Cousin Pons/Section 2
At the time of their first meeting, Pons had just received that marshal's baton of the unknown musical composer—an appointment as conductor of an orchestra. It had come to him unasked, by a favor of Count Popinot, a bourgeois hero of July, at that time a member of the Government. Count Popinot had the license of a theatre in his gift, and Count Popinot had also an old acquaintance of the kind that the successful man blushes to meet. As he rolls through the streets of Paris in his carriage, it is not pleasant to see his boyhood's chum down at heel, with a coat of many improbable colors and trousers innocent of straps, and a head full of soaring speculations on too grand a scale to tempt shy, easily scared capital. Moreover, this friend of his youth, Gaudissart by name, had done not a little in the past towards founding the fortunes of the great house of Popinot. Popinot, now a Count and a peer of France, after twice holding a portfolio had no wish to shake off "the Illustrious Gaudissart." Quite otherwise. The pomps and vanities of the Court of the Citizen-King had not spoiled the sometime druggist's kind heart; he wished to put his ex-commercial traveler in the way of renewing his wardrobe and replenishing his purse. So when Gaudissart, always an enthusiastic admirer of the fair sex, applied for the license of a bankrupt theatre, Popinot granted it on condition that Pons (a parasite of the Hotel Popinot) should be engaged as conductor of the orchestra; and at the same time, the Count was careful to send certain elderly amateurs of beauty to the theatre, so that the new manager might be strongly supported financially by wealthy admirers of feminine charms revealed by the costume of the ballet.
Gaudissart and Company, who, be it said, made their fortune, hit upon the grand idea of operas for the people, and carried it out in a boulevard theatre in 1834. A tolerable conductor, who could adapt or even compose a little music upon occasion, was a necessity for ballets and pantomimes; but the last management had so long been bankrupt, that they could not afford to keep a transposer and copyist. Pons therefore introduced Schmucke to the company as copier of music, a humble calling which requires no small musical knowledge; and Schmucke, acting on Pons' advice, came to an understanding with the chef-de-service at the Opera-Comique, so saving himself the clerical drudgery.
The partnership between Pons and Schmucke produced one brilliant result. Schmucke being a German, harmony was his strong point; he looked over the instrumentation of Pons' compositions, and Pons provided the airs. Here and there an amateur among the audience admired the new pieces of music which served as accompaniment to two or three great successes, but they attributed the improvement vaguely to "progress." No one cared to know the composer's name; like occupants of the baignoires, lost to view of the house, to gain a view of the stage, Pons and Schmucke eclipsed themselves by their success. In Paris (especially since the Revolution of July) no one can hope to succeed unless he will push his way quibuscumque viis and with all his might through a formidable host of competitors; but for this feat a man needs thews and sinews, and our two friends, be it remembered, had that affection of the heart which cripples all ambitious effort.
Pons, as a rule, only went to his theatre towards eight o'clock, when the piece in favor came on, and overtures and accompaniments needed the strict ruling of the baton; most minor theatres are lax in such matters, and Pons felt the more at ease because he himself had been by no means grasping in all his dealings with the management; and Schmucke, if need be, could take his place. Time went by, and Schmucke became an institution in the orchestra; the Illustrious Gaudissart said nothing, but he was well aware of the value of Pons' collaborator. He was obliged to include a pianoforte in the orchestra (following the example of the leading theatres); the instrument was placed beside the conductor's chair, and Schmucke played without increase of salary—a volunteer supernumerary. As Schmucke's character, his utter lack of ambition or pretence became known, the orchestra recognized him as one of themselves; and as time went on, he was intrusted with the often needed miscellaneous musical instruments which form no part of the regular band of a boulevard theatre. For a very small addition to his stipend, Schmucke played the viola d'amore, hautboy, violoncello, and harp, as well as the piano, the castanets for the cachucha, the bells, saxhorn, and the like. If the Germans cannot draw harmony from the mighty instruments of Liberty, yet to play all instruments of music comes to them by nature.
