The Middle Classes/Part II/Chapter II
The information acquired by the mayor of the 11th arrondissement was by no means incorrect. In the Thuillier salon, since the emigration to the Madeleine quarter, might be seen daily, between the tart Brigitte and the plaintive Madame Thuillier, the graceful and attractive figure of a woman who conveyed to this salon an appearance of the most unexpected elegance. It was quite true that through the good offices of this lady, who had become her tenant in the new house, Brigitte had made a speculation in furniture not less advantageous in its way, but more avowable, than the very shady purchase of the house itself. For six thousand francs in ready money she had obtained furniture lately from workshops representing a value of at least thirty thousand.
It was still further true that in consequence of a service which went deep into her heart, Brigitte was showing to the beautiful foreign countess the respectful deference which the bourgeoisie, in spite of its sulky jealousy, is much less indisposed to give to titles of nobility and high positions in the social hierarchy than people think. As this Hungarian countess was a woman of great tact and accomplished training, in taking the direction which she had thought it wise to assume over the affairs of her proteges, she had been careful to guard her influence from all appearance of meddlesome and imperious dictation. On the contrary, she flattered Brigitte's claim to be a model housekeeper; in her own household expenses she affected to ask the spinster's advice; so that by reserving to herself the department of luxurious expenses, she had more the air of giving information than of exercising supervision.
La Peyrade could not disguise from himself that a change was taking place. His influence was evidently waning before that of this stranger; but the antagonism of the countess was not confined to a simple struggle for influence. She made no secret of being opposed to his suit for Celeste; she gave her unequivocal approval to the love of Felix Phellion, the professor. Minard, by whom this fact was not unobserved, took very good care, in the midst of his other information, not to mention it to those whom it most concerned.
La Peyrade was all the more anxious at being thus undermined by a hostility the cause of which was inexplicable to him, because he knew he had himself to blame for bringing this disquieting adversary into the very heart of his citadel. His first mistake was in yielding to the barren pleasure of disappointing Cerizet in the lease of the house. If Brigitte by his advice and urging had not taken the administration of the property into her own hands there was every probability that she would never have made the acquaintance of Madame de Godollo. Another imprudence had been to urge the Thuilliers to leave their old home in the Latin quarter.
At this period, when his power and credit had reached their apogee, Theodose considered his marriage a settled thing; and he now felt an almost childish haste to spring into the sphere of elegance which seemed henceforth to be his future. He had therefore furthered the inducements of the countess, feeling that he thus sent the Thuilliers before him to make his bed in the splendid apartment he intended to share with them. By thus removing them from their old home he saw another advantage,—that of withdrawing Celeste from daily intercourse with a rival who seemed to him dangerous. Deprived of the advantage of propinquity, Felix would be forced to make his visits farther apart; and therefore there would be greater facilities to ruin him in the girl's heart, where he was installed on condition of giving religious satisfaction,—a requirement to which he showed himself refractory.
But in all these plans and schemes various drawbacks confronted him. To enlarge the horizon of the Thuilliers was for la Peyrade to run the chance of creating competition for the confidence and admiration of which he had been till then the exclusive object. In the sort of provincial life they had hitherto lived, Brigitte and his dear, good friend placed him, for want of comparison, at a height from which the juxtaposition of other superiorities and elegances must bring him down. So, then, apart from the blows covertly dealt him by Madame de Godollo, the idea of the transpontine emigration had proved to be, on the whole, a bad one.
The Collevilles had followed their friends the Thuilliers, to the new house near the Madeleine, where an entresol at the back had been conceded to them at a price conformable to their budget. But Colleville declared it lacked light and air, and being obliged to go daily from the boulevard of the Madeleine to the faubourg Saint-Jacques, where his office was, he fumed against the arrangement of which he was the victim, and felt at times that la Peyrade was a tyrant. Madame Colleville, on the other hand, had flung herself into an alarming orgy of bonnets, mantles, and new gowns, requiring the presentation of a mass of bills, which led not infrequently to scenes in the household which were more or less stormy. As for Celeste, she had undoubtedly fewer opportunities to see young Phellion, but she had also fewer chances to rush into religious controversy; and absence, which is dangerous to none but inferior attachments, made her think more tenderly and less theologically of the man of her dreams.
But all these false calculations of Theodose were as nothing in the balance with another cause for his diminishing influence which was now to weigh heavily on his situation.
