The Middle Classes/Part II/Chapter VII

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The Middle Classes by Honoré de Balzac, translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley

On the staircase la Peyrade stopped to exhale, if we may so express it, the happiness of which his heart was full. The words of the countess, the ingenious preparation she had made to put him on the track of her sentiments, seemed to him the guarantee of her sincerity, and he left her full of faith.

Possessed by that intoxication of happy persons which shows itself in their gestures, their looks, their very gait, and sometimes in actions not authorized by their common-sense, after pausing a moment, as we have said, on the staircase, he ran up a few steps till he could see the door of the Thuilliers' apartment.

"At last!" he cried, "fame, fortune, happiness have come to me; but, above all, I can now give myself the joy of vengeance. After Dutocq and Cerizet, I will crush you, vile bourgeois brood!"

So saying, he shook his fist at the innocent door. Then he turned and ran out; the popular saying that the earth could not hold him, was true at that moment of his being.

The next day, for he could not restrain any longer the tempest that was swelling within him, la Peyrade went to see Thuillier in the bitterest and most hostile of moods. What was therefore his amazement when, before he had time to put himself on guard and stop the demonstration of union and oblivion, Thuillier flung himself into his arms.

"My friend," cried the municipal councillor, as he loosened his clasp, "my political fortune is made; this morning all the newspapers, without exception, have spoken of the seizure of my pamphlet; and you ought to see how the opposition sheets have mauled the government."

"Simple enough," said la Peyrade, not moved by this enthusiasm; "you are a topic for them, that's all. But this does not alter the situation; the prosecution will be only the more determined to have you condemned."

"Well, then," said Thuillier, proudly raising his head, "I will go to prison, like Beranger, like Lamennais, like Armand Carrel."

"My good fellow, persecution is charming at a distance; but when you hear the big bolts run upon you, you may be sure you won't like it as well."

"But," objected Thuillier, "prisoners condemned for political offences are always allowed to do their time in hospital if they like. Besides, I'm not yet convicted. You said yourself you expected to get me acquitted."

"Yes, but since then I have heard things which make that result very doubtful; the same hand that withheld your cross has seized your pamphlet; you are being murdered with premeditation."

"If you know who that dangerous enemy is," said Thuillier, "you can't refuse to point him out to me."

"I don't know him," replied la Peyrade; "I only suspect him. This is what you get by playing too shrewd a game."

"Playing a shrewd game!" said Thuillier, with the curiosity of a man who is perfectly aware that he has nothing of that kind on his conscience.

"Yes," said la Peyrade, "you made a sort of decoy of Celeste to attract young bloods to your salon. All the world has not the forbearance of Monsieur Godeschal, who forgave his rejection and generously managed that affair about the house."

"Explain yourself better," said Thuillier, "for I don't see what you mean."

"Nothing is easier to understand. Without counting me, how many suitors have you had for Mademoiselle Colleville? Godeschal, Minard junior, Phellion junior, Olivier Vinet, the substitute judge,—all men who have been sent about their business, as I am."

"Olivier Vinet, the substitute judge!" cried Thuillier, struck with a flash of light. "Of course; the blow must have come from him. His father, they say, has a long arm. But it can't be truly said that we sent him about his business,—to use your expression, which strikes me as indecorous,—for he never came to the house but once, and made no offer; neither did Minard junior or Phellion junior, for that matter. Godeschal is the only one who risked a direct proposal, and he was refused at once, before he dipped his beak in the water."

"It is always so!" said la Peyrade, still looking for a ground of quarrel. "Straightforward and outspoken persons are always those that sly men boast of fooling."

"Ah ca! what's all this?" said Thuillier; "what are you insinuating? Didn't you settle everything with Brigitte the other day? You take a pretty time to come and talk to me about your love-affairs, when the sword of justice is hanging over my head."

"Oh!" said la Peyrade, ironically; "so now you are going to make the most of your interesting position of accused person! I knew very well how it would be; I was certain that as soon as your pamphlet appeared the old cry of not getting what you expected out of me would come up."