The two old artists were exceedingly popular at the theatre, and took its ways philosophically. They had put, as it were, scales over their eyes, lest they should see the offences that needs must come when a corps de ballet is blended with actors and actresses, one of the most trying combinations ever created by the laws of supply and demand for the torment of managers, authors, and composers alike.
Every one esteemed Pons with his kindness and his modesty, his great self-respect and respect for others; for a pure and limpid life wins something like admiration from the worst nature in every social sphere, and in Paris a fair virtue meets with something of the success of a large diamond, so great a rarity it is. No actor, no dancer however brazen, would have indulged in the mildest practical joke at the expense of either Pons or Schmucke.
Pons very occasionally put in an appearance in the foyer; but all that Schmucke knew of the theatre was the underground passage from the street door to the orchestra. Sometimes, however, during an interval, the good German would venture to make a survey of the house and ask a few questions of the first flute, a young fellow from Strasbourg, who came of a German family at Kehl. Gradually under the flute's tuition Schmucke's childlike imagination acquired a certain amount of knowledge of the world; he could believe in the existence of that fabulous creature the lorette, the possibility of "marriages at the Thirteenth Arrondissement," the vagaries of the leading lady, and the contraband traffic carried on by box-openers. In his eyes the more harmless forms of vice were the lowest depths of Babylonish iniquity; he did not believe the stories, he smiled at them for grotesque inventions. The ingenious reader can see that Pons and Schmucke were exploited, to use a word much in fashion; but what they lost in money they gained in consideration and kindly treatment.
It was after the success of the ballet with which a run of success began for the Gaudissart Company that the management presented Pons with a piece of plate—a group of figures attributed to Benvenuto Cellini. The alarming costliness of the gift caused talk in the green-room. It was a matter of twelve hundred francs! Pons, poor honest soul, was for returning the present, and Gaudissart had a world of trouble to persuade him to keep it.
"Ah!" said the manager afterwards, when he told his partner of the interview, "if we could only find actors up to that sample."
In their joint life, outwardly so quiet, there was the one disturbing element—the weakness to which Pons sacrificed, the insatiable craving to dine out. Whenever Schmucke happened to be at home while Pons was dressing for the evening, the good German would bewail this deplorable habit.
"Gif only he vas ony fatter vor it!" he many a time cried.
And Schmucke would dream of curing his friend of his degrading vice, for a true friend's instinct in all that belongs to the inner life is unerring as a dog's sense of smell; a friend knows by intuition the trouble in his friend's soul, and guesses at the cause and ponders it in his heart.
Pons, who always wore a diamond ring on the little finger of his right hand, an ornament permitted in the time of the Empire, but ridiculous to-day—Pons, who belonged to the "troubadour time," the sentimental periods of the first Empire, was too much a child of his age, too much of a Frenchman to wear the expression of divine serenity which softened Schmucke's hideous ugliness. From Pons' melancholy looks Schmucke knew that the profession of parasite was growing daily more difficult and painful. And, in fact, in that month of October 1844, the number of houses at which Pons dined was naturally much restricted; reduced to move round and round the family circle, he had used the word family in far too wide a sense, as will shortly be seen.
M. Camusot, the rich silk mercer of the Rue des Bourdonnais, had married Pons' first cousin, Mlle. Pons, only child and heiress of one of the well-known firm of Pons Brothers, court embroiderers. Pons' own father and mother retired from a firm founded before the Revolution of 1789, leaving their capital in the business until Mlle. Pons' father sold it in 1815 to M. Rivet. M. Camusot had since lost his wife and married again, and retired from business some ten years, and now in 1844 he was a member of the Board of Trade, a deputy, and what not. But the Camusot clan were friendly; and Pons, good man, still considered that he was some kind of cousin to the children of the second marriage, who were not relations, or even connected with him in any way.
