The Government Clerks/Chapter V
At this moment the division of Monsieur de la Billardiere was in a state of unusual excitement, resulting very naturally from the event which was about to happen; for heads of divisions do not die every day, and there is no insurance office where the chances of life and death are calculated with more sagacity than in a government bureau. Self-interest stifles all compassion, as it does in children, but the government service adds hypocrisy to boot.
The clerks of the bureau Baudoyer arrived at eight o'clock in the morning, whereas those of the bureau Rabourdin seldom appeared till nine,—a circumstance which did not prevent the work in the latter office from being more rapidly dispatched than that of the former. Dutocq had important reasons for coming early on this particular morning. The previous evening he had furtively entered the study where Sebastien was at work, and had seen him copying some papers for Rabourdin; he concealed himself until he saw Sebastien leave the premises without taking any papers away with him. Certain, therefore, of finding the rather voluminous memorandum which he had seen, together with its copy, in some corner of the study, he searched through the boxes one after another until he finally came upon the fatal list. He carried it in hot haste to an autograph-printing house, where he obtained two pressed copies of the memorandum, showing, of course, Rabourdin's own writing. Anxious not to arouse suspicion, he had gone very early to the office and replaced both the memorandum and Sebastien's copy in the box from which he had taken them. Sebastien, who was kept up till after midnight at Madame Rabourdin's party, was, in spite of his desire to get to the office early, preceded by the spirit of hatred. Hatred lived in the rue Saint-Louis-Saint-Honore, whereas love and devotion lived far-off in the rue du Roi-Dore in the Marais. This slight delay was destined to affect Rabourdin's whole career.
Sebastien opened his box eagerly, found the memorandum and his own unfinished copy all in order, and locked them at once into the desk as Rabourdin had directed. The mornings are dark in these offices towards the end of December, sometimes indeed the lamps are lit till after ten o'clock; consequently Sebastien did not happen to notice the pressure of the copying-machine upon the paper. But when, about half-past nine o'clock, Rabourdin looked at his memorandum he saw at once the effects of the copying process, and all the more readily because he was then considering whether these autographic presses could not be made to do the work of copying clerks.
"Did any one get to the office before you?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Sebastien,—"Monsieur Dutocq."
"Ah! well, he was punctual. Send Antoine to me."
Too noble to distress Sebastien uselessly by blaming him for a misfortune now beyond remedy, Rabourdin said no more. Antoine came. Rabourdin asked if any clerk had remained at the office after four o'clock the previous evening. The man replied that Monsieur Dutocq had worked there later than Monsieur de la Roche, who was usually the last to leave. Rabourdin dismissed him with a nod, and resumed the thread of his reflections.
"Twice I have prevented his dismissal," he said to himself, "and this is my reward."
This morning was to Rabourdin like the solemn hour in which great commanders decide upon a battle and weigh all chances. Knowing the spirit of official life better than any one, he well knew that it would never pardon, any more than a school or the galleys or the army pardon, what looked like espionage or tale-bearing. A man capable of informing against his comrades is disgraced, dishonored, despised; the ministers in such a case would disavow their own agents. Nothing was left to an official so placed but to send in his resignation and leave Paris; his honor is permanently stained; explanations are of no avail; no one will either ask for them or listen to them. A minister may well do the same thing and be thought a great man, able to choose the right instruments; but a mere subordinate will be judged as a spy, no matter what may be his motives. While justly measuring the folly of such judgment, Rabourdin knew that it was all-powerful; and he knew, too, that he was crushed. More surprised than overwhelmed, he now sought for the best course to follow under the circumstances; and with such thoughts in his mind he was necessarily aloof from the excitement caused in the division by the death of Monsieur de la Billardiere; in fact he did not hear of it until young La Briere, who was able to appreciate his sterling value, came to tell him. About ten o'clock, in the bureau Baudoyer, Bixiou was relating the last moments of the life of the director to Minard, Desroys, Monsieur Godard, whom he had called from his private office, and Dutocq, who had rushed in with private motives of his own. Colleville and Chazelle were absent.
Bixiou [standing with his back to the stove and holding up the sole of each boot alternately to dry at the open door]. "This morning, at half-past seven, I went to inquire after our most worthy and respectable director, knight of the order of Christ, et caetera, et caetera. Yes, gentlemen, last night he was a being with twenty et caeteras, to-day he is nothing, not even a government clerk. I asked all particulars of his nurse. She told me that this morning at five o'clock he became uneasy about the royal family. He asked for the names of all the clerks who had called to inquire after him; and then he said: 'Fill my snuff-box, give me the newspaper, bring my spectacles, and change my ribbon of the Legion of honor,—it is very dirty.' I suppose you know he always wore his orders in bed. He was fully conscious, retained his senses and all his usual ideas. But, presto! ten minutes later the water rose, rose, rose and flooded his chest; he knew he was dying for he felt the cysts break. At that fatal moment he gave evident proof of his powerful mind and vast intellect. Ah, we never rightly appreciated him! We used to laugh at him and call him a booby—didn't you, Monsieur Godard?"
Godard. "I? I always rated Monsieur de la Billardiere's talents higher than the rest of you."
Bixiou. "You and he could understand each other!"
Godard. "He wasn't a bad man; he never harmed any one."
Bixiou. "To do harm you must do something, and he never did anything. If it wasn't you who said he was a dolt, it must have been Minard."
Minard [shrugging his shoulders]. "I!"
