A Distinguished Provincial at Paris/Part 2/Section 16

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Etienne and Lucien betook themselves to the Quai Saint-Michel, and found Chaboisseau in a little house with a passage entry. Chaboisseau, a bill-discounter, whose dealings were principally with the book trade, lived in a second-floor lodging furnished in the most eccentric manner. A brevet-rank banker and millionaire to boot, he had a taste for the classical style. The cornice was in the classical style; the bedstead, in the purest classical taste, dated from the time of the Empire, when such things were in fashion; the purple hangings fell over the wall like the classic draperies in the background of one of David's pictures. Chairs and tables, lamps and sconces, and every least detail had evidently been sought with patient care in furniture warehouses. There was the elegance of antiquity about the classic revival as well as its fragile and somewhat arid grace. The man himself, like his manner of life, was in grotesque contrast with the airy mythological look of his rooms; and it may be remarked that the most eccentric characters are found among men who give their whole energies to money-making.

Men of this stamp are, in a certain sense, intellectual libertines. Everything is within their reach, consequently their fancy is jaded, and they will make immense efforts to shake off their indifference. The student of human nature can always discover some hobby, some accessible weakness and sensitive spot in their heart. Chaboisseau might have entrenched himself in antiquity as in an impregnable camp.

"The man will be an antique to match, no doubt," said Etienne, smiling.

Chaboisseau, a little old person with powdered hair, wore a greenish coat and snuff-brown waistcoat; he was tricked out besides in black small-clothes, ribbed stockings, and shoes that creaked as he came forward to take the bills. After a short scrutiny, he returned them to Lucien with a serious countenance.

"MM Fendant and Cavalier are delightful young fellows; they have plenty of intelligence; but, I have no money," he said blandly.

"My friend here would be willing to meet you in the matter of discount——" Etienne began.

"I would not take the bills on any consideration," returned the little broker. The words slid down upon Lousteau's suggestion like the blade of the guillotine on a man's neck.

The two friends withdrew; but as Chaboisseau went prudently out with them across the ante-chamber, Lucien noticed a pile of second-hand books. Chaboisseau had been in the trade, and this was a recent purchase. Shining conspicuous among them, he noticed a copy of a work by the architect Ducereau, which gives exceedingly accurate plans of various royal palaces and chateaux in France.

"Could you let me have that book?" he asked.

"Yes," said Chaboisseau, transformed into a bookseller.

"How much?"

"Fifty francs."

"It is dear, but I want it. And I can only pay you with one of the bills which you refuse to take."

"You have a bill there for five hundred francs at six months; I will take that one of you," said Chaboisseau.

Apparently at the last statement of accounts, there had been a balance of five hundred francs in favor of Fendant and Cavalier.

They went back to the classical department. Chaboisseau made out a little memorandum, interest so much and commission so much, total deduction thirty francs, then he subtracted fifty francs for Ducerceau's book; finally, from a cash-box full of coin, he took four hundred and twenty francs.

"Look here, though, M. Chaboisseau, the bills are either all of them good, or all bad alike; why don't you take the rest?"

"This is not discounting; I am paying myself for a sale," said the old man.

Etienne and Lucien were still laughing at Chaboisseau, without understanding him, when they reached Dauriat's shop, and Etienne asked Gabusson to give them the name of a bill-broker. Gabusson thus appealed to gave them a letter of introduction to a broker in the Boulevard Poissonniere, telling them at the same time that this was the "oddest and queerest party" (to use his own expression) that he, Gabusson, had come across. The friends took a cab by the hour, and went to the address.

"If Samanon won't take your bills," Gabusson had said, "nobody else will look at them."