"Parbleu! your pamphlet!" cried Thuillier. "I think you are a fine fellow to boast of that when, on the contrary, it has caused the most deplorable complications."

"Deplorable? how so? you have just said your political fortune was made."

"Well, truly, my dear Theodose," said Thuillier, with feeling, "I should never have thought that you would choose the hour of adversity to come and put your pistol at our throats and make me the object of your sneers and innuendoes."

"Well done!" said la Peyrade; "now it is the hour of adversity! A minute ago you were flinging yourself into my arms as a man to whom some signal piece of luck had happened. You ought really to choose decidedly between being a man who needs pity and a glorious victor."

"It is all very well to be witty," returned Thuillier; "but you can't controvert what I say. I am logical, if I am not brilliant. It is very natural that I should console myself by seeing that public opinion decides in my favor, and by reading in its organs the most honorable assurances of sympathy; but do you suppose I wouldn't rather that things had taken their natural course? Besides, when I see myself the object of unworthy vengeance on the part of persons as influential as the Vinets, how can I help measuring the extent of the dangers to which I am exposed?"

"Well," said la Peyrade, with pitiless persistency, "I see that you prefer to play the part of Jeremiah."

"Yes," said Thuillier, in a solemn tone. "Jeremiah laments over a friendship I did think true and devoted, but which I find has only sarcasms to give me when I looked for services."

"What services?" asked la Peyrade. "Did you not tell me positively, no later than yesterday, that you would not accept my help under any form whatever? I offered to plead your case, and you answered that you would take a better lawyer."

"Yes; in the first shock of surprise at such an unexpected blow, I did say that foolish thing; but, on reflection, who can explain as well as you can the intention of the words you wrote with your own pen? Yesterday I was almost out of my mind; but you, with your wounded self-love, which can't forgive a momentary impatience, you are very caustic and cruel."

"So," said la Peyrade, "you formally request me to defend you before the jury?"

"Yes, my dear fellow; and I don't know any other hands in which I could better place my case. I should have to pay a monstrous sum to some great legal luminary, and he wouldn't defend me as ably as you."

"Well, I refuse. Roles have changed, as you see, diametrically. Yesterday, I thought, as you do, that I was the man to defend you. To-day, I see that you had better take the legal luminary, because, with Vinet's antagonism against you the affair is taking such proportions that whoever defends it assumes a fearful responsibility."

"I understand," said Thuillier, sarcastically. "Monsieur has his eye on the magistracy, and he doesn't want to quarrel with a man who is already talked of for Keeper of the Seals. It is prudent, but I don't know that it is going to help on your marriage."

"You mean," said la Peyrade, seizing the ball in its bound, "that to get you out of the claws of that jury is a thirteenth labor of Hercules, imposed upon me to earn the hand of Mademoiselle Colleville? I expected that demands would multiply in proportion to the proofs of my devotion. But that is the very thing that has worn me out, and I have come here to-day to put an end to this slave labor by giving back to you your pledges. You may dispose of Celeste's hand; for my part, I am no longer a suitor for it."

The unexpectedness and squareness of this declaration left Thuillier without words or voice, all the more because at this moment entered Brigitte. The temper of the old maid had also greatly moderated since the previous evening, and her greeting was full of the most amicable familiarity.

"Ah! so here you are, you good old barrister," she said.

"Mademoiselle, your servant," he replied, gravely.

"Well," she continued, paying no attention to the stiffness of his manner, "the government has got itself into a pretty mess by seizing your pamphlet. You ought to see how the morning papers lash it! Here," she added, giving Thuillier a small sheet printed on sugar-paper, in coarse type, and almost illegible,—"here's another, you didn't read; the porter has just brought it up. It is a paper from our old quarter, 'L'Echo de la Bievre.' I don't know, gentlemen, if you'll be of my opinion, but I think nothing could be better written. It is droll, though, how inattentive these journalists are! most of them write your name without the H; I think you ought to complain of it."

