The Middle Classes/Part I/Chapter XVII
The evening before the day already agreed upon, Theodose received from Cerizet the following note:—
"To-morrow, lease or no lease, Rocher de Cancale, half-past six o'clock."
As for Dutocq, Cerizet saw him every day, for he was still his copying clerk; he therefore gave him his invitation by word of mouth; but the attentive reader must remark a difference in the hour named: "Quarter-past-six, Rocher de Cancale," said Cerizet. It was evident, therefore, that he wanted that fifteen minutes with Dutocq before the arrival of la Peyrade.
These minutes the usurer proposed to employ in jockeying Dutocq in the purchase of the notes; he fancied that if the proposition to buy them were suddenly put before him without the slightest preparation it might be more readily received. By not leaving the seller time to bethink himself, perhaps he might lead him to loosen his grasp, and the notes once bought below par, he could consider at his leisure whether to pocket the difference or curry favor with du Portail for the discount he had obtained. Let us say, moreover, that apart from self-interest, Cerizet would still have endeavored to scrape a little profit out of his friend; 'twas an instinct and a need of his nature. He had as great a horror for straight courses as the lovers of English gardens show in the lines of their paths.
Dutocq, having still a portion of the cost of his practice to pay off, was forced to live very sparingly, so that a dinner at the Rocher de Cancale was something of an event in the economy of his straitened existence. He arrived, therefore, with that punctuality which testifies to an interest in the occasion, and precisely at a quarter past six he entered the private room of the restaurant where Cerizet awaited him.
"It is queer," he said; "here we are returned to precisely the situation in which we began our business relationship with la Peyrade,—except, to be sure, that this present place of meeting of the three emperors is more comfortable; I prefer the Tilsit of the rue Montgorgeuil to the Tilsit of the Cheval Rouge."
"Faith!" said Cerizet, "I don't know that the results justify the change, for, to be frank, where are the profits to us in the scheme of our triumvirate?"
"But," said Dutocq, "it was a bargain with a long time limit. It can't be said that la Peyrade has lost much time in getting installed—forgive the pun—at the Thuilleries. The scamp has made his way pretty fast, you must own that."
"Not so fast but what his marriage," said Cerizet, "is at the present moment a very doubtful thing."
"Doubtful!" cried Dutocq; "why doubtful?"
"Well, I am commissioned to propose to him another wife, and I'm not sure that any choice is left to him."
"What the devil are you about, my dear fellow, lending your hand in this way to another marriage when you know we have a mortgage on the first?"
"One isn't always master of circumstances, my friend; I saw at once when the new affair was laid before me that the one we had settled on must infallibly go by the board. Consequently, I've tried to work it round in our interests, yours and mine."
"Ah ca! do you mean they are pulling caps for this Theodose? Who is the new match? Has she money?"
"The 'dot' is pretty good; quite as much as Mademoiselle Colleville's."
"Then I wouldn't give a fig for it. La Peyrade has signed those notes and he will pay them."
"Will he pay them? that's the question. You are not a business man, neither is Theodose; it may come into his head to dispute the validity of those notes. What security have we that if the facts about their origin should come out, and the Thuillier marriage shouldn't come off, the court of commerce mightn't annul them as 'obligations without cause.' For my part, I should laugh at such a decision; I can stand it; and, moreover, my precautions are taken; but you, as clerk to a justice-of-peace, don't you see that such an affair would give the chancellor a bone to pick with you?"
"But, my good fellow," said Dutocq, with the ill-humor of a man who sees himself face to face with an argument he can't refute, "you seem to have a mania for stirring up matters and meddling with—"
"I tell you again," said Cerizet, "this came to me; I didn't seek it; but I saw at once that there was no use struggling against the influence that is opposing us; so I chose the course of saving ourselves by a sacrifice."
"A sacrifice! what sort of sacrifice?"
"Parbleu! I've sold my share of those notes, leaving those who bought them to fight it out with Master barrister."
"Who is the purchaser?"
"Who do you suppose would step into my shoes unless it were the persons who have an interest in this other marriage, and who want to hold a power over Theodose, and control him by force if necessary."
"Then my share of the notes is equally important to them?"
"No doubt; but I couldn't speak for you until I had consulted you."
"What do they offer?"
