What Love Costs an Old Man/Section 10

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What Love Costs an Old Man by Honoré de Balzac, translated by James Waring
Section 10

At half-past eleven that evening, five carriages were stationed in the Rue Saint-Georges before the famous courtesan's door. There was Lucien's, who had brought Rastignac, Bixiou, and Blondet; du Tillet's, the Baron de Nucingen's, the Nabob's, and Florine's—she was invited by du Tillet. The closed and doubly-shuttered windows were screened by the splendid Chinese silk curtains. Supper was to be served at one; wax-lights were blazing, the dining-room and little drawing-room displayed all their magnificence. The party looked forward to such an orgy as only three such women and such men as these could survive. They began by playing cards, as they had to wait about two hours.

"Do you play, milord?" asked du Tillet to Peyrade.

"I have played with O'Connell, Pitt, Fox, Canning, Lord Brougham, Lord——"

"Say at once no end of lords," said Bixiou.

"Lord Fitzwilliam, Lord Ellenborough, Lord Hertford, Lord——"

Bixiou was looking at Peyrade's shoes, and stooped down.

"What are you looking for?" asked Blondet.

"For the spring one must touch to stop this machine," said Florine.

"Do you play for twenty francs a point?"

"I will play for as much as you like to lose."

"He does it well!" said Esther to Lucien. "They all take him for an Englishman."

Du Tillet, Nucingen, Peyrade, and Rastignac sat down to a whist-table; Florine, Madame du Val-Noble, Esther, Blondet, and Bixiou sat round the fire chatting. Lucien spent the time in looking through a book of fine engravings.

"Supper is ready," Paccard presently announced, in magnificent livery.

Peyrade was placed at Florine's left hand, and on the other side of him Bixiou, whom Esther had enjoined to make the Englishman drink freely, and challenge him to beat him. Bixiou had the power of drinking an indefinite quantity.

Never in his life had Peyrade seen such splendor, or tasted of such cookery, or seen such fine women.

"I am getting my money's worth this evening for the thousand crowns la Val-Noble has cost me till now," thought he; "and besides, I have just won a thousand francs."

"This is an example for men to follow!" said Suzanne, who was sitting by Lucien, with a wave of her hand at the splendors of the dining-room.

Esther had placed Lucien next herself, and was holding his foot between her own under the table.

"Do you hear?" said Madame du Val-Noble, addressing Peyrade, who affected blindness. "This is how you ought to furnish a house! When a man brings millions home from India, and wants to do business with the Nucingens, he should place himself on the same level."

"I belong to a Temperance Society!"

"Then you will drink like a fish!" said Bixiou, "for the Indies are uncommon hot, uncle!"

It was Bixiou's jest during supper to treat Peyrade as an uncle of his, returned from India.

"Montame du Fal-Noble tolt me you shall have some iteas," said Nucingen, scrutinizing Peyrade.

"Ah, this is what I wanted to hear," said du Tillet to Rastignac; "the two talking gibberish together."

"You will see, they will understand each other at last," said Bixiou, guessing what du Tillet had said to Rastignac.

"Sir Baronet, I have imagined a speculation—oh! a very comfortable job—bocou profitable and rich in profits——"

"Now you will see," said Blondet to du Tillet, "he will not talk one minute without dragging in the Parliament and the English Government."

"It is in China, in the opium trade——"

"Ja, I know," said Nucingen at once, as a man who is well acquainted with commercial geography. "But de English Gover'ment hafe taken up de opium trate as a means dat shall open up China, and she shall not allow dat ve——"

"Nucingen has cut him out with the Government," remarked du Tillet to Blondet.

"Ah! you have been in the opium trade!" cried Madame du Val-Noble. "Now I understand why you are so narcotic; some has stuck in your soul."

"Dere! you see!" cried the Baron to the self-styled opium merchant, and pointing to Madame du Val-Noble. "You are like me. Never shall a millionaire be able to make a voman lofe him."

"I have loved much and often, milady," replied Peyrade.

"As a result of temperance," said Bixiou, who had just seen Peyrade finish his third bottle of claret, and now had a bottle of port wine uncorked.

"Oh!" cried Peyrade, "it is very fine, the Portugal of England."

Blondet, du Tillet, and Bixiou smiled at each other. Peyrade had the power of travestying everything, even his wit. There are very few Englishmen who will not maintain that gold and silver are better in England than elsewhere. The fowls and eggs exported from Normandy to the London market enable the English to maintain that the poultry and eggs in London are superior (very fine) to those of Paris, which come from the same district.