He had assured Thuillier that, after a short delay and the payment of ten thousand francs, to which his dear, good friend submitted with tolerable grace, the cross of the Legion of honor would arrive to realize the secret desire of all his life. Two months had now passed without a sign of that glorious rattle; and the former sub-director, who would have felt such joy in parading his red ribbon on the boulevard of the Madeleine, of which he was now one of the most assiduous promenaders, had nothing to adorn his buttonhole but the flowers of the earth, the privilege of everybody,—of which he was far less proud than Beranger.
La Peyrade had, to be sure, mentioned an unforeseen and inexplicable difficulty by which all the efforts of the Comtesse du Bruel had been paralyzed; but Thuillier did not take comfort in the explanation; and on certain days, when the disappointment became acute, he was very near saying with Chicaneau in Les Plaideurs, "Return my money."
However, no outbreak happened, for la Peyrade held him in leash by the famous pamphlet on "Taxation and the Sliding-Scale"; the conclusion of which had been suspended during the excitement of the moving; for during that agitating period Thuillier had been unable to give proper care to the correction of proofs, about which, we may remember, he had reserved the right of punctilious examination. La Peyrade had now reached a point when he was forced to see that, in order to restore his influence, which was daily evaporating, he must strike some grand blow; and it was precisely this nagging and vexatious fancy about the proofs that the barrister decided to take as the starting-point of a scheme, both deep and adventurous, which came into his mind.
One day, when the pair were engaged on the sheets of the pamphlet, a discussion arose upon the word "nepotism," which Thuillier wished to eliminate from one of la Peyrade's sentences, declaring that never had he met with it anywhere; it was pure neologism—which, to the literary notions of the bourgeoisie, is equivalent to the idea of 1793 and the Terror.
Generally la Peyrade took the ridiculous remarks of his dear, good friend pretty patiently; but on this occasion he made himself exceedingly excited, and signified to Thuillier that he might terminate himself a work to which he applied such luminous and intelligent criticism; after which remark he departed and was not seen again for several days.
At first Thuillier supposed this outbreak to be a mere passing effect of ill-humor; but when la Peyrade's absence grew prolonged he felt the necessity of taking some conciliatory step, and accordingly he went to see the barrister, intending to make honorable amends and so put an end to his sulkiness. Wishing, however, to give this advance an air which allowed an honest issue to his own self-love, he entered la Peyrade's room with an easy manner, and said, cheerfully:—
"Well, my dear fellow, it turns out that we were both right: 'nepotism' means the authority that the nephews of popes take in public affairs. I have searched the dictionary and it gives no other explanation; but, from what Phellion tells me, I find that in the political vocabulary the meaning of the word has been extended to cover the influence which corrupt ministers permit certain persons to exercise illegally. I think, therefore, that we may retain the expression, though it is certainly not taken in that sense by Napoleon Landais."
La Peyrade, who, in receiving his visitor, had affected to be extremely busy in sorting his papers, contented himself by shrugging his shoulders and saying nothing.
"Well," said Thuillier, "have you got the last proofs? We ought to be getting on."
"If you have sent nothing to the printing-office," replied la Peyrade, "of course there are no proofs. I myself haven't touched the manuscript."
"But, my dear Theodose," said Thuillier, "it isn't possible that for such a trifle you are affronted. I don't pretend to be a writer, only as my name is on the book I have, I think, the right to my opinion about a word."
"But 'Mossie' Phellion," replied Theodose, "is a writer; and inasmuch as you have consulted him, I don't see why you can't engage him to finish the work in which, for my part, I have resolved not to co-operate any longer."
"Heavens! what temper!" cried Thuillier; "here you are furious just because I seemed to question a word and then consulted some one. You know very well that I have read passages to Phellion, Colleville, Minard, and Barniol as if the work were mine, in order to see the effect it would produce upon the public; but that's no reason why I should be willing to give my name to the things they are capable of writing. Do you wish me to give you a proof of the confidence I have in you? Madame la Comtesse de Godollo, to whom I read a few pages last night, told me that the pamphlet was likely to get me into trouble with the authorities; but I wouldn't allow what she said to have any influence upon me."
"Well," said la Peyrade, "I think that the oracle of the family sees the matter clearly; and I've no desire to bring your head to the scaffold."
"All that is nonsense," said Thuillier. "Have you, or have you not, an intention to leave me in the lurch?"
"Literary questions make more quarrels among friends than political questions," replied Theodose. "I wish to put an end to these discussions between us."
