The Middle Classes/Part I/Chapter VI

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When Theodose reached home he found, waiting for him on the landing, a personage who is, as it were, the submarine current of this history; he will be found within it like some buried church on which has risen the facade of a palace. The sight of this man, who, after vainly ringing at la Peyrade's door, was now trying that of Dutocq, made the Provencal barrister tremble—but secretly, within himself, not betraying externally his inward emotion. This man was Cerizet, whom Dutocq had mentioned to Thuillier as his copying-clerk.

Cerizet was only thirty-eight years old, but he looked a man of fifty, so aged had he become from causes which age all men. His hairless head had a yellow skull, ill-covered by a rusty, discolored wig; the mask of his face, pale, flabby, and unnaturally rough, seemed the more horrible because the nose was eaten away, though not sufficiently to admit of its being replaced by a false one. From the spring of this nose at the forehead, down to the nostrils, it remained as nature had made it; but disease, after gnawing away the sides near the extremities, had left two holes of fantastic shape, which vitiated pronunciation and hampered speech. The eyes, originally handsome, but weakened by misery of all kinds and by sleepless nights, were red around the edges, and deeply sunken; the glance of those eyes, when the soul sent into them an expression of malignancy, would have frightened both judges and criminals, or any others whom nothing usually affrights.

The mouth, toothless except for a few black fangs, was threatening; the saliva made a foam within it, which did not, however, pass the pale thin lips. Cerizet, a short man, less spare than shrunken, endeavored to remedy the defects of his person by his clothes, and although his garments were not those of opulence, he kept them in a condition of neatness which may even have increased his forlorn appearance. Everything about him seemed dubious; his age, his nose, his glance inspired doubt. It was impossible to know if he were thirty-eight or sixty; if his faded blue trousers, which fitted him well, were of a coming or a past fashion. His boots, worn at the heels, but scrupulously blacked, resoled for the third time, and very choice, originally, may have trodden in their day a ministerial carpet. The frock coat, soaked by many a down-pour, with its brandebourgs, the frogs of which were indiscreet enough to show their skeletons, testified by its cut to departed elegance. The satin stock-cravat fortunately concealed the shirt, but the tongue of the buckle behind the neck had frayed the satin, which was re-satined, that is, re-polished, by a species of oil distilled from the wig. In the days of its youth the waistcoat was not, of course, without freshness, but it was one of those waistcoats, bought for four francs, which come from the hooks of the ready-made clothing dealer. All these things were carefully brushed, and so was the shiny and misshapen hat. They harmonized with each other, even to the black gloves which covered the hands of this subaltern Mephistopheles, whose whole anterior life may be summed up in a single phrase:—

He was an artist in evil, with whom, from the first, evil had succeeded; a man misled by these early successes to continue the plotting of infamous deeds within the lines of strict legality. Becoming the head of a printing-office by betraying his master [see "Lost Illusions"], he had afterwards been condemned to imprisonment as editor of a liberal newspaper. In the provinces, under the Restoration, he became the bete noire of the government, and was called "that unfortunate Cerizet" by some, as people spoke of "the unfortunate Chauvet" and "the heroic Mercier." He owed to this reputation of persecuted patriotism a place as sub-prefect in 1830. Six months later he was dismissed; but he insisted that he was judged without being heard; and he made so much talk about it that, under the ministry of Casimir Perier, he became the editor of an anti-republican newspaper in the pay of the government. He left that position to go into business, one phase of which was the most nefarious stock-company that ever fell into the hands of the correctional police. Cerizet proudly accepted the severe sentence he received; declaring it to be a revengeful plot on the part of the republicans, who, he said, would never forgive him for the hard blows he had dealt them in his journal. He spent the time of his imprisonment in a hospital. The government by this time were ashamed of a man whose almost infamous habits and shameful business transactions, carried on in company with a former banker, named Claparon, led him at last into well-deserved public contempt.

Cerizet, thus fallen, step by step, to the lowest rung of the social ladder, had recourse to pity in order to obtain the place of copying clerk in Dutocq's office. In the depths of his wretchedness the man still dreamed of revenge, and, as he had nothing to lose, he employed all means to that end. Dutocq and himself were bound together in depravity. Cerizet was to Dutocq what the hound is the huntsman. Knowing himself the necessities of poverty and wretchedness, he set up that business of gutter usury called, in popular parlance, "the loan by the little week." He began this at first by help of Dutocq, who shared the profits; but, at the present moment this man of many legal crimes, now the banker of fishwives, the money-lender of costermongers, was the gnawing rodent of the whole faubourg.

"Well," said Cerizet as Dutocq opened his door, "Theodose has just come in; let us go to his room."

The advocate of the poor was fain to allow the two men to pass before him.