Bixiou. "Well, then it was you, Dutocq!" [Dutocq made a vehement gesture of denial.] "Oh! very good, then it was nobody. Every one in this office knew his intellect was herculean. Well, you were right. He ended, as I have said, like the great man that he was."
Desroys [impatiently]. "Pray what did he do that was so great? he had the weakness to confess himself."
Bixiou. "Yes, monsieur, he received the holy sacraments. But do you know what he did in order to receive them? He put on his uniform as gentleman-in-ordinary of the Bedchamber, with all his orders, and had himself powdered; they tied his queue (that poor queue!) with a fresh ribbon. Now I say that none but a man of remarkable character would have his queue tied with a fresh ribbon just as he was dying. There are eight of us here, and I don't believe one among us is capable of such an act. But that's not all; he said,—for you know all celebrated men make a dying speech; he said,—stop now, what did he say? Ah! he said, 'I must attire myself to meet the King of Heaven,—I, who have so often dressed in my best for audience with the kings of earth.' That's how Monsieur de la Billardiere departed this life. He took upon himself to justify the saying of Pythagoras, 'No man is known until he dies.'"
Colleville [rushing in]. "Gentlemen, great news!"
All. "We know it."
Colleville. "I defy you to know it! I have been hunting for it ever since the accession of His Majesty to the thrones of France and of Navarre. Last night I succeeded! but with what labor! Madame Colleville asked me what was the matter."
Dutocq. "Do you think we have time to bother ourselves with your intolerable anagrams when the worthy Monsieur de la Billardiere has just expired?"
Colleville. "That's Bixiou's nonsense! I have just come from Monsieur de la Billardiere's; he is still living, though they expect him to die soon." [Godard, indignant at the hoax, goes off grumbling.] "Gentlemen! you would never guess what extraordinary events are revealed by the anagram of this sacramental sentence" [he pulls out a piece of paper and reads], "Charles dix, par la grace de Dieu, roi de France et de Navarre."
Godard [re-entering]. "Tell what it is at once, and don't keep people waiting."
Colleville [triumphantly unfolding the rest of the paper]. "Listen!
"A H. V. il cedera;
De S. C. l. d. partira;
Eh nauf errera,
Decide a Gorix.
"Every letter is there!" [He repeats it.] "A Henry cinq cedera (his crown of course); de Saint-Cloud partira; en nauf (that's an old French word for skiff, vessel, felucca, corvette, anything you like) errera—"
Dutocq. "What a tissue of absurdities! How can the King cede his crown to Henry V., who, according to your nonsense, must be his grandson, when Monseigneur le Dauphin is living. Are you prophesying the Dauphin's death?"
Bixiou. "What's Gorix, pray?—the name of a cat?"
Colleville [provoked]. "It is the archaeological and lapidarial abbreviation of the name of a town, my good friend; I looked it out in Malte-Brun: Goritz, in Latin Gorixia, situated in Bohemia or Hungary, or it may be Austria—"
Bixiou. "Tyrol, the Basque provinces, or South America. Why don't you set it all to music and play it on the clarionet?"
Godard [shrugging his shoulders and departing]. "What utter nonsense!"
Colleville. "Nonsense! nonsense indeed! It is a pity you don't take the trouble to study fatalism, the religion of the Emperor Napoleon."
Godard [irritated at Colleville's tone]. "Monsieur Colleville, let me tell you that Bonaparte may perhaps be styled Emperor by historians, but it is extremely out of place to refer to him as such in a government office."
Bixiou [laughing]. "Get an anagram out of that, my dear fellow."
Colleville [angrily]. "Let me tell you that if Napoleon Bonaparte had studied the letters of his name on the 14th of April, 1814, he might perhaps be Emperor still."
Bixiou. "How do you make that out?"
Colleville [solemnly]. "Napoleon Bonaparte.—No, appear not at Elba!"
Dutocq. "You'll lose your place for talking such nonsense."
Colleville. "If my place is taken from me, Francois Keller will make it hot for your minister." [Dead silence.] "I'd have you to know, Master Dutocq, that all known anagrams have actually come to pass. Look here,—you, yourself,—don't you marry, for there's 'coqu' in your name."
Bixiou [interrupting]. "And d, t, for de-testable."
Dutocq [without seeming angry]. "I don't care, as long as it is only in my name. Why don't you anagrammatize, or whatever you call it, 'Xavier Rabourdin, chef du bureau'?"
Colleville. "Bless you, so I have!"
Bixiou [mending his pen]. "And what did you make of it?"
Colleville. "It comes out as follows: D'abord reva bureaux, E-u,—(you catch the meaning? et eut—and had) E-u fin riche; which signifies that after first belonging to the administration, he gave it up and got rich elsewhere." [Repeats.] "D'abord reva bureaux, E-u fin riche."
Dutocq. "That IS queer!"
Bixiou. "Try Isidore Baudoyer."
Colleville [mysteriously]. "I sha'n't tell the other anagrams to any one but Thuillier."
Bixiou. "I'll bet you a breakfast that I can tell that one myself."
Colleville. "And I'll pay if you find it out."
Bixiou. "Then I shall breakfast at your expense; but you won't be angry, will you? Two such geniuses as you and I need never conflict. 'Isidore Baudoyer' anagrams into 'Ris d'aboyeur d'oie.'"
Colleville [petrified with amazement]. "You stole it from me!"
Bixiou [with dignity]. "Monsieur Colleville, do me the honor to believe that I am rich enough in absurdity not to steal my neighbor's nonsense."