"But, my dear Theodose, never have I assumed to be a literary man. I think I have sound common-sense, and I say out my ideas; you can't be angry at that; and if you play me this trick, and refuse to collaborate any longer, it is because you have some other grudge against me that I know nothing about."
"I don't see why you call it a trick. There's nothing easier for you than not to write a pamphlet; you'll simply be Jerome Thuillier, as before."
"And yet it was you yourself who declared that this publication would help my election; besides, I repeat, I have read passages to all our friends, I have announced the matter in the municipal council, and if the work were not to appear I should be dishonored; people would be sure to say the government had bought me up."
"You have only to say that you are the friend of Phellion, the incorruptible; that will clear you. You might even give Celeste to his booby of a son; that alliance would certainly protect you from all suspicion."
"Theodose," said Thuillier, "there is something in your mind that you don't tell me. It is not natural that for a simple quarrel about a word you should wish to lose a friend like me."
"Well, yes, there is," replied la Peyrade, with the air of a man who makes up his mind to speak out. "I don't like ingratitude."
"Nor I either; I don't like it," said Thuillier, hotly; "and if you accuse me of so base an action, I summon you to explain yourself. We must get out of these hints and innuendoes. What do you complain of? What have you against a man whom only a few days ago you called your friend?"
"Nothing and everything," replied la Peyrade. "You and your sister are much too clever to break openly with a man who, at the risk of his reputation, has put a million in your hands. But I am not so simple that I don't know how to detect changes. There are people about you who have set themselves, in an underhand way, to destroy me; and Brigitte has only one thought, and that is, how to find a decent way of not keeping her promises. Men like me don't wait till their claims are openly protested, and I certainly do not intend to impose myself on any family; still, I was far, I acknowledge, from expecting such treatment."
"Come, come," said Thuillier, kindly, seeing in the barrister's eye the glint of a tear of which he was completely the dupe, "I don't know what Brigitte may have been doing to you, but one thing is very certain: I have never ceased to be your most devoted friend."
"No," said la Peyrade, "since that mishap about the cross I am only good, as the saying is, to throw to the dogs. How could I have struggled against secret influences? Possibly it is that pamphlet, about which you have talked a great deal too much, that has hindered your appointment. The ministers are so stupid! They would rather wait and have their hand forced by the fame of the publication than do the thing with a good grace as the reward of your services. But these are political mysteries which would never enter your sister's mind."
"The devil!" cried Thuillier. "I think I've got a pretty observing eye, and yet I can't see the slightest change in Brigitte toward you."
"Oh, yes!" said la Peyrade, "your eyesight is so good that you have never seen perpetually beside her that Madame de Godollo, whom she now thinks she can't live without."
"Ha, ha!" said Thuillier, slyly, "so it is a little jealousy, is it, in our mind?"
"Jealousy!" retorted la Peyrade. "I don't know if that's the right word, but certainly your sister—whose mind is nothing above the ordinary, and to whom I am surprised that a man of your intellectual superiority allows a supremacy in your household which she uses and abuses—"
"How can I help it, my dear fellow," interrupted Thuillier, sucking in the compliment; "she is so absolutely devoted to me."
"I admit the weakness, but, I repeat, your sister doesn't fit into your groove. Well, I say that when a man of the value which you are good enough to recognize in me, does her the honor to consult her and devote himself to her as I have done, it can hardly be agreeable to him to find himself supplanted by a woman who comes from nobody knows where—and all because of a few trumpery chairs and tables she has helped her to buy!"
"With women, as you know very well," replied Thuillier, "household affairs have the first place."
"And Brigitte, who wants a finger in everything, also assumes to carry matters with a high hand in affairs of the heart. As you are so extraordinarily clear-sighted you ought to have seen that in Brigitte's mind nothing is less certain than my marriage with Mademoiselle Colleville; and yet my love has been solemnly authorized by you."
"Good gracious!" cried Thuillier, "I'd like to see any one attempt to meddle with my arrangements!"
"Well, without speaking of Brigitte, I can tell you of another person," said Theodose, "who is doing that very thing; and that person is Mademoiselle Celeste herself. In spite of their quarrels about religion, her mind is none the less full of that little Phellion."
"But why don't you tell Flavie to put a stop to it?"
"No one knows Flavie, my dear Thuillier, better than you. She is a woman rather than a mother. I have found it necessary to do a little bit of courting to her myself, and, you understand, while she is willing for this marriage she doesn't desire it very much."