Thuillier took the paper, and read the article inspired to the reviewer of the tanner's organ by stomach gratitude. Never in her life had Brigitte paid the slightest attention to a newspaper, except to know if it was the right size for the packages she wrapped up in it; but now, suddenly, converted to a worship of the press by the ardor of her sisterly love, she stood behind Thuillier and re-read, over his shoulder, the more striking passages of the page she thought so eloquent, pointing her finger to them.

"Yes," said Thuillier, folding up the paper, "that's warm, and very flattering to me. But here's another matter! Monsieur has come to tell me that he refuses to plead for me, and renounces all claim to Celeste's hand."

"That is to say," said Brigitte, "he renounces her if, after having pleaded, the marriage does not take place 'subito.' Well, poor fellow, I think that's a reasonable demand. When he has done that for us there ought to be no further delay; and whether Mademoiselle Celeste likes it or not, she must accept him, because, you know, there's an end to all things."

"Do you hear that, my good fellow?" said la Peyrade, seizing upon Brigitte's speech. "When I have pleaded, the marriage is to take place. Your sister is frankness itself; she, at least, doesn't practise diplomacy."

"Diplomacy!" echoed Brigitte. "I'd like to see myself creeping underground in matters. I say things as I think them. The workman has worked, and he ought to have his pay."

"Do be silent," cried Thuillier, stamping his foot; "you don't say a word that doesn't turn the knife in the wound."

"The knife in the wound?" said Brigitte, inquiringly. "Ah ca! are you two quarrelling?"

"I told you," said Thuillier, "that la Peyrade had returned our promises; and the reason he gives is that we are asking him another service for Celeste's hand. He thinks he has done us enough without it."

"He has done us some services, no doubt," said Brigitte; "but it seems to me that we have not been ungrateful to him. Besides, it was he who made the blunder, and I think it rather odd he should now wish to leave us in the lurch."

"Your reasoning, mademoiselle," said la Peyrade, "might have some appearance of justice if I were the only barrister in Paris; but as the streets are black with them, and as, only yesterday, Thuillier himself spoke of engaging some more important lawyer than myself, I have not the slightest scruple in refusing to defend him. Now, as to the marriage, in order that it may not be made the object of another brutal and forcible demand upon me, I here renounce it in the most formal manner, and nothing now prevents Mademoiselle Colleville from accepting Monsieur Felix Phellion and all his advantages."

"As you please, my dear monsieur," said Brigitte, "if that's your last word. We shall not be at a loss to find a husband for Celeste,—Felix Phellion or another. But you must permit me to tell you that the reason you give is not the true one. We can't go faster than the fiddles. If the marriage were settled to-day, there are the banns to publish; you have sense enough to know that Monsieur le maire can't marry you before the formalities are complied with, and before then Thuillier's case will have been tried."

"Yes," said la Peyrade, "and if I lose the case it will be I who have sent him to prison,—just as yesterday it was I who brought about the seizure."

"As for that, it seems to me that if you had written nothing the police would have found nothing to bite."

"My dear Brigitte," said Thuillier, seeing la Peyrade shrug his shoulders, "your argument is vicious in the sense that the writing was not incriminating on any side. It is not la Peyrade's fault if persons of high station have organized a persecution against me. You remember that little substitute, Monsieur Olivier Vinet, whom Cardot brought to one of our receptions. It seems that he and his father are furious that we didn't want him for Celeste, and they've sworn my destruction."

"Well, why did we refuse him," said Brigitte, "if it wasn't for the fine eyes of monsieur here? For, after all, a substitute in Paris is a very suitable match."

"No doubt," said la Peyrade, nonchalantly. "Only, he did not happen to bring you a million."

"Ah!" cried Brigitte, firing up. "If you are going to talk any more about that house you helped us to buy, I shall tell you plainly that if you had had the money to trick the notary you never would have come after us. You needn't think I have been altogether your dupe. You spoke just now of a bargain, but you proposed that bargain yourself. 'Give me Celeste and I'll get you that house,'—that's what you said to us in so many words. Besides which, we had to pay large sums on which we never counted."

"Come, come, Brigitte," said Thuillier, "you are making a great deal out of nothing."

"Nothing! nothing!" exclaimed Brigitte. "Did we, or did we not, have to pay much more than we expected?"

