The Middle Classes/Part II/Chapter I
Between the first and second parts of this history an immense event had taken place in the life of Phellion.
There is no one who has not heard of the misfortunes of the Odeon, that fatal theatre which, for years, ruined all its directors. Right or wrong, the quarter in which this dramatic impossibility stands is convinced that its prosperity depends upon it; so that more than once the mayor and other authorities of the arrondissement have, with a courage that honors them, taken part in the most desperate efforts to galvanize the corpse.
Now to meddle with theatrical matters is one of the eternally perennial ambitions of the lesser bourgeoisie. Always, therefore, the successive saviours of the Odeon feel themselves magnificently rewarded if they are given ever so small a share in the administration of that enterprise. It was at some crisis in its affairs that Minard, in his capacity as mayor of the 11th arrondissement, had been called to the chairmanship of the committee for reading plays, with the power to join unto himself as assistants a certain number of the notables of the Latin quarter,—the selection being left to him.
We shall soon know exactly how near was the realization of la Peyrade's projects for the possession of Celeste's "dot"; let us merely say now that these projects in approaching maturity had inevitably become noised abroad; and as this condition of things pointed, of course, to the exclusion of Minard junior and also of Felix the professor, the prejudice hitherto manifested by Minard pere against old Phellion was transformed into an unequivocal disposition towards friendly cordiality; there is nothing that binds and soothes like the feeling of a checkmate shared in common. Judged without the evil eye of paternal rivalry, Phellion became to Minard a Roman of incorruptible integrity and a man whose little treatises had been adopted by the University,—in other words, a man of sound and tested intellect.
So that when it became the duty of the mayor to select the members of the dramatic custom-house, of which he was now the head, he immediately thought of Phellion. As for the great citizen, he felt, on the day when a post was offered to him in that august tribunal, that a crown of gold had been placed upon his brow.
It will be well understood that it was not lightly, nor without having deeply meditated, that a man of Phellion's solemnity had accepted the high and sacred mission which was offered to him. He said within himself that he was called upon to exercise the functions of a magistracy, a priestly office.
"To judge of men," he replied to Minard, who was much surprised at his hesitation, "is an alarming task, but to judge of minds!—who can believe himself equal to such a mission?"
Once more the family—that rock on which the firmest resolutions split—had threatened to infringe on the domain of his conscience. The thought of boxes and tickets of which the future member of the committee could dispose in favor of his own kin had excited in the household so eager a ferment that his freedom of decision seemed for a moment in danger. But, happily, Brutus was able to decide himself in the same direction along which a positive uprising of the whole Phellionian tribe intended to push him. From the observations of Barniol, his son-in-law, and also by his own personal inspiration, he became persuaded that by his vote, always given to works of irreproachable morality, and by his firm determination to bar the way to all plays that mothers of families could not take their daughters to witness, he was called upon to render the most signal services to morals and public order. Phellion, to use his own expression, had therefore become a member of the areopagus presided over by Minard, and—still speaking as he spoke—he was issuing from the exercise of his functions, which were both delicate and interesting, when the conversation we are about to report took place. A knowledge of this conversation is necessary to an understanding of the ulterior events of this history, and it will also serve to put into relief the envious insight which is one of the most marked traits of the bourgeois character.
The session of the committee had been extremely stormy. On the subject of a tragedy entitled, "The Death of Hercules," the classic party and the romantic party, whom the mayor had carefully balanced in the composition of his committee, had nearly approached the point of tearing each other's hair out. Twice Phellion had risen to speak, and his hearers were astonished at the quantity of metaphors the speech of a major of the National Guard could contain when his literary convictions were imperilled. As the result of a vote, victory remained with the opinions of which Phellion was the eloquent organ. It was while descending the stairway of the theatre with Minard that he remarked:—
"We have done a good work this day. 'The Death of Hercules' reminded me of 'The Death of Hector,' by the late Luce de Lancival; the work we have just accepted sparkles with sublime verses."
"Yes," said Minard, "the versification has taste; there are some really fine lines in it, and I admit to you that I think this sort of literature rather above the anagrams of Master Colleville."