"Hang it! my dear fellow, the same that I accepted. Knowing better than you the danger of their competition I sold out to them on very bad terms."
"Well, but what are they, those terms?"
"I gave up my shares for fifteen thousand francs."
"Come, come!" said Dutocq, shrugging his shoulders, "what you are after is to recover a loss (if you made it) by a commission on my share—and perhaps, after all, the whole thing is only a plot between you and la Peyrade—"
"At any rate, my good friend, you don't mince your words; an infamous thought comes into your head and you state it with charming frankness. Luckily you shall presently hear me make the proposal to Theodose, and you are clever enough to know by his manner if there has been any connivance between us."
"So be it!" said Dutocq. "I withdraw the insinuation; but I must say your employers are pirates; I call their proposal throttling people. I have not, like you, something to fall back upon."
"Well, you poor fellow, this is how I reasoned: I said to myself, That good Dutocq is terribly pressed for the last payment on his practice; this will give him enough to pay it off at one stroke; events have proved that there are great uncertainties about our Theodose-and-Thuillier scheme; here's money down, live money, and therefore it won't be so bad a bargain after all."
"It is a loss of two-fifths!"
"Come," said Cerizet, "you were talking just now of commissions. I see a means of getting one for you if you'll engage to batter down this Colleville marriage. If you will cry it down as you have lately cried it up I shouldn't despair of getting you a round twenty thousand out of the affair."
"Then you think that this new proposal will not be agreeable to la Peyrade,—that he'll reject it? Is it some heiress on whom he has already taken a mortgage?"
"All that I can tell you is that these people expect some difficulty in bringing the matter to a conclusion."
"Well, I don't desire better than to follow your lead and do what is disagreeable to la Peyrade; but five thousand francs—think of it!—it is too much to lose."
At this moment the door opened, and a waiter ushered in the expected guest.
"You can serve dinner," said Cerizet to the waiter; "we are all here."
It was plain that Theodose was beginning to take wing toward higher social spheres; elegance was becoming a constant thought in his mind. He appeared in a dress suit and varnished shoes, whereas his two associates received him in frock-coats and muddy boots.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I think I am a little late, but that devil of a Thuillier is the most intolerable of human beings about a pamphlet I am concocting for him. I was unlucky enough to agree to correct the proofs with him, and over every paragraph there's a fight. 'What I can't understand,' he says, 'the public can't, either. I'm not a man of letters, but I'm a practical man'; and that's the way we battle it, page after page. I thought the sitting this afternoon would never end."
"How unreasonable you are, my dear fellow," said Dutocq; "when a man wants to succeed he must have the courage to make sacrifices. Once married, you can lift your head."
"Ah, yes!" said la Peyrade with a sigh, "I'll lift it; for since the day you made me eat this bread of anguish I've become terribly sick of it."
"Cerizet," said Dutocq, "has a plan that will feed you more succulently."
Nothing more was said at the moment, for justice had to be done to the excellent fare ordered by Cerizet in honor of his coming lease. As usually happens at dinners where affairs are likely to be discussed, each man, with his mind full of them, took pains not to approach those topics, fearing to compromise his advantages by seeming eager; the conversation, therefore, continued for a long time on general subjects, and it was not until the dessert was served that Cerizet brought himself to ask la Peyrade what had been settled about the terms of his lease.
"Nothing, my friend," replied Theodose.
"What! nothing? I certainly allowed you time enough to decide the matter."
"Well, as to that, something is decided. There will not be any principal tenant at all; Mademoiselle Brigitte is going to let the house herself."
"That's a singular thing," said Cerizet, stiffly. "After your agreement with me, I certainly did not expect such a result as this."
"How can I help it, my dear fellow? I agreed with you, barring amendments on the other side; I wasn't able to give another turn to the affair. In her natural character as a managing woman and a sample of perpetual motion, Brigitte has reflected that she might as well manage that house herself and put into her own pocket the profits you proposed to make. I said all I could about the cares and annoyances which she would certainly saddle upon herself. 'Oh! nonsense!' she said; 'they'll stir my blood and do my health good!'"
"It is pitiable!" said Cerizet. "That poor old maid will never know which end to take hold of; she doesn't imagine what it is to have an empty house, and which must be filled with tenants from garret to cellar."