The second Mme. Camusot being a Mlle. Cardot, Pons introduced himself as a relative into the tolerably numerous Cardot family, a second bourgeois tribe which, taken with its connections, formed quite as strong a clan as the Camusots; for Cardot the notary (brother of the second Mme. Camusot) had married a Mlle. Chiffreville; and the well-known family of Chiffreville, the leading firm of manufacturing chemists, was closely connected with the whole drug trade, of which M. Anselme Popinot was for many years the undisputed head, until the Revolution of July plunged him into the very centre of the dynastic movement, as everybody knows. So Pons, in the wake of the Camusots and Cardots, reached the Chiffrevilles, and thence the Popinots, always in the character of a cousin's cousin.
The above concise statement of Pons' relations with his entertainers explains how it came to pass that an old musician was received in 1844 as one of the family in the houses of four distinguished persons—to wit, M. le Comte Popinot, peer of France, and twice in office; M. Cardot, retired notary, mayor and deputy of an arrondissement in Paris; M. Camusot senior, a member of the Board of Trade and the Municipal Chamber and a peerage; and lastly, M. Camusot de Marville, Camusot's son by his first marriage, and Pons' one genuine relation, albeit even he was a first cousin once removed.
This Camusot, President of a Chamber of the Court of Appeal in Paris, had taken the name of his estate at Marville to distinguish himself from his father and a younger half brother.
Cardot the retired notary had married his daughter to his successor, whose name was Berthier; and Pons, transferred as part of the connection, acquired a right to dine with the Berthiers "in the presence of a notary," as he put it.
This was the bourgeois empyrean which Pons called his "family," that upper world in which he so painfully reserved his right to a knife and fork.
Of all these houses, some ten in all, the one in which Pons ought to have met with the kindest reception should by rights have been his own cousin's; and, indeed, he paid most attention to President Camusot's family. But, alas! Mme. Camusot de Marville, daughter of the Sieur Thirion, usher of the cabinet to Louis XVIII. and Charles X., had never taken very kindly to her husband's first cousin, once removed. Pons had tried to soften this formidable relative; he wasted his time; for in spite of the pianoforte lessons which he gave gratuitously to Mlle. Camusot, a young woman with hair somewhat inclined to red, it was impossible to make a musician of her.
And now, at this very moment, as he walked with that precious object in his hand, Pons was bound for the President's house, where he always felt as if he were at the Tuileries itself, so heavily did the solemn green curtains, the carmelite-brown hangings, thick piled carpets, heavy furniture, and general atmosphere of magisterial severity oppress his soul. Strange as it may seem, he felt more at home in the Hotel Popinot, Rue Basse-du-Rempart, probably because it was full of works of art; for the master of the house, since he entered public life, had acquired a mania for collecting beautiful things, by way of contrast no doubt, for a politician is obliged to pay for secret services of the ugliest kind.
President de Marville lived in the Rue de Hanovre, in a house which his wife had bought ten years previously, on the death of her parents, for the Sieur and Dame Thirion left their daughter about a hundred and fifty thousand francs, the savings of a lifetime. With its north aspect, the house looks gloomy enough seen from the street, but the back looks towards the south over the courtyard, with a rather pretty garden beyond it. As the President occupied the whole of the first floor, once the abode of a great financier of the time of Louis XIV., and the second was let to a wealthy old lady, the house wore a look of dignified repose befitting a magistrate's residence. President Camusot had invested all that he inherited from his mother, together with the savings of twenty years, in the purchase of the splendid Marville estate; a chateau (as fine a relic of the past as you will find to-day in Normandy) standing in a hundred acres of park land, and a fine dependent farm, nominally bringing in twelve thousand francs per annum, though, as it cost the President at least a thousand crowns to keep up a state almost princely in our days, his yearly revenue, "all told," as the saying is, was a bare nine thousand francs. With this and his salary, the President's income amounted to about twenty thousand francs; but though to all appearance a wealthy man, especially as one-half of his father's property would one day revert to him as the only child of the first marriage, he was obliged to live in Paris as befitted his official position, and M. and Mme. de Marville spent almost the whole of their incomes. Indeed, before the year 1834 they felt pinched.