Baudoyer [entering with a bundle of papers in his hand]. "Gentlemen, I request you to shout a little louder; you bring this office into such high repute with the administration. My worthy coadjutor, Monsieur Clergeot, did me the honor just now to come and ask a question, and he heard the noise you are making" [passes into Monsieur Godard's room].
Bixiou [in a low voice]. "The watch-dog is very tame this morning; there'll be a change of weather before night."
Dutocq [whispering to Bixiou]. "I have something I want to say to you."
Bixiou [fingering Dutocq's waistcoat]. "You've a pretty waistcoat, that cost you nothing; is that what you want to say?"
Dutocq. "Nothing, indeed! I never paid so dear for anything in my life. That stuff cost six francs a yard in the best shop in the rue de la Paix,—a fine dead stuff, the very thing for deep mourning."
Bixiou. "You know about engravings and such things, my dear fellow, but you are totally ignorant of the laws of etiquette. Well, no man can be a universal genius! Silk is positively not admissible in deep mourning. Don't you see I am wearing woollen? Monsieur Rabourdin, Monsieur Baudoyer, and the minister are all in woollen; so is the faubourg Saint-Germain. There's no one here but Minard who doesn't wear woollen; he's afraid of being taken for a sheep. That's the reason why he didn't put on mourning for Louis XVIII."
[During this conversation Baudoyer is sitting by the fire in Godard's room, and the two are conversing in a low voice.]
Baudoyer. "Yes, the worthy man is dying. The two ministers are both with him. My father-in-law has been notified of the event. If you want to do me a signal service you will take a cab and go and let Madame Baudoyer know what is happening; for Monsieur Saillard can't leave his desk, nor I my office. Put yourself at my wife's orders; do whatever she wishes. She has, I believe, some ideas of her own, and wants to take certain steps simultaneously." [The two functionaries go out together.]
Godard. "Monsieur Bixiou, I am obliged to leave the office for the rest of the day. You will take my place."
Baudoyer [to Bixiou, benignly]. "Consult me, if there is any necessity."
Bixiou. "This time, La Billardiere is really dead."
Dutocq [in Bixiou's ear]. "Come outside a minute." [The two go into the corridor and gaze at each other like birds of ill-omen.]
Dutocq [whispering]. "Listen. Now is the time for us to understand each other and push our way. What would you say to your being made head of the bureau, and I under you?"
Bixiou [shrugging his shoulders]. "Come, come, don't talk nonsense!"
Dutocq. "If Baudoyer gets La Billardiere's place Rabourdin won't stay on where he is. Between ourselves, Baudoyer is so incapable that if du Bruel and you don't help him he will certainly be dismissed in a couple of months. If I know arithmetic that will give three empty places for us to fill—"
Bixiou. "Three places right under our noses, which will certainly be given to some bloated favorite, some spy, some pious fraud,—to Colleville perhaps, whose wife has ended where all pretty women end—in piety."
Dutocq. "No, to you, my dear fellow, if you will only, for once in your life, use your wits logically." [He stopped as if to study the effect of his adverb in Bixiou's face.] "Come, let us play fair."
Bixiou [stolidly]. "Let me see your game."
Dutocq. "I don't wish to be anything more than under-head-clerk. I know myself perfectly well, and I know I haven't the ability, like you, to be head of a bureau. Du Bruel can be director, and you the head of this bureau; he will leave you his place as soon as he has made his pile; and as for me, I shall swim with the tide comfortably, under your protection, till I can retire on a pension."
Bixiou. "Sly dog! but how to you expect to carry out a plan which means forcing the minister's hand and ejecting a man of talent? Between ourselves, Rabourdin is the only man capable of taking charge of the division, and I might say of the ministry. Do you know that they talk of putting in over his head that solid lump of foolishness, that cube of idiocy, Baudoyer?"
Dutocq [consequentially]. "My dear fellow, I am in a position to rouse the whole division against Rabourdin. You know how devoted Fleury is to him? Well, I can make Fleury despise him."
Bixiou. "Despised by Fleury!"
Dutocq. "Not a soul will stand by Rabourdin; the clerks will go in a body and complain of him to the minister,—not only in our division, but in all the divisions—"
Bixiou. "Forward, march! infantry, cavalry, artillery, and marines of the guard! You rave, my good fellow! And I, what part am I to take in the business?"
Dutocq. "You are to make a cutting caricature,—sharp enough to kill a man."
Bixiou. "How much will you pay for it?"
Dutocq. "A hundred francs."
Bixiou [to himself]. "Then there is something in it."
Dutocq [continuing]. "You must represent Rabourdin dressed as a butcher (make it a good likeness), find analogies between a kitchen and a bureau, put a skewer in his hand, draw portraits of the principal clerks and stick their heads on fowls, put them in a monstrous coop labelled 'Civil Service executions'; make him cutting the throat of one, and supposed to take the others in turn. You can have geese and ducks with heads like ours,—you understand! Baudoyer, for instance, he'll make an excellent turkey-buzzard."
Bixiou. "Ris d'aboyeur d'oie!" [He has watched Dutocq carefully for some time.] "Did you think of that yourself?"
Dutocq. "Yes, I myself."
Bixiou [to himself]. "Do evil feelings bring men to the same result as talents?" [Aloud] "Well, I'll do it" [Dutocq makes a motion of delight] "—when" [full stop] "—I know where I am and what I can rely on. If you don't succeed I shall lose my place, and I must make a living. You are a curious kind of innocent still, my dear colleague."
