What Love Costs an Old Man/Section 2
On arriving at the Rue Taitbout, Esther could not return to the scene of her happiness without some pain. She remained sitting on a couch, motionless, drying away her tears one by one, and never hearing a word of the crazy speeches poured out by the banker. He fell at her feet, and she let him kneel without saying a word to him, allowing him to take her hands as he would, and never thinking of the sex of the creature who was rubbing her feet to warm them; for Nucingen found that they were cold.
This scene of scalding tears shed on the Baron's head, and of ice-cold feet that he tried to warm, lasted from midnight till two in the morning.
"Eugenie," cried the Baron at last to Europe, "persvade your mis'ess that she shall go to bet."
"No!" cried Esther, starting to her feet like a scared horse. "Never in this house!"
"Look her, monsieur, I know madame; she is as gentle and kind as a lamb," said Europe to the Baron. "Only you must not rub her the wrong way, you must get at her sideways—she had been so miserable here.—You see how worn the furniture is.—Let her go her own way.
"Furnish some pretty little house for her, very nicely. Perhaps when she sees everything new about her she will feel a stranger there, and think you better looking than you are, and be angelically sweet.—Oh! madame has not her match, and you may boast of having done a very good stroke of business: a good heart, genteel manners, a fine instep—and a skin, a complexion! Ah!——
"And witty enough to make a condemned wretch laugh. And madame can feel an attachment.—And then how she can dress!—Well, if it is costly, still, as they say, you get your money's worth.—Here all the gowns were seized, everything she has is three months old.—But madame is so kind, you see, that I love her, and she is my mistress!—But in all justice—such a woman as she is, in the midst of furniture that has been seized!—And for whom? For a young scamp who has ruined her. Poor little thing, she is not at all herself."
"Esther, Esther; go to bet, my anchel! If it is me vat frighten you, I shall stay here on dis sofa——" cried the Baron, fired by the purest devotion, as he saw that Esther was still weeping.
"Well, then," said Esther, taking the "lynx's" hand, and kissing it with an impulse of gratitude which brought something very like a tear to his eye, "I shall be grateful to you——"
And she fled into her room and locked the door.
"Dere is someting fery strange in all dat," thought Nucingen, excited by his pillules. "Vat shall dey say at home?"
He got up and looked out of the window. "My carriage still is dere. It shall soon be daylight." He walked up and down the room.
"Vat Montame de Nucingen should laugh at me ven she should know how I hafe spent dis night!"
He applied his ear to the bedroom door, thinking himself rather too much of a simpleton.
"Mein Gott! and she is still veeping!" said he to himself, as he stretched himself on the sofa.
About ten minutes after sunrise, the Baron de Nucingen, who was sleeping the uneasy slumbers that are snatched by compulsion in an awkward position on a couch, was aroused with a start by Europe from one of those dreams that visit us in such moments, and of which the swift complications are a phenomenon inexplicable by medical physiology.
"Oh, God help us, madame!" she shrieked. "Madame!—the soldiers—gendarmes—bailiffs! They have come to take us."
At the moment when Esther opened her door and appeared, hurriedly, wrapped in her dressing-gown, her bare feet in slippers, her hair in disorder, lovely enough to bring the angel Raphael to perdition, the drawing-room door vomited into the room a gutter of human mire that came on, on ten feet, towards the beautiful girl, who stood like an angel in some Flemish church picture. One man came foremost. Contenson, the horrible Contenson, laid his hand on Esther's dewy shoulder.
"You are Mademoiselle van——" he began. Europe, by a back-handed slap on Contenson's cheek, sent him sprawling to measure his length on the carpet, and with all the more effect because at the same time she caught his leg with the sharp kick known to those who practise the art as a coup de savate.
"Hands off!" cried she. "No one shall touch my mistress."
"She has broken my leg!" yelled Contenson, picking himself up; "I will have damages!"
From the group of bumbailiffs, looking like what they were, all standing with their horrible hats on their yet more horrible heads, with mahogany-colored faces and bleared eyes, damaged noses, and hideous mouths, Louchard now stepped forth, more decently dressed than his men, but keeping his hat on, his expression at once smooth-faced and smiling.
"Mademoiselle, I arrest you!" said he to Esther. "As for you, my girl," he added to Europe, "any resistance will be punished, and perfectly useless."