"Well," said Thuillier, "I'll undertake to speak to Celeste myself. It shall never be said that a slip of a girl lays down the law to me."
"That's exactly what I don't want you to do," cried la Peyrade. "Don't meddle in all this. Outside of your relations to your sister you have an iron will, and I will never have it said that you exerted your authority to put Celeste in my arms; on the contrary, I desire that the child may have complete control over her own heart. The only thing I request is that she shall decide positively between Felix Phellion and myself; because I do not choose to remain any longer in this doubtful position. It is true we agreed that the marriage should only take place after you became a deputy; but I feel now that it is impossible to allow the greatest event of my life to remain at the mercy of doubtful circumstances. And, besides, such an arrangement, though at first agreed upon, seems to me now to have a flavor of a bargain which is unbecoming to both of us. I think I had better make you a confidence, to which I am led by the unpleasant state of things now between us. Dutocq may have told you, before you left the apartment in the rue Saint-Dominique, that an heiress had been offered to me whose immediate fortune is larger than that which Mademoiselle Colleville will eventually inherit. I refused, because I have had the folly to let my heart be won, and because an alliance with a family as honorable as yours seemed to me more desirable; but, after all, it is as well to let Brigitte know that if Celeste refuses me, I am not absolutely turned out into the cold."
"I can easily believe that," said Thuillier; "but as for putting the whole decision into the hands of that little girl, especially if she has, as you tell me, a fancy for Felix—"
"I can't help it," said the barrister. "I must, at any price, get out of this position; it is no longer tenable. You talk about your pamphlet; I am not in a fit condition to finish it. You, who have been a man of gallantry, you must know the dominion that women, fatal creatures! exercise over our whole being."
"Bah!" said Thuillier, conceitedly, "they cared for me, but I did not often care for them; I took them, and left them, you know."
"Yes, but I, with my Southern nature, love passionately; and Celeste has other attractions besides fortune. Brought up in your household, under your own eye, you have made her adorable. Only, I must say, you have shown great weakness in letting that young fellow, who does not suit her in any respect, get such hold upon her fancy."
"You are quite right; but the thing began in a childish friendship; she and Felix played together. You came much later; and it is a proof of the great esteem in which we hold you, that when you made your offer we renounced our earlier projects."
"You did, yes," said la Peyrade, "and with some literary manias—which, after all, are frequently full of sense and wit—you have a heart of gold; with you friendship is a sure thing, and you know what you mean. But Brigitte is another matter; you'll see, when you propose to her to hasten the marriage, what a resistance she will make."
"I don't agree with you. I think that Brigitte has always wanted you and still wants you for son-in-law—if I may so express myself. But whether she does or not, I beg you to believe that in all important matters I know how to have my will obeyed. Only, let us come now to a distinct understanding of what you wish; then we can start with the right foot foremost, and you'll see that all will go well."
"I wish," replied la Peyrade, "to put the last touches to your pamphlet; for, above all things, I think of you."
"Certainly," said Thuillier, "we ought not to sink in port."
"Well, in consequence of the feeling that I am oppressed, stultified by the prospect of a marriage still so doubtful, I am certain that not a page of manuscript could be got out of me in any form, until the question is settled."
"Very good," said Thuillier; "then how do you present that question?"
"Naturally, if Celeste's decision be against me, I should wish an immediate solution. If I am condemned to make a marriage of convenience I ought to lose no time in taking the opportunity I mentioned to you."
"So be it; but what time do you intend to allow us?"
"I should think that in fifteen days a girl might be able to make up her mind."
"Undoubtedly," replied Thuillier; "but it is very repugnant to me to let Celeste decide without appeal."
"For my part, I will take that risk; in any case, I shall be rid of uncertainty; and that is really my first object. Between ourselves, I am not risking as much as you think. It will take more than fifteen days for a son of Phellion, in other words, obstinacy incarnate in silliness, to have done with philosophical hesitations; and it is very certain that Celeste will not accept him for a husband unless he gives her some proofs of conversion."
"That's probable. But suppose Celeste tries to dawdle; suppose she refuses to accept the alternative?"
"That's your affair," said the Provencal. "I don't know how you regard the family in Paris; I only know that in my part of the country it is an unheard-of thing that a girl should have such liberty. If you, your sister (supposing she plays fair in the matter), and the father and mother can't succeed in making a girl whom you dower agree to so simple a thing as to make a perfectly free choice between two suitors, then good-bye to you! You'll have to write upon your gate-post that Celeste is queen and sovereign of the house."