This family schedule sufficiently explains why Mlle. de Marville, aged three-and-twenty, was still unwed, in spite of a hundred thousand francs of dowry and tempting prospects, frequently, skilfully, but so far vainly, held out. For the past five years Pons had listened to Mme. la Presidente's lamentations as she beheld one young lawyer after another led to the altar, while all the newly appointed judges at the Tribunal were fathers of families already; and she, all this time, had displayed Mlle. de Marville's brilliant expectations before the undazzled eyes of young Vicomte Popinot, eldest son of the great man of the drug trade, he of whom it was said by the envious tongues of the neighborhood of the Rue des Lombards, that the Revolution of July had been brought about at least as much for his particular benefit as for the sake of the Orleans branch.
Arrived at the corner of the Rue de Choiseul and the Rue de Hanovre, Pons suffered from the inexplicable emotions which torment clear consciences; for a panic terror such as the worst of scoundrels might feel at sight of a policeman, an agony caused solely by a doubt as to Mme. de Marville's probable reception of him. That grain of sand, grating continually on the fibres of his heart, so far from losing its angles, grew more and more jagged, and the family in the Rue de Hanovre always sharpened the edges. Indeed, their unceremonious treatment and Pons' depreciation in value among them had affected the servants; and while they did not exactly fail in respect, they looked on the poor relation as a kind of beggar.
Pons' arch-enemy in the house was the ladies'-maid, a thin and wizened spinster, Madeleine Vivet by name. This Madeleine, in spite of, nay, perhaps on the strength of, a pimpled complexion and a viper-like length of spine, had made up her mind that some day she would be Mme. Pons. But in vain she dangled twenty thousand francs of savings before the old bachelor's eyes; Pons had declined happiness accompanied by so many pimples. From that time forth the Dido of the ante-chamber, who fain had called her master and mistress "cousin," wreaked her spite in petty ways upon the poor musician. She heard him on the stairs, and cried audibly, "Oh! here comes the sponger!" She stinted him of wine when she waited at dinner in the footman's absence; she filled the water-glass to the brim, to give him the difficult task of lifting it without spilling a drop; or she would pass the old man over altogether, till the mistress of the house would remind her (and in what a tone!—it brought the color to the poor cousin's face); or she would spill the gravy over his clothes. In short, she waged petty war after the manner of a petty nature, knowing that she could annoy an unfortunate superior with impunity.
Madeleine Vivet was Mme. de Marville's maid and housekeeper. She had lived with M. and Mme. Camusot de Marville since their marriage; she had shared the early struggles in the provinces when M. Camusot was a judge at Alencon; she had helped them to exist when M. Camusot, President of the Tribunal of Mantes, came to Paris, in 1828, to be an examining magistrate. She was, therefore, too much one of the family not to wish, for reasons of her own, to revenge herself upon them. Beneath her desire to pay a trick upon her haughty and ambitious mistress, and to call her master her cousin, there surely lurked a long-stifled hatred, built up like an avalanche, upon the pebble of some past grievance.
"Here comes your M. Pons, madame, still wearing that spencer of his!" Madeleine came to tell the Presidente. "He really might tell me how he manages to make it look the same for five-and-twenty years together."
Mme. Camusot de Marville, hearing a man's footstep in the little drawing-room between the large drawing-room and her bedroom, looked at her daughter and shrugged her shoulders.
"You always make these announcements so cleverly that you leave me no time to think, Madeleine."
"Jean is out, madame, I was all alone; M. Pons rang the bell, I opened the door; and as he is almost one of the family, I could not prevent him from coming after me. There he is, taking off his spencer."
"Poor little puss!" said the Presidente, addressing her daughter, "we are caught. We shall have to dine at home now.—Let us see," she added, seeing that the "dear puss" wore a piteous face; "must we get rid of him for good?"
"Oh! poor man!" cried Mlle. Camusot, "deprive him of one of his dinners?"
Somebody coughed significantly in the next room by way of warning that he could hear.
