The Government Clerks/Chapter IV
If it were possible for literature to use the microscope of the Leuwenhoeks, the Malpighis, and the Raspails (an attempt once made by Hoffman, of Berlin), and if we could magnify and then picture the teredos navalis, in other words, those ship-worms which brought Holland within an inch of collapsing by honey-combing her dykes, we might have been able to give a more distinct idea of Messieurs Gigonnet, Baudoyer, Saillard, Gaudron, Falleix, Transon, Godard and company, borers and burrowers, who proved their undermining power in the thirtieth year of this century.
But now it is time to show another set of teredos, who burrowed and swarmed in the government offices where the principal scenes of our present study took place.
In Paris nearly all these government bureaus resemble each other. Into whatever ministry you penetrate to ask some slight favor, or to get redress for a trifling wrong, you will find the same dark corridors, ill-lighted stairways, doors with oval panes of glass like eyes, as at the theatre. In the first room as you enter you will find the office servant; in the second, the under-clerks; the private office of the second head-clerk is to the right or left, and further on is that of the head of the bureau. As to the important personage called, under the Empire, head of division, then, under the Restoration, director, and now by the former name, head or chief of division, he lives either above or below the offices of his three or four different bureaus.
Speaking in the administrative sense, a bureau consists of a man-servant, several supernumeraries (who do the work gratis for a certain number of years), various copying clerks, writers of bills and deeds, order clerks, principal clerks, second or under head-clerk, and head-clerk, otherwise called head or chief of the bureau. These denominational titles vary under some administrations; for instance, the order-clerks are sometimes called auditors, or again, book-keepers.
Paved like the corridor, and hung with a shabby paper, the first room, where the servant is stationed, is furnished with a stove, a large black table with inkstand, pens, and paper, and benches, but no mats on which to wipe the public feet. The clerk's office beyond is a large room, tolerably well lighted, but seldom floored with wood. Wooden floors and fireplaces are commonly kept sacred to heads of bureaus and divisions; and so are closets, wardrobes, mahogany tables, sofas and armchairs covered with red or green morocco, silk curtains, and other articles of administrative luxury. The clerk's office contents itself with a stove, the pipe of which goes into the chimney, if there be a chimney. The wall paper is plain and all of one color, usually green or brown. The tables are of black wood. The private characteristics of the several clerks often crop out in their method of settling themselves at their desks,—the chilly one has a wooden footstool under his feet; the man with a bilious temperament has a metal mat; the lymphatic being who dreads draughts constructs a fortification of boxes on a screen. The door of the under-head-clerk's office always stands open so that he may keep an eye to some extent on his subordinates.
Perhaps an exact description of Monsieur de la Billardiere's division will suffice to give foreigners and provincials an idea of the internal manners and customs of a government office; the chief features of which are probably much the same in the civil service of all European governments.
In the first place, picture to yourself the man who is thus described in the Yearly Register:—
"Chief of Division.—Monsieur la baron Flamet de la Billardiere
(Athanase-Jean-Francois-Michel) formerly provost-marshal of
the department of the Correze, gentleman in ordinary of the
bed-chamber, president of the college of the department of the
Dordogne, officer of the Legion of honor, knight of Saint Louis
and of the foreign orders of Christ, Isabella, Saint Wladimir,
etc., member of the Academy of Gers, and other learned bodies,
vice-president of the Society of Belles-lettres, member of the
Association of Saint-Joseph and of the Society of Prisons, one of
the mayors of Paris, etc."
The person who requires so much typographic space was at this time occupying an area five feet six in length by thirty-six inches in width in a bed, his head adorned with a cotton night-cap tied on by flame-colored ribbons; attended by Despleins, the King's surgeon, and young doctor Bianchon, flanked by two old female relatives, surrounded by phials of all kinds, bandages, appliances, and various mortuary instruments, and watched over by the curate of Saint-Roch, who was advising him to think of his salvation.
La Billardiere's division occupied the upper floor of a magnificent mansion, in which the vast official ocean of a ministry was contained. A wide landing separated its two bureaus, the doors of which were duly labelled. The private offices and antechambers of the heads of the two bureaus, Monsieur Rabourdin and Monsieur Baudoyer, were below on the second floor, and beyond that of Monsieur Rabourdin were the antechamber, salon, and two offices of Monsieur de la Billardiere.
On the first floor, divided in two by an entresol, were the living rooms and office of Monsieur Ernest de la Briere, an occult and powerful personage who must be described in a few words, for he well deserves the parenthesis. This young man held, during the whole time that this particular administration lasted, the position of private secretary to the minister. His apartment was connected by a secret door with the private office of his Excellency. A private secretary is to the minister himself what des Lupeaulx was to the ministry at large. The same difference existed between young La Briere and des Lupeaulx that there is between an aide-de-camp and a chief of staff. This ministerial apprentice decamps when his protector leaves office, returning sometimes when he returns. If the minister enjoys the royal favor when he falls, or still has parliamentary hopes, he takes his secretary with him into retirement only to bring him back on his return; otherwise he puts him to grass in some of the various administrative pastures,—for instance, in the Court of Exchequer, that wayside refuge where private secretaries wait for the storm to blow over. The young man is not precisely a government official; he is a political character, however; and sometimes his politics are limited to those of one man. When we think of the number of letters it is the private secretary's fate to open and read, besides all his other avocations, it is very evident that under a monarchical government his services would be well paid for. A drudge of this kind costs ten or twenty thousand francs a year; and he enjoys, moreover, the opera-boxes, the social invitations, and the carriages of the minister. The Emperor of Russia would be thankful to be able to pay fifty thousand a year to one of these amiable constitutional poodles, so gentle, so nicely curled, so caressing, so docile, always spick and span,—careful watch-dogs besides, and faithful to a degree! But the private secretary is a product of the representative government hot-house; he is propagated and developed there, and there only. Under a monarchy you will find none but courtiers and vassals, whereas under a constitutional government you may be flattered, served, and adulated by free men. In France ministers are better off than kings or women; they have some one who thoroughly understands them. Perhaps, indeed, the private secretary is to be pitied as much as women and white paper. They are nonentities who are made to bear all things. They are allowed no talents except hidden ones, which must be employed in the service of their ministers. A public show of talent would ruin them. The private secretary is therefore an intimate friend in the gift of government— However, let us return to the bureaus.
Three men-servants lived in peace in the Billardiere division, to wit: a footman for the two bureaus, another for the service of the two chiefs, and a third for the director of the division himself. All three were lodged, warmed, and clothed by the State, and wore the well-known livery of the State, blue coat with red pipings for undress, and broad red, white, and blue braid for great occasions. La Billardiere's man had the air of a gentleman-usher, an innovation which gave an aspect of dignity to the division.
