The Middle Classes/Part I/Chapter XIV

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The Middle Classes by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley
Part I/Chapter XIV: ONE OF CERIZET'S FEMALE CLIENTS

The next morning, at daybreak, Theodose went to the office of the banker of the poor, to see the effect produced upon his enemy by the punctual payment of the night before, and to make another effort to get rid of his hornet.

He found Cerizet standing up, in conference with a woman, and he received an imperative sign to keep at a distance and not to interrupt the interview. The barrister was therefore reduced to conjectures as to the importance of this woman, an importance revealed by the eager look on the face of the lender "by the little week." Theodose had a presentiment, though a very vague one, that the upshot of this conference would have some influence on Cerizet's own arrangements, for he suddenly beheld on that crafty countenance the change produced by a dawning hope.

"But, my dear mamma Cardinal—"

"Yes, my good monsieur—"

"What is it you want—?"

"It must be decided—"

These beginnings, or these ends of sentences were the only gleams of light that the animated conversation, carried on in the lowest tones with lip to ear and ear to lip, conveyed to the motionless witness, whose attention was fixed on Madame Cardinal.

Madame Cardinal was one of Cerizet's earliest clients; she peddled fish. If Parisians know these creations peculiar to their soil, foreigners have no suspicion of their existence; and Mere Cardinal—technologically speaking, of course, deserved all the interest she excited in Theodose. So many women of her species may be met with in the streets that the passers-by give them no more attention than they give to the three thousand pictures of the Salon. But as she stood in Cerizet's office the Cardinal had all the value of an isolated masterpiece; she was a complete and perfect type of her species.

The woman was mounted on muddy sabots; but her feet, carefully wrapped in gaiters, were still further protected by stout and thick-ribbed stockings. Her cotton gown, adorned with a glounce of mud, bore the imprint of the strap which supported the fish-basket. Her principal garment was a shawl of what was called "rabbit's-hair cashmere," the two ends of which were knotted behind, above her bustle—for we must needs employ a fashionable word to express the effect produced by the transversal pressure of the basket upon her petticoats, which projected below it, in shape like a cabbage. A printed cotton neckerchief, of the coarsest description, gave to view a red neck, ribbed and lined like the surface of a pond where people have skated. Her head was covered in a yellow silk foulard, twined in a manner that was rather picturesque. Short and stout, and ruddy of skin, Mere Cardinal probably drank her little drop of brandy in the morning. She had once been handsome. The Halle had formerly reproached her, in the boldness of its figurative speech, for doing "a double day's-work in the twenty-four." Her voice, in order to reduce itself to the diapason of ordinary conversation, was obliged to stifle its sound as other voices do in a sick-room; but at such times it came thick and muffled, from a throat accustomed to send to the farthest recesses of the highest garret the names of the fish in their season. Her nose, a la Roxelane, her well-cut lips, her blue eyes, and all that formerly made up her beauty, was now buried in folds of vigorous flesh which told of the habits and occupations of an outdoor life. The stomach and bosom were distinguished for an amplitude worthy of Rubens.

"Do you want to make me lie in the straw?" she said to Cerizet. "What do I care for the Toupilliers? Ain't I a Toupillier myself? What do you want to do with them, those Toupilliers?"

This savage outburst was hastily repressed by Cerizet, who uttered a prolonged "Hush-sh!" such as all conspirators obey.

"Well, go and find out all you can about it, and come back to me," said Cerizet, pushing the woman toward the door, and whispering, as he did so, a few words in her ear.

"Well, my dear friend," said Theodose to Cerizet, "you have got your money?"

"Yes," returned Cerizet "we have measured our claws, they are the same length, the same strength, and the same sharpness. What next?"

"Am I to tell Dutocq that you received, last night, twenty-five thousand francs?"

"Oh! my dear friend, not a word, if you love me!" cried Cerizet.

"Listen," said Theodose. "I must know, once for all, what you want. I am positively determined not to remain twenty-four hours longer on the gridiron where you have got me. Cheat Dutocq if you will; I am utterly indifferent to that; but I intend that you and I shall come to an understanding. It is a fortune that I have paid you, twenty-five thousand francs, and you must have earned ten thousand more in your business; it is enough to make you an honest man. Cerizet, if you will leave me in peace, if you won't prevent my marriage with Mademoiselle Colleville, I shall certainly be king's attorney-general, or something of that kind in Paris. You can't do better than make sure of an influence in that sphere."