"Very well, let him come in!" said Mme. Camusot, looking at Madeleine with another shrug.
"You are here so early, cousin, that you have come in upon us just as mother was about to dress," said Cecile Camusot in a coaxing tone. But Cousin Pons had caught sight of the Presidente's shrug, and felt so cruelly hurt that he could not find a compliment, and contented himself with the profound remark, "You are always charming, my little cousin."
Then, turning to the mother, he continued with a bow:
"You will not take it amiss, I think, if I have come a little earlier than usual, dear cousin; I have brought something for you; you once did me the pleasure of asking me for it."
Poor Pons! Every time he addressed the President, the President's wife, or Cecile as "cousin," he gave them excruciating annoyance. As he spoke, he draw a long, narrow cherry-wood box, marvelously carved, from his coat-pocket.
"Oh, did I?—I had forgotten," the lady answered drily.
It was a heartless speech, was it not? Did not those few words deny all merit to the pains taken for her by the cousin whose one offence lay in the fact that he was a poor relation?
"But it is very kind of you, cousin," she added. "How much to I owe you for this little trifle?"
Pons quivered inwardly at the question. He had meant the trinket as a return for his dinners.
"I thought that you would permit me to offer it you——" he faltered out.
"What?" said Mme. Camusot. "Oh! but there need be no ceremony between us; we know each other well enough to wash our linen among ourselves. I know very well that you are not rich enough to give more than you get. And to go no further, it is quite enough that you should have spent a good deal of time in running among the dealers—"
"If you were asked to pay the full price of the fan, my dear cousin, you would not care to have it," answered poor Pons, hurt and insulted; "it is one of Watteau's masterpieces, painted on both sides; but you may be quite easy, cousin, I did not give one-hundredth part of its value as a work of art."
To tell a rich man that he is poor! you might as well tell the Archbishop of Granada that his homilies show signs of senility. Mme. la Presidente, proud of her husband's position, of the estate of Marville, and her invitations to court balls, was keenly susceptible on this point; and what was worse, the remark came from a poverty-stricken musician to whom she had been charitable.
"Then the people of whom you buy things of this kind are very stupid, are they?" she asked quickly.
"Stupid dealers are unknown in Paris," Pons answered almost drily.
"Then you must be very clever," put in Cecile by way of calming the dispute.
"Clever enough to know a Lancret, a Watteau, a Pater, or Greuze when I see it, little cousin; but anxious, most of all, to please your dear mamma."
Mme. de Marville, ignorant and vain, was unwilling to appear to receive the slightest trifle from the parasite; and here her ignorance served her admirably, she did not even know the name of Watteau. And, on the other hand, if anything can measure the extent of the collector's passion, which, in truth, is one of the most deeply seated of all passions, rivaling the very vanity of the author—if anything can give an idea of the lengths to which a collector will go, it is the audacity which Pons displayed on this occasion, as he held his own against his lady cousin for the first time in twenty years. He was amazed at his own boldness. He made Cecile see the beauties of the delicate carving on the sticks of this wonder, and as he talked to her his face grew serene and gentle again. But without some sketch of the Presidente, it is impossible fully to understand the perturbation of heart from which Pons suffered.
Mme. de Marville had been short and fair, plump and fresh; at forty-six she was as short as ever, but she looked dried up. An arched forehead and thin lips, that had been softly colored once, lent a soured look to a face naturally disdainful, and now grown hard and unpleasant with a long course of absolute domestic rule. Time had deepened her fair hair to a harsh chestnut hue; the pride of office, intensified by suppressed envy, looked out of eyes that had lost none of their brightness nor their satirical expression. As a matter of fact, Mme. Camusot de Marville felt almost poor in the society of self-made wealthy bourgeois with whom Pons dined. She could not forgive the rich retail druggist, ex-president of the Commercial Court, for his successive elevations as deputy, member of the Government, count and peer of France. She could not forgive her father-in-law for putting himself forward instead of his eldest son as deputy of his arrondissement after Popinot's promotion to the peerage. After eighteen years of services in Paris, she was still waiting for the post of Councillor of the Court of Cassation for her husband. It was Camusot's own incompetence, well known at the Law Courts, which excluded him from the Council. The Home Secretary of 1844 even regretted Camusot's nomination to the presidency of the Court of Indictments in 1834, though, thanks to his past experience as an examining magistrate, he made himself useful in drafting decrees.