Dutocq. "Well, you needn't make the lithograph till success is proved."
Bixiou. "Why don't you come out and tell me the whole truth?"
Dutocq. "I must first see how the land lays in the bureau; we will talk about it later" [goes off].
Bixiou [alone in the corridor]. "That fish, for he's more a fish than a bird, that Dutocq has a good idea in his head—I'm sure I don't know where he stole it. If Baudoyer should succeed La Billardiere it would be fun, more than fun—profit!" [Returns to the office.] "Gentlemen, I announce glorious changes; papa La Billardiere is dead, really dead,—no nonsense, word of honor! Godard is off on business for our excellent chief Baudoyer, successor presumptive to the deceased." [Minard, Desroys, and Colleville raise their heads in amazement; they all lay down their pens, and Colleville blows his nose.] "Every one of us is to be promoted! Colleville will be under-head-clerk at the very least. Minard may have my place as chief clerk—why not? he is quite as dull as I am. Hey, Minard, if you should get twenty-five hundred francs a-year your little wife would be uncommonly pleased, and you could buy yourself a pair of boots now and then."
Colleville. "But you don't get twenty-five hundred francs."
Bixiou. "Monsieur Dutocq gets that in Rabourdin's office; why shouldn't I get it this year? Monsieur Baudoyer gets it."
Colleville. "Only through the influence of Monsieur Saillard. No other chief clerk gets that in any of the divisions."
Paulmier. "Bah! Hasn't Monsieur Cochin three thousand? He succeeded Monsieur Vavasseur, who served ten years under the Empire at four thousand. His salary was dropped to three when the King first returned; then to two thousand five hundred before Vavasseur died. But Monsieur Cochin, who succeeded him, had influence enough to get the salary put back to three thousand."
Colleville. "Monsieur Cochin signs E. A. L. Cochin (he is named Emile-Adolphe-Lucian), which, when anagrammed, gives Cochineal. Now observe, he's a partner in a druggist's business in the rue des Lombards, the Maison Matifat, which made its fortune by that identical colonial product."
Baudoyer [entering]. "Monsieur Chazelle, I see, is not here; you will be good enough to say I asked for him, gentlemen."
Bixiou [who had hastily stuck a hat on Chazelle's chair when he heard Baudoyer's step]. "Excuse me, Monsieur, but Chazelle has gone to the Rabourdins' to make an inquiry."
Chazelle [entering with his hat on his head, and not seeing Baudoyer]. "La Billardiere is done for, gentlemen! Rabourdin is head of the division and Master of petitions; he hasn't stolen his promotion, that's very certain."
Baudoyer [to Chazelle]. "You found that appointment in your second hat, I presume" [points to the hat on the chair]. "This is the third time within a month that you have come after nine o'clock. If you continue the practice you will get on—elsewhere." [To Bixiou, who is reading the newspaper.] "My dear Monsieur Bixiou, do pray leave the newspapers to these gentlemen who are going to breakfast, and come into my office for your orders for the day. I don't know what Monsieur Rabourdin wants with Gabriel; he keeps him to do his private errands, I believe. I've rung three times and can't get him." [Baudoyer and Bixiou retire into the private office.]
Chazelle. "Damned unlucky!"
Paulmier [delighted to annoy Chazelle]. "Why didn't you look about when you came into the room? You might have seen the elephant, and the hat too; they are big enough to be visible."
Chazelle [dismally]. "Disgusting business! I don't see why we should be treated like slaves because the government gives us four francs and sixty-five centimes a day."
Fleury [entering]. "Down with Baudoyer! hurrah for Rabourdin!—that's the cry in the division."
Chazelle [getting more and more angry]. "Baudoyer can turn off me if he likes, I sha'n't care. In Paris there are a thousand ways of earning five francs a day; why, I could earn that at the Palais de Justice, copying briefs for the lawyers."
Paulmier [still prodding him]. "It is very easy to say that; but a government place is a government place, and that plucky Colleville, who works like a galley-slave outside of this office, and who could earn, if he lost his appointment, more than his salary, prefers to keep his place. Who the devil is fool enough to give up his expectations?"
Chazelle [continuing his philippic]. "You may not be, but I am! We have no chances at all. Time was when nothing was more encouraging than a civil-service career. So many men were in the army that there were not enough for the government work; the maimed and the halt and the sick ones, like Paulmier, and the near-sighted ones, all had their chance of a rapid promotion. But now, ever since the Chamber invented what they called special training, and the rules and regulations for civil-service examiners, we are worse off than common soldiers. The poorest places are at the mercy of a thousand mischances because we are now ruled by a thousand sovereigns."
Bixiou [returning]. "Are you crazy, Chazelle? Where do you find a thousand sovereigns?—not in your pocket, are they?"
Chazelle. "Count them up. There are four hundred over there at the end of the pont de la Concorde (so called because it leads to the scene of perpetual discord between the Right and Left of the Chamber); three hundred more at the end of the rue de Tournon. The court, which ought to count for the other three hundred, has seven hundred parts less power to get a man appointed to a place under government than the Emperor Napoleon had."
Fleury. "All of which signifies that in a country where there are three powers you may bet a thousand to one that a government clerk who has no influence but his own merits to advance him will remain in obscurity."
Bixiou [looking alternately at Chazelle and Fleury]. "My sons, you have yet to learn that in these days the worst state of life is the state of belonging to the State."
Fleury. "Because it has a constitutional government."