The noise of muskets, let down with a thud of their stocks on the floor of the dining-room, showing that the invaders had soldiers to bake them, gave emphasis to this speech.
"And what am I arrested for?" said Esther.
"What about our little debts?" said Louchard.
"To be sure," cried Esther; "give me leave to dress."
"But, unfortunately, mademoiselle, I am obliged to make sure that you have no way of getting out of your room," said Louchard.
All this passed so quickly that the Baron had not yet had time to intervene.
"Well, and am I still a foul dealer in human flesh, Baron de Nucingen?" cried the hideous Asie, forcing her way past the sheriff's officers to the couch, where she pretended to have just discovered the banker.
"Contemptible wretch!" exclaimed Nucingen, drawing himself up in financial majesty.
He placed himself between Esther and Louchard, who took off his hat as Contenson cried out, "Monsieur le Baron de Nucingen."
At a signal from Louchard the bailiffs vanished from the room, respectfully taking their hats off. Contenson alone was left.
"Do you propose to pay, Monsieur le Baron?" asked he, hat in hand.
"I shall pay," said the banker; "but I must know vat dis is all about."
"Three hundred and twelve thousand francs and some centimes, costs paid; but the charges for the arrest not included."
"Three hundred thousand francs," cried the Baron; "dat is a fery 'xpensive vaking for a man vat has passed the night on a sofa," he added in Europe's ear.
"Is that man really the Baron de Nucingen?" asked Europe to Louchard, giving weight to the doubt by a gesture which Mademoiselle Dupont, the low comedy servant of the Francais, might have envied.
"Yes, mademoiselle," said Louchard.
"Yes," replied Contenson.
"I shall be answerable," said the Baron, piqued in his honor by Europe's doubt. "You shall 'llow me to say ein vort to her."
Esther and her elderly lover retired to the bedroom, Louchard finding it necessary to apply his ear to the keyhole.
"I lofe you more as my life, Esther; but vy gife to your creditors moneys vich shall be so much better in your pocket? Go into prison. I shall undertake to buy up dose hundert tousant crowns for ein hundert tousant francs, an' so you shall hafe two hundert tousant francs for you——"
"That scheme is perfectly useless," cried Louchard through the door. "The creditor is not in love with mademoiselle—not he! You understand? And he means to have more than all, now he knows that you are in love with her."
"You dam' sneak!" cried Nucingen, opening the door, and dragging Louchard into the bedroom; "you know not dat vat you talk about. I shall gife you, you'self, tventy per cent if you make the job."
"Impossible, M. le Baron."
"What, monsieur, you could have the heart to let my mistress go to prison?" said Europe, intervening. "But take my wages, my savings; take them, madame; I have forty thousand francs——"
"Ah, my good girl, I did not really know you!" cried Esther, clasping Europe in her arms.
Europe proceeded to melt into tears.
"I shall pay," said the Baron piteously, as he drew out a pocket-book, from which he took one of the little printed forms which the Bank of France issues to bankers, on which they have only to write a sum in figures and in words to make them available as cheques to bearer.
"It is not worth the trouble, Monsieur le Baron," said Louchard; "I have instructions not to accept payment in anything but coin of the realm—gold or silver. As it is you, I will take banknotes."
"Der Teufel!" cried the Baron. "Well, show me your papers."
Contenson handed him three packets covered with blue paper, which the Baron took, looking at the man, and adding in an undertone:
"It should hafe been a better day's vork for you ven you had gife me notice."
"Why, how should I know you were here, Monsieur le Baron?" replied the spy, heedless whether Louchard heard him. "You lost my services by withdrawing your confidence. You are done," added this philosopher, shrugging his shoulders.
"Qvite true," said the baron. "Ah, my chilt," he exclaimed, seeing the bills of exchange, and turning to Esther, "you are de fictim of a torough scoundrel, ein highway tief!"
"Alas, yes," said poor Esther; "but he loved me truly."
"Ven I should hafe known—I should hafe made you to protest——"
"You are off your head, Monsieur le Baron," said Louchard; "there is a third endorsement."
"Yes, dere is a tird endorsement—Cerizet! A man of de opposition."