A second-hand bookseller on the ground floor, a second-hand clothes-dealer on the first story, and a seller of indecent prints on the second, Samanon carried on a fourth business—he was a money-lender into the bargain. No character in Hoffmann's romances, no sinister-brooding miser of Scott's, can compare with this freak of human and Parisian nature (always admitting that Samanon was human). In spite of himself, Lucien shuddered at the sight of the dried-up little old creature, whose bones seemed to be cutting a leather skin, spotted with all sorts of little green and yellow patches, like a portrait by Titian or Veronese when you look at it closely. One of Samanon's eyes was fixed and glassy, the other lively and bright; he seemed to keep that dead eye for the bill-discounting part of his profession, and the other for the trade in the pornographic curiosities upstairs. A few stray white hairs escaping from under a small, sleek, rusty black wig, stood erect above a sallow forehead with a suggestion of menace about it; a hollow trench in either cheek defined the outline of the jaws; while a set of projecting teeth, still white, seemed to stretch the skin of the lips with the effect of an equine yawn. The contrast between the ill-assorted eyes and grinning mouth gave Samanon a passably ferocious air; and the very bristles on the man's chin looked stiff and sharp as pins.

Nor was there the slightest sign about him of any desire to redeem a sinister appearance by attention to the toilet; his threadbare jacket was all but dropping to pieces; a cravat, which had once been black, was frayed by contact with a stubble chin, and left on exhibition a throat as wrinkled as a turkey-gobbler's.

This was the individual whom Etienne and Lucien discovered in his filthy counting-house, busily affixing tickets to the backs of a parcel of books from a recent sale. In a glance, the friends exchanged the innumerable questions raised by the existence of such a creature; then they presented Gabusson's introduction and Fendant and Cavalier's bills. Samanon was still reading the note when a third comer entered, the wearer of a short jacket, which seemed in the dimly-lighted shop to be cut out of a piece of zinc roofing, so solid was it by reason of alloy with all kinds of foreign matter. Oddly attired as he was, the man was an artist of no small intellectual power, and ten years later he was destined to assist in the inauguration of the great but ill-founded Saint-Simonian system.

"I want my coat, my black trousers, and satin waistcoat," said this person, pressing a numbered ticket on Samanon's attention. Samanon touched the brass button of a bell-pull, and a woman came down from some upper region, a Normande apparently, to judge by her rich, fresh complexion.

"Let the gentleman have his clothes," said Samanon, holding out a hand to the newcomer. "It's a pleasure to do business with you, sir; but that youngster whom one of your friends introduced to me took me in most abominably."

"Took him in!" chuckled the newcomer, pointing out Samanon to the two journalists with an extremely comical gesture. The great man dropped thirty sous into the money-lender's yellow, wrinkled hand; like the Neapolitan lazzaroni, he was taking his best clothes out of pawn for a state occasion. The coins dropped jingling into the till.

"What queer business are you up to?" asked Lousteau of the artist, an opium-eater who dwelt among visions of enchanted palaces till he either could not or would not create.

"He lends you a good deal more than an ordinary pawnbroker on anything you pledge; and, besides, he is so awfully charitable, he allows you to take your clothes out when you must have something to wear. I am going to dine with the Kellers and my mistress to-night," he continued; "and to me it is easier to find thirty sous than two hundred francs, so I keep my wardrobe here. It has brought the charitable usurer a hundred francs in the last six months. Samanon has devoured my library already, volume by volume" (livre a livre).

"And sou by sou," Lousteau said with a laugh.

"I will let you have fifteen hundred francs," said Samanon, looking up.

Lucien started, as if the bill-broker had thrust a red-hot skewer through his heart. Samanon was subjecting the bills and their dates to a close scrutiny.

"And even then," he added, "I must see Fendant first. He ought to deposit some books with me. You aren't worth much" (turning to Lucien); "you are living with Coralie, and your furniture has been attached."

Lousteau, watching Lucien, saw him take up his bills, and dash out into the street. "He is the devil himself!" exclaimed the poet. For several seconds he stood outside gazing at the shop front. The whole place was so pitiful, that a passer-by could not see it without smiling at the sight, and wondering what kind of business a man could do among those mean, dirty shelves of ticketed books.