"Here are my conditions; and they won't allow of discussion; you can take them or leave them. You will obtain for me the lease of Thuillier's new house for eighteen years, and I'll hand you back one of your five notes cancelled, and you shall not find me any longer in your way. But you will have to settle with Dutocq for the remaining four notes. You got the better of me, and I know Dutocq hasn't the force to stand against you."

"I'll agree to that, provided you'll pay a rent of forty-eight thousand francs for the house, the last year in advance, and begin the lease in October."

"Yes; but I shall not give for the last year's rent more than forty-three thousand francs; your note will pay the remainder. I have seen the house, and examined it. It suits me very well."

"One last condition," said Theodose; "you'll help me against Dutocq?"

"No," said Cerizet, "you'll cook him brown yourself; he doesn't need any basting from me; he'll give out his gravy fast enough. But you ought to be reasonable. The poor fellow can't pay off the last fifteen thousand francs due on his practice, and you should reflect that fifteen thousand francs would certainly buy back your notes."

"Well; give me two weeks to get your lease—"

"No, not a day later than Monday next! Tuesday your notes will be in Louchard's hands; unless you pay them Monday, or Thuillier signs the lease."

"Well, Monday, so be it!" said Theodose; "are we friends?"

"We shall be Monday," responded Cerizet.

"Well, then, Monday you'll pay for my dinner," said Theodose, laughing.

"Yes, at the Rocher de Cancale, if I have the lease. Dutocq shall be there—we'll all be there—ah! it is long since I've had a good laugh."

Theodose and Cerizet shook hands, saying, reciprocally:—

"We'll meet soon."

Cerizet had not calmed down so suddenly without reasons. In the first place, as Desroches once said, "Bile does not facilitate business," and the usurer had too well seen the justice of that remark not to coolly resolve to get something out of his position, and to squeeze the jugular vein of the crafty Provencal until he strangled him.

"It is a fair revenge," Desroches said to him; "mind you extract its quintessence. You hold that fellow."

For ten years past Cerizet had seen men growing rich by practising the trade of principal tenant. The principal tenant is, in Paris, to the owners of houses what farmers are to country landlords. All Paris has seen one of its great tailors, building at his own cost, on the famous site of Frascati, one of the most sumptuous of houses, and paying, as principal tenant, fifty thousand francs a year for the ground rent of the house, which, at the end of nineteen years' lease, was to become the property of the owner of the land. In spite of the costs of construction, which were something like seven hundred thousand francs, the profits of those nineteen years proved, in the end, very large.

Cerizet, always on the watch for business, had examined the chances for gain offered by the situation of the house which Thuillier had stolen,—as he said to Desroches,—and he had seen the possibility of letting it for sixty thousand at the end of six years. There were four shops, two on each side, for it stood on a boulevard corner. Cerizet expected, therefore, to get clear ten thousand a year for a dozen years, allowing for eventualities and sundries attendant on renewal of leases. He therefore proposed to himself to sell his money-lending business to the widow Poiret and Cadenet for ten thousand francs; he already possessed thirty thousand; and the two together would enable him to pay the last year's rent in advance, which house-owners in Paris usually demand as a guarantee from a principal tenant on a long lease. Cerizet had spent a happy night; he fell asleep in a glorious dream; he saw himself in a fair way to do an honest business, and to become a bourgeois like Thuillier, like Minard, and so many others.

But he had a waking of which he did not dream. He found Fortune standing before him, and emptying her gilded horns of plenty at his feet in the person of Madame Cardinal. He had always had a liking for the woman, and had promised her for a year past the necessary sum to buy a donkey and a little cart, so that she could carry on her business on a large scale, and go from Paris to the suburbs. Madame Cardinal, widow of a porter in the corn-market, had an only daughter, whose beauty Cerizet had heard of from some of the mother's cronies. Olympe Cardinal was about thirteen years of age at the time, 1837, when Cerizet began his system of loans in the quarter; and with a view to an infamous libertinism, he had paid great attention to the mother, whom he rescued from utter misery, hoping to make Olympe his mistress. But suddenly, in 1838, the girl left her mother, and "made her life," to use an expression by which the lower classes in Paris describe the abuse of the most precious gifts of nature and youth.

To look for a girl in Paris is to look for a smelt in the Seine; nothing but chance can throw her into the net. The chance came. Mere Cardinal, who to entertain a neighbor had taken her to the Bobino theatre, recognized in the leading lady her own daughter, whom the first comedian had held under his control for three years. The mother, gratified at first at beholding her daughter in a fine gown of gold brocade, her hair dressed like that of a duchess, and wearing open-worked stockings, satin shoes, and receiving the plaudits of the audience, ended by screaming out from her seat in the gallery:—

"You shall soon hear of me, murderer of your own mother! I'll know whether miserable strolling-players have the right to come and debauch young girls of sixteen!"