"Will you write an order on your cashier, Monsieur le Baron?" said Louchard. "I will send Contenson to him and dismiss my men. It is getting late, and everybody will know that——"
"Go den, Contenson," said Nucingen. "My cashier lives at de corner of Rue des Mathurins and Rue de l'Arcate. Here is ein vort for dat he shall go to du Tillet or to de Kellers, in case ve shall not hafe a hundert tousant franc—for our cash shall be at de Bank.—Get dress', my anchel," he said to Esther. "You are at liberty.—An' old vomans," he went on, looking at Asie, "are more dangerous as young vomans."
"I will go and give the creditor a good laugh," said Asie, "and he will give me something for a treat to-day.—We bear no malice, Monsieur le Baron," added Saint-Esteve with a horrible courtesy.
Louchard took the bills out of the Baron's hands, and remained alone with him in the drawing-room, whither, half an hour later, the cashier came, followed by Contenson. Esther then reappeared in a bewitching, though improvised, costume. When the money had been counted by Louchard, the Baron wished to examine the bills; but Esther snatched them with a cat-like grab, and carried them away to her desk.
"What will you give the rabble?" said Contenson to Nucingen.
"You hafe not shown much consideration," said the Baron.
"And what about my leg?" cried Contenson.
"Louchard, you shall gife ein hundert francs to Contenson out of the change of the tousand-franc note."
"De lady is a beauty," said the cashier to the Baron, as they left the Rue Taitbout, "but she is costing you ver' dear, Monsieur le Baron."
"Keep my segret," said the Baron, who had said the same to Contenson and Louchard.
Louchard went away with Contenson; but on the boulevard Asie, who was looking out for him, stopped Louchard.
"The bailiff and the creditor are there in a cab," said she. "They are thirsty, and there is money going."
While Louchard counted out the cash, Contenson studied the customers. He recognized Carlos by his eyes, and traced the form of his forehead under the wig. The wig he shrewdly regarded as suspicious; he took the number of the cab while seeming quite indifferent to what was going on; Asie and Europe puzzled him beyond measure. He thought that the Baron was the victim of excessively clever sharpers, all the more so because Louchard, when securing his services, had been singularly close. And besides, the twist of Europe's foot had not struck his shin only.
"A trick like that is learned at Saint-Lazare," he had reflected as he got up.
Carlos dismissed the bailiff, paying him liberally, and as he did so, said to the driver of the cab, "To the Perron, Palais Royal."
"The rascal!" thought Contenson as he heard the order. "There is something up!" Carlos drove to the Palais Royal at a pace which precluded all fear of pursuit. He made his way in his own fashion through the arcades, took another cab on the Place du Chateau d'Eau, and bid the man go "to the Passage de l'Opera, the end of the Rue Pinon."
A quarter of a hour later he was in the Rue Taitbout. On seeing him, Esther said:
"Here are the fatal papers."
Carlos took the bills, examined them, and then burned them in the kitchen fire.
"We have done the trick," he said, showing her three hundred and ten thousand francs in a roll, which he took out of the pocket of his coat. "This, and the hundred thousand francs squeezed out by Asie, set us free to act."
"Oh God, oh God!" cried poor Esther.
"But, you idiot," said the ferocious swindler, "you have only to be ostensibly Nucingen's mistress, and you can always see Lucien; he is Nucingen's friend; I do not forbid your being madly in love with him."
Esther saw a glimmer of light in her darkened life; she breathed once more.
"Europe, my girl," said Carlos, leading the creature into a corner of the boudoir where no one could overhear a word, "Europe, I am pleased with you."
Europe held up her head, and looked at this man with an expression which so completely changed her faded features, that Asie, witnessing the interview, as she watched her from the door, wondered whether the interest by which Carlos held Europe might not perhaps be even stronger than that by which she herself was bound to him.
"That is not all, my child. Four hundred thousand francs are a mere nothing to me. Paccard will give you an account for some plate, amounting to thirty thousand francs, on which money has been paid on account; but our goldsmith, Biddin, has paid money for us. Our furniture, seized by him, will no doubt be advertised to-morrow. Go and see Biddin; he lives in the Rue de l'Arbre Sec; he will give you Mont-de-Piete tickets for ten thousand francs. You understand, Esther ordered the plate; she had not paid for it, and she put it up the spout. She will be in danger of a little summons for swindling. So we must pay the goldsmith the thirty thousand francs, and pay up ten thousand francs to the Mont-de-Piete to get the plate back. Forty-three thousand francs in all, including the costs. The silver is very much alloyed; the Baron will give her a new service, and we shall bone a few thousand francs out of that. You owe—what? two years' account with the dressmaker?"