"Oh!" replied Minard, "Colleville's anagrams are mere witticisms, which have nothing in common with the sterner accents of Melpomene."
"And yet," said Minard, "I can assure you he attaches the greatest importance to that rubbish, and apropos to his anagrams, as, indeed, about many other things, he is not a little puffed up. Since their emigration to the Madeleine quarter it seems to me that not only the Sieur Colleville, but his wife and daughter, and the Thuilliers and the whole coterie have assumed an air of importance which is rather difficult to justify."
"No wonder!" said Phellion; "one must have a pretty strong head to stand the fumes of opulence. Our friends have become so very rich by the purchase of that property where they have gone to live that we ought to forgive them for a little intoxication; and I must say the dinner they gave us yesterday for a house-warming was really as well arranged as it was succulent."
"I myself," said Minard, "have given a few remarkable dinners to which men in high government positions have not disdained to come, yet I am not puffed up with pride on that account; such as my friends have always known me, that I have remained."
"You, Monsieur le maire, have long been habituated to the splendid existence you have made for yourself by your high commercial talents; our friends, on the contrary, so lately embarked on the smiling ship of Fortune, have not yet found, as the vulgar saying is, their sea-legs."
And then to cut short a conversation in which Phellion began to think the mayor rather "caustic," he made as if he intended to take leave of him. In order to reach their respective homes they did not always take the same way.
"Are you going through the Luxembourg?" asked Minard, not allowing Phellion to give him the slip.
"I shall cross it, but I have an appointment to meet Madame Phellion and the little Barniols at the end of the grand alley."
"Then," said Minard, "I'll go with you and have the pleasure of making my bow to Madame Phellion; and I shall get the fresh air at the same time, for, in spite of hearing fine things, one's head gets tired at the business we have just been about."
Minard had felt that Phellion gave rather reluctant assent to his sharp remarks about the new establishment of the Thuilliers, and he did not attempt to renew the subject; but when he had Madame Phellion for a listener, he was very sure that his spite would find an echo.
"Well, fair lady," he began, "what did you think of yesterday's dinner?"
"It was very fine," replied Madame Phellion; "as I tasted that soup 'a la bisque' I knew that some caterer, like Chevet, had supplanted the cook. But the whole affair was dull; it hadn't the gaiety of our old meetings in the Latin quarter. And then, didn't it strike you, as it did me, that Madame and Mademoiselle Thuillier no longer seemed mistresses of their own house? I really felt as if I were the guest of Madame—what is her name? I never can remember it."
"Torna, Comtesse de Godollo," said Phellion, intervening. "The name is euphonious enough to remember."
"Euphonious if you like, my dear; but to me it never seems a name at all."
"It is a Magyar, or to speak more commonly, a Hungarian name. Our own name, if we wanted to discuss it, might be said to be a loan from the Greek language."
"Very likely; at any rate we have the advantage of being known, not only in our own quarter, but throughout the tuition world, where we have earned an honorable position; while this Hungarian countess, who makes, as they say, the good and the bad weather in the Thuilliers' home, where does she come from, I'd like to know? How did such a fine lady,—for she has good manners and a very distinguished air, no one denies her that,—how came she to fall in love with Brigitte; who, between ourselves, keeps a sickening odor of the porter's lodge about her. For my part, I think this devoted friend is an intriguing creature, who scents money, and is scheming for some future gain."
"Ah ca!" said Minard, "then you don't know the original cause of the intimacy between Madame la Comtesse de Godollo and the Thuilliers?"
"She is a tenant in their house; she occupies the entresol beneath their apartment."
"True, but there's something more than that in it. Zelie, my wife, heard it from Josephine, who wanted, lately, to enter our service; the matter came to nothing, for Francoise, our woman, who thought of marrying, changed her mind. You must know, fair lady, that it was solely Madame de Godollo who brought about the emigration of the Thuilliers, whose upholsterer, as one might say, she is."
"What! their upholsterer?" cried Phellion,—"that distinguished woman, of whom one may truly say, 'Incessu patuit dea'; which in French we very inadequately render by the expression, 'bearing of a queen'?"
