The Middle Classes/Part II/Chapter XV
On reaching the rue Honore-Chevalier la Peyrade felt a doubt; the dilapidated appearance of the house to which he was summoned made him think he had mistaken the number. It seemed to him that a person of Monsieur du Portail's evident importance could not inhabit such a place. It was therefore with some hesitation that he accosted Sieur Perrache, the porter. But no sooner had he entered the antechamber of the apartment pointed out to him than the excellent deportment of Bruneau, the old valet, and the extremely comfortable appearance of the furniture and other appointments made him see that he was probably in the right place. Introduced at once, as soon as he had given his name, into the study of the master of the house, his surprise was great when he found himself in presence of the commander, so called, the friend of Madame de Godollo, and the little old man he had seen half an hour earlier with Thuillier.
"At last!" said du Portail, rising, and offering la Peyrade a chair, "at last we meet, my refractory friend; it has taken a good deal to bring you here."
"May I know, monsieur," said la Peyrade, haughtily, not taking the chair which was offered to him, "what interest you have in meddling with my affairs? I do not know you, and I may add that the place where I once saw you did not create an unconquerable desire in me to make your acquaintance."
"Where have you seen me?" asked du Portail.
"In the apartment of a strumpet who called herself Madame de Godollo."
"Where monsieur, consequently, went himself," said the little old man, "and for a purpose much less disinterested than mine."
"I have not come here," said la Peyrade, "to bandy words with any one. I have the right, monsieur, to a full explanation as to the meaning of your proceedings towards me. I therefore request you not to delay them by a facetiousness to which, I assure you, I am not in the humor to listen."
"Then, my dear fellow," said du Portail, "sit down, for I am not in the humor to twist my neck by talking up at you."
The words were reasonable, and they were said in a tone that showed the old gentleman was not likely to be frightened by grand airs. La Peyrade therefore deferred to the wishes of his host, but he took care to do so with the worst grace possible.
"Monsieur Cerizet," said du Portail, "a man of excellent standing in the world, and who has the honor to be one of your friends—"
"I have nothing to do with that man now," said la Peyrade, sharply, understanding the malicious meaning of the old man's speech.
"Well, the time has been," said du Portail, "when you saw him, at least, occasionally: for instance, when you paid for his dinner at the Rocher de Cancale. As I was saying, I charged the virtuous Monsieur Cerizet to sound you as to a marriage—"
"Which I refused," interrupted la Peyrade, "and which I now refuse again, more vehemently than ever."
"That's the question," said the old man. "I think, on the contrary, that you will accept it; and it is to talk over this affair with you that I have so long desired a meeting."
"But this crazy girl that you are flinging at my head," said la Peyrade, "what is she to you? She can't be your daughter, or you would put more decency into your hunt for a husband."
"This young girl," replied du Portail, "is the daughter of one of my friends who died about ten years ago; at his death I took her to live with me, and have given her all the care her sad condition needed. Her fortune, which I have greatly increased, added to my own, which I intend to leave to her, will make her a very rich heiress. I know that you are no enemy to handsome 'dots,' for you have sought them in various places,—Thuillier's house, for instance, or, to use your own expression, that of a strumpet whom you scarcely knew. I have therefore supposed you would accept at my hands a very rich young woman, especially as her infirmity is declared by the best physicians to be curable; whereas you can never cure Monsieur and Mademoiselle Thuillier, the one of being a fool, the other of being a fury, any more than you could cure Madame Komorn of being a woman of very medium virtue and extremely giddy."
"It may suit me," replied la Peyrade, "to marry the daughter of a fool and a fury if I choose her, or I might become the husband of a clever coquette, if passion seized me, but the Queen of Sheba herself, if imposed upon me, neither you, monsieur, nor the ablest and most powerful man living could force me to accept."
"Precisely; therefore it is to your own good sense and intelligence that I now address myself; but we have to come face to face with people in order to speak to them, you know. Now, then, let us look into your present situation, and don't get angry if, like a surgeon who wants to cure his patient, I lay my hand mercilessly on wounds which have long tormented and harassed you. The first point to state is that the Celeste Colleville affair is at an end for you."
"Why so?" demanded la Peyrade.