Esther and Lucien were dumfounded by this perfection of costume, language, and audacity.

They all ate and drank so well and so heartily, while talking and laughing, that it went on till four in the morning. Bixiou flattered himself that he had achieved one of the victories so pleasantly related by Brillat-Savarin. But at the moment when he was saying to himself, as he offered his "uncle" some more wine, "I have vanquished England!" Peyrade replied in good French to this malicious scoffer, "Toujours, mon garcon" (Go it, my boy), which no one heard but Bixiou.

"Hallo, good men all, he is as English as I am!—My uncle is a Gascon! I could have no other!"

Bixiou and Peyrade were alone, so no one heard this announcement. Peyrade rolled off his chair on to the floor. Paccard forthwith picked him up and carried him to an attic, where he fell sound asleep.

At six o'clock next evening, the Nabob was roused by the application of a wet cloth, with which his face was being washed, and awoke to find himself on a camp-bed, face to face with Asie, wearing a mask and a black domino.

"Well, Papa Peyrade, you and I have to settle accounts," said she.

"Where am I?" asked he, looking about him.

"Listen to me," said Asie, "and that will sober you.—Though you do not love Madame du Val-Noble, you love your daughter, I suppose?"

"My daughter?" Peyrade echoed with a roar.

"Yes, Mademoiselle Lydie."

"What then?"

"What then? She is no longer in the Rue des Moineaux; she has been carried off."

Peyrade breathed a sigh like that of a soldier dying of a mortal wound on the battlefield.

"While you were pretending to be an Englishman, some one else was pretending to be Peyrade. Your little Lydie thought she was with her father, and she is now in a safe place.—Oh! you will never find her! unless you undo the mischief you have done."

"What mischief?"

"Yesterday Monsieur Lucien de Rubempre had the door shut in his face at the Duc de Grandlieu's. This is due to your intrigues, and to the man you let loose on us. Do not speak, listen!" Asie went on, seeing Peyrade open his mouth. "You will have your daughter again, pure and spotless," she added, emphasizing her statement by the accent on every word, "only on the day after that on which Monsieur Lucien de Rubempre walks out of Saint-Thomas d'Aquin as the husband of Mademoiselle Clotilde. If, within ten days Lucien de Rubempre is not admitted, as he has been, to the Grandlieus' house, you, to begin with, will die a violent death, and nothing can save you from the fate that threatens you.—Then, when you feel yourself dying, you will have time before breathing your last to reflect, 'My daughter is a prostitute for the rest of her life!'

"Though you have been such a fool as give us this hold for our clutches, you still have sense enough to meditate on this ultimatum from our government. Do not bark, say nothing to any one; go to Contenson's, and change your dress, and then go home. Katt will tell you that at a word from you your little Lydie went downstairs, and has not been seen since. If you make any fuss, if you take any steps, your daughter will begin where I tell you she will end—she is promised to de Marsay.

"With old Canquoelle I need not mince matters, I should think, or wear gloves, heh?——Go on downstairs, and take care not to meddle in our concerns any more."

Asie left Peyrade in a pitiable state; every word had been a blow with a club. The spy had tears in his eyes, and tears hanging from his cheeks at the end of a wet furrow.

"They are waiting dinner for Mr. Johnson," said Europe, putting her head in a moment after.

Peyrade made no reply; he went down, walked till he reached a cab-stand, and hurried off to undress at Contenson's, not saying a word to him; he resumed the costume of Pere Canquoelle, and got home by eight o'clock. He mounted the stairs with a beating heart. When the Flemish woman heard her master, she asked him:

"Well, and where is mademoiselle?" with such simplicity, that the old spy was obliged to lean against the wall. The blow was more than he could bear. He went into his daughter's rooms, and ended by fainting with grief when he found them empty, and heard Katt's story, which was that of an abduction as skilfully planned as if he had arranged it himself.

"Well, well," thought he, "I must knock under. I will be revenged later; now I must go to Corentin.—This is the first time we have met our foes. Corentin will leave that handsome boy free to marry an Empress if he wishes!—Yes, I understand that my little girl should have fallen in love with him at first sight.—Oh! that Spanish priest is a knowing one. Courage, friend Peyrade! disgorge your prey!"

The poor father never dreamed of the fearful blow that awaited him.

On reaching Corentin's house, Bruno, the confidential servant, who knew Peyrade, said:

"Monsieur is gone away."

"For a long time?"

"For ten days."

"Where?"

"I don't know.