All three crossed a little room, the tiled floor of which, covered with a coating of red encaustic, shone in the light; thence into a little salon with crimson curtains and mahogany furniture, covered with red Utrecht velvet; the wall opposite the window being occupied by book-shelves containing a legal library. The chimney-piece was covered with vulgar ornaments, a clock with four columns in mahogany, and candelabra under glass shades. The study, where the three men seated themselves before a soft-coal fire, was the study of a lawyer just beginning to practise. The furniture consisted of a desk, an armchair, little curtains of green silk at the windows, a green carpet, shelves for lawyer's boxes, and a couch, above which hung an ivory Christ on a velvet background. The bedroom, kitchen, and rest of the apartment looked out upon the courtyard.

"Well," said Cerizet, "how are things going? Are we getting on?"

"Yes," replied Theodose.

"You must admit," cried Dutocq, "that my idea was a famous one, in laying hold of that imbecile of a Thuillier?"

"Yes, but I'm not behindhand either," exclaimed Cerizet. "I have come now to show you a way to put the thumbscrews on the old maid and make her spin like a teetotum. We mustn't deceive ourselves; Mademoiselle Thuillier is the head and front of everything in this affair; if we get her on our side the town is won. Let us say little, but that little to the point, as becomes strong men with each other. Claparon, you know, is a fool; he'll be all his life what he always was,—a cat's-paw. Just now he is lending his name to a notary in Paris, who is concerned with a lot of contractors, and they are all—notary and masons—on the point of ruin. Claparon is going headlong into it. He never yet was bankrupt; but there's a first time for everything. He is hidden now in my hovel in the rue des Poules, where no one will ever find him. He is desperate, and he hasn't a penny. Now, among the five or six houses built by these contractors, which have to be sold, there's a jewel of a house, built of freestone, in the neighborhood of the Madeleine,—a frontage laced like a melon, with beautiful carvings,—but not being finished, it will have to be sold for what it will bring; certainly not more than a hundred thousand francs. By spending twenty-five thousand francs upon it it could be let, undoubtedly, for ten thousand. Make Mademoiselle Thuillier the proprietor of that house and you'll win her love; she'll believe that you can put such chances in her way every year. There are two ways of getting hold of vain people: flatter their vanity, or threaten them; and there are also two ways of managing misers: fill their purse, or else attack it. Now, this stroke of business, while it does good to Mademoiselle Thuillier, does good to us as well, and it would be a pity not to profit by the chance."

"But why does the notary let it slip through his fingers?" asked Dutocq.

"The notary, my dear fellow! Why, he's the very one who saves us. Forced to sell his practice, and utterly ruined besides, he reserved for himself this crumb of the cake. Believing in the honesty of that idiot Claparon, he has asked him to find a dummy purchaser. We'll let him suppose that Mademoiselle Thuillier is a worthy soul who allows Claparon to use her name; they'll both be fooled, Claparon and the notary too. I owe this little trick to my friend Claparon, who left me to bear the whole weight of the trouble about his stock-company, in which we were tricked by Conture, and I hope you may never be in that man's skin!" he added, infernal hatred flashing from his worn and withered eyes. "Now, I've said my say, gentlemen," he continued, sending out his voice through his nasal holes, and taking a dramatic attitude; for once, at a moment of extreme penury, he had gone upon the stage.

As he finished making his proposition some one rang at the outer door, and la Peyrade rose to go and open it. As soon as his back was turned, Cerizet said, hastily, to Dutocq:—

"Are you sure of him? I see a sort of air about him—And I'm a good judge of treachery."

"He is so completely in our power," said Dutocq, "that I don't trouble myself to watch; but, between ourselves, I didn't think him as strong as he proves to be. The fact is, we thought we were putting a barb between the legs of a man who didn't know how to ride, and the rogue is an old jockey!"

"Let him take care," growled Cerizet. "I can blow him down like a house of cards any day. As for you, papa Dutocq, you are able to see him at work all the time; watch him carefully. Besides, I'll feel his pulse by getting Claparon to propose to him to get rid of us; that will help us to judge him."

"Pretty good, that!" said Dutocq. "You are daring, anyhow."

"I've got my hand in, that's all," replied Cerizet.

These words were exchanged in a low voice during the time that it took Theodose to go to the outer door and return. Cerizet was looking at the books when the lawyer re-entered the room.

"It is Thuillier," said Theodose. "I thought he'd come; he is in the salon. He mustn't see Cerizet's frock-coat; those frogs would frighten him."

"Pooh! you receive the poor in your office, don't you? That's in your role. Do you want any money?" added Cerizet, pulling a hundred francs out of his trousers' pocket. "There it is; it won't look amiss."