"Because I have just seen Thuillier and terrified him with the history of the misfortunes he has incurred, and those he will incur if he persists in the idea of giving you his goddaughter in marriage. He knows now that it was I who paralyzed Madame du Bruel's kind offices in the matter of the cross; that I had his pamphlet seized; that I sent that Hungarian woman into his house to handle you all, as she did; and that my hand is opening fire in the ministerial journals, which will only increase from bad to worse,—not to speak of other machinations which will be directed against his candidacy. Therefore you see, my good friend, that not only have you no longer the credit in Thuillier's eyes of being his great helper to that election, but that you actually block the way to his ambition. That is enough to prove to you that the side by which you have imposed yourself on that family—who have never sincerely liked or desired you—is now completely battered down and dismantled."
"But to have done all that which you claim with such pretension, who are you?" demanded la Peyrade.
"I shall not say that you are very inquisitive, for I intend to answer your question later; but for the present let us continue, if you please, the autopsy of your existence, dead to-day, but which I propose to resuscitate gloriously. You are twenty-eight years old, and you have begun a career in which I shall not allow you to make another step. A few days hence the Council of the order of barristers will assemble and will censure, more or less severely, your conduct in the matter of the property you placed with such candor in Thuillier's hands. Do not deceive yourself; censure from that quarter (and I mention only your least danger) is as fatal to a barrister as being actually disbarred."
"And it is to your kind offices, no doubt," said la Peyrade, "that I shall owe that precious result?"
"Yes, I may boast of it," replied du Portail, "for, in order to tow you into port it has been necessary to strip you of your rigging; unless that were done, you would always have tried to navigate under your own sails the bourgeois shoals that you are now among."
Seeing that he, undoubtedly, had to do with a strong hand, la Peyrade thought best to modify his tone; and so, with a more circumspect air, he said:—
"You will allow me, monsieur, to reserve my acknowledgments until I receive some fuller explanation."
"Here you are, then," continued du Portail, "at twenty-eight years of age, without a penny, virtually without a profession; with antecedents that are very—middling; with associates like Monsieur Dutocq and the courageous Cerizet; owing to Mademoiselle Thuillier ten thousand francs, and to Madame Lambert twenty-five thousand, which you are no doubt extremely desirous to return to her; and finally, this marriage, your last hope, your sheet-anchor, has just become an utter impossibility. Between ourselves, if I have something reasonable to propose to you, do you not think that you had much better place yourself at my disposal?"
"I have time enough to prove that your opinion is mistaken," returned la Peyrade; "and I shall not form any resolutions so long as the designs you choose to have upon me are not more fully explained."
"You were spoken to, at my instigation, about a marriage," resumed du Portail. "This marriage, as I think, is closely connected with a past existence from which a certain hereditary or family duty has devolved upon you. Do you know what that uncle of yours, to whom you applied in 1829, was doing in Paris? In your family he was thought to be a millionaire; and, dying suddenly, you remember, before you got to him, he did not leave enough for his burial; a pauper's grave was all that remained to him."
"Did you know him?" asked la Peyrade.
"He was my oldest and dearest friend," replied du Portail.
"If that is so," said la Peyrade, hastily, "a sum of two thousand francs, which I received on my arrival in Paris from some unknown source—"
"Came from me," replied du Portail. "Unfortunately, engaged at the time in a rush of important affairs, which you shall hear of later, I could not immediately follow up the benevolent interest I felt in you for your uncle's sake; this explains why I left you in the straw of a garret, where you came, like a medlar, to that maturity of ruin which brought you under the hand of a Dutocq and a Cerizet."
"I am none the less grateful to you, monsieur," said la Peyrade; "and if I had known you were that generous protector, whom I was never able to discover, I should have been the first to seek occasion to meet you and to thank you."
"A truce to compliments," said du Portail; "and, to come at once to the serious side of our present conference, what should you say if I told you that this uncle, whose protection and assistance you came to Paris to obtain, was an agent of that occult power which has always been the theme of feeble ridicule and the object of silly prejudice?"
"I do not seize your meaning," said la Peyrade, with uneasy curiosity; "may I ask you to be more precise?"