Pillars of the ministry, experts in all manners and customs bureaucratic, well-warmed and clothed at the State's expense, growing rich by reason of their few wants, these lackeys saw completely through the government officials, collectively and individually. They had no better way of amusing their idle hours than by observing these personages and studying their peculiarities. They knew how far to trust the clerks with loans of money, doing their various commissions with absolute discretion; they pawned and took out of pawn, bought up bills when due, and lent money without interest, albeit no clerk ever borrowed of them without returning a "gratification." These servants without a master received a salary of nine hundred francs a year; new years' gifts and "gratifications" brought their emoluments to twelve hundred francs, and they made almost as much money by serving breakfasts to the clerks at the office.
The elder of these men, who was also the richest, waited upon the main body of the clerks. He was sixty years of age, with white hair cropped short like a brush; stout, thickset, and apoplectic about the neck, with a vulgar pimpled face, gray eyes, and a mouth like a furnace door; such was the profile portrait of Antoine, the oldest attendant in the ministry. He had brought his two nephews, Laurent and Gabriel, from Echelles in Savoie,—one to serve the heads of the bureaus, the other the director himself. All three came to open the offices and clean them, between seven and eight o'clock in the morning; at which time they read the newspapers and talked civil service politics from their point of view with the servants of other divisions, exchanging the bureaucratic gossip. In common with servants of modern houses who know their masters' private affairs thoroughly, they lived at the ministry like spiders at the centre of a web, where they felt the slightest jar of the fabric.
On a Thursday evening, the day after the ministerial reception and Madame Rabourdin's evening party, just as Antoine was trimming his beard and his nephews were assisting him in the antechamber of the division on the upper floor, they were surprised by the unexpected arrival of one of the clerks.
"That's Monsieur Dutocq," said Antoine. "I know him by that pickpocket step of his. He is always moving round on the sly, that man. He is on your back before you know it. Yesterday, contrary to his usual ways, he outstayed the last man in the office; such a thing hasn't happened three times since he has been at the ministry."
Here follows the portrait of Monsieur Dutocq, order-clerk in the Rabourdin bureau: Thirty-eight years old, oblong face and bilious skin, grizzled hair always cut close, low forehead, heavy eyebrows meeting together, a crooked nose and pinched lips; tall, the right shoulder slightly higher than the left; brown coat, black waistcoat, silk cravat, yellowish trousers, black woollen stockings, and shoes with flapping bows; thus you behold him. Idle and incapable, he hated Rabourdin,—naturally enough, for Rabourdin had no vice to flatter, and no bad or weak side on which Dutocq could make himself useful. Far too noble to injure a clerk, the chief was also too clear-sighted to be deceived by any make-believe. Dutocq kept his place therefore solely through Rabourdin's generosity, and was very certain that he could never be promoted if the latter succeeded La Billardiere. Though he knew himself incapable of important work, Dutocq was well aware that in a government office incapacity was no hindrance to advancement; La Billardiere's own appointment over the head of so capable a man as Rabourdin had been a striking and fatal example of this. Wickedness combined with self-interest works with a power equivalent to that of intellect; evilly disposed and wholly self-interested, Dutocq had endeavoured to strengthen his position by becoming a spy in all the offices. After 1816 he assumed a marked religious tone, foreseeing the favor which the fools of those days would bestow on those they indiscriminately called Jesuits. Belonging to that fraternity in spirit, though not admitted to its rites, Dutocq went from bureau to bureau, sounded consciences by recounting immoral jests, and then reported and paraphrased results to des Lupeaulx; the latter thus learned all the trivial events of the ministry, and often surprised the minister by his consummate knowledge of what was going on. He tolerated Dutocq under the idea that circumstances might some day make him useful, were it only to get him or some distinguished friend of his out of a scrape by a disgraceful marriage. The two understood each other well. Dutocq had succeeded Monsieur Poiret the elder, who had retired in 1814, and now lived in the pension Vanquer in the Latin quarter. Dutocq himself lived in a pension in the rue de Beaune, and spent his evenings in the Palais-Royal, sometimes going to the theatre, thanks to du Bruel, who gave him an author's ticket about once a week. And now, a word on du Bruel.
Though Sebastien did his work at the office for the small compensation we have mentioned, du Bruel was in the habit of coming there to advertise the fact that he was the under-head-clerk and to draw his salary. His real work was that of dramatic critic to a leading ministerial journal, in which he also wrote articles inspired by the ministers,—a very well understood, clearly defined, and quite unassailable position. Du Bruel was not lacking in those diplomatic little tricks which go so far to conciliate general good-will. He sent Madame Rabourdin an opera-box for a first representation, took her there in a carriage and brought her back,—an attention which evidently pleased her. Rabourdin, who was never exacting with his subordinates allowed du Bruel to go off to rehearsals, come to the office at his own hours, and work at his vaudevilles when there. Monsieur le Duc de Chaulieu, the minister, knew that du Bruel was writing a novel which was to be dedicated to himself. Dressed with the careless ease of a theatre man, du Bruel wore, in the morning, trousers strapped under his feet, shoes with gaiters, a waistcoat evidently vamped over, an olive surtout, and a black cravat. At night he played the gentleman in elegant clothes. He lived, for good reasons, in the same house as Florine, an actress for whom he wrote plays. Du Bruel, or to give him his pen name, Cursy, was working just now at a piece in five acts for the Francais. Sebastien was devoted to the author,—who occasionally gave him tickets to the pit,—and applauded his pieces at the parts which du Bruel told him were of doubtful interest, with all the faith and enthusiasm of his years. In fact, the youth looked upon the playwright as a great author, and it was to Sebastien that du Bruel said, the day after a first representation of a vaudeville produced, like all vaudevilles, by three collaborators, "The audience preferred the scenes written by two."
"Why don't you write alone?" asked Sebastien naively.
There were good reasons why du Bruel did not write alone. He was the third of an author. A dramatic writer, as few people know, is made up of three individuals; first, the man with brains who invents the subject and maps out the structure, or scenario, of the vaudeville; second, the plodder, who works the piece into shape; and third, the toucher-up, who sets the songs to music, arranges the chorus and concerted pieces and fits them into their right place, and finally writes the puffs and advertisements. Du Bruel was a plodder; at the office he read the newest books, extracted their wit, and laid it by for use in his dialogues. He was liked by his collaborators on account of his carefulness; the man with brains, sure of being understood, could cross his arms and feel that his ideas would be well rendered. The clerks in the office liked their companion well enough to attend a first performance of his plays in a body and applaud them, for he really deserved the title of a good fellow. His hand went readily to his pocket; ices and punch were bestowed without prodding, and he loaned fifty francs without asking them back. He owned a country-house at Aulnay, laid by his money, and had, besides the four thousand five hundred francs of his salary under government, twelve hundred francs pension from the civil list, and eight hundred from the three hundred thousand francs fund voted by the Chambers for encouragement of the Arts. Add to these diverse emoluments nine thousand francs earned by his quarters, thirds, and halves of plays in three different theatres, and you will readily understand that such a man must be physically round, fat, and comfortable, with the face of a worthy capitalist. As to morals, he was the lover and the beloved of Tullia and felt himself preferred in heart to the brilliant Duc de Rhetore, the lover in chief.