And he laid the pile on the chimney-piece.

"And now," said Dutocq, "we had better get out through the bedroom."

"Well, good-bye," said Theodose, opening a hidden door which communicated from the study to the bedroom. "Come in, Monsieur Thuillier," he called out to the beau of the Empire.

When he saw him safely in the study he went to let out his two associates through the bedroom and kitchen into the courtyard.

"In six months," said Cerizet, "you'll have married Celeste and got your foot into the stirrup. You are lucky, you are, not to have sat, like me, in the prisoners' dock. I've been there twice: once in 1825, for 'subversive articles' which I never wrote, and the second time for receiving the profits of a joint-stock company which had slipped through my fingers! Come, let's warm this thing up! Sac-a-papier! Dutocq and I are sorely in need of that twenty-five thousand francs. Good courage, old fellow!" he added, holding out his hand to Theodose, and making the grasp a test of faithfulness.

The Provencal gave Cerizet his right hand, pressing the other's hand warmly:—

"My good fellow," he said, "be very sure that in whatever position I may find myself I shall never forget that from which you have drawn me by putting me in the saddle here. I'm simply your bait; but you are giving me the best part of the catch, and I should be more infamous than a galley-slave who turns policeman if I didn't play fair."

As soon as the door was closed, Cerizet peeped through the key-hole, trying to catch sight of la Peyrade's face. But the Provencal had turned back to meet Thuillier, and his distrustful associate could not detect the expression of his countenance.

That expression was neither disgust nor annoyance, it was simply joy, appearing on a face that now seemed freed. Theodose saw the means of success approaching him, and he flattered himself that the day would come when he might get rid of his ignoble associates, to whom he owed everything. Poverty has unfathomable depths, especially in Paris, slimy bottoms, from which, when a drowned man rises to the surface of the water, he brings with him filth and impurity clinging to his clothes, or to his person. Cerizet, the once opulent friend and protector of Theodose, was the muddy mire still clinging to the Provencal, and the former manager of the joint-stock company saw very plainly that his tool wanted to brush himself on entering a sphere where decent clothing was a necessity.

"Well, my dear Theodose," began Thuillier, "we have hoped to see you every day this week, and every evening we find our hopes deceived. As this is our Sunday for a dinner, my sister and my wife have sent me here to beg you to come to us."

"I have been so busy," said Theodose, "that I have not had two minutes to give to any one, not even to you, whom I count among my friends, and with whom I have wished to talk about—"

"What? have you really been thinking seriously over what you said to me?" cried Thuillier, interrupting him.

"If you had not come here now for a full understanding, I shouldn't respect you as I do," replied la Peyrade, smiling. "You have been a sub-director, and therefore you must have the remains of ambition—which is deucedly legitimate in your case! Come, now, between ourselves, when one sees a Minard, that gilded pot, displaying himself at the Tuileries, and complimenting the king, and a Popinot about to become a minister of State, and then look at you! a man trained to administrative work, a man with thirty years' experience, who has seen six governments, left to plant balsams in a little garden! Heavens and earth!—I am frank, my dear Thuillier, and I'll say, honestly, that I want to advance you, because you'll draw me after you. Well, here's my plan. We are soon to elect a member of the council-general from this arrondissement; and that member must be you. And," he added, dwelling on the word, "it will be you! After that, you will certainly be deputy from the arrondissement when the Chamber is re-elected, which must surely be before long. The votes that elect you to the municipal council will stand by you in the election for deputy, trust me for that."

"But how will you manage all this?" cried Thuillier, fascinated.

"You shall know in good time; but you must let me conduct this long and difficult affair; if you commit the slightest indiscretion as to what is said, or planned, or agreed between us, I shall have to drop the whole matter, and good-bye to you!"

"Oh! you can rely on the absolute dumbness of a former sub-director; I've had secrets to keep."

"That's all very well; but these are secrets to keep from your wife and sister, and from Monsieur and Madame Colleville."

"Not a muscle of my face shall reveal them," said Thuillier, assuming a stolid air.

"Very good," continued Theodose. "I shall test you. In order to make yourself eligible, you must pay taxes on a certain amount of property, and you are not paying them."

"I beg your pardon; I'm all right for the municipal council at any rate; I pay two francs ninety-six centimes."

"Yes, but the tax on property necessary for election to the chamber is five hundred francs, and there is no time to lose in acquiring that property, because you must prove possession for one year."