"Excuse me," said Minard. "I did not mean that Madame de Godollo is actually in the furniture business; but, at the time when Mademoiselle Thuillier decided, by la Peyrade's advice, to manage the new house herself, that little fellow, who hasn't all the ascendancy over her mind he thinks he has, couldn't persuade her to move the family into the splendid apartment where they received us yesterday. Mademoiselle Brigitte objected that she should have to change her habits, and that her friends and relations wouldn't follow her to such a distant quarter—"
"It is quite certain," interrupted Madame Phellion, "that to make up one's mind to hire a carriage every Sunday, one wants a prospect of greater pleasure than can be found in that salon. When one thinks that, except on the day of the famous dance of the candidacy, they never once opened the piano in the rue Saint-Dominique!"
"It would have been, I am sure, most agreeable to the company to have a talent like yours put in requisition," remarked Minard; "but those are not ideas that could ever come into the mind of that good Brigitte. She'd have seen two more candles to light. Five-franc pieces are her music. So, when la Peyrade and Thuillier insisted that she should move into the apartment in the Place de la Madeleine, she thought of nothing but the extra costs entailed by the removal. She judged, rightly enough, that beneath those gilded ceilings her old 'penates' might have a singular effect."
"See how all things link together," remarked Phellion, "and how, from the summits of society, luxury infiltrates itself, sooner or later, through the lower classes, leading to the ruin of empires."
"You are broaching there, my dear commander," said Minard, "one of the most knotty questions of political economy. Many good minds think, on the contrary, that luxury is absolutely demanded in the interests of commerce, which is certainly the life of States. In any case, this view, which isn't yours, appears to have been that of Madame de Godollo, for, they tell me, her apartment is very coquettishly furnished; and to coax Mademoiselle Brigitte into the same path of elegance she made a proposal to her as follows: 'A friend of mine,' she said, 'a Russian princess for whom one of the first upholsterers has just made splendid furniture, is suddenly recalled to Russia by the czar, a gentleman with whom no one dares to trifle. The poor woman is therefore obliged to turn everything she owns here into money as fast as possible; and I feel sure she would sell this furniture for ready money at a quarter of the price it cost her. All of it is nearly new, and some things have never been used at all.'"
"So," cried Madame Phellion, "all that magnificence displayed before our eyes last night was a magnificent economical bargain?"
"Just so," replied Minard; "and the thing that decided Mademoiselle Brigitte to take that splendid chance was not so much the desire to renew her shabby furniture as the idea of doing an excellent stroke of business. In that old maid there's always something of Madame la Ressource in Moliere's 'Miser.'"
"I think, Monsieur le maire, that you are mistaken," said Phellion. "Madame la Ressource is a character in 'Turcaret,' a very immoral play by the late Le Sage."
"Do you think so?" said Minard. "Well, very likely. But what is certain is that, though the barrister ingratiated himself with Brigitte in helping her to buy the house, it was by this clever jockeying about the furniture that the foreign countess got upon the footing with Brigitte that you now see. You may have remarked, perhaps, that a struggle is going on between those two influences; which we may designate as the house, and its furniture."
"Yes, certainly," said Madame Phellion, with a beaming expression that bore witness to the interest she took in the conversation, "it did seem to me that the great lady allowed herself to contradict the barrister, and did it, too, with a certain sharpness."
"Very marked sharpness," resumed Minard, "and that intriguing fellow perceives it. It strikes me that the lady's hostility makes him uneasy. The Thuilliers he got cheaply; for, between ourselves you know, there's not much in Thuillier himself; but he feels now that he has met a tough adversary, and he is looking anxiously for a weak spot on which to attack her."
"Well, that's justice," said Madame Phellion. "For some time past that man, who used to make himself so small and humble, has been taking airs of authority in the house which are quite intolerable; he behaves openly as the son-in-law; and you know very well, in that affair of Thuillier's election he jockeyed us all, and made us the stepping-stone for his matrimonial ambition."
"Yes; but I can assure you," said Minard, "that at the present time his influence is waning. In the first place, he won't find every day for his dear, good friend, as he calls him, a fine property worth a million to be bought for a bit of bread."