Dutocq had seen with great uneasiness what he called the liaison of des Lupeaulx with Madame Rabourdin, and his silent wrath on the subject was accumulating. He had too prying an eye not to have guessed that Rabourdin was engaged in some great work outside of his official labors, and he was provoked to feel that he knew nothing about it, whereas that little Sebastien was, wholly or in part, in the secret. Dutocq was intimate with Godard, under-head-clerk to Baudoyer, and the high esteem in which Dutocq held Baudoyer was the original cause of his acquaintance with Godard; not that Dutocq was sincere even in this; but by praising Baudoyer and saying nothing of Rabourdin he satisfied his hatred after the fashion of little minds.
Joseph Godard, a cousin of Mitral on the mother's side, made pretension to the hand of Mademoiselle Baudoyer, not perceiving that her mother was laying siege to Falliex as a son-in-law. He brought little gifts to the young lady, artificial flowers, bonbons on New-Year's day and pretty boxes for her birthday. Twenty-six years of age, a worker working without purpose, steady as a girl, monotonous and apathetic, holding cafes, cigars, and horsemanship in detestation, going to bed regularly at ten o'clock and rising at seven, gifted with some social talents, such as playing quadrille music on the flute, which first brought him into favor with the Saillards and the Baudoyers. He was moreover a fifer in the National Guard,—to escape his turn of sitting up all night in a barrack-room. Godard was devoted more especially to natural history. He made collections of shells and minerals, knew how to stuff birds, kept a mass of curiosities bought for nothing in his bedroom; took possession of phials and empty perfume bottles for his specimens; pinned butterflies and beetles under glass, hung Chinese parasols on the walls, together with dried fishskins. He lived with his sister, an artificial-flower maker, in the due de Richelieu. Though much admired by mammas this model young man was looked down upon by his sister's shop-girls, who had tried to inveigle him. Slim and lean, of medium height, with dark circles round his eyes, Joseph Godard took little care of his person; his clothes were ill-cut, his trousers bagged, he wore white stockings at all seasons of the year, a hat with a narrow brim and laced shoes. He was always complaining of his digestion. His principal vice was a mania for proposing rural parties during the summer season, excursions to Montmorency, picnics on the grass, and visits to creameries on the boulevard du Mont-Parnasse. For the last six months Dutocq had taken to visiting Mademoiselle Godard from time to time, with certain views of his own, hoping to discover in her establishment some female treasure.
Thus Baudoyer had a pair of henchmen in Dutocq and Godard. Monsieur Saillard, too innocent to judge rightly of Dutocq, was in the habit of paying him frequent little visits at the office. Young La Billardiere, the director's son, placed as supernumerary with Baudoyer, made another member of the clique. The clever heads in the offices laughed much at this alliance of incapables. Bixiou named Baudoyer, Godard, and Dutocq a "Trinity without the Spirit," and little La Billardiere the "Pascal Lamb."
"You are early this morning," said Antoine to Dutocq, laughing.
"So are you, Antoine," answered Dutocq; "you see, the newspapers do come earlier than you let us have them at the office."
"They did to-day, by chance," replied Antoine, not disconcerted; "they never come two days together at the same hour."
The two nephews looked at each other as if to say, in admiration of their uncle, "What cheek he has!"
"Though I make two sous by all his breakfasts," muttered Antoine, as he heard Monsieur Dutocq close the office door, "I'd give them up to get that man out of our division."
"Ah, Monsieur Sebastien, you are not the first here to-day," said Antoine, a quarter of an hour later, to the supernumerary.
"Who is here?" asked the poor lad, turning pale.
"Monsieur Dutocq," answered Laurent.
Virgin natures have, beyond all others, the inexplicable gift of second-sight, the reason of which lies perhaps in the purity of their nervous systems, which are, as it were, brand-new. Sebastien had long guessed Dutocq's hatred to his revered Rabourdin. So that when Laurent uttered his name a dreadful presentiment took possession of the lad's mind, and crying out, "I feared it!" he flew like an arrow into the corridor.
"There is going to be a row in the division," said Antoine, shaking his white head as he put on his livery. "It is very certain that Monsieur le baron is off to his account. Yes, Madame Gruget, the nurse, told me he couldn't live through the day. What a stir there'll be! oh! won't there! Go along, you fellows, and see if the stoves are drawing properly. Heavens and earth! our world is coming down about our ears."
"That poor young one," said Laurent, "had a sort of sunstroke when he heard that Jesuit of a Dutocq had got here before him."
"I have told him a dozen times,—for after all one ought to tell the truth to an honest clerk, and what I call an honest clerk is one like that little fellow who gives us 'recta' his ten francs on New-Year's day,—I have said to him again and again: The more you work the more they'll make you work, and they won't promote you. He doesn't listen to me; he tires himself out staying here till five o'clock, an hour after all the others have gone. Folly! he'll never get on that way! The proof is that not a word has been said about giving him an appointment, though he has been here two years. It's a shame! it makes my blood boil."
"Monsieur Rabourdin is very fond of Monsieur Sebastien," said Laurent.
"But Monsieur Rabourdin isn't a minister," retorted Antoine; "it will be a hot day when that happens, and the hens will have teeth; he is too—but mum! When I think that I carry salaries to those humbugs who stay away and do as they please, while that poor little La Roche works himself to death, I ask myself if God ever thinks of the civil service. And what do they give you, these pets of Monsieur le marechal and Monsieur le duc? 'Thank you, my dear Antoine, thank you,' with a gracious nod! Pack of sluggards! go to work, or you'll bring another revolution about your ears. Didn't see such goings-on under Monsieur Robert Lindet. I know, for I served my apprenticeship under Robert Lindet. The clerks had to work in his day! You ought to have seen how they scratched paper here till midnight; why, the stoves went out and nobody noticed it. It was all because the guillotine was there! now-a-days they only mark 'em when they come in late!"
"Uncle Antoine," said Gabriel, "as you are so talkative this morning, just tell us what you think a clerk really ought to be."
"A government clerk," replied Antoine, gravely, "is a man who sits in a government office and writes. But there, there, what am I talking about? Without the clerks, where should we be, I'd like to know? Go along and look after your stoves and mind you never say harm of a government clerk, you fellows. Gabriel, the stove in the large office draws like the devil; you must turn the damper."
Antoine stationed himself at a corner of the landing whence he could see all the officials as they entered the porte-cochere; he knew every one at the ministry, and watched their behavior, observing narrowly the contrasts in their dress and appearance.