"I plied her with all those arguments," replied la Peyrade; "but I couldn't move her resolution. Don't you see, my dear democrats, you stirred up the revolution of '89; you thought to make a fine speculation in dethroning the noble by the bourgeois, and the end of it is you are shoved out yourselves. This looks like paradox; but you've found out now that the peasant and clodhopper isn't malleable; he can't be forced down and kept under like the noble. The aristocracy, on behalf of its dignity, would not condescend to common cares, and was therefore dependent on a crowd of plebeian servitors to whom it had to trust for three-fourths of the actions of its own life. That was the reign of stewards and bailiffs, wily fellows, into whose hands the interests of the great families passed, and who fed and grew fat on the parings of the great fortunes they managed. But now-a-days, utilitarian theories, as they call them, have come to the fore,—'We are never so well served as by ourselves,' 'There's no shame in attending to one's own business,' and many other bourgeois maxims which have suppressed the role of intermediaries. Why shouldn't Mademoiselle Brigitte Thuillier manage her own house when dukes and peers go in person to the Bourse, where such men sign their own leases and read the deeds before they sign them, and go themselves to the notary, whom, in former days, they considered a servant."
During this time Cerizet had time to recover from the blow he had just received squarely in the face, and to think of the transition he had to make from one set of interests to the other, of which he was now the agent.
"What you are declaiming there is all very clever," he said, carelessly, "but the thing that proves to me our defeat is the fact that you are not on the terms with Mademoiselle Thuillier you would have us believe you are. She is slipping through your fingers; and I don't think that marriage is anything like as certain as Dutocq and I have been fancying it was."
"Well, no doubt," said la Peyrade, "there are still some touches to be given to our sketch, but I believe it is well under way."
"And I think, on the contrary, that you have lost ground; and the reason is simple: you have done those people an immense service; and that's a thing never forgiven."
"Well, we shall see," said la Peyrade. "I have more than one hold upon them."
"No, you are mistaken. You thought you did a brilliant thing in putting them on a pinnacle, but the fact is you emancipated them; they'll keep you now at heel. The human heart, particularly the bourgeois heart, is made that way. If I were in your place I shouldn't feel so sure of being on solid ground, and if something else turned up that offered me a good chance—"
"What! just because I couldn't get you the lease of that house do you want to knock everything to pieces?"
"No," said Cerizet, "I am not looking at the matter in the light of my own interests; I don't doubt that as a trustworthy friend you have done every imaginable thing to promote them; but I think the manner in which you have been shoved aside a very disturbing symptom. It even decides me to tell you something I did not intend to speak of; because, in my opinion, when persons start a course they ought to keep on steadily, looking neither forward nor back, and not allowing themselves to be diverted to other aspirations."
"Ah ca!" cried la Peyrade, "what does all this verbiage mean? Have you anything to propose to me? What's the price of it?"
"My dear Theodose," said Cerizet, paying no attention to the impertinence, "you yourself can judge of the value of discovering a young girl, well brought-up, adorned with beauty and talents and a 'dot' equal to that of Celeste, which she has in her own right, plus fifty thousand francs' worth of diamonds (as Mademoiselle Georges says on her posters in the provinces), and, moreover,—a fact which ought to strike the mind of an ambitious man,—a strong political influence, which she can use for a husband."
"And this treasure you hold in your hand?" said la Peyrade, in a tone of incredulity.
"Better still, I am authorized to offer it to you; in fact, I might say that I am charged to do so."
"My friend, you are poking fun at me; unless, indeed, this phoenix has some hideous or prohibitory defect."
"Well, I'll admit," said Cerizet, "that there is a slight objection, not on the score of family, for, to tell the truth, the young woman has none—"
"Ah!" said la Peyrade, "a natural child—Well, what next?"
"Next, she is not so very young,—something like twenty-nine or so; but there's nothing easier than to turn an elderly girl into a young widow if you have imagination."
"Is that all the venom in it?"
"Yes, all that is irreparable."
"What do you mean by that? Is it a case of rhinoplasty?"
Addressed to Cerizet the word had an aggressive air, which, in fact, was noticeable since the beginning of the dinner in the whole manner and conversation of the barrister. But it did not suit the purpose of the negotiator to resent it.
