Bless you! my good creature, in business it is necessary to foresee everything. Money embroils the best friends, and leads to actions they never foresaw. Therefore reflect; you can come and see me again in a few days. It is possible that between now and then you will find some better investment; and I myself, who am doing at this moment a thing I don't altogether like, may have found other difficulties which I do not now expect."

This threat, adroitly thrown out as an afterthought, was intended to immediately clinch the matter.

"I have reflected carefully," said the pious woman, "and I feel sure that in the hands of so religious a man as monsieur I run no risks."

Taking from her bosom a little pocket-book, she pulled out twenty-five bank notes. The rapid manner in which she counted them was a revelation to la Peyrade. The woman was evidently accustomed to handle money, and a singular idea darted through his mind.

"Can it be that she is making me a receiver of stolen property? No," he said aloud, "in order to draw up the memorial for the Academy, I must, as I told you, make a few inquiries; and that will give me occasion to call upon you. At what hour can I see you alone?"

"At four o'clock, when monsieur goes to take his walk in the Luxembourg."

"And where do you live?"

"Rue du Val-de-Grace, No. 9."

"Very good; at four o'clock; and if, as I doubt not, the result of my inquiry is favorable, I will take your money then. Otherwise, if there are not good grounds for your application for the prize of virtue there will be no reason why you should make a mystery of your legacy. You could then invest it in some more normal manner than that I have suggested to you."

"Oh! how cautious monsieur is!" she said, with evident disappointment, having thought the affair settled. "This money, God be thanked! I have not stolen, and monsieur can make what inquiries he likes about me in the quarter."

"It is quite indispensable that I should do so," said la Peyrade, dryly, for he did not at all like, under this mask of simplicity, the quick intelligence that penetrated his thoughts. "Without being a thief, a woman may very well not be a Sister of Charity; there's a wide margin between the two extremes."

"As monsieur chooses," she replied; "he is doing me so great a service that I ought to let him take all precautions."

Then, with a piously humble bow, she went away, taking her money with her.

"The devil!" thought la Peyrade; "that woman is stronger than I; she swallows insults with gratitude and without the sign of a grimace! I have never yet been able to master myself like that."

He began now to fear that he had been too timid, and to think that his would-be creditor might change her mind before he could pay her the visit he had promised. But the harm was done, and, although consumed with anxiety lest he had lost a rare chance, he would have cut off a leg sooner than yield to his impulse to go to her one minute before the hour he had fixed. The information he obtained about her in the quarter was rather contradictory. Some said his client was a saint; otherwise declared her to be a sly creature; but, on the whole, nothing was said against her morality that deterred la Peyrade from taking the piece of luck she had offered him.

When he met her at four o'clock he found her in the same mind.

With the money in his pocket he went to dine with Cerizet and Dutocq at the Rocher de Cancale; and it is to the various emotions he had passed through during the day that we must attribute the sharp and ill-considered manner in which he conducted his rupture with his two associates. This behavior was neither that of his natural disposition nor of his acquired temperament; but the money that was burning in his pockets had slightly intoxicated him; its very touch had conveyed to him an excitement and an impatience for emancipation of which he was not wholly master. He flung Cerizet over in the matter of the lease without so much as consulting Brigitte; and yet, he had not had the full courage of his duplicity; for he had laid to the charge of the old woman a refusal which was merely the act of his own will, prompted by bitter recollections of his fruitless struggles with the man who had so long oppressed him.

In short, during the whole day, la Peyrade had not shown himself the able and infallible man that we have hitherto seen him. Once before, when he carried the fifteen thousand francs entrusted to him by Thuillier, he had been led by Cerizet into an insurrectionary proceeding which necessitated the affair of Sauvaignou. Perhaps, on the whole, it is more difficult to be strong under good than under evil fortune. The Farnese Hercules, calm and in still repose, expresses more energetically the plenitude of muscular power than a violent and agitated Hercules represented in the over-excited energy of his labors.