The first to arrive after Sebastien was a clerk of deeds in Rabourdin's office named Phellion, a respectable family-man. To the influence of his chief he owed a half-scholarship for each of his two sons in the College Henri IV.; while his daughter was being educated gratis at a boarding school where his wife gave music lessons and he himself a course of history and one of geography in the evenings. He was about forty-five years of age, sergeant-major of his company in the National Guard, very compassionate in feeling and words, but wholly unable to give away a penny. Proud of his post, however, and satisfied with his lot, he applied himself faithfully to serve the government, believed he was useful to his country, and boasted of his indifference to politics, knowing none but those of the men in power. Monsieur Rabourdin pleased him highly whenever he asked him to stay half an hour longer to finish a piece of work. On such occasions he would say, when he reached home, "Public affairs detained me; when a man belongs to the government he is no longer master of himself." He compiled books of questions and answers on various studies for the use of young ladies in boarding-schools. These little "solid treatises," as he called them, were sold at the University library under the name of "Historical and Geographic Catechisms." Feeling himself in duty bound to offer a copy of each volume, bound in red morocco, to Monsieur Rabourdin, he always came in full dress to present them,—breeches and silk stockings, and shoes with gold buckles. Monsieur Phellion received his friends on Thursday evenings, on which occasions the company played bouillote, at five sous a game, and were regaled with cakes and beer. He had never yet dared to invite Monsieur Rabourdin to honor him with his presence, though he would have regarded such an event as the most distinguished of his life. He said if he could leave one of his sons following in the steps of Monsieur Rabourdin he should die the happiest father in the world.
One of his greatest pleasures was to explore the environs of Paris, which he did with a map. He knew every inch of Arcueil, Bievre, Fontenay-aux-Roses, and Aulnay, so famous as the resort of great writers, and hoped in time to know the whole western side of the country around Paris. He intended to put his eldest son into a government office and his second into the Ecole Polytechnique. He often said to the elder, "When you have the honor to be a government clerk"; though he suspected him of a preference for the exact sciences and did his best to repress it, mentally resolved to abandon the lad to his own devices if he persisted. When Rabourdin sent for him to come down and receive instructions about some particular piece of work, Phellion gave all his mind to it,—listening to every word the chief said, as a dilettante listens to an air at the Opera. Silent in the office, with his feet in the air resting on a wooden desk, and never moving them, he studied his task conscientiously. His official letters were written with the utmost gravity, and transmitted the commands of the minister in solemn phrases. Monsieur Phellion's face was that of a pensive ram, with little color and pitted by the small-pox; the lips were thick and the lower one pendent; the eyes light-blue, and his figure above the common height. Neat and clean as a master of history and geography in a young ladies' school ought to be, he wore fine linen, a pleated shirt-frill, a black cashmere waistcoat, left open and showing a pair of braces embroidered by his daughter, a diamond in the bosom of his shirt, a black coat, and blue trousers. In winter he added a nut-colored box-coat with three capes, and carried a loaded stick, necessitated, he said, by the profound solitude of the quarter in which he lived. He had given up taking snuff, and referred to this reform as a striking example of the empire a man could exercise over himself. Monsieur Phellion came slowly up the stairs, for he was afraid of asthma, having what he called an "adipose chest." He saluted Antoine with dignity.
The next to follow was a copying-clerk, who presented a strange contrast to the virtuous Phellion. Vimeux was a young man of twenty-five, with a salary of fifteen hundred francs, well-made and graceful, with a romantic face, and eyes, hair, beard, and eyebrows as black as jet, fine teeth, charming hands, and wearing a moustache so carefully trimmed that he seemed to have made it the business and occupation of his life. Vimeux had such aptitude for work that he despatched it much quicker than any of the other clerks. "He has a gift, that young man!" Phellion said of him when he saw him cross his legs and have nothing to do for the rest of the day, having got through his appointed task; "and see what a little dandy he is!" Vimeux breakfasted on a roll and a glass of water, dined for twenty sous at Katcomb's, and lodged in a furnished room, for which he paid twelve francs a month. His happiness, his sole pleasure in life, was dress. He ruined himself in miraculous waistcoats, in trousers that were tight, half-tight, pleated, or embroidered; in superfine boots, well-made coats which outlined his elegant figure; in bewitching collars, spotless gloves, and immaculate hats. A ring with a coat of arms adorned his hand, outside his glove, from which dangled a handsome cane; with these accessories he endeavoured to assume the air and manner of a wealthy young man. After the office closed he appeared in the great walk of the Tuileries, with a tooth-pick in his mouth, as though he were a millionaire who had just dined. Always on the lookout for a woman,—an Englishwoman, a foreigner of some kind, or a widow,—who might fall in love with him, he practised the art of twirling his cane and of flinging the sort of glance which Bixiou told him was American. He smiled to show his fine teeth; he wore no socks under his boots, but he had his hair curled every day. Vimeux was prepared, in accordance with fixed principles, to marry a hunch-back with six thousand a year, or a woman of forty-five at eight thousand, or an Englishwoman for half that sum. Phellion, who delighted in his neat hand-writing, and was full of compassion for the fellow, read him lectures on the duty of giving lessons in penmanship,—an honorable career, he said, which would ameliorate existence and even render it agreeable; he promised him a situation in a young ladies' boarding-school. But Vimeux's head was so full of his own idea that no human being could prevent him from having faith in his star. He continued to lay himself out, like a salmon at a fishmonger's, in spite of his empty stomach and the fact that he had fruitlessly exhibited his enormous moustache and his fine clothes for over three years. As he owed Antoine more than thirty francs for his breakfasts, he lowered his eyes every time he passed him; and yet he never failed at midday to ask the man to buy him a roll.
After trying to get a few reasonable ideas into this foolish head, Rabourdin had finally given up the attempt as hopeless. Adolphe (his family name was Adolphe) had lately economized on dinners and lived entirely on bread and water, to buy a pair of spurs and a riding-whip. Jokes at the expense of this starving Amadis were made only in the spirit of mischievous fun which creates vaudevilles, for he was really a kind-hearted fellow and a good comrade, who harmed no one but himself. A standing joke in the two bureaus was the question whether he wore corsets, and bets depended on it. Vimeux was originally appointed to Baudoyer's bureau, but he manoeuvred to get himself transferred to Rabourdin's, on account of Baudoyer's extreme severity in relation to what were called "the English,"—a name given by the government clerks to their creditors. "English day" means the day on which the government offices are thrown open to the public. Certain then of finding their delinquent debtors, the creditors swarm in and torment them, asking when they intend to pay, and threatening to attach their salaries. The implacable Baudoyer compelled the clerks to remain at their desks and endure this torture. "It was their place not to make debts," he said; and he considered his severity as a duty which he owed to the public weal. Rabourdin, on the contrary, protected the clerks against their creditors, and turned the latter away, saying that the government bureaus were open for public business, not private. Much ridicule pursued Vimeux in both bureaus when the clank of his spurs resounded in the corridors and on the staircases. The wag of the ministry, Bixiou, sent round a paper, headed by a caricature of his victim on a pasteboard horse, asking for subscriptions to buy him a live charger. Monsieur Baudoyer was down for a bale of hay taken from his own forage allowance, and each of the clerks wrote his little epigram; Vimeux himself, good-natured fellow that he was, subscribed under the name of "Miss Fairfax."