A very few moments later, the great man, in incognito, came out, very well dressed, smiled at his friends, and turned to go with them in the direction of the Passage des Panoramas, where he meant to complete his toilet by the polishing of his boots.

"If you see Samanon in a bookseller's shop, or calling on a paper-merchant or a printer, you may know that it is all over with that man," said the artist. "Samanon is the undertaker come to take the measurements for a coffin."

"You won't discount your bills now, Lucien," said Etienne.

"If Samanon will not take them, nobody else will; he is the ultima ratio," said the stranger. "He is one of Gigonnet's lambs, a spy for Palma, Werbrust, Gobseck, and the rest of those crocodiles who swim in the Paris money-market. Every man with a fortune to make, or unmake, is sure to come across one of them sooner or later."

"If you cannot discount your bills at fifty per cent," remarked Lousteau, "you must exchange them for hard cash."

"How?"

"Give them to Coralie; Camusot will cash them for her.—You are disgusted," added Lousteau, as Lucien cut him short with a start. "What nonsense! How can you allow such a silly scruple to turn the scale, when your future is in the balance?"

"I shall take this money to Coralie in any case," began Lucien.

"Here is more folly!" cried Lousteau. "You will not keep your creditors quiet with four hundred francs when you must have four thousand. Let us keep a little and get drunk on it, if we lose the rest at rouge et noir."

"That is sound advice," said the great man.

Those words, spoken not four paces from Frascati's, were magnetic in their effect. The friends dismissed their cab and went up to the gaming-table.

At the outset they won three thousand francs, then they lost and fell to five hundred; again they won three thousand seven hundred francs, and again they lost all but a five-franc piece. After another turn of luck they staked two thousand francs on an even number to double the stake at a stroke; an even number had not turned up for five times in succession, and this was the sixth time. They punted the whole sum, and an odd number turned up once more.

After two hours of all-absorbing, frenzied excitement, the two dashed down the staircase with the hundred francs kept back for the dinner. Upon the steps, between two pillars which support the little sheet-iron veranda to which so many eyes have been upturned in longing or despair, Lousteau stopped and looked into Lucien's flushed, excited face.

"Let us just try fifty francs," he said.

And up the stairs again they went. An hour later they owned a thousand crowns. Black had turned up for the fifth consecutive time; they trusted that their previous luck would not repeat itself, and put the whole sum on the red—black turned up for the sixth time. They had lost. It was now six o'clock.

"Let us just try twenty-five francs," said Lucien.

The new venture was soon made—and lost. The twenty-five francs went in five stakes. Then Lucien, in a frenzy, flung down his last twenty-five francs on the number of his age, and won. No words can describe how his hands trembled as he raked in the coins which the bank paid him one by one. He handed ten louis to Lousteau.

"Fly!" he cried; "take it to Very's."

Lousteau took the hint and went to order dinner. Lucien, left alone, laid his thirty louis on the red and won. Emboldened by the inner voice which a gambler always hears, he staked the whole again on the red, and again he won. He felt as if there were a furnace within him. Without heeding the voice, he laid a hundred and twenty louis on the black and lost. Then to the torturing excitement of suspense succeeded the delicious feeling of relief known to the gambler who has nothing left to lose, and must perforce leave the palace of fire in which his dreams melt and vanish.

He found Lousteau at Very's, and flung himself upon the cookery (to make use of Lafontaine's expression), and drowned his cares in wine. By nine o'clock his ideas were so confused that he could not imagine why the portress in the Rue de Vendome persisted in sending him to the Rue de la Lune.

"Mlle. Coralie has gone," said the woman. "She has taken lodgings elsewhere. She left her address with me on this scrap of paper."

Lucien was too far gone to be surprised at anything. He went back to the cab which had brought him, and was driven to the Rue de la Lune, making puns to himself on the name of the street as he went.