"Put it at six thousand francs," replied Europe.
"Well, if Madame Auguste wants to be paid and keep our custom, tell her to make out a bill for thirty thousand francs over four years. Make a similar arrangement with the milliner. The jeweler, Samuel Frisch the Jew, in the Rue Saint-Avoie, will lend you some pawn-tickets; we must owe him twenty-five thousand francs, and we must want six thousand for jewels pledged at the Mont-de-Piete. We will return the trinkets to the jeweler, half the stones will be imitation, but the Baron will not examine them. In short, you will make him fork out another hundred and fifty thousand francs to add to our nest-eggs within a week."
"Madame might give me a little help," said Europe. "Tell her so, for she sits there mumchance, and obliges me to find more inventions than three authors for one piece."
"If Esther turns prudish, just let me know," said Carlos. "Nucingen must give her a carriage and horses; she will have to choose and buy everything herself. Go to the horse-dealer and the coachmaker who are employed by the job-master where Paccard finds work. We shall get handsome horses, very dear, which will go lame within a month, and we shall have to change them."
"We might get six thousand francs out of a perfumer's bill," said Europe.
"Oh!" said he, shaking his head, "we must go gently. Nucingen has only got his arm into the press; we must have his head. Besides all this, I must get five hundred thousand francs."
"You can get them," replied Europe. "Madame will soften towards the fat fool for about six hundred thousand, and insist on four hundred thousand more to love him truly!"
"Listen to me, my child," said Carlos. "The day when I get the last hundred thousand francs, there shall be twenty thousand for you."
"What good will they do me?" said Europe, letting her arms drop like a woman to whom life seems impossible.
"You could go back to Valenciennes, buy a good business, and set up as an honest woman if you chose; there are many tastes in human nature. Paccard thinks of settling sometimes; he has no encumbrances on his hands, and not much on his conscience; you might suit each other," replied Carlos.
"Go back to Valenciennes! What are you thinking of, monsieur?" cried Europe in alarm.
Europe, who was born at Valenciennes, the child of very poor parents, had been sent at seven years of age to a spinning factory, where the demands of modern industry had impaired her physical strength, just as vice had untimely depraved her. Corrupted at the age of twelve, and a mother at thirteen, she found herself bound to the most degraded of human creatures. On the occasion of a murder case, she had been as a witness before the Court. Haunted at sixteen by a remnant of rectitude, and the terror inspired by the law, her evidence led to the prisoner being sentenced to twenty years of hard labor.
The convict, one of those men who have been in the hands of justice more than once, and whose temper is apt at terrible revenge, had said to the girl in open court:
"In ten years, as sure as you live, Prudence" (Europe's name was Prudence Servien), "I will return to be the death of you, if I am scragged for it."
The President of the Court tried to reassure the girl by promising her the protection and the care of the law; but the poor child was so terror-stricken that she fell ill, and was in hospital nearly a year. Justice is an abstract being, represented by a collection of individuals who are incessantly changing, whose good intentions and memories are, like themselves, liable to many vicissitudes. Courts and tribunals can do nothing to hinder crimes; their business is to deal with them when done. From this point of view, a preventive police would be a boon to a country; but the mere word Police is in these days a bugbear to legislators, who no longer can distinguish between the three words—Government, Administration, and Law-making. The legislator tends to centralize everything in the State, as if the State could act.
The convict would be sure always to remember his victim, and to avenge himself when Justice had ceased to think of either of them.
Prudence, who instinctively appreciated the danger—in a general sense, so to speak—left Valenciennes and came to Paris at the age of seventeen to hide there. She tried four trades, of which the most successful was that of a "super" at a minor theatre. She was picked up by Paccard, and to him she told her woes. Paccard, Jacques Collin's disciple and right-hand man, spoke of this girl to his master, and when the master needed a slave he said to Prudence:
"If you will serve me as the devil must be served, I will rid you of Durut."