Handsome clerks of the Vimeux style have their salaries on which to live, and their good looks by which to make their fortune. Devoted to masked balls during the carnival, they seek their luck there, though it often escapes them. Many end the weary round by marrying milliners, or old women,—sometimes, however, young ones who are charmed with their handsome persons, and with whom they set up a romance illustrated with stupid love letters, which, nevertheless, seem to answer their purpose.
Bixiou (pronounce it Bisiou) was a draughtsman, who ridiculed Dutocq as readily as he did Rabourdin, whom he nicknamed "the virtuous woman." Without doubt the cleverest man in the division or even in the ministry (but clever after the fashion of a monkey, without aim or sequence), Bixiou was so essentially useful to Baudoyer and Godard that they upheld and protected him in spite of his misconduct; for he did their work when they were incapable of doing it for themselves. Bixiou wanted either Godard's or du Bruel's place as under-head-clerk, but his conduct interfered with his promotion. Sometimes he sneered at the public service; this was usually after he had made some happy hit, such as the publication of portraits in the famous Fualdes case (for which he drew faces hap-hazard), or his sketch of the debate on the Castaing affair. At other times, when possessed with a desire to get on, he really applied himself to work, though he would soon leave off to write a vaudeville, which was never finished. A thorough egoist, a spendthrift and a miser in one,—that is to say, spending his money solely on himself,—sharp, aggressive, and indiscreet, he did mischief for mischief's sake; above all, he attacked the weak, respected nothing and believed in nothing, neither in France, nor in God, nor in art, nor in the Greeks, nor in the Turks, nor in the monarchy,—insulting and disparaging everything that he could not comprehend. He was the first to paint a black cap on Charles X.'s head on the five-franc coins. He mimicked Dr. Gall when lecturing, till he made the most starched of diplomatists burst their buttons. Famous for his practical jokes, he varied them with such elaborate care that he always obtained a victim. His great secret in this was the power of guessing the inmost wishes of others; he knew the way to many a castle in the air, to the dreams about which a man may be fooled because he wants to be; and he made such men sit to him for hours.
Thus it happened that this close observer, who could display unrivalled tact in developing a joke or driving home a sarcasm, was unable to use the same power to make men further his fortunes and promote him. The person he most liked to annoy was young La Billardiere, his nightmare, his detestation, whom he was nevertheless constantly wheedling so as the better to torment him on his weakest side. He wrote him love letters signed "Comtesse de M——" or "Marquise de B—"; took him to the Opera on gala days and presented him to some grisette under the clock, after calling everybody's attention to the young fool. He allied himself with Dutocq (whom he regarded as a solemn juggler) in his hatred to Rabourdin and his praise of Baudoyer, and did his best to support him. Jean-Jaques Bixiou was the grandson of a Parisian grocer. His father, who died a colonel, left him to the care of his grandmother, who married her head-clerk, named Descoings, after the death of her first husband, and died in 1822. Finding himself without prospects on leaving college, he attempted painting, but in spite of his intimacy with Joseph Bridau, his life-long friend, he abandoned art to take up caricature, vignette designing, and drawing for books, which twenty years later went by the name of "illustration." The influence of the Ducs de Maufrigneuse and de Rhetore, whom he knew in the society of actresses, procured him his employment under government in 1819. On good terms with des Lupeaulx, with whom in society he stood on an equality, and intimate with du Bruel, he was a living proof of Rabourdin's theory as to the steady deterioration of the administrative hierarchy in Paris through the personal importance which a government official may acquire outside of a government office. Short in stature but well-formed, with a delicate face remarkable for its vague likeness to Napoleon's, thin lips, a straight chin, chestnut whiskers, twenty-seven years old, fair-skinned, with a piercing voice and sparkling eye,—such was Bixiou; a man, all sense and all wit, who abandoned himself to a mad pursuit of pleasure of every description, which threw him into a constant round of dissipation. Hunter of grisettes, smoker, jester, diner-out and frequenter of supper-parties, always tuned to the highest pitch, shining equally in the greenroom and at the balls given among the grisettes of the Allee des Veuves, he was just as surprisingly entertaining at table as at a picnic, as gay and lively at midnight on the streets as in the morning when he jumped out of bed, and yet at heart gloomy and melancholy, like most of the great comic players.
Launched into the world of actors and actresses, writers, artists, and certain women of uncertain means, he lived well, went to the theatre without paying, gambled at Frascati, and often won. Artist by nature and really profound, though by flashes only, he swayed to and fro in life like a swing, without thinking or caring of a time when the cord would break. The liveliness of his wit and the prodigal flow of his ideas made him acceptable to all persons who took pleasure in the lights of intellect; but none of his friends liked him. Incapable of checking a witty saying, he would scarify his two neighbors before a dinner was half over. In spite of his skin-deep gayety, a secret dissatisfaction with his social position could be detected in his speech; he aspired to something better, but the fatal demon hiding in his wit hindered him from acquiring the gravity which imposes on fools. He lived on the second floor of a house in the rue de Ponthieu, where he had three rooms delivered over to the untidiness of a bachelor's establishment, in fact, a regular bivouac. He often talked of leaving France and seeking his fortune in America. No wizard could foretell the future of this young man in whom all talents were incomplete; who was incapable of perseverance, intoxicated with pleasure, and who acted on the belief that the world ended on the morrow.
In the matter of dress Bixiou had the merit of never being ridiculous; he was perhaps the only official of the ministry whose dress did not lead outsiders to say, "That man is a government clerk!" He wore elegant boots with black trousers strapped under them, a fancy waistcoat, a becoming blue coat, collars that were the never-ending gift of grisettes, one of Bandoni's hats, and a pair of dark-colored kid gloves. His walk and bearing, cavalier and simple both, were not without grace. He knew all this, and when des Lupeaulx summoned him for a piece of impertinence said and done about Monsieur de la Billardiere and threatened him with dismissal, Bixiou replied, "You will take me back because my clothes do credit to the ministry"; and des Lupeaulx, unable to keep from laughing, let the matter pass. The most harmless of Bixiou's jokes perpetrated among the clerks was the one he played off upon Godard, presenting him with a butterfly just brought from China, which the worthy man keeps in his collection and exhibits to this day, blissfully unconscious that it is only painted paper. Bixiou had the patience to work up the little masterpiece for the sole purpose of hoaxing his superior.