"For example, I will suppose," continued du Portail, "that your uncle, if still living, were to say to you to-day: 'You are seeking fortune and influence, my good nephew; you want to rise above the crowd and to play your part in all the great events of your time; you want employment for a keen, active mind, full of resources, and slightly inclined to intrigue; in short, you long to exert in some upper and elegant sphere that force of will and subtlety which at present you are wasting in the silly and useless manipulation of the most barren and tough-skinned animal on earth, to wit: a bourgeois. Well, then, lower your head, my fine nephew; enter with me through the little door which I will open to you; it gives admittance to a great house, often maligned, but better far than its reputation. That threshold once crossed, you can rise to the height of your natural genius, whatever its spark may be. Statesmen, kings even, will admit you to their most secret thoughts; you will be their occult collaborator, and none of the joys which money and the highest powers can bestow upon a man will be lacking to you."
"But, monsieur," objected la Peyrade, "without venturing to understand you, I must remark that my uncle died so poor, you tell me, that public charity buried him."
"Your uncle," replied du Portail, "was a man of rare talent, but he had a certain weak side in his nature which compromised his career. He was eager for pleasure, a spendthrift, thoughtless for the future; he wanted also to taste those joys that are meant for the common run of men, but which for great, exceptional vocations are the worst of snares and impediments: I mean the joys of family. He had a daughter whom he madly loved, and it was through her that his terrible enemies opened a breach in his life, and prepared the horrible catastrophe that ended it."
"Is that an encouragement to enter this shady path, where, you say, he might have asked me to follow him?"
"But if I myself," said du Portail, "should offer to guide you in it, what then?"
"You, monsieur!" said la Peyrade, in stupefaction.
"Yes, I—I who was your uncle's pupil at first, and later his protector and providence; I, whose influence the last half-century has daily increased; I, who am wealthy; I, to whom all governments, as they fall one on top of the others like houses of cards, come to ask for safety and for the power to rebuild their future; I, who am the manager of a great theatre of puppets (where I have Columbines in the style of Madame de Godollo); I, who to-morrow, if it were necessary to the success of one of my vaudevilles or one of my dramas, might present myself to your eyes as the wearer of the grand cordon of the Legion of honor, of the Order of the Black Eagle, or that of the Golden Fleece. Do you wish to know why neither you nor I will die a violent death like your uncle, and also why, more fortunate than contemporaneous kings, I can transmit my sceptre to the successor whom I myself may choose? Because, like you, my young friend, in spite of your Southern appearance, I was cold, profoundly calculating, never tempted to lose my time on trifles at the outskirts; because heat, when I was led by force of circumstances to employ it, never went below the surface. It is more than probable that you have heard of me; well, for you I will open a window in my cloud; look at me, observe me well; have I a cloven hoof, or a tail at the end of my spine? On the contrary, am I not a model of the most inoffensive of householders in the Saint-Sulpice quarter? In that quarter, where I have enjoyed, I may say it, universal esteem for the last twenty-five years, I am called du Portail; but to you, if you will allow me, I shall now name myself Corentin."
"Corentin!" cried la Peyrade, with terrified astonishment.
"Yes, monsieur; and you see that in telling you that secret I lay my hand upon you, and enlist you. Corentin! 'the greatest man of the police in modern times,' as the author of an article in the 'Biographies of Living Men' has said of me—as to whom I ought in justice to remark that he doesn't know a thing about my life."
"Monsieur," said la Peyrade, "I can assure you that I shall keep that secret; but the place which you offer me near you—in your employ—"
"That frightens you, or, at least, it makes you uneasy," said Corentin, quickly. "Before you have even considered the thing the word scares you, does it? The police! Police! you are afraid to encounter the terrible prejudice that brands it on the brow."
"Certainly," said la Peyrade, "it is a necessary institution; but I do not think that it is always calumniated. If the business of those who manage it is honorable why do they conceal themselves so carefully?"
"Because all that threatens society, which it is the mission of the police to repress," replied Corentin, "is plotted and prepared in hiding. Do thieves and conspirators put upon their hats, 'I am Guillot, the shepherd of this flock'? And when we are after them must we ring a bell to let them know we are coming?"
"Monsieur," said la Peyrade, "when a sentiment is universal it ceases to be a prejudice, it becomes an opinion; and this opinion ought to be a law to every man who desires to keep his own esteem and that of others."
