The Middle Classes/Part I/Chapter XI
From that day forth Thuillier became a dear, good friend. "My dear, good friend," was the name given to him by Theodose, with voice inflections of varieties of tenderness which astonished Flavie. But "little aunt," a name that flattered Brigitte deeply, was only given in family secrecy, and occasionally before Flavie. The activity of Theodose and Dutocq, Cerizet, Barbet, Metivier, Minard, Phellion, Colleville, and others of the Thuillier circle was extreme. Great and small, they all put their hands to the work. Cadenet procured thirty votes in his section. On the 30th of April Thuillier was proclaimed member of the Council-general of the department of the Seine by an imposing majority; in fact, he only needed sixty more votes to make his election unanimous. May 1st Thuillier joined the municipal body and went to the Tuileries to congratulate the King on his fete-day, and returned home radiant. He had gone where Minard went!
Ten days later a yellow poster announced the sale of the house, after due publication; the price named being seventy-five thousand francs; the final purchase to take place about the last of July. On this point Cerizet and Claparon had an agreement by which Cerizet pledged the sum of fifteen thousand francs (in words only, be it understood) to Claparon in case the latter could deceive the notary and keep him quiet until the time expired during which he might withdraw the property by bidding it in. Mademoiselle Thuillier, notified by Theodose, agreed entirely to this secret clause, understanding perfectly the necessity of paying the culprits guilty of the treachery. The money was to pass through la Peyrade's hands. Claparon met his accomplice, the notary, on the Place de l'Observatoire by midnight. This young man, the successor of Leopold Hannequin, was one of those who run after fortune instead of following it leisurely. He now saw another future before him, and he managed his present affairs in order to be free to take hold of it. In this midnight interview, he offered Claparon ten thousand francs to secure himself in this dirty business,—a sum which was only to be paid on receipt, through Claparon, of a counter-deed from the nominal purchaser of the property. The notary was aware that that sum was all-important to Claparon to extricate him from present difficulties, and he felt secure of him.
"Who but you, in all Paris, would give me such a fee for such an affair?" Claparon said to him, with a false show of naivete. "You can sleep in peace; my ostensible purchaser is one of those men of honor who are too stupid to have ideas of your kind; he is a retired government employee; give him the money to make the purchase and he'll sign the counter-deed at once."
When the notary had made Claparon clearly understand that he could not get more than the ten thousand francs from him, Cerizet offered the latter twelve thousand down, and asked Theodose for fifteen thousand, intending to keep the balance for himself. All these scenes between the four men were seasoned with the finest speeches about feelings, integrity, and the honor that men owed to one another in doing business. While these submarine performances were going on, apparently in the interests of Thuillier, to whom Theodose related them with the deepest manifestations of disgust at being implicated therein, the pair were meditating the great political work which "my dear good friend" was to publish. Thus the new municipal councillor naturally acquired a conviction that he could never do or be anything without the help of this man of genius; whose mind so amazed him, and whose ability was now so important to him, that every day he became more and more convinced of the necessity of marrying him to Celeste, and of taking the young couple to live with him. In fact, after May the 1st, Theodose had already dined four times a week with "my dear, good friend."
This was the period when Theodose reigned without a dissenting voice in the bosom of that household, and all the friends of the family approved of him—for the following reason: The Phellions, hearing his praises sung by Brigitte and Thuillier, feared to displease the two powers and chorussed their words, even when such perpetual laudation seemed to them exaggerated. The same may be said of the Minards. Moreover la Peyrade's behavior, as "friend of the family" was perfect. He disarmed distrust by the manner in which he effaced himself; he was there like a new piece of furniture; and he contrived to make both the Phellions and Minards believe that Brigitte and Thuillier had weighed him, and found him too light in the scales to be anything more in the family than a young man whose services were useful to them.
"He may think," said Thuillier one day to Minard, "that my sister will put him in her will; he doesn't know her."
This speech, inspired by Theodose himself, calmed the uneasiness of Minard "pere."
"He is devoted to us," said Brigitte to Madame Phellion; "but he certainly owes us a great deal of gratitude. We have given him his lodging rent-free, and he dines with us almost every day."
This speech of the old maid, also instigated by Theodose, went from ear to ear among the families who frequented the Thuillier salon, and dissipated all fears. The young man called attention to the remarks of Thuillier and his sister with the servility of a parasite; when he played whist he justified the blunders of his dear, good friend, and he kept upon his countenance a smile, fixed and benign, like that of Madame Thuillier, ready to bestow upon all the bourgeois sillinesses of the brother and sister.
He obtained, what he wanted above all, the contempt of his true antagonists; and he used it as a cloak to hide his real power. For four consecutive months his face wore a torpid expression, like that of a snake as it gulps and digests its prey. But at times he would rush into the garden with Colleville or Flavie, to laugh and lay off his mask, and rest himself; or get fresh strength by giving way before his future mother-in-law to fits of nervous passion which either terrified or deeply touched her.
"Don't you pity me?" he cried to her the evening before the preparatory sale of the house, when Thuillier was to make the purchase at seventy-five thousand francs. "Think of a man like me, forced to creep like a cat, to choke down every pointed word, to swallow my own gall, and submit to your rebuffs!"
"My friend! my child!" Flavie replied, undecided in mind how to take him.