"No," he replied, "our nose is as well made as our foot and our waist; but we may, perhaps, have a slight touch of hysteria."
"Oh! very good," said la Peyrade; "and as from hysteria to insanity there is but a step—"
"Well, yes," interrupted Cerizet, hastily, "sorrows have affected our brain slightly; but the doctors are unanimous in their diagnosis; they all say that after the birth of the first child not a trace will remain of this little trouble."
"I am willing to admit that doctors are infallible," replied la Peyrade; "but, in spite of your discouragement, you must allow me, my friend, to persist in my suit to Mademoiselle Colleville. Perhaps it is ridiculous to confess it, but the truth is I am gradually falling in love with that little girl. It isn't that her beauty is resplendent, or that the glitter of her 'dot' has dazzled me, but I find in that child a great fund of sound sense joined to simplicity; and, what to mind is of greater consequence, her sincere and solid piety attracts me; I think a husband ought to be very happy with her."
"Yes," said Cerizet, who, having been on the stage, may very well have known his Moliere, "this marriage will crown your wishes with all good; it will be filled with sweetness and with pleasures."
The allusion to Tartuffe was keenly felt by la Peyrade, who took it up and said, hotly:—
"The contact with innocence will disinfect me of the vile atmosphere in which I have lived too long."
"And you will pay your notes of hand," added Cerizet, "which I advise you to do with the least possible delay; for Dutocq here was saying to me just now that he would like to see the color of your money."
"I? not at all," interposed Dutocq. "I think, on the contrary, that our friend has a right to the delay."
"Well," said la Peyrade, "I agree with Cerizet. I hold that the less a debt is due, and therefore the more insecure and open to contention it is, the sooner one ought to free one's self by paying it."
"But, my dear la Peyrade," said Dutocq, "why take this bitter tone?"
Pulling from his pocket a portfolio, la Peyrade said:—
"Have you those notes with you, Dutocq?"
"Faith! no, my dear fellow," replied Dutocq, "I don't carry them about with me; besides, they are in Cerizet's hands."
"Well," said the barrister, rising, "whenever you come to my house I'll pay you on the nail, as Cerizet can tell you."
"What! are you going to leave us without your coffee?" said Cerizet, amazed to the last degree.
"Yes; I have an arbitration case at eight o'clock. Besides, we have said all we had to say. You haven't your lease, but you've got your twenty five thousand francs in full, and those of Dutocq are ready for him whenever he chooses to come to my office. I see nothing now to prevent me from going where my private business calls me, and I therefore very cordially bid you good-bye."
"Ah ca! Dutocq," cried Cerizet, as la Peyrade disappeared, "this means a rupture."
"Prepared with the utmost care," added Dutocq. "Did you notice the air with which he pulled out that pocket-book?"
"But where the devil," said the usurer, "could he have got the money?"
"Probably," replied Dutocq, sarcastically, "where he got that with which he paid you in full for those notes you sold at a sacrifice."
"My dear Dutocq," said Cerizet, "I'll explain to you the circumstances under which that insolent fellow freed himself, and you'll see if he didn't rob me of fifteen thousand francs."
"Possibly, but you, my worthy clerk, were trying to get ten thousand away from me."
"No, no; I was positively ordered to buy up your claim; and you ought to remember that my offer had risen to twenty thousand when Theodose came in."
"Well," said Dutocq, "when we leave here we'll go to your house, where you will give me those notes; for, you'll understand that to-morrow morning, at the earliest decent hour, I shall go to la Peyrade's office; I don't mean to let his paying humor cool."
"And right you are; for I can tell you now that before long there'll be a fine upset in his life."
"Then the thing is really serious—this tale of a crazy woman you want him to marry? I must say that in his place, with these money-matters evidently on the rise, I should have backed out of your proposals just as he did. Ninas and Ophelias are all very well on the stage, but in a home—"
"In a home, when they bring a 'dot,' we can be their guardian," replied Cerizet, sententiously. "In point of fact, we get a fortune and not a wife."
"Well," said Dutocq, "that's one way to look at it."
"If you are willing," said Cerizet, "let us go and take our coffee somewhere else. This dinner has turned out so foolishly that I want to get out of this room, where there's no air." He rang for the waiter. "Garcon!" he said, "the bill."
"Monsieur, it is paid."