"And when you robbed that notary to enrich the Thuilliers for your own advantage," said Corentin, "did you keep your own esteem and that of the Council of barristers? And who knows, monsieur, if in your life there are not still blacker actions than that? I am a more honorable man than you, because, outside of my functions, I have not one doubtful act upon my conscience; and when the opportunity for good has been presented to me I have done it—always and everywhere. Do you think that the guardianship of that poor insane girl in my home has been all roses? But she was the daughter of my old friend, your uncle, and when, feeling the years creep on me, I propose to you, between sacks of money, to fit yourself to take my place—"
"What!" cried la Peyrade, "is that girl my uncle's daughter?"
"Yes; the girl I wish you to marry is the daughter of your uncle Peyrade,—for he democratized his name,—or, if you like it better, she was the daughter of Pere Canquoelle, a name he took from the little estate on which your father lived and starved with eleven children. You see, in spite of the secrecy your uncle always kept about his family, that I know all about it. Do you suppose that before selecting you as your cousin's husband I had not obtained every possible information about you? And what I have learned need not make you quite so supercilious to the police. Besides, as the vulgar saying is, the best of your nose is made of it. Your uncle belonged to the police, and, thanks to that, he became the confidant, I might almost say the friend, of Louis XVIII., who took the greatest pleasure in his companionship. And you, by nature and by mind, also by the foolish position into which you have got yourself, in short, by your whole being, have gravitated steadily to the conclusion I propose to you, namely, that of succeeding me,—of succeeding Corentin. That is the question between us, Monsieur. Do you really believe now that I have not a grasp or a 'seizin,' as you call it, upon you, and that you can manage to escape me for any foolish considerations of bourgeois vanity?"
La Peyrade could not have been at heart so violently opposed to this proposal as he seemed, for the vigorous language of the great master of the police and the species of appropriation which he made of his person brought a smile to the young man's lips.
Corentin had risen, and was walking up and down the room, speaking, apparently, to himself.
"The police!" he cried; "one may say of it, as Basile said of calumny to Batholo, 'The police, monsieur! you don't know what you despise!' And, after all," he continued, after a pause, "who are they who despise it? Imbeciles, who don't know any better than to insult their protectors. Suppress the police, and you destroy civilization. Do the police ask for the respect of such people? No, they want to inspire them with one sentiment only: fear, that great lever with which to govern mankind,—an impure race whose odious instincts God, hell, the executioner, and the gendarmes can scarcely restrain!"
Stopping short before la Peyrade, and looking at him with a disdainful smile, he continued:—
"So you are one of those ninnies who see in the police nothing more than a horde of spies and informers? Have you never suspected the statesmen, the diplomats, the Richelieus it produces? Mercury, monsieur,—Mercury, the cleverest of the gods of paganism,—what was he but the police incarnate? It is true that he was also the god of thieves. We are better than he, for we don't allow that junction of forces."
"And yet," said la Peyrade, "Vautrin, or, I should say, Jacques Collin, the famous chief of the detective police—"
"Yes, yes! but that's in the lower ranks," replied Corentin, resuming his walk; "there's always a muddy place somewhere. Still, don't be mistaken even in that. Vautrin is a man of genius, but his passions, like those of your uncle, dragged him down. But go up higher (for there lies the whole question, namely, the rung of the ladder on which a man has wits enough to perch). Take the prefect, for instance, that honored minister, flattered and respected, is he a spy? Well, I, monsieur, am the prefect of the secret police of diplomacy—of the highest statesmanship. And you hesitate to mount that throne!—to seem small and do great things; to live in a cave comfortably arranged like this, and command the light; to have at your orders an invisible army, always ready, always devoted, always submissive; to know the other side of everything; to be duped by no intrigue because you hold the threads of all within your fingers; to see through all partitions; to penetrate all secrets, search all hearts, all consciences,—these are the things you fear! And yet you were not afraid to go and wallow in a Thuillier bog; you, a thoroughbred, allowed yourself to be harnessed to a hackney-coach, to the ignoble business of electing that parvenu bourgeois."
"A man does what he can," said la Peyrade.