Colleville. "Gentlemen, gentlemen! no politics!"
Bixiou. "Fleury is right. Serving the State in these days is no longer serving a prince who knew how to punish and reward. The State now is everybody. Everybody of course cares for nobody. Serve everybody, and you serve nobody. Nobody is interested in nobody; the government clerk lives between two negations. The world has neither pity nor respect, neither heart nor head; everybody forgets to-morrow the service of yesterday. Now each one of you may be, like Monsieur Baudoyer, an administrative genius, a Chateaubriand of reports, a Bossouet of circulars, the Canalis of memorials, the gifted son of diplomatic despatches; but I tell you there is a fatal law which interferes with all administrative genius,—I mean the law of promotion by average. This average is based on the statistics of promotion and the statistics of mortality combined. It is very certain that on entering whichever section of the Civil Service you please at the age of eighteen, you can't get eighteen hundred francs a year till you reach the age of thirty. Now there's no free and independent career in which, in the course of twelve years, a young man who has gone through the grammar-school, been vaccinated, is exempt from military service, and possesses all his faculties (I don't mean transcendent ones) can't amass a capital of forty-five thousand francs in centimes, which represents a permanent income equal to our salaries, which are, after all, precarious. In twelve years a grocer can earn enough to give him ten thousand francs a year; a painter can daub a mile of canvas and be decorated with the Legion of honor, or pose as a neglected genius. A literary man becomes professor of something or other, or a journalist at a hundred francs for a thousand lines; he writes 'feuilletons,' or he gets into Saint-Pelagie for a brilliant article that offends the Jesuits,—which of course is an immense benefit to him and makes him a politician at once. Even a lazy man, who does nothing but make debts, has time to marry a widow who pays them; a priest finds time to become a bishop 'in partibus.' A sober, intelligent young fellow, who begins with a small capital as a money-changer, soon buys a share in a broker's business; and, to go even lower, a petty clerk becomes a notary, a rag-picker lays by two or three thousand francs a year, and the poorest workmen often become manufacturers; whereas, in the rotatory movement of this present civilization, which mistakes perpetual division and redivision for progress, an unhappy civil service clerk, like Chazelle for instance, is forced to dine for twenty-two sous a meal, struggles with his tailor and bootmaker, gets into debt, and is an absolute nothing; worse than that, he becomes an idiot! Come, gentlemen, now's the time to make a stand! Let us all give in our resignations! Fleury, Chazelle, fling yourselves into other employments and become the great men you really are."
Chazelle [calmed down by Bixiou's allocution]. "No, I thank you" [general laughter].
Bixiou. "You are wrong; in your situation I should try to get ahead of the general-secretary."
Chazelle [uneasily]. "What has he to do with me?"
Bixiou. "You'll find out; do you suppose Baudoyer will overlook what happened just now?"
Fleury. "Another piece of Bixiou's spite! You've a queer fellow to deal with in there. Now, Monsieur Rabourdin,—there's a man for you! He put work on my table to-day that you couldn't get through within this office in three days; well, he expects me to have it done by four o'clock to-day. But he is not always at my heels to hinder me from talking to my friends."
Baudoyer [appearing at the door]. "Gentlemen, you will admit that if you have the legal right to find fault with the chamber and the administration you must at least do so elsewhere than in this office." [To Fleury.] "What are you doing here, monsieur?"
Fleury [insolently]. "I came to tell these gentlemen that there was to be a general turn-out. Du Bruel is sent for to the ministry, and Dutocq also. Everybody is asking who will be appointed."
Baudoyer [retiring]. "It is not your affair, sir; go back to your own office, and do not disturb mine."
Fleury [in the doorway]. "It would be a shameful injustice if Rabourdin lost the place; I swear I'd leave the service. Did you find that anagram, papa Colleville?"
Colleville. "Yes, here it is."
Fleury [leaning over Colleville's desk]. "Capital! famous! This is just what will happen if the administration continues to play the hypocrite." [He makes a sign to the clerks that Baudoyer is listening.] "If the government would frankly state its intentions without concealments of any kind, the liberals would know what they had to deal with. An administration which sets its best friends against itself, such men as those of the 'Debats,' Chateaubriand, and Royer-Collard, is only to be pitied!"
Colleville [after consulting his colleagues]. "Come, Fleury, you're a good fellow, but don't talk politics here; you don't know what harm you may do us."
Fleury [dryly]. "Well, adieu, gentlemen; I have my work to do by four o'clock."
While this idle talk had been going on, des Lupeaulx was closeted in his office with du Bruel, where, a little later, Dutocq joined them. Des Lupeaulx had heard from his valet of La Billardiere's death, and wishing to please the two ministers, he wanted an obituary article to appear in the evening papers.
"Good morning, my dear du Bruel," said the semi-minister to the head-clerk as he entered, and not inviting him to sit down. "You have heard the news? La Billardiere is dead. The ministers were both present when he received the last sacraments. The worthy man strongly recommended Rabourdin, saying he should die with less regret if he could know that his successor were the man who had so constantly done his work. Death is a torture which makes a man confess everything. The minister agreed the more readily because his intention and that of the Council was to reward Monsieur Rabourdin's numerous services. In fact, the Council of State needs his experience. They say that young La Billardiere is to leave the division of his father and go to the Commission of Seals; that's just the same as if the King had made him a present of a hundred thousand francs,—the place can always be sold. But I know the news will delight your division, which will thus get rid of him. Du Bruel, we must get ten or a dozen lines about the worthy late director into the papers; his Excellency will glance them over,—he reads the papers. Do you know the particulars of old La Billardiere's life?"