These disappointments had told upon Mme. de Marville, who, moreover, had formed a tolerably correct estimate of her husband. A temper naturally shrewish was soured till she grew positively terrible. She was not old, but she had aged; she deliberately set herself to extort by fear all that the world was inclined to refuse her, and was harsh and rasping as a file. Caustic to excess she had few friends among women; she surrounded herself with prim, elderly matrons of her own stamp, who lent each other mutual support, and people stood in awe of her. As for poor Pons, his relations with this fiend in petticoats were very much those of a schoolboy with the master whose one idea of communication is the ferule.
The Presidente had no idea of the value of the gift. She was puzzled by her cousin's sudden access of audacity.
"Then, where did you find this?" inquired Cecile, as she looked closely at the trinket.
"In the Rue de Lappe. A dealer in second-hand furniture there had just brought it back with him from a chateau that is being pulled down near Dreux, Aulnay. Mme. de Pompadour used to spend part of her time there before she built Menars. Some of the most splendid wood-carving ever known has been saved from destruction; Lienard (our most famous living wood-carver) had kept a couple of oval frames for models, as the ne plus ultra of the art, so fine it is.—There were treasures in that place. My man found the fan in the drawer of an inlaid what-not, which I should certainly have bought if I were collecting things of the kind, but it is quite out of the question—a single piece of Riesener's furniture is worth three or four thousand francs! People here in Paris are just beginning to find out that the famous French and German marquetry workers of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries composed perfect pictures in wood. It is a collector's business to be ahead of the fashion. Why, in five years' time, the Frankenthal ware, which I have been collecting these twenty years, will fetch twice the price of Sevres pata tendre."
"What is Frankenthal ware?" asked Cecile.
"That is the name of the porcelain made by the Elector of the Palatinate; it dates further back than our manufactory at Sevres; just as the famous gardens at Heidelberg, laid waste by Turenne, had the bad luck to exist before the garden of Versailles. Sevres copied Frankenthal to a large extent.—In justice to the Germans, it must be said that they have done admirable work in Saxony and in the Palatinate."
Mother and daughter looked at one another as if Pons were speaking Chinese. No one can imagine how ignorant and exclusive Parisians are; they only learn what they are taught, and that only when they choose.
"And how do you know the Frankenthal ware when you see it?"
"Eh! by the mark!" cried Pons with enthusiasm. "There is a mark on every one of those exquisite masterpieces. Frankenthal ware is marked with a C and T (for Charles Theodore) interlaced and crowned. On old Dresden china there are two crossed swords and the number of the order in gilt figures. Vincennes bears a hunting-horn; Vienna, a V closed and barred. You can tell Berlin by the two bars, Mayence by the wheel, and Sevres by the two crossed L's. The queen's porcelain is marked A for Antoinette, with a royal crown above it. In the eighteenth century, all the crowned heads of Europe had rival porcelain factories, and workmen were kidnaped. Watteau designed services for the Dresden factory; they fetch frantic prices at the present day. One has to know what one is about with them too, for they are turning out imitations now at Dresden. Wonderful things they used to make; they will never make the like again—"
"No, cousin. Some inlaid work and some kinds of porcelain will never be made again, just as there will never be another Raphael, nor Titian, nor Rembrandt, nor Van Eyck, nor Cranach. . . . Well, now! there are the Chinese; they are very ingenious, very clever; they make modern copies of their 'grand mandarin' porcelain, as it is called. But a pair of vases of genuine 'grand mandarin' vases of the largest size, are worth, six, eight, and ten thousand francs, while you can buy the modern replicas for a couple of hundred!"