"Then they did get that house very cheap?" said Madame Phellion, interrogatively.
"They got it for nothing, as the result of a dirty intrigue which the lawyer Desroches related to me the other day. If it ever became known to the council of the bar, that little barrister would be badly compromised. The next thing is the coming election to the Chamber. Eating gives appetite, as they say, and our good Thuillier is hungry; but he begins to perceive that Monsieur de la Peyrade, when it becomes a question of getting him that mouthful, hasn't his former opportunity to make dupes of us. That is why the family is turning more and more to Madame de Godollo, who seems to have some very high acquaintances in the political world. Besides all this, in fact, without dwelling on the election business, which is still a distant matter, this Hungarian countess is becoming, every day, more and more a necessity to Brigitte; for it must be owned that without the help of the great lady, the poor soul would look in the midst of her gilded salon like a ragged gown in a bride's trousseau."
"Oh, Monsieur le maire, you are cruel," said Madame Phellion, affecting compunction.
"No, but say," returned Minard, "with your hand on your conscience, whether Brigitte, whether Madame Thuillier could preside in such a salon? No, it is the Hungarian countess who does it all. She furnished the rooms; she selected the male domestic, whose excellent training and intelligence you must have observed; it was she who arranged the menu of that dinner; in short, she is the providence of the parvenu colony, which, without her intervention, would have made the whole quarter laugh at it. And—now this is a very noticeable thing—instead of being a parasite like la Peyrade, this Hungarian lady, who seems to have a fortune of her own, proves to be not only disinterested, but generous. The two gowns that you saw Brigitte and Madame Thuillier wear last night were a present from her, and it was because she came herself to superintend the toilet of our two 'amphitryonesses' that you were so surprised last night not to find them rigged in their usual dowdy fashion."
"But what can be the motive," asked Madame Phellion, "of this maternal and devoted guardianship?"
"My dear wife," said Phellion, solemnly, "the motives of human actions are not always, thank God! selfishness and the consideration of vile interests. There are hearts in this world that find pleasure in doing good for its own sake. This lady may have seen in our good friends a set of people about to enter blindly into a sphere they knew nothing about, and having encouraged their first steps by the purchase of this furniture, she may, like a nurse attached to her nursling, find pleasure in giving them the milk of her social knowledge and her counsels."
"He seems to keep aloof from our strictures, the dear husband!" cried Minard; "but just see how he goes beyond them!"
"I!" said Phellion; "it is neither my intention nor my habit to do so."
"All the same it would be difficult to say more neatly that the Thuilliers are geese, and that Madame de Godollo is bringing them up by hand."
"I do not accept for these friends of ours," said Phellion, "a characterization so derogatory to their repute. I meant to say that they were lacking, perhaps, in that form of experience, and that this noble lady has placed at their service her knowledge of the world and its usages. I protest against any interpretation of my language which goes beyond my thought thus limited."
"Well, anyhow, you will agree, my dear commander, that in the idea of giving Celeste to this la Peyrade, there is something more than want of experience; there is, it must be said, blundering folly and immorality; for really the goings on of that barrister with Madame Colleville—"
"Monsieur le maire," interrupted Phellion, with redoubled solemnity, "Solon, the law-giver, decreed no punishment for parricide, declaring it to be an impossible crime. I think the same thing may be said of the offence to which you seem to make allusion. Madame Colleville granting favors to Monsieur de la Peyrade, and all the while intending to give him her daughter? No, monsieur, no! that passes imagination. Questioned on this subject, like Marie Antoinette, by a human tribunal, Madame Colleville would answer with the queen, 'I appeal to all mothers.'"
"Nevertheless, my friend," said Madame Phellion, "allow me to remind you that Madame Colleville is excessively light-minded, and has given, as we al know, pretty good proofs of it."
"Enough, my dear," said Phellion. "The dinner hour summons us; I think that, little by little, we have allowed this conversation to drift toward the miry slough of backbiting."
"You are full of illusions, my dear commander," said Minard, taking Phellion by the hand and shaking it; "but they are honorable illusions, and I envy them. Madame, I have the honor—" added the mayor, with a respectful bow to Madame Phellion.
And each party took its way.