"Here's a very remarkable thing," pursued Corentin, replying to his own thought; "the French language, more just than public opinion, has given us our right place, for it has made the word police the synonym of civilization and the antipodes of savage life, when it said and wrote: 'l'Etat police,' from the Greek words state and city. So, I can assure you, we care little for the prejudice that tries to brand us; none know men as we do; and to know them brings contempt for their contempt as well as for their esteem."
"There is certainly much truth in what you say with such warmth," said la Peyrade, finally.
"Much truth!" exclaimed Corentin, going back to his chair, "say, rather, that it is all true, and nothing but the truth; yet it is not the whole truth. But enough for to-day, monsieur. To succeed me in my functions, and to marry your cousin with a 'dot' that will not be less than five hundred thousand francs, that is my offer. I do not ask you for an answer now. I should have no confidence in a determination not seriously reflected upon. To-morrow, I shall be at home all the morning. I trust that my conviction may then have formed yours."
Dismissing his visitor with a curt little bow, he added: "I do not bid you adieu, but au revoir, Monsieur de la Peyrade."
Whereupon Corentin went to a side-table, where he found all that he needed to prepare a glass of "eau sucree," which he had certainly earned, and, without looking at la Peyrade, who left the room rather stunned, he seemed to have no other interest on his mind than that prosaic preparation.
Was it, indeed, necessary that the morning after this meeting with Corentin a visit from Madame Lambert, now become an exacting and importunate creditor, should come to bear its weight on la Peyrade's determination? As the great chief had pointed out to him the night before, was there not in his nature, in his mind, in his aspirations, in the mistakes and imprudences of his past life, a sort of irresistible incline which drew him down toward the strange solution of existence thus suddenly offered to him?
Fatality, if we may so call it, was lavish of the inducements to which he was destined to succumb. This day was the 31st of October; the vacation of the Palais was just over. The 2nd of November was the day on which the courts reopened, and as Madame Lambert left his room he received a summons to appear on that day before the Council of his order.
To Madame Lambert, who pressed him sharply to repay her, under pretence that she was about to leave Monsieur Picot and return to her native place, he replied: "Come here the day after to-morrow, at the same hour, and your money will be ready for you."
To the summons to give account of his actions to his peers he replied that he did not recognize the right of the Council to question him on the facts of his private life. That was an answer of one sort, certainly. Inevitably it would result in his being stricken from the roll of the barristers of the Royal courts; but, at least, it had an air of dignity and protestation which saved, in a measure, his self-love.
Finally, he wrote a letter to Thuillier, in which he said that his visit to du Portail had resulted in his being obliged to accept another marriage. He therefore returned to Thuillier his promise, and took back his own. All this was curtly said, without the slightest expression of regret for the marriage he renounced. In a postscript he added: "We shall be obliged to discuss my position on the newspaper,"—indicating that it might enter into his plans not to retain it.
He was careful to make a copy of this letter, and an hour later, when, in Corentin's study, he was questioned as to the result of his night's reflections, he gave that great general, for all answer, the matrimonial resignation he had just despatched.
"That will do," said Corentin. "But as for your position on the newspaper, you may perhaps have to keep it for a time. The candidacy of that fool interferes with the plans of the government, and we must manage in some way to trip up the heels of the municipal councillor. In your position as editor-in-chief you may find a chance to do it, and I think your conscience won't kick at the mission."
"No, indeed!" said la Peyrade, "the thought of the humiliations to which I have been so long subjected will make it a precious joy to lash that bourgeois brood."
"Take care!" said Corentin; "you are young, and you must watch against those revengeful emotions. In our austere profession we love nothing and we hate nothing. Men are to us mere pawns of wood or ivory, according to their quality—with which we play our game. We are like the blade that cuts what is given it to cut, but, careful only to be delicately sharpened, wishes neither harm nor good to any one. Now let us speak of your cousin, to whom, I suppose, you have some curiosity to be presented."
La Peyrade was not obliged to pretend to eagerness, that which he felt was genuine.