"You are joking."
"You are astonished at the prices, but that is nothing, cousin. A dinner service of Sevres pate tendre (and pate tendre is not porcelain)—a complete dinner service of Sevres pate tendre for twelve persons is not merely worth a hundred thousand francs, but that is the price charged on the invoice. Such a dinner-service cost fifteen thousand francs at Sevres in 1750; I have seen the original invoices."
"But let us go back to this fan," said Cecile. Evidently in her opinion the trinket was an old-fashioned thing.
"You can understand that as soon as your dear mamma did me the honor of asking for a fan, I went round of all the curiosity shops in Paris, but I found nothing fine enough. I wanted nothing less than a masterpiece for the dear Presidente, and thought of giving her one that once belonged to Marie Antoinette, the most beautiful of all celebrated fans. But yesterday I was dazzled by this divine chef-d'oeuvre, which certainly must have been ordered by Louis XV. himself. Do you ask how I came to look for fans in the Rue de Lappe, among an Auvergnat's stock of brass and iron and ormolu furniture? Well, I myself believe that there is an intelligence in works of art; they know art-lovers, they call to them—'Cht-tt!'"
Mme. de Marville shrugged her shoulders and looked at her daughter; Pons did not notice the rapid pantomime.
"I know all those sharpers," continued Pons, "so I asked him, 'Anything fresh to-day, Daddy Monistrol?'—(for he always lets me look over his lots before the big buyers come)—and at that he began to tell me how Lienard, that did such beautiful work for the Government in the Chapelle de Dreux, had been at the Aulnay sale and rescued the carved panels out of the clutches of the Paris dealers, while their heads were running on china and inlaid furniture.—'I did not do much myself,' he went on, 'but I may make my traveling expenses out of this,' and he showed me a what-not; a marvel! Boucher's designs executed in marquetry, and with such art!—One could have gone down on one's knees before it.—'Look, sir,' he said, 'I have just found this fan in a little drawer; it was locked, I had to force it open. You might tell me where I can sell it'—and with that he brings out this little carved cherry-wood box.—'See,' says he, 'it is the kind of Pompadour that looks like decorated Gothic.'—'Yes,' I told him, 'the box is pretty; the box might suit me; but as for the fan, Monistrol, I have no Mme. Pons to give the old trinket to, and they make very pretty new ones nowadays; you can buy miracles of painting on vellum cheaply enough. There are two thousand painters in Paris, you know.'—And I opened out the fan carelessly, keeping down my admiration, looked indifferently at those two exquisite little pictures, touched off with an ease fit to send you into raptures. I held Mme. de Pompadour's fan in my hand! Watteau had done his utmost for this.—'What do you want for the what-not?'—'Oh! a thousand francs; I have had a bid already.'—I offered him a price for the fan corresponding with the probable expenses of the journey. We looked each other in the eyes, and I saw that I had my man. I put the fan back into the box lest my Auvergnat should begin to look at it, and went into ecstasies over the box; indeed, it is a jewel.—'If I take it,' said I, 'it is for the sake of the box; the box tempts me. As for the what-not, you will get more than a thousand francs for that. Just see how the brass is wrought; it is a model. There is business in it. . . . It has never been copied; it is a unique specimen, made solely for Mme. de Pompadour'—and so on, till my man, all on fire for his what-not, forgets the fan, and lets me have it for a mere trifle, because I have pointed out the beauties of his piece of Riesener's furniture. So here it is; but it needs a great deal of experience to make such a bargain as that. It is a duel, eye to eye; and who has such eyes as a Jew or an Auvergnat?"
The old artist's wonderful pantomime, his vivid, eager way of telling the story of the triumph of his shrewdness over the dealer's ignorance, would have made a subject for a Dutch painter; but it was all thrown away upon the audience. Mother and daughter exchanged cold, contemptuous glances.—"What an oddity!" they seemed to say.
"So it amuses you?" remarked Mme. de Marville. The question sent a cold chill through Pons; he felt a strong desire to slap the Presidente.