Du Bruel made a sign in the negative.
"No?" continued des Lupeaulx. "Well then; he was mixed up in the affairs of La Vendee, and he was one of the confidants of the late King. Like Monsieur le Comte de Fontaine he always refused to hold communication with the First Consul. He was a bit of a 'chouan'; born in Brittany of a parliamentary family, and ennobled by Louis XVIII. How old was he? never mind about that; just say his loyalty was untarnished, his religion enlightened,—the poor old fellow hated churches and never set foot in one, but you had better make him out a 'pious vassal.' Bring in, gracefully, that he sang the song of Simeon at the accession of Charles X. The Comte d'Artois thought very highly of La Billardiere, for he co-operated in the unfortunate affair of Quiberon and took the whole responsibility on himself. You know about that, don't you? La Billardiere defended the King in a printed pamphlet in reply to an impudent history of the Revolution written by a journalist; you can allude to his loyalty and devotion. But be very careful what you say; weigh your words, so that the other newspapers can't laugh at us; and bring me the article when you've written it. Were you at Rabourdin's yesterday?"
"Yes, monseigneur," said du Bruel, "Ah! beg pardon."
"No harm done," answered des Lupeaulx, laughing.
"Madame Rabourdin looked delightfully handsome," added du Bruel. "There are not two women like her in Paris. Some are as clever as she, but there's not one so gracefully witty. Many women may even be handsomer, but it would be hard to find one with such variety of beauty. Madame Rabourdin is far superior to Madame Colleville," said the vaudevillist, remembering des Lupeaulx's former affair. "Flavie owes what she is to the men about her, whereas Madame Rabourdin is all things in herself. It is wonderful too what she knows; you can't tell secrets in Latin before her. If I had such a wife, I know I should succeed in everything."
"You have more mind than an author ought to have," returned des Lupeaulx, with a conceited air. Then he turned round and perceived Dutocq. "Ah, good-morning, Dutocq," he said. "I sent for you to lend me your Charlet—if you have the whole complete. Madame la comtesse knows nothing of Charlet."
Du Bruel retired.
"Why do you come in without being summoned?" said des Lupeaulx, harshly, when he and Dutocq were left alone. "Is the State in danger that you must come here at ten o'clock in the morning, just as I am going to breakfast with his Excellency?"
"Perhaps it is, monsieur," said Dutocq, dryly. "If I had had the honor to see you earlier, you would probably have not been so willing to support Monsieur Rabourdin, after reading his opinion of you."
Dutocq opened his coat, took a paper from the left-hand breast-pocket and laid it on des Lupeaulx's desk, pointing to a marked passage. Then he went to the door and slipped the bolt, fearing interruption. While he was thus employed, the secretary-general read the opening sentence of the article, which was as follows:
"Monsieur des Lupeaulx. A government degrades itself by openly
employing such a man, whose real vocation is for police diplomacy.
He is fitted to deal with the political filibusters of other
cabinets, and it would be a pity therefore to employ him on our
internal detective police. He is above a common spy, for he is
able to understand a plan; he could skilfully carry through a dark
piece of work and cover his retreat safely."
Des Lupeaulx was succinctly analyzed in five or six such paragraphs,—the essence, in fact, of the biographical portrait which we gave at the beginning of this history. As he read the words the secretary felt that a man stronger than himself sat in judgment on him; and he at once resolved to examine the memorandum, which evidently reached far and high, without allowing Dutocq to know his secret thoughts. He therefore showed a calm, grave face when the spy returned to him. Des Lupeaulx, like lawyers, magistrates, diplomatists, and all whose work obliges them to pry into the human heart, was past being surprised at anything. Hardened in treachery and in all the tricks and wiles of hatred, he could take a stab in the back and not let his face tell of it.
"How did you get hold of this paper?"
Dutocq related his good luck; des Lupeaulx's face as he listened expressed no approbation; and the spy ended in terror an account which began triumphantly.
"Dutocq, you have put your finger between the bark and the tree," said the secretary, coldly. "If you don't want to make powerful enemies I advise you to keep this paper a profound secret; it is a work of the utmost importance and already well known to me."
So saying, des Lupeaulx dismissed Dutocq by one of those glances that are more expressive than words.
"Ha! that scoundrel of a Rabourdin has put his finger in this!" thought Dutocq, alarmed on finding himself anticipated; "he has reached the ear of the administration, while I am left out in the cold. I shouldn't have thought it!"
To all his other motives of aversion to Rabourdin he now added the jealousy of one man to another man of the same calling,—a most powerful ingredient in hatred.
When des Lupeaulx was left alone, he dropped into a strange meditation. What power was it of which Rabourdin was the instrument? Should he, des Lupeaulx, use this singular document to destroy him, or should he keep it as a weapon to succeed with the wife? The mystery that lay behind this paper was all darkness to des Lupeaulx, who read with something akin to terror page after page, in which the men of his acquaintance were judged with unerring wisdom. He admired Rabourdin, though stabbed to his vitals by what he said of him. The breakfast-hour suddenly cut short his meditation.
"His Excellency is waiting for you to come down," announced the minister's footman.
The minister always breakfasted with his wife and children and des Lupeaulx, without the presence of servants. The morning meal affords the only moment of privacy which public men can snatch from the current of overwhelming business. Yet in spite of the precautions they take to keep this hour for private intimacies and affections, a good many great and little people manage to infringe upon it. Business itself will, as at this moment, thrust itself in the way of their scanty comfort.