"Paid! by whom?"
"By the gentleman who just went out."
"But this is outrageous," cried Cerizet. "I ordered the dinner, and you allow some one else to pay for it!"
"It wasn't I, monsieur," said the waiter; "the gentleman went and paid the 'dame du comptoir'; she must have thought it was arranged between you. Besides, it is not so uncommon for gentlemen to have friendly disputes about paying."
"That's enough," said Cerizet, dismissing the waiter.
"Won't these gentlemen take their coffee?—it is paid for," said the man before he left the room.
"A good reason for not taking it," replied Cerizet, angrily. "It is really inconceivable that in a house of this kind such an egregious blunder should be committed. What do you think of such insolence?" he added, when the waiter had left the room.
"Bah!" exclaimed Dutocq, taking his hat, "it is a schoolboy proceeding; he wanted to show he had money; it is easy to see he never had any before."
"No, no! that's not it," said Cerizet; "he meant to mark the rupture. 'I will not owe you even a dinner,' is what he says to me."
"But, after all," said Dutocq, "this banquet was given to celebrate your enthronement as principal tenant of the grand house. Well, he has failed to get you the lease, and I can understand that his conscience was uneasy at letting you pay for a dinner which, like those notes of mine, were an 'obligation without cause.'"
Cerizet made no reply to this malicious observation. They had reached the counter where reigned the dame who had permitted the improper payment, and, for the sake of his dignity, the usurer thought it proper to make a fuss. After which the two men departed, and the copying-clerk took his employer to a low coffee-house in the Passage du Saumon. There Cerizet recovered his good-humor; he was like a fish out of water suddenly returned to his native element; for he had reached that state of degradation when he felt ill at ease in places frequented by good society; and it was with a sort of sensuous pleasure that he felt himself back in the vulgar place where they were noisily playing pool for the benefit of a "former conqueror of the Bastille."
In this establishment Cerizet enjoyed the fame of being a skilful billiard-player, and he was now entreated to take part in a game already begun. In technical language, he "bought his ball"; that is, one of the players sold him his turn and his chances. Dutocq profited by this arrangement to slip away, on pretence of inquiring for a sick friend.
Presently, in his shirt-sleeves, with a pipe between his lips, Cerizet made one of those masterly strokes which bring down the house with frantic applause. As he waited a moment, looking about him triumphantly, his eye lighted on a terrible kill-joy. Standing among the spectators with his chin on his cane, du Portail was steadily watching him.
A tinge of red showed itself in Cerizet's cheeks. He hesitated to bow or to recognize the old gentleman, a most unlikely person to meet in such a place. Not knowing how to take the unpleasant encounter, he went on playing; but his hand betrayed his uneasiness, and presently an unlucky stroke threw him out of the game. While he was putting on his coat in a tolerably ill-humor, du Portail passed, almost brushing him, on his way to the door.
"Rue Montmartre, at the farther end of the Passage," said the old man, in a low tone.
When they met, Cerizet had the bad taste to try to explain the disreputable position in which he had just been detected.
"But," said du Portail, "in order to see you there, I had to be there myself."
"True," returned Cerizet. "I was rather surprised to see a quiet inhabitant of the Saint-Sulpice quarter in such a place."
"It merely proves to you," said the little old man, in a tone which cut short all explanation, and all curiosity, "that I am in the habit of going pretty nearly everywhere, and that my star leads me into the path of those persons whom I wish to meet. I was thinking of you at the very moment you came in. Well, what have you done?"
"Nothing good," replied Cerizet. "After playing me a devilish trick which deprived me of a magnificent bit of business, our man rejected your overture with scorn. There is no hope whatever in that claim of Dutocq's; for la Peyrade is chock-full of money; he wanted to pay the notes just now, and to-morrow morning he will certainly do so."
"Does he regard his marriage to this Demoiselle Colleville as a settled thing?"
"He not only considers it settled, but he is trying now to make people believe it is a love-match. He rattled off a perfect tirade to convince me that he is really in love."
"Very well," said du Portail, wishing, perhaps, to show that he could, on occasion, use the slang of a low billiard-room, "'stop the charge'" (meaning: Do nothing more); "I will undertake to bring monsieur to reason. But come and see me to-morrow, and tell me all about the family he intends to enter. You have failed in this affair; but don't mind that; I shall have others for you."