"My dear Thuillier," said la Peyrade, "I think, with you, that the matter is now settled, and it can only be embittered by discussing it further. My course was decided on before I came here; all that I have now heard can only confirm it. I shall not be the husband of Celeste, but you and I can remain good friends."

He rose to leave the room.

"One moment, monsieur," said Brigitte, barring his way; "there is one matter which I do not consider settled; and now that we are no longer to have interests in common, I should not be sorry if you would be so good as to tell me what has become of a sum of ten thousand francs which Thuillier gave you to bribe those rascally government offices in order to get the cross we have never got."

"Brigitte!" cried Thuillier, in anguish, "you have a devil of a tongue! You ought to be silent about that; I told it to you in a moment of ill-temper, and you promised me faithfully never to open your lips about it to any one, no matter who."

"So I did; but," replied the implacable Brigitte, "we are parting. When people part they settle up; they pay their debts. Ten thousand francs! For my part, I thought the cross itself dear at that; but for a cross that has melted away, monsieur himself will allow the price is too high."

"Come, la Peyrade, my friend, don't listen to her," said Thuillier, going up to the barrister, who was pale with anger. "The affection she has for me blinds her; I know very well what government offices are, and I shouldn't be surprised if you had had to pay out money of your own."

"Monsieur," said la Peyrade, "I am, unfortunately, not in a position to return to you, instantly, that money, an accounting for which is so insolently demanded. Grant me a short delay; and have the goodness to accept my note, which I am ready to sign, if that will give you patience."

"To the devil with your note!" cried Thuillier; "you owe me nothing; on the contrary, it is we who owe you; for Cardot told me I ought to give you at least ten thousand francs for enabling us to buy this magnificent property."

"Cardot! Cardot!" said Brigitte; "he is very generous with other people's money. We were giving monsieur Celeste, and that's a good deal more than ten thousand francs."

La Peyrade was too great a comedian not to turn the humiliation he had just endured into a scene finale. With tears in his voice, which presently fell from his eyes, he turned to Brigitte.

"Mademoiselle," he said, "when I had the honor to be received by you I was poor; you long saw me suffering and ill at ease, knowing, alas! too well, the indignities that poverty must bear. From the day that I was able to give you a fortune which I never thought of for myself I have felt, it is true, more assurance; and your own kindness encouraged me to rise out of my timidity and depression. To-day, when I, by frank and loyal conduct, release you from anxiety,—for, if you chose to be honest, you would acknowledge that you have been thinking of another husband for Celeste,—we might still remain friends, even though I renounce a marriage which my delicacy forbids me to pursue. But you have not chosen to restrain yourself with the limits of social politeness, of which you have a model beside you in Madame de Godollo, who, I am persuaded, although she is not at all friendly to me, would never have approved of your odious behavior. Thank Heaven! I have in my heart some religious sentiment at least; the Gospel is not to me a mere dead-letter, and—understand me well, mademoiselle—I forgive you. It is not to Thuillier, who would refuse them, but to you that I shall, before long, pay the ten thousand francs which you insinuate I have applied to my own purposes. If, by the time they are returned to you, you feel regret for your unjust suspicions, and are unwilling to accept the money, I request that you will turn it over to the bureau of Benevolence to the poor—"

"To the bureau of Benevolence!" cried Brigitte, interrupting him. "No, I thank you! the idea of all that money being distributed among a crowd of do-nothings and devotes, who'll spend it in junketing! I've been poor too, my lad; I made bags for the money of others long before I had any money of my own; I have some now, and I take care of it. So, whenever you will, I am ready to receive that ten thousand francs and keep it. If you didn't know how to do what you undertook to do, and spent that money in trying to put salt on a sparrow's tail, so much the worse for you."

Seeing that he had missed his effect, and had made not the slightest impression on Brigitte's granite, la Peyrade cast a disdainful look upon her and left the room majestically. As he did so he noticed a movement made by Thuillier to follow him, and also the imperious gesture of Brigitte, always queen and mistress, which nailed her brother to his chair.