"I thought Rabourdin was a man above all ordinary petty manoeuvres," began the minister; "and yet here, not ten minutes after La Billardiere's death, he sends me this note by La Briere,—it is like a stage missive. Look," said his Excellency, giving des Lupeaulx a paper which he was twirling in his fingers.
Too noble in mind to think for a moment of the shameful meaning La Billardiere's death might lend to his letter, Rabourdin had not withdrawn it from La Briere's hands after the news reached him. Des Lupeaulx read as follows:—
"Monseigneur,—If twenty-three years of irreproachable services
may claim a favor, I entreat your Excellency to grant me an
audience this very day. My honor is involved in the matter of
which I desire to speak."
"Poor man!" said des Lupeaulx, in a tone of compassion which confirmed the minister in his error. "We are alone; I advise you to see him now. You have a meeting of the Council when the Chamber rises; moreover, your Excellency has to reply to-day to the opposition; this is really the only hour when you can receive him."
Des Lupeaulx rose, called the servant, said a few words, and returned to his seat. "I have told them to bring him in at dessert," he said.
Like all other ministers under the Restoration, this particular minister was a man without youth. The charter granted by Louis XVIII. had the defect of tying the hands of the kings by compelling them to deliver the destinies of the nation into the control of the middle-aged men of the Chamber and the septuagenarians of the peerage; it robbed them of the right to lay hands on a man of statesmanlike talent wherever they could find him, no matter how young he was or how poverty-stricken his condition might be. Napoleon alone was able to employ young men as he chose, without being restrained by any consideration. After the overthrow of that mighty will, vigor deserted power. Now the period when effeminacy succeeds to vigor presents a contrast that is far more dangerous in France than in other countries. As a general thing, ministers who were old before they entered office have proved second or third rate, while those who were taken young have been an honor to European monarchies and to the republics whose affairs they have directed. The world still rings with the struggle between Pitt and Napoleon, two men who conducted the politics of their respective countries at an age when Henri de Navarre, Richelieu, Mazarin, Colbert, Louvois, the Prince of Orange, the Guises, Machiavelli, in short, all the best known of our great men, coming from the ranks or born to a throne, began to rule the State. The Convention—that model of energy—was made up in a great measure of young heads; no sovereign can ever forget that it was able to put fourteen armies into the field against Europe. Its policy, fatal in the eyes of those who cling to what is called absolute power, was nevertheless dictated by strictly monarchical principles, and it behaved itself like any of the great kings.
After ten or a dozen years of parliamentary struggle, having studied the science of politics until he was worn down by it, this particular minister had come to be enthroned by his party, who considered him in the light of their business man. Happily for him he was now nearer sixty than fifty years of age; had he retained even a vestige of juvenile vigor he would quickly have quenched it. But, accustomed to back and fill, retreat and return to the charge, he was able to endure being struck at, turn and turn about, by his own party, by the opposition, by the court, by the clergy, because to all such attacks he opposed the inert force of a substance which was equally soft and consistent; thus he reaped the benefits of what was really his misfortune. Harassed by a thousand questions of government, his mind, like that of an old lawyer who has tried every species of case, no longer possessed the spring which solitary minds are able to retain, nor that power of prompt decision which distinguishes men who are early accustomed to action, and young soldiers. How could it be otherwise? He had practised sophistries and quibbled instead of judging; he had criticised effects and done nothing for causes; his head was full of plans such as a political party lays upon the shoulders of a leader,—matters of private interest brought to an orator supposed to have a future, a jumble of schemes and impractical requests. Far from coming fresh to his work, he was wearied out with marching and counter-marching, and when he finally reached the much desired height of his present position, he found himself in a thicket of thorny bushes with a thousand conflicting wills to conciliate. If the statesmen of the Restoration had been allowed to follow out their own ideas, their capacity would doubtless have been criticised; but though their wills were often forced, their age saved them from attempting the resistance which youth opposes to intrigues, both high and low,—intrigues which vanquished Richelieu, and to which, in a lower sphere, Rabourdin was to succumb.
After the rough and tumble of their first struggles in political life these men, less old than aged, have to endure the additional wear and tear of a ministry. Thus it is that their eyes begin to weaken just as they need to have the clear-sightedness of eagles; their mind is weary when its youth and fire need to be redoubled. The minister in whom Rabourdin sought to confide was in the habit of listening to men of undoubted superiority as they explained ingenious theories of government, applicable or inapplicable to the affairs of France. Such men, by whom the difficulties of national policy were never apprehended, were in the habit of attacking this minister personally whenever a parliamentary battle or a contest with the secret follies of the court took place,—on the eve of a struggle with the popular mind, or on the morrow of a diplomatic discussion which divided the Council into three separate parties. Caught in such a predicament, a statesman naturally keeps a yawn ready for the first sentence designed to show him how the public service could be better managed. At such periods not a dinner took place among bold schemers or financial and political lobbyists where the opinions of the Bourse and the Bank, the secrets of diplomacy, and the policy necessitated by the state of affairs in Europe were not canvassed and discussed. The minister has his own private councillors in des Lupeaulx and his secretary, who collected and pondered all opinions and discussions for the purpose of analyzing and controlling the various interests proclaimed and supported by so many clever men. In fact, his misfortune was that of most other ministers who have passed the prime of life; he trimmed and shuffled under all his difficulties,—with journalism, which at this period it was thought advisable to repress in an underhand way rather than fight openly; with financial as well as labor questions; with the clergy as well as with that other question of the public lands; with liberalism as with the Chamber. After manoeuvering his way to power in the course of seven years, the minister believed that he could manage all questions of administration in the same way. It is so natural to think we can maintain a position by the same methods which served us to reach it that no one ventured to blame a system invented by mediocrity to please minds of its own calibre. The Restoration, like the Polish revolution, proved to nations as to princes the true value of a Man, and what will happen if that necessary man is wanting. The last and the greatest weakness of the public men of the Restoration was their honesty, in a struggle in which their adversaries employed the resources of political dishonesty, lies, and calumnies, and let loose upon them, by all subversive means, the clamor of the unintelligent masses, able only to understand revolt.