The devil always puts a martyr near a Bixiou. Baudoyer's bureau held the martyr, a poor copying-clerk twenty-two years of age, with a salary of fifteen hundred francs, named Auguste-Jean-Francois Minard. Minard had married for love the daughter of a porter, an artificial-flower maker employed by Mademoiselle Godard. Zelie Lorrain, a pupil, in the first place, of the Conservatoire, then by turns a danseuse, a singer, and an actress, had thought of doing as so many of the working-women do; but the fear of consequences kept her from vice. She was floating undecidedly along, when Minard appeared upon the scene with a definite proposal of marriage. Zelie earned five hundred francs a year, Minard had fifteen hundred. Believing that they could live on two thousand, they married without settlements, and started with the utmost economy. They went to live, like dove-turtles, near the barriere de Courcelles, in a little apartment at three hundred francs a year, with white cotton curtains to the windows, a Scotch paper costing fifteen sous a roll on the walls, brick floors well polished, walnut furniture in the parlor, and a tiny kitchen that was very clean. Zelie nursed her children herself when they came, cooked, made her flowers, and kept the house. There was something very touching in this happy and laborious mediocrity. Feeling that Minard truly loved her, Zelie loved him. Love begets love,—it is the abyssus abyssum of the Bible. The poor man left his bed in the morning before his wife was up, that he might fetch provisions. He carried the flowers she had finished, on his way to the bureau, and bought her materials on his way back; then, while waiting for dinner, he stamped out her leaves, trimmed the twigs, or rubbed her colors. Small, slim, and wiry, with crisp red hair, eyes of a light yellow, a skin of dazzling fairness, though blotched with red, the man had a sturdy courage that made no show. He knew the science of writing quite as well as Vimeux. At the office he kept in the background, doing his allotted task with the collected air of a man who thinks and suffers. His white eyelashes and lack of eyebrows induced the relentless Bixiou to name him "the white rabbit." Minard—the Rabourdin of a lower sphere—was filled with the desire of placing his Zelie in better circumstances, and his mind searched the ocean of the wants of luxury in hopes of finding an idea, of making some discovery or some improvement which would bring him a rapid fortune. His apparent dulness was really caused by the continual tension of his mind; he went over the history of Cephalic Oils and the Paste of Sultans, lucifer matches and portable gas, jointed sockets for hydrostatic lamps,—in short, all the infinitely little inventions of material civilization which pay so well. He bore Bixiou's jests as a busy man bears the buzzing of an insect; he was not even annoyed by them. In spite of his cleverness, Bixiou never perceived the profound contempt which Minard felt for him. Minard never dreamed of quarrelling, however,—regarding it as a loss of time. After a while his composure tired out his tormentor. He always breakfasted with his wife, and ate nothing at the office. Once a month he took Zelie to the theatre, with tickets bestowed by du Bruel or Bixiou; for Bixiou was capable of anything, even of doing a kindness. Monsieur and Madame Minard paid their visits in person on New-Year's day. Those who saw them often asked how it was that a woman could keep her husband in good clothes, wear a Leghorn bonnet with flowers, embroidered muslin dresses, silk mantles, prunella boots, handsome fichus, a Chinese parasol, and drive home in a hackney-coach, and yet be virtuous; while Madame Colleville and other "ladies" of her kind could scarcely make ends meet, though they had double Madame Minard's means.
In the two bureaus were two clerks so devoted to each other that their friendship became the butt of all the rest. He of the bureau Baudoyer, named Colleville, was chief-clerk, and would have been head of the bureau long before if the Restoration had never happened. His wife was as clever in her way as Madame Rabourdin in hers. Colleville, who was son of a first violin at the opera, fell in love with the daughter of a celebrated danseuse. Flavie Minoret, one of those capable and charming Parisian women who know how to make their husbands happy and yet preserve their own liberty, made the Colleville home a rendezvous for all our best artists and orators. Colleville's humble position under government was forgotten there. Flavie's conduct gave such food for gossip, however, that Madame Rabourdin had declined all her invitations. The friend in Rabourdin's bureau to whom Colleville was so attached was named Thuillier. All who knew one knew the other. Thuillier, called "the handsome Thuillier," an ex-Lothario, led as idle a life as Colleville led a busy one. Colleville, government official in the mornings and first clarionet at the Opera-Comique at night, worked hard to maintain his family, though he was not without influential friends. He was looked upon as a very shrewd man,—all the more, perhaps, because he hid his ambitions under a show of indifference. Apparently content with his lot and liking work, he found every one, even the chiefs, ready to protect his brave career. During the last few weeks Madame Colleville had made an evident change in the household, and seemed to be taking to piety. This gave rise to a vague report in the bureaus that she thought of securing some more powerful influence than that of Francois Keller, the famous orator, who had been one of her chief adorers, but who, so far, had failed to obtain a better place for her husband. Flavie had, about this time—and it was one of her mistakes—turned for help to des Lupeaulx.
Colleville had a passion for reading the horoscopes of famous men in the anagram of their names. He passed whole months in decomposing and recomposing words and fitting them to new meanings. "Un Corse la finira," found within the words, "Revolution Francaise"; "Eh, c'est large nez," in "Charles Genest," an abbe at the court of Louis XIV., whose huge nose is recorded by Saint-Simon as the delight of the Duc de Bourgogne (the exigencies of this last anagram required the substitution of a z for an s),—were a never-ending marvel to Colleville. Raising the anagram to the height of a science, he declared that the destiny of every man was written in the words or phrase given by the transposition of the letters of his names and titles; and his patriotism struggled hard to suppress the fact—signal evidence for his theory—that in Horatio Nelson, "honor est a Nilo." Ever since the accession of Charles X., he had bestowed much thought on the king's anagram. Thuillier, who was fond of making puns, declared that an anagram was nothing more than a pun on letters. The sight of Colleville, a man of real feeling, bound almost indissolubly to Thuillier, the model of an egoist, presented a difficult problem to the mind of an observer. The clerks in the offices explained it by saying, "Thuillier is rich, and the Colleville household costly." This friendship, however, consolidated by time, was based on feelings and on facts which naturally explained it; an account of which may be found elsewhere (see "Les Petits Bourgeois"). We may remark in passing that though Madame Colleville was well known in the bureaus, the existence of Madame Thuillier was almost unknown there. Colleville, an active man, burdened with a family of children, was fat, round, and jolly, whereas Thuillier, "the beau of the Empire" without apparent anxieties and always at leisure, was slender and thin, with a livid face and a melancholy air. "We never know," said Rabourdin, speaking of the two men, "whether our friendships are born of likeness or of contrast."