She waited at the stage-door to capture her daughter, but the first comedian and the leading lady had no doubt jumped across the footlights and left the theatre with the audience, instead of issuing by the stage-door, where Madame Cardinal and her crony, Mere Mahoudeau, made an infernal rumpus, which two municipal guards were called upon to pacify. Those august personages, before whom the two women lowered the diapason of their voices, called the mother's attention to the fact that the girl was of legitimate theatrical age, and that instead of screaming at the door after the director, she could summon him before the justice-of-peace, or the police-court, whichever she pleased.

The next day Madame Cardinal intended to consult Cerizet, in view of the fact that he was a clerk in the office of the justice-of-peace; but, before reaching his lair in the rue des Poules, she was met by the porter of a house in which an uncle of hers, a certain Toupillier, was living, who told her that the old man hadn't probably two days to live, being then in the last extremity.

"Well, how do you expect me to help it?" replied the widow Cardinal.

"We count on you, my dear Madame Cardinal; we know you won't forget the good advice we'll give you. Here's the thing. Lately, your poor uncle, not being able to stir round, has trusted me to go and collect the rents of his house, rue Notre-Dame de Nazareth, and the arrears of his dividends at the Treasury, which come to eighteen hundred francs."

By this time the widow Cardinal's eyes were becoming fixed instead of wandering.

"Yes, my dear," continued Perrache, a hump-backed little concierge; "and, seeing that you are the only person who ever thinks about him, and that you come and see him sometimes, and bring him fish, perhaps he may make a bequest in your favor. My wife, who has been nursing him for the last few days since he has been so ill, spoke to him of you, but he wouldn't have you told about his illness. But now, don't you see, it is high time you should show yourself there. It is pretty nigh two months since he has been able to attend to business."

"You may well think, you old thief," replied Madame Cardinal, hurrying at top speed toward the rue Honore-Chevalier, where her uncle lived in a wretched garret, "that the hair would grow on my hand before I could ever imagine that. What! my uncle Toupillier rich! the old pauper of the church of Saint-Sulpice!"

"Ah!" returned the porter, "but he fed well. He went to bed every night with his best friend, a big bottle of Roussillon. My wife has tasted it, though he told us it was common stuff. The wine-merchant in the rue des Canettes supplies it to him."

"Don't say a word about all this," said the widow, when she parted from the man who had given her the information. "I'll take care and remember you—if anything comes of it."

Toupillier, former drum-major in the French Guards, had been for the two years preceding 1789 in the service of the Church as beadle of Saint-Sulpice. The Revolution deprived him of that post, and he then dropped down into a state of abject misery. He was even obliged to take to the profession of model, for he enjoyed, as they say, a fine physique. When public worship was restored, he took up his beadle's staff once more; but in 1816 he was dismissed, as much on account of his immorality as for his political opinions. Nevertheless, he was allowed to stay about the door of the church and distribute the holy water. Later, an unfortunate affair, which we shall presently mention, made him lose even that position; but, still finding means to keep to the sanctuary, he obtained permission to be allowed as a pauper in the porch. At this period of life, being then seventy-two years of age, he made himself ninety-six, and began the profession of centenarian.

In all Paris it was impossible to find another such beard and head of hair as Toupillier's. As he walked he appeared bent double; he held a stick in his shaking hand,—a hand that was covered with lichen, like a granite rock, and with the other he held out the classic hat with a broad brim, filthy and battered, into which, however, there fell abundant alms. His legs were swathed in rags and bandages, and his feet shuffled along in miserable overshoes of woven mat-weed, inside of which he had fastened excellent cork soles. He washed his face with certain compounds, which gave it an appearance of forms of illness, and he played the senility of a centenarian to the life. He reckoned himself a hundred years old in 1830, at which time his actual age was eighty; he was the head of the paupers of Saint-Sulpice, the master of the place, and all those who came to beg under the arcades of the church, safe from the persecutions of the police and beneath the protection of the beadle and the giver of holy water, were forced to pay him a sort of tithe.

When a new heir, a bridegroom, or some godfather left the church, saying, "Here, this is for all of you; don't torment any of my party," Toupillier, appointed by the beadle to receive these alms, pocketed three-fourths, and distributed only the remaining quarter among his henchmen, whose tribute amounted to a sou a day. Money and wine were his last two passions; but he regulated the latter and gave himself up to the former, with neglecting his personal comfort. He drank at night only, after his dinner, and for twenty years he slept in the arms of drunkenness, his last mistress.