The news of the failure of the Panorama-Dramatique had come like a thunder-clap. Coralie, taking alarm, made haste to sell her furniture (with the consent of her creditors) to little old Cardot, who installed Florentine in the rooms at once. The tradition of the house remained unbroken. Coralie paid her creditors and satisfied the landlord, proceeding with her "washing-day," as she called it, while Berenice bought the absolutely indispensable necessaries to furnish a fourth-floor lodging in the Rue de la Lune, a few doors from the Gymnase. Here Coralie was waiting for Lucien's return. She had brought her love unsullied out of the shipwreck and twelve hundred francs.

Lucien, more than half intoxicated, poured out his woes to Coralie and Berenice.

"You did quite right, my angel," said Coralie, with her arms about his neck. "Berenice can easily negotiate your bills with Braulard."

The next morning Lucien awoke to an enchanted world of happiness made about him by Coralie. She was more loving and tender in those days than she had ever been; perhaps she thought that the wealth of love in her heart should make him amends for the poverty of their lodging. She looked bewitchingly charming, with the loose hair straying from under the crushed white silk handkerchief about her head; there was soft laughter in her eyes; her words were as bright as the first rays of sunrise that shone in through the windows, pouring a flood of gold upon such charming poverty.

Not that the room was squalid. The walls were covered with a sea-green paper, bordered with red; there was one mirror over the chimney-piece, and a second above the chest of drawers. The bare boards were covered with a cheap carpet, which Berenice had bought in spite of Coralie's orders, and paid for out of her own little store. A wardrobe, with a glass door and a chest, held the lovers' clothing, the mahogany chairs were covered with blue cotton stuff, and Berenice had managed to save a clock and a couple of china vases from the catastrophe, as well as four spoons and forks and half-a-dozen little spoons. The bedroom was entered from the dining-room, which might have belonged to a clerk with an income of twelve hundred francs. The kitchen was next the landing, and Berenice slept above in an attic. The rent was not more than a hundred crowns.

The dismal house boasted a sham carriage entrance, the porter's box being contrived behind one of the useless leaves of the gate, and lighted by a peephole through which that personage watched the comings and goings of seventeen families, for this hive was a "good-paying property," in auctioneer's phrase.

Lucien, looking round the room, discovered a desk, an easy-chair, paper, pens, and ink. The sight of Berenice in high spirits (she was building hopes on Coralie's debut at the Gymnase), and of Coralie herself conning her part with a knot of blue ribbon tied about it, drove all cares and anxieties from the sobered poet's mind.

"So long as nobody in society hears of this sudden comedown, we shall pull through," he said. "After all, we have four thousand five hundred francs before us. I will turn my new position in Royalist journalism to account. To-morrow we shall start the Reveil; I am an old hand now, and I will make something out."

And Coralie, seeing nothing but love in the words, kissed the lips that uttered them. By this time Berenice had set the table near the fire and served a modest breakfast of scrambled eggs, a couple of cutlets, coffee, and cream. Just then there came a knock at the door, and Lucien, to his astonishment, beheld three of his loyal friends of old days—d'Arthez, Leon Giraud, and Michel Chrestien. He was deeply touched, and asked them to share the breakfast.

"No; we have come on more serious business than condolence," said d'Arthez; "we know the whole story, we have just come from the Rue de Vendome. You know my opinions, Lucien. Under any other circumstances I should be glad to hear that you had adopted my political convictions; but situated as you are with regard to the Liberal Press, it is impossible for you to go over to the Ultras. Your life will be sullied, your character blighted for ever. We have come to entreat you in the name of our friendship, weakened though it may be, not to soil yourself in this way. You have been prominent in attacking the Romantics, the Right, and the Government; you cannot now declare for the Government; the Right, and the Romantics."

"My reasons for the change are based on lofty grounds; the end will justify the means," said Lucien.