"Why, my dear cousin, that is the way to hunt down a work of art. You are face to face with antagonists that dispute the game with you. It is craft against craft! A work of art in the hands of a Norman, an Auvergnat, or a Jew, is like a princess guarded by magicians in a fairy tale."
"And how can you tell that this is by Wat—what do you call him?"
"Watteau, cousin. One of the greatest eighteenth century painters in France. Look! do you not see that it is his work?" (pointing to a pastoral scene, court-shepherd swains and shepherdesses dancing in a ring). "The movement! the life in it! the coloring! There it is—see!—painted with a stroke of the brush, as a writing-master makes a flourish with a pen. Not a trace of effort here! And, turn it over, look!—a ball in a drawing-room. Summer and Winter! And what ornaments! and how well preserved it is! The hinge-pin is gold, you see, and on cleaning it, I found a tiny ruby at either side."
"If it is so, cousin, I could not think of accepting such a valuable present from you. It would be better to lay up the money for yourself," said Mme. de Marville; but all the same, she asked no better than to keep the splendid fan.
"It is time that it should pass from the service of Vice into the hands of Virtue," said the good soul, recovering his assurance. "It has taken a century to work the miracle. No princess at Court, you may be sure, will have anything to compare with it; for, unfortunately, men will do more for a Pompadour than for a virtuous queen, such is human nature."
"Very well," Mme. de Marville said, laughing, "I will accept your present.—Cecile, my angel, go to Madeleine and see that dinner is worthy of your cousin."
Mme. de Marville wished to make matters even. Her request, made aloud, in defiance of all rules of good taste, sounded so much like an attempt to repay at once the balance due to the poor cousin, that Pons flushed red, like a girl found out in fault. The grain of sand was a little too large; for some moments he could only let it work in his heart. Cecile, a red-haired young woman, with a touch of pedantic affectation, combined her father's ponderous manner with a trace of her mother's hardness. She went and left poor Pons face to face with the terrible Presidente.
"How nice she is, my little Lili!" said the mother. She still called her Cecile by this baby name.
"Charming!" said Pons, twirling his thumbs.
"I cannot understand these times in which we live," broke out the Presidente. "What is the good of having a President of the Court of Appeal in Paris and a Commander of the Legion of Honor for your father, and for a grandfather the richest wholesale silk merchant in Paris, a deputy, and a millionaire that will be a peer of France some of these days?"
The President's zeal for the new Government had, in fact, recently been rewarded with a commander's ribbon—thanks to his friendship with Popinot, said the envious. Popinot himself, modest though he was, had, as has been seen, accepted the title of count, "for his son's sake," he told his numerous friends.
"Men look for nothing but money nowadays," said Cousin Pons. "No one thinks anything of you unless you are rich, and—"
"What would it have been if Heaven had spared my poor little Charles!—" cried the lady.
"Oh, with two children you would be poor," returned the cousin. "It practically means the division of the property. But you need not trouble yourself, cousin; Cecile is sure to marry sooner or later. She is the most accomplished girl I know."
To such depths had Pons fallen by adapting himself to the company of his entertainers! In their houses he echoed their ideas, and said the obvious thing, after the manner of a chorus in a Greek play. He did not dare to give free play to the artist's originality, which had overflowed in bright repartee when he was young; he had effaced himself, till he had almost lost his individuality; and if the real Pons appeared, as he had done a moment ago, he was immediately repressed.
"But I myself was married with only twenty thousand francs for my portion—"
"In 1819, cousin. And it was you, a woman with a head on your shoulders, and the royal protection of Louis XVIII."
"Be still, my child is a perfect angel. She is clever, she has a warm heart, she will have a hundred thousand francs on her wedding day, to say nothing of the most brilliant expectations; and yet she stays on our hands," and so on and so on. For twenty minutes, Mme. de Marville talked on about herself and her Cecile, pitying herself after the manner of mothers in bondage to marriageable daughters.