So saying, he signed to the driver of an empty citadine, which was passing, got into it, and, with a nod to Cerizet, told the man to drive to the rue Honore-Chevalier.
As Cerizet walked down the rue Montmartre to regain the Estrapade quarter, he puzzled his brains to divine who that little old man with the curt speech, the imperious manner, and a tone that seemed to cast upon all those with whom he spoke a boarding-grapnel, could be; a man, too, who came from such a distance to spend his evening in a place where, judging by his clothes alone, he had no business to be.
Cerizet had reached the Market without finding any solution to that problem, when he was roughly shaken out of it by a heavy blow in the back. Turning hastily, he found himself in presence of Madame Cardinal, an encounter with whom, at a spot where she came every morning to get fish to peddle, was certainly not surprising.
Since that evening in Toupillier's garret, the worthy woman, in spite of the clemency so promptly shown to her, had judged it imprudent to make other than very short apparitions in her own domicile, and for the last two days she had been drowning among the liquor-dealers (called "retailers of comfort") the pangs of her defeat. With flaming face and thickened voice she now addressed her late accomplice:—
"Well, papa," she said, "what happened after I left you with that little old fellow?"
"I made him understand in a very few words," replied the banker of the poor, "that it was all a mistake as to me. In this affair, my dear Madame Cardinal, you behaved with a really unpardonable heedlessness. How came you to ask my assistance in obtaining your inheritance from your uncle, when with proper inquiry you might have known there was a natural daughter, in whose favor he had long declared he should make a will? That little old man, who interrupted you in your foolish attempt to anticipate your legacy, was no other than the guardian of the daughter to whom everything is left."
"Ha! guardian, indeed! a fine thing, guardian!" cried the Cardinal. "To talk of a woman of my age, just because I wanted to see if my uncle owned anything at all, to talk to me of the police! It's hateful! it's disgusting!"
"Come, come!" said Cerizet, "you needn't complain; you got off cheaply."
"Well, and you, who broke the locks and said you were going to take the diamonds, under color of marrying my daughter! Just as if she would have you,—a legitimate daughter like her! 'Never, mother,' said she; 'never will I give my heart to a man with such a nose.'"
"So you've found her, have you?" said Cerizet.
"Not until last night. She has left her blackguard of a player, and she is now, I flatter myself, in a fine position, eating money; has her citadine by the month, and is much respected by a barrister who would marry her at once, but he has got to wait till his parents die, for the father happens to be mayor, and the government wouldn't like it."
"11th arrondissement,—Minard, powerfully rich, used to do a business in cocoa."
"Ah! very good! very good! I know all about him. You say Olympe is living with his son?"
"Well, not to say living together, for that would make talk, though he only sees her with good motives. He lives at home with his father, but he has bought their furniture, and has put it, and my daughter, too, into a lodging in the Chausee d'Antin; stylish quarter, isn't it?"
"It seems to me pretty well arranged," said Cerizet; "and as Heaven, it appears, didn't destine us for each other—"
"No, yes, well, that's how it was; and I think that girl is going to give me great satisfaction; and there's something I want to consult you about."
"What?" demanded Cerizet.
"Well, my daughter being in luck, I don't think I ought to continue to cry fish in the streets; and now that my uncle has disinherited me, I have, it seems to me, a right to an 'elementary allowance.'"
"You are dreaming, my poor woman; your daughter is a minor; it is you who ought to be feeding her; the law doesn't require her to give you aliment."
"Then do you mean," said Madame Cardinal, "that those who have nothing are to give to those who have much? A fine thing such a law as that! It's as bad as guardians who, for nothing at all, talk about calling the police. Yes! I'd like to see 'em calling the police to me! Let 'em guillotine me! It won't prevent my saying that the rich are swindlers; yes, swindlers! and the people ought to make another revolution to get their rights; and then, my lad, you, and my daughter, and barrister Minard, and that little old guardian, you'll all come down under it—"
Perceiving that his ex-mother-in-law was reaching stage of exaltation that was not unalarming, Cerizet hastened to get away, her epithets pursuing him for more than a hundred feet; but he comforted himself by thinking that he would make her pay for them the next time she came to his back to ask for a "convenience."