In the early morning he was at his post with all his faculties. From then until his dinner, which he took at Pere Lathuile's (made famous by Charlet), he gnawed crusts of bread by way of nourishment; and he gnawed them artistically, with an air of resignation which earned him abundant alms. The beadle and the giver of holy water, with whom he may have had some private understanding, would say of him:—

"He is one of the worthy poor of the church; he used to know the rector Languet, who built Saint-Sulpice; he was for twenty years beadle of the church before the Revolution, and he is now over a hundred years old."

This little biography, well known to all the pious attendants of the church, was, of course, the best of his advertisements, and no hat was so well lined as his. He bought his house in 1826, and began to invest his money in the Funds in 1830. From the value of the two investments he must have made something like six thousand francs a year, and probably turned them over by usury, after Cerizet's own fashion; for the sum he paid for the house was forty thousand francs, while his investment in 1830 was forty-eight thousand more. His niece, deceived by the old man as much as he deceived the functionaries and the pious souls of the church, believed him the most miserable of paupers, and when she had any fish that were spoiling she sometimes took them to the aged beggar.

Consequently, she now felt it her right to get what she could in return for her pity and her liberality to an uncle who was likely to have a crowd of collateral heirs; she herself being the third and last Toupillier daughter. She had four brothers, and her father, a porter with a hand-cart, had told her, in her childhood, of three aunts and four uncles, who all led an existence of the baser sort.

After inspecting the sick man, she went, at full speed, to consult Cerizet, telling him, in the first place, how she had found her daughter, and then the reasons and indications which made her think that her uncle Toupillier was hoarding a pile of gold in his mattress. Mere Cardinal did not feel herself strong enough to seize upon the property, legally or illegally, and she therefore came to confide in Cerizet and get his advice.

So, then, the banker of the poor, like other scavengers, had, at last, found diamonds in the slime in which he had paddled for the last four years, being always on the watch for some such chance,—a chance, they say, occasionally met with in the purlieus, which give birth to heiresses in sabots. This was the secret of his unexpected gentleness to la Peyrade, the man whose ruin he had vowed. It is easy to imagine the anxiety with which he awaited the return of Madame Cardinal, to whom this wily schemer of nefarious plots had given means to verify her suspicions as to the existence of the hoarded treasure, promising her complete success if she would trust him to obtain for her so rich a harvest. He was not the man to shrink from a crime, above all, when he saw that others could commit it, while he obtained the benefits.

"Well, monsieur," cried the fishwife, entering Cerizet's den with a face as much inflamed by cupidity as by the haste of her movements, "my uncle sleeps on more than a hundred thousand francs in gold, and I am certain that those Perraches, by dint of nursing him, have smelt the rat."

"Shared among forty heirs that won't be much to each," said Cerizet. "Listen to me, Mere Cardinal: I'll marry your daughter; give her your uncle's gold, and I'll guarantee to you a life-interest in the house and the dividends from the money in the Funds."

"We sha'n't run any risk?"

"None, whatever."

"Agreed, then," said the widow Cardinal, holding out her hand to her future son-in-law. "Six thousand francs a year; hey! what a fine life I'll have."

"With a son-in-law like me!" added Cerizet.

"I shall be a bourgeoisie of Paris!"

"Now," resumed Cerizet, after a pause, "I must study the ground. Don't leave your uncle alone a minute; tell the Perraches that you expect a doctor. I'll be the doctor, and when I get there you must seem not to know me."

"Aren't you sly, you old rogue," said Madame Cardinal, with a punch on Cerizet's stomach by way of farewell.

An hour later, Cerizet, dressed in black, disguised by a rusty wig and an artificially painted physiognomy, arrived at the house in the rue Honore-Chevalier in the regulation cabriolet. He asked the porter to tell him how to find the lodging of an old beggar named Toupillier.

"Is monsieur the doctor whom Madame Cardinal expects?" asked Perrache.

Cerizet had no doubt reflected on the gravity of the affair he was undertaking, for he avoided giving an answer to that question.

"Is this the way?" he said, turning at random to one side of the courtyard.

"No, monsieur," replied Perrache, who then took him to the back stairs of the house, which led up to the wretched attic occupied by the pauper.

Nothing remained for the inquisitive porter to do but to question the driver of the cabriolet; to which employment we will leave him, while we pursue our own inquiries elsewhere.