The Middle Classes/Part I/Chapter IX
It was not on the next day, Monday, but on the following day, Tuesday, that Dutocq and Theodose went to see Cerizet, the former having called la Peyrade's attention to the fact that Cerizet always absented himself on Sundays and Mondays, taking advantage of the total absence of clients on those days, which are devoted by the populace to debauch. The house toward which they directed their steps is one of the striking features in the faubourg Saint-Jacques, and it is quite as important to study it here as it was to study those of Phellion and Thuillier. It is not known (true, no commission has yet been appointed to examine this phenomenon), no one knows why certain quarters become degraded and vulgarized, morally as well as materially; why, for instance, the ancient residence of the court and the church, the Luxembourg and the Latin quarter, have become what they are to-day, in spite of the presence of the finest palaces in the world, in spite of the bold cupola of Sainte-Genevieve, that of Mansard on the Val-de-Grace, and the charms of the Jardin des Plantes. One asks one's self why the elegance of life has left that region; why the Vauquer houses, the Phellion and the Thuillier houses now swarm with tenants and boarders, on the site of so many noble and religious buildings, and why such mud and dirty trades and poverty should have fastened on a hilly piece of ground, instead of spreading out upon the flat land beyond the confines of the ancient city.
The angel whose beneficence once hovered above this quarter being dead, usury, on the lowest scale, rushed in and took his place. To the old judge, Popinot, succeeded Cerizet; and strange to say,—a fact which it is well to study,—the effect produced, socially speaking, was much the same. Popinot loaned money without interest, and was willing to lose; Cerizet lost nothing, and compelled the poor to work hard and stay virtuous. The poor adored Popinot, but they did not hate Cerizet. Here, in this region, revolves the lowest wheel of Parisian financiering. At the top, Nucingen & Co., the Kellers, du Tillet, and the Mongenods; a little lower down, the Palmas, Gigonnets, and Gobsecks; lower still, the Samonons, Chaboisseaus, and Barbets; and lastly (after the pawn-shops) comes this king of usury, who spreads his nets at the corners of the streets to entangle all miseries and miss none,—Cerizet, "money lender by the little week."
The frogged frock-coat will have prepared you for the den in which this convicted stock-broker carried on his present business.
The house was humid with saltpetre; the walls, sweating moisture, were enamelled all over with large slabs of mould. Standing at the corner of the rue des Postes and rue des Poules, it presented first a ground-floor, occupied partly by a shop for the sale of the commonest kind of wine, painted a coarse bright red, decorated with curtains of red calico, furnished with a leaden counter, and guarded by formidable iron bars. Above the gate of an odious alley hung a frightful lantern, on which were the words "Night lodgings here." The outer walls were covered with iron crossbars, showing, apparently, the insecurity of the building, which was owned by the wine-merchant, who also inhabited the entresol. The widow Poiret (nee Michonneau) kept furnished lodgings on the first, second, and third floors, consisting of single rooms for workmen and for the poorest class of students.
Cerizet occupied one room on the ground-floor and another in the entresol, to which he mounted by an interior staircase; this entresol looked out upon a horrible paved court, from which arose mephitic odors. Cerizet paid forty francs a month to the widow Poiret for his breakfast and dinner; he thus conciliated her by becoming her boarder; he also made himself acceptable to the wine-merchant by procuring him an immense sale of wine and liquors among his clients—profits realized before sunrise; the wine-shop beginning operations about three in the morning in summer, and five in winter.
The hour of the great Market, which so many of his clients, male and female, attended, was the determining cause of Cerizet's early hours. The Sieur Cadenet, the wine-merchant, in view of the custom which he owed to the usurer, had let him the two rooms for the low price of eighty francs a year, and had given him a lease for twelve years, which Cerizet alone had a right to break, without paying indemnity, at three months' notice. Cadenet always carried in a bottle of excellent wine for the dinner of this useful tenant; and when Cerizet was short of money he had only to say to his friend, "Cadenet, lend me a few hundred francs,"—loans which he faithfully repaid.
Cadenet, it was said, had proof of the widow Poiret having deposited in Cerizet's hands some two thousand francs for investment, which may explain the progress of the latter's affairs since the day when he first took up his abode in the quarter, supplied with a last note of a thousand francs and Dutocq's protection. Cadenet, prompted by a cupidity which success increased, had proposed, early in the year, to put twenty thousand francs into the hands of his friend Cerizet. But Cerizet had positively declined them, on the ground that he ran risks of a nature to become a possible cause of dispute with associates.