Unlike these Siamese twins, two other clerks, Chazelle and Paulmier, were forever squabbling. One smoked, the other took snuff, and the merits of their respective use of tobacco were the origin of ceaseless disputes. Chazelle's home, which was tyrannized over by a wife, furnished a subject of endless ridicule to Paulmier; whereas Paulmier, a bachelor, often half-starved like Vimeux, with ragged clothes and half-concealed penury was a fruitful source of ridicule to Chazelle. Both were beginning to show a protuberant stomach; Chazelle's, which was round and projecting, had the impertinence, so Bixiou said, to enter the room first; Paulmier's corporation spread to right and left. A favorite amusement with Bixiou was to measure them quarterly. The two clerks, by dint of quarrelling over the details of their lives, and washing much of their dirty linen at the office, had obtained the disrepute which they merited. "Do you take me for a Chazelle?" was a frequent saying that served to end many an annoying discussion.
Monsieur Poiret junior, called "junior" to distinguish him from his brother Monsieur Poiret senior (now living in the Maison Vanquer, where Poiret junior sometimes dined, intending to end his days in the same retreat), had spent thirty years in the Civil Service. Nature herself is not so fixed and unvarying in her evolutions as was Poiret junior in all the acts of his daily life; he always laid his things in precisely the same place, put his pen in the same rack, sat down in his seat at the same hour, warmed himself at the stove at the same moment of the day. His sole vanity consisted in wearing an infallible watch, timed daily at the Hotel de Ville as he passed it on his way to the office. From six to eight o'clock in the morning he kept the books of a large shop in the rue Saint-Antoine, and from six to eight o'clock in the evening those of the Maison Camusot, in the rue des Bourdonnais. He thus earned three thousand francs a year, counting his salary from the government. In a few months his term of service would be up, when he would retire on a pension; he therefore showed the utmost indifference to the political intrigues of the bureaus. Like his elder brother, to whom retirement from active service had proved a fatal blow, he would probably grow an old man when he could no longer come from his home to the ministry, sit in the same chair and copy a certain number of pages. Poiret's eyes were dim, his glance weak and lifeless, his skin discolored and wrinkled, gray in tone and speckled with bluish dots; his nose flat, his lips drawn inward to the mouth, where a few defective teeth still lingered. His gray hair, flattened to the head by the pressure of his hat, gave him the look of an ecclesiastic,—a resemblance he would scarcely have liked, for he hated priests and clergy, though he could give no reasons for his anti-religious views. This antipathy, however, did not prevent him from being extremely attached to whatever administration happened to be in power. He never buttoned his old green coat, even on the coldest days, and he always wore shoes with ties, and black trousers.
No human life was ever lived so thoroughly by rule. Poiret kept all his receipted bills, even the most trifling, and all his account-books, wrapped in old shirts and put away according to their respective years from the time of his entrance at the ministry. Rough copies of his letters were dated and put away in a box, ticketed "My Correspondence." He dined at the same restaurant (the Sucking Calf in the place du Chatelet), and sat in the same place, which the waiters kept for him. He never gave five minutes more time to the shop in the rue Saint Antoine than justly belonged to it, and at half-past eight precisely he reached the Cafe David, where he breakfasted and remained till eleven. There he listened to political discussions, his arms crossed on his cane, his chin in his right hand, never saying a word. The dame du comptoir, the only woman to whom he ever spoke with pleasure, was the sole confidant of the little events of his life, for his seat was close to her counter. He played dominoes, the only game he was capable of understanding. When his partners did not happen to be present, he usually went to sleep with his back against the wainscot, holding a newspaper in his hand, the wooden file resting on the marble of his table. He was interested in the buildings going up in Paris, and spent his Sundays in walking about to examine them. He was often heard to say, "I saw the Louvre emerge from its rubbish; I saw the birth of the place du Chatelet, the quai aux Fleurs and the Markets." He and his brother, both born at Troyes, were sent in youth to serve their apprenticeship in a government office. Their mother made herself notorious by misconduct, and the two brothers had the grief of hearing of her death in the hospital at Troyes, although they had frequently sent money for her support. This event led them both not only to abjure marriage, but to feel a horror of children; ill at ease with them, they feared them as others fear madmen, and watched them with haggard eyes.
Since the day when he first came to Paris Poiret junior had never gone outside the city. He began at that time to keep a journal of his life, in which he noted down all the striking events of his day. Du Bruel told him that Lord Byron did the same thing. This likeness filled Poiret junior with delight, and led him to buy the works of Lord Byron, translated by Chastopalli, of which he did not understand a word. At the office he was often seen in a melancholy attitude, as though absorbed in thought, when in fact he was thinking of nothing at all. He did not know a single person in the house where he lived, and always carried the keys of his apartment about with him. On New-Year's day he went round and left his own cards on all the clerks of the division. Bixiou took it into his head on one of the hottest of dog-days to put a layer of lard under the lining of a certain old hat which Poiret junior (he was, by the bye, fifty-two years old) had worn for the last nine years. Bixiou, who had never seen any other hat on Poiret's head, dreamed of it and declared he tasted it in his food; he therefore resolved, in the interests of his digestion, to relieve the bureau of the sight of that amorphous old hat. Poiret junior left the office regularly at four o'clock. As he walked along, the sun's rays reflected from the pavements and walls produced a tropical heat; he felt that his head was inundated,—he, who never perspired! Feeling that he was ill, or on the point of being so, instead of going as usual to the Sucking Calf he went home, drew out from his desk the journal of his life, and recorded the fact in the following manner:—
"To-day, July 3, 1823, overtaken by extraordinary perspiration, a
sign, perhaps, of the sweating-sickness, a malady which prevails
in Champagne. I am about to consult Doctor Haudry. The disease
first appeared as I reached the highest part of the quai des
Suddenly, having taken off his hat, he became aware that the mysterious sweat had some cause independent of his own person. He wiped his face, examined the hat, and could find nothing, for he did not venture to take out the lining. All this he noted in his journal:—
"Carried my hat to the Sieur Tournan, hat-maker in the rue
Saint-Martin, for the reason that I suspect some unknown cause for
this perspiration, which, in that case, might not be perspiration,
but, possibly, the effect of something lately added, or formerly
done, to my hat."
Monsieur Tournan at once informed his customer of the presence of a greasy substance, obtained by the trying-out of the fat of a pig or sow. The next day Poiret appeared at the office with another hat, lent by Monsieur Tournan while a new one was making; but he did not sleep that night until he had added the following sentence to the preceding entries in his journal: "It is asserted that my hat contained lard, the fat of a pig."
This inexplicable fact occupied the intellect of Poiret junior for the space of two weeks; and he never knew how the phenomenon was produced. The clerks told him tales of showers of frogs, and other dog-day wonders, also the startling fact that an imprint of the head of Napoleon had been found in the root of a young elm, with other eccentricities of natural history. Vimeux informed him that one day his hat—his, Vimeux's—had stained his forehead black, and that hat-makers were in the habit of using drugs. After that Poiret paid many visits to Monsieur Tournan to inquire into his methods of manufacture.