"Good God, I am losing my wits! I ask him where—as if we ever told them——" thought he.

A few hours before the moment when Peyrade was to be roused in his garret in the Rue Saint-Georges, Corentin, coming in from his country place at Passy, had made his way to the Duc de Grandlieu's, in the costume of a retainer of a superior class. He wore the ribbon of the Legion of Honor at his button-hole. He had made up a withered old face with powdered hair, deep wrinkles, and a colorless skin. His eyes were hidden by tortoise-shell spectacles. He looked like a retired office-clerk. On giving his name as Monsieur de Saint-Denis, he was led to the Duke's private room, where he found Derville reading a letter, which he himself had dictated to one of his agents, the "number" whose business it was to write documents. The Duke took Corentin aside to tell him all he already knew. Monsieur de Saint-Denis listened coldly and respectfully, amusing himself by studying this grand gentleman, by penetrating the tufa beneath the velvet cover, by scrutinizing this being, now and always absorbed in whist and in regard for the House of Grandlieu.

"If you will take my advice, monsieur," said Corentin to Derville, after being duly introduced to the lawyer, "we shall set out this very afternoon for Angouleme by the Bordeaux coach, which goes quite as fast as the mail; and we shall not need to stay there six hours to obtain the information Monsieur le Duc requires. It will be enough—if I have understood your Grace—to ascertain whether Monsieur de Rubempre's sister and brother-in-law are in a position to give him twelve hundred thousand francs?" and he turned to the Duke.

"You have understood me perfectly," said the Duke.

"We can be back again in four days," Corentin went on, addressing Derville, "and neither of us will have neglected his business long enough for it to suffer."

"That was the only difficulty I was about to mention to his Grace," said Derville. "It is now four o'clock. I am going home to say a word to my head-clerk, and pack my traveling-bag, and after dinner, at eight o'clock, I will be——But shall we get places?" he said to Monsieur de Saint-Denis, interrupting himself.

"I will answer for that," said Corentin. "Be in the yard of the Chief Office of the Messageries at eight o'clock. If there are no places, they shall make some, for that is the way to serve Monseigneur le Duc de Grandlieu."

"Gentlemen," said the Duke most graciously, "I postpone my thanks——"

Corentin and the lawyer, taking this as a dismissal, bowed, and withdrew.

At the hour when Peyrade was questioning Corentin's servant, Monsieur de Saint-Denis and Derville, seated in the Bordeaux coach, were studying each other in silence as they drove out of Paris.

Next morning, between Orleans and Tours, Derville, being bored, began to converse, and Corentin condescended to amuse him, but keeping his distance; he left him to believe that he was in the diplomatic service, and was hoping to become Consul-General by the good offices of the Duc de Grandlieu. Two days after leaving Paris, Corentin and Derville got out at Mansle, to the great surprise of the lawyer, who thought he was going to Angouleme.

"In this little town," said Corentin, "we can get the most positive information as regards Madame Sechard."

"Do you know her then?" asked Derville, astonished to find Corentin so well informed.

"I made the conductor talk, finding he was a native of Angouleme. He tells me that Madame Sechard lives at Marsac, and Marsac is but a league away from Mansle. I thought we should be at greater advantage here than at Angouleme for verifying the facts."

"And besides," thought Derville, "as Monsieur le Duc said, I act merely as the witness to the inquiries made by this confidential agent——"

The inn at Mansle, la Belle Etoile, had for its landlord one of those fat and burly men whom we fear we may find no more on our return; but who still, ten years after, are seen standing at their door with as much superfluous flesh as ever, in the same linen cap, the same apron, with the same knife, the same oiled hair, the same triple chin,—all stereotyped by novel-writers from the immortal Cervantes to the immortal Walter Scott. Are they not all boastful of their cookery? have they not all "whatever you please to order"? and do not all end by giving you the same hectic chicken, and vegetables cooked with rank butter? They all boast of their fine wines, and all make you drink the wine of the country.

But Corentin, from his earliest youth, had known the art of getting out of an innkeeper things more essential to himself than doubtful dishes and apocryphal wines. So he gave himself out as a man easy to please, and willing to leave himself in the hands of the best cook in Mansle, as he told the fat man.

"There is no difficulty about being the best—I am the only one," said the host.

"Serve us in the side room," said Corentin, winking at Derville. "And do not be afraid of setting the chimney on fire; we want to thaw out the frost in our fingers."

"It was not warm in the coach," said Derville.

"Is it far to Marsac?" asked Corentin of the innkeeper's wife, who came down from the upper regions on hearing that the diligence had dropped two travelers to sleep there.