Rabourdin told himself all these things. But he had made up his mind to win or lose, like a man weary of gambling who allows himself a last stake; ill-luck had given him as adversary in the game a sharper like des Lupeaulx. With all his sagacity, Rabourdin was better versed in matters of administration than in parliamentary optics, and he was far indeed from imagining how his confidence would be received; he little thought that the great work that filled his mind would seem to the minister nothing more than a theory, and that a man who held the position of a statesman would confound his reform with the schemes of political and self-interested talkers.
As the minister rose from table, thinking of Francois Keller, his wife detained him with the offer of a bunch of grapes, and at that moment Rabourdin was announced. Des Lupeaulx had counted on the minister's preoccupation and his desire to get away; seeing him for the moment occupied with his wife, the general-secretary went forward to meet Rabourdin; whom he petrified with his first words, said in a low tone of voice:—
"His Excellency and I know what the subject is that occupies your mind; you have nothing to fear"; then, raising his voice, he added, "neither from Dutocq nor from any one else."
"Don't feel uneasy, Rabourdin," said his Excellency, kindly, but making a movement to get away.
Rabourdin came forward respectfully, and the minister could not evade him.
"Will your Excellency permit me to see you for a moment in private?" he said, with a mysterious glance.
The minister looked at the clock and went towards the window, whither the poor man followed him.
"When may I have the honor of submitting the matter of which I spoke to your Excellency? I desire to fully explain the plan of administration to which the paper that was taken belongs—"
"Plan of administration!" exclaimed the minister, frowning, and hurriedly interrupting him. "If you have anything of that kind to communicate you must wait for the regular day when we do business together. I ought to be at the Council now; and I have an answer to make to the Chamber on that point which the opposition raised before the session ended yesterday. Your day is Wednesday next; I could not work yesterday, for I had other things to attend to; political matters are apt to interfere with purely administrative ones."
"I place my honor with all confidence in your Excellency's hands," said Rabourdin gravely, "and I entreat you to remember that you have not allowed me time to give you an immediate explanation of the stolen paper—"
"Don't be uneasy," said des Lupeaulx, interposing between the minister and Rabourdin, whom he thus interrupted; "in another week you will probably be appointed—"
The minister smiled as he thought of des Lupeaulx's enthusiasm for Madame Rabourdin, and he glanced knowingly at his wife. Rabourdin saw the look, and tried to imagine its meaning; his attention was diverted for a moment, and his Excellency took advantage of the fact to make his escape.
"We will talk of all this, you and I," said des Lupeaulx, with whom Rabourdin, much to his surprise, now found himself alone. "Don't be angry with Dutocq; I'll answer for his discretion."
"Madame Rabourdin is charming," said the minister's wife, wishing to say the civil thing to the head of a bureau.
The children all gazed at Rabourdin with curiosity. The poor man had come there expecting some serious, even solemn, result, and he was like a great fish caught in the threads of a flimsy net; he struggled with himself.
"Madame la comtesse is very good," he said.
"Shall I not have the pleasure of seeing Madame here some Wednesday?" said the countess. "Pray bring her; it will give me pleasure."
"Madame Rabourdin herself receives on Wednesdays," interrupted des Lupeaulx, who knew the empty civility of an invitation to the official Wednesdays; "but since you are so kind as to wish for her, you will soon give one of your private parties, and—"
The countess rose with some irritation.
"You are the master of my ceremonies," she said to des Lupeaulx,—ambiguous words, by which she expressed the annoyance she felt with the secretary for presuming to interfere with her private parties, to which she admitted only a select few. She left the room without bowing to Rabourdin, who remained alone with des Lupeaulx; the latter was twisting in his fingers the confidential letter to the minister which Rabourdin had intrusted to La Briere. Rabourdin recognized it.
"You have never really known me," said des Lupeaulx. "Friday evening we will come to a full understanding. Just now I must go and receive callers; his Excellency saddles me with that burden when he has other matters to attend to. But I repeat, Rabourdin, don't worry yourself; you have nothing to fear."
Rabourdin walked slowly through the corridors, amazed and confounded by this singular turn of events. He had expected Dutocq to denounce him, and found he had not been mistaken; des Lupeaulx had certainly seen the document which judged him so severely, and yet des Lupeaulx was fawning on his judge! It was all incomprehensible. Men of upright minds are often at a loss to understand complicated intrigues, and Rabourdin was lost in a maze of conjecture without being able to discover the object of the game which the secretary was playing.
"Either he has not read the part about himself, or he loves my wife."
Such were the two thoughts to which his mind arrived as he crossed the courtyard; for the glance he had intercepted the night before between des Lupeaulx and Celestine came back to his memory like a flash of lightning.