Durut was the convict; the Damocles' sword hung over Prudence Servien's head.
But for these details, many critics would have thought Europe's attachment somewhat grotesque. And no one could have understood the startling announcement that Carlos had ready.
"Yes, my girl, you can go back to Valenciennes. Here, read this."
And he held out to her yesterday's paper, pointing to this paragraph:
- "TOULON—Yesterday, Jean Francois Durut was executed here. Early in the morning the garrison," etc.
Prudence dropped the paper; her legs gave way under the weight of her body; she lived again; for, to use her own words, she never liked the taste of her food since the day when Durut had threatened her.
"You see, I have kept my word. It has taken four years to bring Durut to the scaffold by leading him into a snare.—Well, finish my job here, and you will find yourself at the head of a little country business in your native town, with twenty thousand francs of your own as Paccard's wife, and I will allow him to be virtuous as a form of pension."
Europe picked up the paper and read with greedy eyes all the details, of which for twenty years the papers have never been tired, as to the death of convicted criminals: the impressive scene, the chaplain—who has always converted the victim—the hardened criminal preaching to his fellow convicts, the battery of guns, the convicts on their knees; and then the twaddle and reflections which never lead to any change in the management of the prisons where eighteen hundred crimes are herded.
"We must place Asie on the staff once more," said Carlos.
Asie came forward, not understanding Europe's pantomime.
"In bringing her back here as cook, you must begin by giving the Baron such a dinner as he never ate in his life," he went on. "Tell him that Asie has lost all her money at play, and has taken service once more. We shall not need an outdoor servant. Paccard shall be coachman. Coachmen do not leave their box, where they are safe out of the way; and he will run less risk from spies. Madame must turn him out in a powdered wig and a braided felt cocked hat; that will alter his appearance. Besides, I will make him us."
"Are we going to have men-servants in the house?" asked Asie with a leer.
"All honest folks," said Carlos.
"All soft-heads," retorted the mulatto.
"If the Baron takes a house, Paccard has a friend who will suit as the lodge porter," said Carlos. "Then we shall only need a footman and a kitchen-maid, and you can surely keep an eye on two strangers——"
As Carlos was leaving, Paccard made his appearance.
"Wait a little while, there are people in the street," said the man.
This simple statement was alarming. Carlos went up to Europe's room, and stayed there till Paccard came to fetch him, having called a hackney cab that came into the courtyard. Carlos pulled down the blinds, and was driven off at a pace that defied pursuit.
Having reached the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, he got out at a short distance from a hackney coach stand, to which he went on foot, and thence returned to the Quai Malaquais, escaping all inquiry.
"Here, child," said he to Lucien, showing him four hundred banknotes for a thousand francs, "here is something on account for the purchase of the estates of Rubempre. We will risk a hundred thousand. Omnibuses have just been started; the Parisians will take to the novelty; in three months we shall have trebled our capital. I know the concern; they will pay splendid dividends taken out of the capital, to put a head on the shares—an old idea of Nucingen's revived. If we acquire the Rubempre land, we shall not have to pay on the nail.
"You must go and see des Lupeaulx, and beg him to give you a personal recommendation to a lawyer named Desroches, a cunning dog, whom you must call on at his office. Get him to go to Rubempre and see how the land lies; promise him a premium of twenty thousand francs if he manages to secure you thirty thousand francs a year by investing eight hundred thousand francs in land round the ruins of the old house."
"How you go on—on! on!"
"I am always going on. This is no time for joking.—You must then invest a hundred thousand crowns in Treasury bonds, so as to lose no interest; you may safely leave it to Desroches, he is as honest as he is knowing.—That being done, get off to Angouleme, and persuade your sister and your brother-in-law to pledge themselves to a little fib in the way of business. Your relations are to have given you six hundred thousand francs to promote your marriage with Clotilde de Grandlieu; there is no disgrace in that."
"We are saved!" cried Lucien, dazzled.
"You are, yes!" replied Carlos. "But even you are not safe till you walk out of Saint-Thomas d'Aquin with Clotilde as your wife."
"And what have you to fear?" said Lucien, apparently much concerned for his counselor.
"Some inquisitive souls are on my track—I must assume the manners of a genuine priest; it is most annoying. The Devil will cease to protect me if he sees me with a breviary under my arm."