"Are you going to Marsac, monsieur?" replied the woman.

"I don't know," he said sharply. "Is it far from hence to Marsac?" he repeated, after giving the woman time to notice his red ribbon.

"In a chaise, a matter of half an hour," said the innkeeper's wife.

"Do you think that Monsieur and Madame Sechard are likely to be there in winter?"

"To be sure; they live there all the year round."

"It is now five o'clock. We shall still find them up at nine."

"Oh yes, till ten. They have company every evening—the cure, Monsieur Marron the doctor——"

"Good folks then?" said Derville.

"Oh, the best of good souls," replied the woman, "straight-forward, honest—and not ambitious neither. Monsieur Sechard, though he is very well off—they say he might have made millions if he had not allowed himself to be robbed of an invention in the paper-making of which the brothers Cointet are getting the benefit——"

"Ah, to be sure, the Brothers Cointet!" said Corentin.

"Hold your tongue," said the innkeeper. "What can it matter to these gentlemen whether Monsieur Sechard has a right or no to a patent for his inventions in paper-making?—If you mean to spend the night here—at the Belle Etoile——" he went on, addressing the travelers, "here is the book, and please to put your names down. We have an officer in this town who has nothing to do, and spends all his time in nagging at us——"

"The devil!" said Corentin, while Derville entered their names and his profession as attorney to the lower Court in the department of the Seine, "I fancied the Sechards were very rich."

"Some people say they are millionaires," replied the innkeeper. "But as to hindering tongues from wagging, you might as well try to stop the river from flowing. Old Sechard left two hundred thousand francs' worth of landed property, it is said; and that is not amiss for a man who began as a workman. Well, and he may have had as much again in savings, for he made ten or twelve thousand francs out of his land at last. So, supposing he were fool enough not to invest his money for ten years, that would be all told. But even if he lent it at high interest, as he is suspected of doing there would be three hundred thousand francs perhaps, and that is all. Five hundred thousand francs is a long way short of a million. I should be quite content with the difference, and no more of the Belle Etoile for me!"

"Really!" said Corentin. "Then Monsieur David Sechard and his wife have not a fortune of two or three millions?"

"Why," exclaimed the innkeeper's wife, "that is what the Cointets are supposed to have, who robbed him of his invention, and he does not get more than twenty thousand francs out of them. Where do you suppose such honest folks would find millions? They were very much pinched while the father was alive. But for Kolb, their manager, and Madame Kolb, who is as much attached to them as her husband, they could scarcely have lived. Why, how much had they with La Verberie!—A thousand francs a year perhaps."

Corentin drew Derville aside and said:

"In vino veritas! Truth lives under a cork. For my part, I regard an inn as the real registry office of the countryside; the notary is not better informed than the innkeeper as to all that goes on in a small neighborhood.—You see! we are supposed to know all about the Cointets and Kolb and the rest.

"Your innkeeper is the living record of every incident; he does the work of the police without suspecting it. A government should maintain two hundred spies at most, for in a country like France there are ten millions of simple-minded informers.—However, we need not trust to this report; though even in this little town something would be known about the twelve hundred thousand francs sunk in paying for the Rubempre estate. We will not stop here long——"

"I hope not!" Derville put in.

"And this is why," added Corentin; "I have hit on the most natural way of extracting the truth from the mouth of the Sechard couple. I rely upon you to support, by your authority as a lawyer, the little trick I shall employ to enable you to hear a clear and complete account of their affairs.—After dinner we shall set out to call on Monsieur Sechard," said Corentin to the innkeeper's wife. "Have beds ready for us, we want separate rooms. There can be no difficulty 'under the stars.'"

"Oh, monsieur," said the woman, "we invented the sign."

"The pun is to be found in every department," said Corentin; "it is no monopoly of yours."

"Dinner is served, gentlemen," said the innkeeper.

"But where the devil can that young fellow have found the money? Is the anonymous writer accurate? Can it be the earnings of some handsome baggage?" said Derville, as they sat down to dinner.

"Ah, that will be the subject of another inquiry," said Corentin. "Lucien de Rubempre, as the Duc de Chaulieu tells me, lives with a converted Jewess, who passes for a Dutch woman, and is called Esther van Bogseck."

"What a strange coincidence!" said the lawyer. "I am hunting for the heiress of a Dutchman named Gobseck—it is the same name with a transposition of consonants."

"Well," said Corentin, "you shall have information as to her parentage on my return to Paris."