"Well, we haven't got to that point yet," said Thuillier, with a capable air.
"As for you, my old fellow," resumed la Peyrade, "I must postpone our business until after Celeste's decision. Be that in my favor or not, I will then go to work, and in three days the pamphlet can be finished."
"Now," said Thuillier, "I know what you have had on your mind. I'll talk about it with Brigitte."
"That's a sad conclusion," said la Peyrade; "but, unhappily, so it is."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I would rather, as you can easily imagine, hear you say of yourself that the thing shall be done; but old habits can't be broken up."
"Ah ca! do you think I'm a man without any will, any initiative of my own?"
"No! but I'd like to be hidden in a corner and hear how you will open the subject with your sister."
"Parbleu! I shall open it frankly. I WILL, very firmly said, shall meet every one of her objections."
"Ah, my poor fellow!" said la Peyrade, clapping him on the shoulder, "from Chrysale down how often have we seen brave warriors lowering their penants before the wills of women accustomed to master them!"
"We'll see about that," replied Thuillier, making a theatrical exit.
The eager desire to publish his pamphlet, and the clever doubt thrown upon the strength of his will had made him furious,—an actual tiger; and he went away resolved, in case of opposition, to reduce his household, as the saying is, by fire and sword.
When he reached home Thuillier instantly laid the question before Brigitte. She, with her crude good sense and egotism, pointed out to him that by thus hastening the period formerly agreed upon for the marriage, they committed the blunder of disarming themselves; they could not be sure that when the election took place la Peyrade would put the same zeal into preparing for it. "It might be," said the old maid, "just as it has been about the cross."
"There's this difference," said Thuillier; "the cross doesn't depend directly upon la Peyrade, whereas the influence he exerts in the 12th arrondissement he can employ as he will."
"And suppose he willed, after we have feathered his nest," said Brigitte, "to work his influence for his own election? He is very ambitious, you know."
This danger did not fail to strike the mind of the future legislator, who thought, however, that he might feel some security in the honor and morality of la Peyrade.
"A man's honor can't be very delicate," returned Brigitte, "when he tries to get out of a bargain; and this fashion of dangling a bit of sugar before us about getting your pamphlet finished, doesn't please me at all. Can't you get Phellion to help you, and do without Theodose? Or, I dare say, Madame de Godollo, who knows everybody in politics, could find you a journalist—they say there are plenty of them out at elbows; a couple of hundred francs would do the thing."
"But the secret would get into the papers," said Thuillier. "No, I must absolutely have Theodose; he knows that, and he makes these conditions. After all, we did promise him Celeste, and it is only fulfilling the promise a year earlier—what am I saying?—a few months, a few weeks, possibly; for the king may dissolve the Chamber before any one expects it."
"But suppose Celeste won't have him?" objected Brigitte.
"Celeste! Celeste, indeed!" ejaculated Thuillier; "she must have whomsoever we choose. We ought to have thought of that when we made the engagement with la Peyrade; our word is passed now, you know. Besides, if the child is allowed to choose between la Peyrade and Phellion—"
"So you really think," said the sceptical old maid, "that if Celeste decides for Phellion you can still count on la Peyrade's devotion?"
"What else can I do? Those are his conditions. Besides, the fellow has calculated the whole thing; he knows very well that Felix will never bring himself in two weeks to please Celeste by going to confession, and unless he does, that little monkey will never accept him for a husband. La Peyrade's game is very clever."
"Too clever," said Brigitte. "Well, settle the matter as you choose; I shall not meddle; all this manoeuvring is not to my taste."
Thuillier went to see Madame Colleville, and intimated to her that she must inform Celeste of the designs upon her.
Celeste had never been officially authorized to indulge her sentiment for Felix Phellion. Flavie, on the contrary, had once expressly forbidden her to encourage the hopes of the young professor; but as, on the part of Madame Thuillier, her godmother and her confidant, she knew she was sustained in her inclination, she had let herself gently follow it without thinking very seriously of the obstacles her choice might encounter. When, therefore, she was ordered to choose at once between Felix and la Peyrade, the simple-hearted girl was at first only struck by the advantages of one half of the alternative, and she fancied she did herself a great service by agreeing to an arrangement which made her the mistress of her own choice and allowed her to bestow it as her heart desired.
But la Peyrade was not mistaken in his calculation when he reckoned that the religious intolerance of the young girl on one side, and the philosophical inflexibility of Phellion's son on the other, would create an invincible obstacle to their coming together.