In the Rabourdin bureau was a clerk who played the man of courage and audacity, professed the opinions of the Left centre, and rebelled against the tyrannies of Baudoyer as exercised upon what he called the unhappy slaves of that office. His name was Fleury. He boldly subscribed to an opposition newspaper, wore a gray hat with a broad brim, red bands on his blue trousers, a blue waistcoat with gilt buttons, and a surtout coat crossed over the breast like that of a quartermaster of gendarmerie. Though unyielding in his opinions, he continued to be employed in the service, all the while predicting a fatal end to a government which persisted in upholding religion. He openly avowed his sympathy for Napoleon, now that the death of that great man put an end to the laws enacted against "the partisans of the usurper." Fleury, ex-captain of a regiment of the line under the Emperor, a tall, dark, handsome fellow, was now, in addition to his civil-service post, box-keeper at the Cirque-Olympique. Bixiou never ventured on tormenting Fleury, for the rough trooper, who was a good shot and clever at fencing, seemed quite capable of extreme brutality if provoked. An ardent subscriber to "Victoires et Conquetes," Fleury nevertheless refused to pay his subscription, though he kept and read the copies, alleging that they exceeded the number proposed in the prospectus. He adored Monsieur Rabourdin, who had saved him from dismissal, and was even heard to say that if any misfortune happened to the chief through anybody's fault he would kill that person. Dutocq meanly courted Fleury because he feared him. Fleury, crippled with debt, played many a trick on his creditors. Expert in legal matters, he never signed a promissory note; and had prudently attached his own salary under the names of fictitious creditors, so that he was able to draw nearly the whole of it himself. He played ecarte, was the life of evening parties, tossed off glasses of champagne without wetting his lips, and knew all the songs of Beranger by heart. He was proud of his full, sonorous voice. His three great admirations were Napoleon, Bolivar, and Beranger. Foy, Lafitte, and Casimir Delavigne he only esteemed. Fleury, as you will have guessed already, was a Southerner, destined, no doubt, to become the responsible editor of a liberal journal.
Desroys, the mysterious clerk of the division, consorted with no one, talked little, and hid his private life so carefully that no one knew where he lived, nor who were his protectors, nor what were his means of subsistence. Looking about them for the causes of this reserve, some of his colleagues thought him a "carbonaro," others an Orleanist; there were others again who doubted whether to call him a spy or a man of solid merit. Desroys was, however, simple and solely the son of a "Conventionel," who did not vote the king's death. Cold and prudent by temperament, he had judged the world and ended by relying on no one but himself. Republican in secret, an admirer of Paul-Louis Courier and a friend of Michael Chrestien, he looked to time and public intelligence to bring about the triumph of his opinions from end to end of Europe. He dreamed of a new Germany and a new Italy. His heart swelled with that dull, collective love which we must call humanitarianism, the eldest son of deceased philanthropy, and which is to the divine catholic charity what system is to art, or reasoning to deed. This conscientious puritan of freedom, this apostle of an impossible equality, regretted keenly that his poverty forced him to serve the government, and he made various efforts to find a place elsewhere. Tall, lean, lanky, and solemn in appearance, like a man who expects to be called some day to lay down his life for a cause, he lived on a page of Volney, studied Saint-Just, and employed himself on a vindication of Robespierre, whom he regarded as the successor of Jesus Christ.
The last of the individuals belonging to these bureaus who merits a sketch here is the little La Billardiere. Having, to his great misfortune, lost his mother, and being under the protection of the minister, safe therefore from the tyrannies of Baudoyer, and received in all the ministerial salons, he was nevertheless detested by every one because of his impertinence and conceit. The two chiefs were polite to him, but the clerks held him at arm's length and prevented all companionship by means of the extreme and grotesque politeness which they bestowed upon him. A pretty youth of twenty-two, tall and slender, with the manners of an Englishman, a dandy in dress, curled and perfumed, gloved and booted in the latest fashion, and twirling an eyeglass, Benjamin de la Billardiere thought himself a charming fellow and possessed all the vices of the world with none of its graces. He was now looking forward impatiently to the death of his father, that he might succeed to the title of baron. His cards were printed "le Chevalier de la Billardiere" and on the wall of his office hung, in a frame, his coat of arms (sable, two swords in saltire, on a chief azure three mullets argent; with the motto; "Toujours fidele"). Possessed with a mania for talking heraldry, he once asked the young Vicomte de Portenduere why his arms were charged in a certain way, and drew down upon himself the happy answer, "I did not make them." He talked of his devotion to the monarchy and the attentions the Dauphine paid him. He stood very well with des Lupeaulx, whom he thought his friend, and they often breakfasted together. Bixiou posed as his mentor, and hoped to rid the division and France of the young fool by tempting him to excesses, and openly avowed that intention.
Such were the principal figures of La Billardiere's division of the ministry, where also were other clerks of less account, who resembled more or less those that are represented here. It is difficult even for an observer to decide from the aspect of these strange personalities whether the goose-quill tribe were becoming idiots from the effects of their employment or whether they entered the service because they were natural born fools. Possibly the making of them lies at the door of Nature and of the government both. Nature, to a civil-service clerk is, in fact, the sphere of the office; his horizon is bounded on all sides by green boxes; to him, atmospheric changes are the air of the corridors, the masculine exhalations contained in rooms without ventilators, the odor of paper, pens, and ink; the soil he treads is a tiled pavement or a wooden floor, strewn with a curious litter and moistened by the attendant's watering-pot; his sky is the ceiling toward which he yawns; his element is dust. Several distinguished doctors have remonstrated against the influence of this second nature, both savage and civilized, on the moral being vegetating in those dreadful pens called bureaus, where the sun seldom penetrates, where thoughts are tied down to occupations like that of horses who turn a crank and who, poor beasts, yawn distressingly and die quickly. Rabourdin was, therefore, fully justified in seeking to reform their present condition, by lessening their numbers and giving to each a larger salary and far heavier work. Men are neither wearied nor bored when doing great things. Under the present system government loses fully four hours out of the nine which the clerks owe to the service,—hours wasted, as we shall see, in conversations, in gossip, in disputes, and, above all, in underhand intriguing. The reader must have haunted the bureaus of the ministerial departments before he can realize how much their petty and belittling life resembles that of seminaries. Wherever men live collectively this likeness is obvious; in regiments, in law-courts, you will find the elements of the school on a smaller or larger scale. The government clerks, forced to be together for nine hours of the day, looked upon their office as a sort of class-room where they had tasks to perform, where the head of the bureau was no other than a schoolmaster, and where the gratuities bestowed took the place of prizes given out to proteges,—a place, moreover, where they teased and hated each other, and yet felt a certain comradeship, colder than that of a regiment, which itself is less hearty than that of seminaries. As a man advances in life he grows more selfish; egoism develops, and relaxes all the secondary bonds of affection. A government office is, in short, a microcosm of society, with its oddities and hatreds, its envy and its cupidity, its determination to push on, no matter who goes under, its frivolous gossip which gives so many wounds, and its perpetual spying.