"I could only," he said to Cadenet, "take them at six per cent interest, and you can do better than that in your own business. We will go into partnership later, if you like, in some serious enterprise, some good opportunity which may require, say, fifty thousand francs. When you have got that sum to invest, let me know, and we'll talk about it."
Cerizet had only suggested the affair of the house to Theodose after making sure that among the three, Madame Poiret, Cadenet, and himself, it was impossible to raise the full sum of one hundred thousand francs.
The "lender by the little week" was thus in perfect safety in his den, where he could even, if necessity came, appeal to the law. On certain mornings there might be seen as many as sixty or eighty persons, men as often as women, either in the wine-shop, or the alley, or sitting on the staircase, for the distrustful Cerizet would only admit six persons at a time into his office. The first comers were first served, and each had to go by his number, which the wine-merchant, or his shop-boy, affixed to the hats of the man and the backs of the women. Sometimes the clients would sell to each other (as hackney-coachmen do on the cabstands), head numbers for tail numbers. On certain days, when the market business was pressing, a head number was often sold for a glass of brandy and a sou. The numbers, as they issued from Cerizet's office, called up the succeeding numbers; and if any disputes arose Cadenet put a stop to the fray at once my remarking:—
"If you get the police here you won't gain anything; he'll shut up shop."
HE was Cerizet's name. When, in the course of the day, some hapless woman, without an atom of food in her room, and seeing her children pale with hunger, would come to borrow ten or twenty sous, she would say to the wine-merchant anxiously:—
"Is he there?"
Cadenet, a short, stout man, dressed in blue, with outer sleeves of black stuff and a wine-merchant's apron, and always wearing a cap, seemed an angel to these mothers when he replied to them:—
"He told me that you were an honest woman and I might give you forty sous. You know what you must do about it—"
And, strange to say, he was blessed by these poor people, even as they had lately blessed Popinot.
But Cerizet was cursed on Sunday mornings when accounts were settled; and they cursed him even more on Saturdays, when it was necessary to work in order to repay the sum borrowed with interest. But, after all, he was Providence, he was God from Tuesday to Friday of every week.
The room which he made his office, formerly the kitchen of the next floor, was bare; the beams of the ceiling had been whitewashed, but still bore marks of smoke. The walls, along which he had put benches, and the stone floor, retained and gave out dampness. The fireplace, where the crane remained, was partly filled by an iron stove in which Cerizet burned sea-coal when the weather was severe. A platform about half a foot high and eight feet square extended from the edge of the fireplace; on it was fastened a common table and an armchair with a round cushion covered with green leather. Behind him, Cerizet had sheathed the walls with planks; also protecting himself with a little wooden screen, painted white, from the draught between the window and door; but this screen, made of two leaves, was so placed that the warmth from the stove reached him. The window had enormous inside shutters of cast-iron, held, when closed, by a bar. The door commanded respect by an armor of the same character.
At the farther end of this room, in a corner, was a spiral-staircase, coming, evidently, from some pulled-down shop, and bought in the rue Chapon by Cadenet, who had fitted it through the ceiling into the room in the entresol occupied by Cerizet. In order to prevent all communication with the upper floors, Cerizet had exacted that the door of that room which opened on the common landing should be walled up. The place had thus become a fortress. The bedroom above had a cheap carpet bought for twenty francs, an iron bedstead, a bureau, three chairs, and an iron safe, made by a good workman, which Cerizet had bought at a bargain. He shaved before a glass on the chimney-piece; he owned two pairs of cotton sheets and six cotton shirts; the rest of his visible wardrobe was of the same character. Cadenet had once seen Cerizet dressed like a dandy of the period; he must, therefore, have kept hidden, in some drawer of his bureau, a complete disguise with which he could go to the opera, see the world, and not be recognized, for, had it not been that Cadenet heard his voice, he would certainly have asked him who he was.
What pleased the clients of this man most was his joviality and his repartees; he talked their language. Cadenet, his two shop-men, and Cerizet, living in the midst of dreadful misery, behaved with the calmness of undertakers in presence of afflicted heirs, of old sergeants of the Guard among heaps of dead. They no more shuddered on hearing cries of hunger and despair than surgeons shudder at the cries of their patients in hospital; they said, as the soldiers and the dressers said, the perfunctory words, "Have patience! a little courage! What's the good of grieving? Suppose you kill yourself, what then? One gets accustomed to everything; be reasonable!"