"The devil!" cried Thuillier; "between now and a year hence to be taxed five hundred francs on property which—"

"Between now and the end of July, at the latest, you must pay that tax. Well, I feel enough interest in you to tell you the secret of an affair by which you might make from thirty to forty thousand francs a year, by employing a capital of one hundred and fifty thousand at most. I know that in your family it is your sister who does your business; I am far from thinking that a mistake; she has, they tell me, excellent judgment; and you must let me begin by obtaining her good-will and friendship, and proposing this investment to her. And this is why: If Mademoiselle Thuillier is not induced to put faith in my plan, we shall certainly have difficulty with her. Besides, it won't do for YOU to propose to her that she should put the investment of her money in your name. The idea had better come from me. As to my means of getting you elected to the municipal council, they are these: Phellion controls one quarter of the arrondissement; he and Laudigeois have lived in it these thirty years, and they are listened to like oracles. I have a friend who controls another quarter; and the rector of Saint-Jacques, who is not without influence, thanks to his virtues, disposes of certain votes. Dutocq, in his close relation to the people, and also the justice of peace, will help me, above all, as I'm not acting for myself; and Colleville, as secretary of the mayor's office, can certainly manage to obtain another fourth of the votes."

"You are right!" cried Thuillier. "I'm elected!"

"Do you think so?" said la Peyrade, in a voice of the deepest sarcasm. "Very good! then go and ask your friend Colleville to help you, and see what he'll say. No triumph in election cases is ever brought about by the candidate himself, but by his friends. He should never ask anything himself for himself; he must be invited to accept, and appear to be without ambition."

"La Peyrade!" cried Thuillier, rising, and taking the hand of the young lawyer, "you are a very capable man."

"Not as capable as you, but I have my merits," said the Provencal, smiling.

"If we succeed how shall I ever repay you?" asked Thuillier, naively.

"Ah! that, indeed! I am afraid you will think me impertinent, but remember, there is a true feeling in my heart which offers some excuse for me; in fact, it has given me the spirit to undertake this affair. I love—and I take you for my confidant."

"But who is it?" said Thuillier.

"Your dear little Celeste," replied la Peyrade. "My love for her will be a pledge to you of my devotion. What would I not do for a father-in-law! This is pure selfishness; I shall be working for myself."

"Hush!" cried Thuillier.

"Eh, my friend!" said la Peyrade, catching Thuillier round the body; "if I hadn't Flavie on my side, and if I didn't know all should I venture to be talking to you thus? But please say nothing to Flavie about this; wait till she speaks to you. Listen to me; I'm of the metal that makes ministers; I do not seek to obtain Celeste until I deserve her. You shall not be asked to give her to me until the day when your election as a deputy of Paris is assured. In order to be deputy of Paris, we must get the better of Minard; and in order to crush Minard you must keep in your own hands all your means of influence; for that reason use Celeste as a hope; we'll play them off, these people, against each other and fool them all—Madame Colleville and you and I will be persons of importance one of these days. Don't think me mercenary. I want Celeste without a 'dot,' with nothing more than her future expectations. To live in your family with you, to keep my wife in your midst, that is my desire. You see now that I have no hidden thoughts. As for you, my dear friend, six months after your election to the municipal council, you will have the cross of the Legion of honor, and when you are deputy you will be made an officer of it. As for your speeches in the Chamber—well! we'll write them together. Perhaps it would be desirable for you to write a book,—a serious book on matters half moral and philanthropic, half political; such, for instance, as charitable institutions considered from the highest stand-point; or reforms in the pawning system, the abuses of which are really frightful. Let us fasten some slight distinction to your name; it will help you,—especially in the arrondissement. Now, I say again, trust me, believe in me; do not think of taking me into your family until you have the ribbon in your buttonhole on the morrow of the day when you take your seat in the Chamber. I'll do more than that, however; I'll put you in the way of making forty thousand francs a year."

"For any one of those three things you shall have our Celeste," said Thuillier.

"Ah! what a pearl she is!" exclaimed la Peyrade, raising his eyes to heaven. "I have the weakness to pray to God for her every day. She is charming; she is exactly like you—oh! nonsense; surely you needn't caution me! Dutocq told me all. Well, I'll be with you to-night. I must go to the Phellions' now, and begin to work our plan. You don't need me to caution you not to let it be known that you are thinking of me for Celeste; if you do, you'll cut off my arms and legs. Therefore, silence! even to Flavie. Wait till she speaks to you herself. Phellion shall to-night broach the matter of proposing you as candidate for the council."

"To-night?" said Thuillier.

"Yes, to-night," replied la Peyrade, "unless I don't find him at home now."

Thuillier departed, saying to himself:—

"That's a very superior man; we shall always understand each other. Faith! it might be hard to do better for Celeste. They will live with us, as in our own family, and that's a good deal! Yes, he's a fine fellow, a sound man."

To minds of Thuillier's calibre, a secondary consideration often assumes the importance of a principal reason. Theodose had behaved to him with charming bonhomie.