"Perhaps you do not fully comprehend our position on the side of the Government," said Leon Giraud. "The Government, the Court, the Bourbons, the Absolutist Party, or to sum up in the general expression, the whole system opposed to the constitutional system, may be divided upon the question of the best means of extinguishing the Revolution, but is unanimous as to the advisability of extinguishing the newspapers. The Reveil, the Foudre, and the Drapeau Blanc have all been founded for the express purpose of replying to the slander, gibes, and railing of the Liberal press. I cannot approve them, for it is precisely this failure to recognize the grandeur of our priesthood that has led us to bring out a serious and self-respecting paper; which perhaps," he added parenthetically, "may exercise a worthy influence before very long, and win respect, and carry weight; but this Royalist artillery is destined for a first attempt at reprisals, the Liberals are to be paid back in their own coin—shaft for shaft, wound for wound.

"What can come of it Lucien? The majority of newspaper readers incline for the Left; and in the press, as in warfare, the victory is with the big battalions. You will be blackguards, liars, enemies of the people; the other side will be defenders of their country, martyrs, men to be held in honor, though they may be even more hypocritical and slippery than their opponents. In these ways the pernicious influence of the press will be increased, while the most odious form of journalism will receive sanction. Insult and personalities will become a recognized privilege of the press; newspapers have taken this tone in the subscribers' interests; and when both sides have recourse to the same weapons, the standard is set and the general tone of journalism taken for granted. When the evil is developed to its fullest extent, restrictive laws will be followed by prohibitions; there will be a return of the censorship of the press imposed after the assassination of the Duc de Berri, and repealed since the opening of the Chambers. And do you know what the nation will conclude from the debate? The people will believe the insinuations of the Liberal press; they will think that the Bourbons mean to attack the rights of property acquired by the Revolution, and some fine day they will rise and shake off the Bourbons. You are not only soiling your life, Lucien, you are going over to the losing side. You are too young, too lately a journalist, too little initiated into the secret springs of motive and the tricks of the craft, you have aroused too much jealousy, not to fall a victim to the general hue and cry that will be raised against you in the Liberal newspapers. You will be drawn into the fray by party spirit now still at fever-heat; though the fever, which spent itself in violence in 1815 and 1816, now appears in debates in the Chamber and polemics in the papers."

"I am not quite a featherhead, my friends," said Lucien, "though you may choose to see a poet in me. Whatever may happen, I shall gain one solid advantage which no Liberal victory can give me. By the time your victory is won, I shall have gained my end."

"We will cut off—your hair," said Michel Chrestien, with a laugh.

"I shall have my children by that time," said Lucien; "and if you cut off my head, it will not matter."

The three could make nothing of Lucien. Intercourse with the great world had developed in him the pride of caste, the vanities of the aristocrat. The poet thought, and not without reason, that there was a fortune in his good looks and intellect, accompanied by the name and title of Rubempre. Mme. d'Espard and Mme. de Bargeton held him fast by this clue, as a child holds a cockchafer by a string. Lucien's flight was circumscribed. The words, "He is one of us, he is sound," accidentally overheard but three days ago in Mlle. de Touches' salon, had turned his head. The Duc de Lenoncourt, the Duc de Navarreins, the Duc de Grandlieu, Rastignac, Blondet, the lovely Duchesse de Maufrigneuse, the Comte d'Escrignon, and des Lupeaulx, all the most influential people at Court in fact, had congratulated him on his conversion, and completed his intoxication.

"Then there is no more to be said," d'Arthez rejoined. "You, of all men, will find it hard to keep clean hands and self-respect. I know you, Lucien; you will feel it acutely when you are despised by the very men to whom you offer yourself."

The three took leave, and not one of them gave him a friendly handshake. Lucien was thoughtful and sad for a few minutes.

"Oh! never mind those ninnies," cried Coralie, springing upon his knee and putting her beautiful arms about his neck. "They take life seriously, and life is a joke. Besides, you are going to be Count Lucien de Rubempre. I will wheedle the Chancellerie if there is no other way. I know how to come round that rake of a des Lupeaulx, who will sign your patent. Did I not tell you, Lucien, that at the last you should have Coralie's dead body for a stepping stone?"