Though Cerizet took the precaution to hide the money necessary for his morning operations in the hollow seat of the chair in which he sat, taking out no more than a hundred francs at a time, which he put in the pockets of his trousers, never dipping into the funds of the chair except between the entrance of two batches of clients (keeping his door locked and not opening it till all was safely stowed in his pockets), he had really nothing to fear from the various despairs which found their way from all sides to this rendezvous of misery. Certainly, there are many different ways of being honest and virtuous; and the "Monograph of Virtue" has no other basis than this social axiom. A man is false to his conscience; he fails, apparently, in delicacy; he forfeits that bloom of honor which, though lost, does not, as yet, mean general disrepute; at last, however, he fails decidedly in honor; if he falls into the hands of the correctional police, he is not, as yet, guilty of crime before the court of assizes; but after he is branded with infamy by the verdict of a jury he may still be honored at the galleys for the species of honor and integrity practised by criminals among themselves, which consists in not betraying each other, in sharing booty loyally, and in running all dangers. Well, this last form of honor—which is perhaps a calculation, a necessity, the practice of which offers certain opportunities for grandeur to the guilty man and the possibility of a return to good—reigned absolutely between Cerizet and his clients. Never did Cerizet make an error, nor his poor people either; neither side ever denied what was due, either capital or interests. Many a time Cerizet, who was born among the people, corrected from one week to another some accidental error, to the benefit of a poor man who had never discovered it. He was called a Jew, but an honest one, and his word in that city of sorrows was sacred. A woman died, causing a loss to him of thirty francs:
"See my profits! there they go!" he said to his assemblage, "and you howl upon me! You know I'll never trouble the brats; in fact, Cadenet has already taken them bread and heel-taps."
After that it was said of him in both faubourgs:—
"He is not a bad fellow!"
The "loan by the little week," as interpreted by Cerizet, is not, considering all things, so cruel a thing as the pawn-shop. Cerizet loaned ten francs Tuesday on condition of receiving twelve francs Sunday morning. In five weeks he doubled his capital; but he had to make many compromises. His kindness consisted in accepting, from time to time, eleven francs and fifty centimes; sometimes the whole interest was still owing. When he gave fifty francs for sixty to a fruit-stall man, or a hundred francs for one hundred and twenty to a seller of peat-fuel, he ran great risks.
On reaching the rue des Poules through the rue des Postes, Theodose and Dutocq saw a great assemblage of men and women, and by the light which the wine-merchant's little oil-lamps cast upon these groups, they were horrified at beholding that mass of red, seamed, haggard faces; solemn with suffering, withered, distorted, swollen with wine, pallid from liquor; some threatening, others resigned, some sarcastic or jeering, others besotted; all rising from the midst of those terrible rags, which no designer can surpass in his most extravagant caricatures.
"I shall be recognized," said Theodose, pulling Dutocq away; "we have done a foolish thing to come here at this hour and take him in the midst of his business."
"All the more that Claparon may be sleeping in his lair, the interior of which we know nothing about. Yes, there are dangers for you, but none for me; I shall be thought to have business with my copying-clerk, and I'll go and tell him to come and dine with us; this is court day, so we can't have him to breakfast. I'll tell him to meet us at the 'Chaumiere' in one of the garden dining-rooms."
"Bad; anybody could listen to us there without being seen," said la Peyrade. "I prefer the 'Petit Rocher de Cancale'; we can go into a private room and speak low."
"But suppose you are seen with Cerizet?"
"Well, then, let's go to the 'Cheval Rouge,' quai de la Tournelle."
"That's best; seven o'clock; nobody will be there then."
Dutocq advanced alone into the midst of that congress of beggars, and he heard his own name repeated from mouth to mouth, for he could hardly fail to encounter among them some jail-bird familiar with the judge's office, just as Theodose was certain to have met a client.
In these quarters the justice-of-peace is the supreme authority; all legal contests stop short at his office, especially since the law was passed giving to those judges sovereign power in all cases of litigation involving not over one hundred and forty francs. A way was made for the judge's clerk, who was not less feared than the judge himself. He saw women seated on the staircase; a horrible display of pallor and suffering of many kinds. Dutocq was almost asphyxiated when he opened the door of the room in which already sixty persons had left their odors.