These words are a thermometer which will show the temperature at which this clever manipulator maintained his intrigue with Flavie. He kept her floating between her heart and her moral sense, between religious sentiments and this mysterious passion.
During this time Felix Phellion was giving, with a devotion and constancy worthy of all praise, regular lessons to young Colleville. He spent much of his time upon these lessons, feeling that he was thus working for his future family. To acknowledge this service, he was invited, by advice of Theodose to Flavie, to dine at the Collevilles' every Thursday, where la Peyrade always met him. Flavie was usually making either a purse or slippers or a cigar-case for the happy young man, who would say, deprecatingly:—
"I am only too well rewarded, madame, by the happiness I feel in being useful to you."
"We are not rich, monsieur," replied Colleville, "but, God bless me! we are not ungrateful."
Old Phellion would rub his hands as he listened to his son's account of these evenings, beholding his dear and noble Felix already wedded to Celeste.
But Celeste, the more she loved Felix, the more grave and serious she became with him; partly because her mother sharply lectured her, saying to her one evening:—
"Don't give any hope whatever to that young Phellion. Neither your father nor I can arrange your marriage. You have expectations to be consulted. It is much less important to please a professor without a penny than to make sure of the affection and good-will of Mademoiselle Brigitte and your godfather. If you don't want to kill your mother—yes, my dear, kill her—you must obey me in this affair blindly; and remember that what we want to secure, above all, is your good."
As the date of the final sale was set for the last of July, Theodose advised Brigitte by the end of June to arrange her affairs in time to be ready for the payment. Accordingly, she now sold out her own and her sister-in-law's property in the Funds. The catastrophe of the treaty of the four powers, an insult to France, is now an established historical fact; but it is necessary to remind the reader that from July to the last of August the French funds, alarmed by the prospect of war, a fear which Monsieur Thiers did much to promote, fell twenty francs, and the Three-per-cents went down to sixty. That was not all: this financial fiasco had a most unfortunate influence on the value of real estate in Paris; and all those who had such property then for sale suffered loss. These events made Theodose a prophet in the eyes of Brigitte and Thuillier, to whom the house was now about to be definitely sold for seventy-five thousand francs. The notary, involved in the political disaster, and whose practice was already sold, concealed himself for a time in the country; but he took with him the ten thousand francs for Claparon. Advised by Theodose, Thuillier made a contract with Grindot, who supposed he was really working for the notary in finishing the house; and as, during this period of financial depression, suspended work left many workmen with their arms folded, the architect was able to finish off the building in a splendid manner at a low cost. Theodose insisted that the agreement should be in writing.
This purchase increased Thuillier's importance ten-fold. As for the notary, he had temporarily lost his head in presence of political events which came upon him like a waterspout out of cloudless skies. Theodose, certain now of his supremacy, holding Thuillier fast by his past services and by the literary work in which they were both engaged, admired by Brigitte for his modesty and discretion,—for never had he made the slightest allusion to his own poverty or uttered one word about money,—Theodose began to assume an air that was rather less servile than it had been. Brigitte and Thuillier said to him one day:—
"Nothing can deprive you of our esteem; you are here in this house as if in your own home; the opinion of Minard and Phellion, which you seem to fear, has no more value for us than a stanza of Victor Hugo. Therefore, let them talk! Carry your head high!"
"But we shall still need them for Thuillier's election to the Chamber," said Theodose. "Follow my advice; you have found it good so far, haven't you? When the house is actually yours, you will have got it for almost nothing; for you can now buy into the Three-per-cents at sixty in Madame Thuillier's name, and thus replace nearly the whole of her fortune. Wait only for the expiration of the time allowed to the nominal creditor to buy it in, and have the fifteen thousand francs ready for our scoundrels."
Brigitte did not wait; she took her whole capital with the exception of a sum of one hundred and twenty thousand francs, and bought into the Three-per-cents in Madame Thuillier's name to the amount of twelve thousand francs a year, and in her own for ten thousand a year, resolving in her own mind to choose no other kind of investment in future. She saw her brother secure of forty thousand francs a year besides his pension, twelve thousand a year for Madame Thuillier and eighteen thousand a year for herself, besides the house they lived in, the rental of which she valued at eight thousand.
"We are worth quite as much as the Minards," she remarked.
"Don't chant victory before you win it," said Theodose. "The right of redemption doesn't expire for another week. I have attended to your affairs, but mine have gone terribly to pieces."
"My dear child, you have friends," cried Brigitte; "if you should happen to want five hundred francs or so, you will always find them here."
Theodose exchanged a smile with Thuillier, who hastened to carry him off, saying:—
"Excuse my poor sister; she sees the world through a small hole. But if you should want twenty-five thousand francs I'll lend them to you—out of my first rents," he added.
"Thuillier," exclaimed Theodose, "the rope is round my neck. Ever since I have been a barrister I have had notes of hand running. But say nothing about it," added Theodose, frightened himself at having let out the secret of his situation. "I'm in the claws of scoundrels, but I hope to crush them yet."
In telling this secret Theodose, though alarmed as he did so, had a two-fold purpose: first, to test Thuillier; and next, to avert the consequences of a fatal blow which might be dealt to him any day in a secret and sinister struggle he had long foreseen. Two words will explain his horrible position.