"Your number? your number?" cried several voices.
"Hold your jaw!" cried a gruff voice from the street, "that's the pen of the judge."
Profound silence followed. Dutocq found his copying clerk clothed in a jacket of yellow leather like that of the gloves of the gendarmerie, beneath which he wore an ignoble waistcoat of knitted wool. The reader must imagine the man's diseased head issuing from this species of scabbard and covered with a miserable Madras handkerchief, which, leaving to view the forehead and neck, gave to that head, by the gleam of a tallow candle of twelve to the pound, its naturally hideous and threatening character.
"It can't be done that way, papa Lantimeche," Cerizet was saying to a tall old man, seeming to be about seventy years of age, who was standing before him with a red woollen cap in his hand, exhibiting a bald head, and a breast covered with white hairs visible through his miserable linen jacket. "Tell me exactly what you want to undertake. One hundred francs, even on condition of getting back one hundred and twenty, can't be let loose that way, like a dog in a church—"
The five other applicants, among whom were two women, both with infants, one knitting, the other suckling her child, burst out laughing.
When Cerizet saw Dutocq, he rose respectfully and went rather hastily to meet him, adding to his client:—
"Take time to reflect; for, don't you see? it makes me doubtful to have such a sum as that, one hundred francs! asked for by an old journeyman locksmith!"
"But I tell you it concerns an invention," cried the old workman.
"An invention and one hundred francs!" said Dutocq. "You don't know the laws; you must take out a patent, and that costs two thousand francs, and you want influence."
"All that is true," said Cerizet, who, however, reckoned a good deal on such chances. "Come to-morrow morning, papa Lantimeche, at six o'clock, and we'll talk it over; you can't talk inventions in public."
Cerizet then turned to Dutocq whose first words were:—
"If the thing turns out well, half profits!"
"Why did you get up at this time in the morning to come here and say that to me?" demanded the distrustful Cerizet, already displeased with the mention of "half profits." "You could have seen me as usual at the office."
And he looked askance at Dutocq; the latter, while telling him his errand and speaking of Claparon and the necessity of pushing forward in the Theodose affair, seemed confused.
"All the same you could have seen me this morning at the office," repeated Cerizet, conducting his visitor to the door.
"There's a man," thought he, as he returned to his seat, "who seems to me to have breathed on his lantern so that I may not see clear. Well, well, I'll give up that place of copying clerk. Ha! your turn, little mother!" he cried; "you invent children! That's amusing enough, though the trick is well known."
It is all the more useless to relate the conversation which took place between the three confederates at the "Cheval Rouge," because the arrangements there concluded were the basis of certain confidences made, as we shall see, by Theodose to Mademoiselle Thuillier; but it is necessary to remark that the cleverness displayed by la Peyrade seemed almost alarming to Cerizet and Dutocq. After this conference, the banker of the poor, finding himself in company with such powerful players, had it in mind to make sure of his own stake at the first chance. To win the game at any price over the heads of the ablest gamblers, by cheating if necessary, is the inspiration of a special sort of vanity peculiar to friends of the green cloth. Hence came the terrible blow which la Peyrade was about to receive.
He knew his two associates well; and therefore, in spite of the perpetual activity of his intellectual forces, in spite of the perpetual watchfulness his personality of ten faces required, nothing fatigued him as much as the part he had to play with his two accomplices. Dutocq was a great knave, and Cerizet had once been a comic actor; they were both experts in humbug. A motionless face like Talleyrand's would have made then break at once with the Provencal, who was now in their clutches; it was necessary, therefore, that he should make a show of ease and confidence and of playing above board—the very height of art in such affairs. To delude the pit is an every-day triumph, but to deceive Mademoiselle Mars, Frederic Lemaitre, Potier, Talma, Monrose, is the acme of art.
This conference at the "Cheval Rouge" had therefore the result of giving to la Peyrade, who was fully as sagacious as Cerizet, a secret fear, which, during the latter period of this daring game, so fired his blood and heated his brain that there came moments when he fell into the morbid condition of the gambler, who follows with his eye the roll of the ball on which he has staked his last penny. The senses then have a lucidity in their action and the mind takes a range, which human knowledge has no means of measuring.
- A book on which the author has been at work since 1833, the year in which it was first announced.—Author's note.