"Lydie de la Peyrade," said Corentin, "is nearly thirty, but her innocence, joined to a gentle form of insanity, has kept her apart from all those passions, ideas, and impressions which use up life, and has, if I may say so, embalmed her in a sort of eternal youth. You would not think her more than twenty. She is fair and slender; her face, which is very delicate, is especially remarkable for an expression of angelic sweetness. Deprived of her full reason by a terrible catastrophe, her monomania has something touching about it. She always carries in her arms or keeps beside her a bundle of linen which she nurses and cares for as though it were a sick child; and, excepting Bruneau and myself, whom she recognizes, she thinks all other men are doctors, whom she consults about the child, and to whom she listens as oracles. A crisis which lately happened in her malady has convinced Horace Bianchon, that prince of science, that if the reality could be substituted for this long delusion of motherhood, her reason would assert itself. It is surely a worthy task to bring back light to a soul in which it is scarcely veiled; and the existing bond of relationship has seemed to me to point you out as specially designated to effect this cure, the success of which Bianchon and two other eminent doctors who have consulted with him declare to be beyond a doubt. Now, I will take you to Lydie's presence; remember to play the part of doctor; for the only thing that makes her lose her customary serenity is not to enter into her notion of medical consultation."
After crossing several rooms Corentin was on the point of taking la Peyrade into that usually occupied by Lydie when employed in cradling or dandling her imaginary child, when suddenly they were stopped by the sound of two or three chords struck by the hand of a master on a piano of the finest sonority.
"What is that?" asked la Peyrade.
"That is Lydie," replied Corentin, with what might be called an expression of paternal pride; "she is an admirable musician, and though she no longer writes down, as in the days when her mind was clear, her delightful melodies, she often improvises them in a way that moves me to the soul—the soul of Corentin!" added the old man, smiling. "Is not that the finest praise I can bestow upon her? But suppose we sit down here and listen to her. If we go in, the concert will cease and the medical consultation begin."
La Peyrade was amazed as he listened to an improvisation in which the rare union of inspiration and science opened to his impressionable nature a source of emotions as deep as they were unexpected. Corentin watched the surprise which from moment to moment the Provencal expressed by admiring exclamations.
"Hein! how she plays!" said the old man. "Liszt himself hasn't a firmer touch."
To a very quick "scherzo" the performer now added the first notes of an "adagio."
"She is going to sing," said Corentin, recognizing the air.
"Does she sing too?" asked la Peyrade.
"Like Pasta, like Malibran; but hush, listen to her!"
After a few opening bars in "arpeggio" a vibrant voice resounded, the tones of which appeared to stir the Provencal to the depths of his being.
"How the music moves you!" said Corentin; "you were undoubtedly made for each other."
"My God! the same air! the same voice!"
"Have you already met Lydie somewhere?" asked the great master of the police.
"I don't know—I think not," answered la Peyrade, in a stammering voice; "in any case, it was long ago—But that air—that voice—I think—"
"Let us go in," said Corentin.
Opening the door abruptly, he entered, pulling the young man after him.
Sitting with her back to the door, and prevented by the sound of the piano from hearing what happened behind her, Lydie did not notice their entrance.
"Now have you any remembrance of her?" said Corentin.
La Peyrade advanced a step, and no sooner had he caught a glimpse of the girl's profile than he threw up his hands above his head, striking them together.
"It is she!" he cried.
Hearing his cry, Lydie turned round, and fixing her attention on Corentin, she said:—
"How naughty and troublesome you are to come and disturb me; you know very well I don't like to be listened to. Ah! but—" she added, catching sight of la Peyrade's black coat, "you have brought the doctor; that is very kind of you; I was just going to ask you to send for him. The baby has done nothing but cry since morning; I was singing to put her to sleep, but nothing can do that."
And she ran to fetch what she called her child from a corner of the room, where with two chairs laid on their backs and the cushions of the sofa, she had constructed a sort of cradle.
As she went towards la Peyrade, carrying her precious bundle with one hand, with the other she was arranging the imaginary cap of her "little darling," having no eyes except for the sad creation of her disordered brain. Step by step, as she advanced, la Peyrade, pale, trembling, and with staring eyes, retreated backwards, until he struck against a seat, into which, losing his equilibrium, he fell.
A man of Corentin's power and experience, and who, moreover, knew to its slightest detail the horrible drama in which Lydie had lost her reason, had already, of course, taken in the situation, but it suited his purpose and his ideas to allow the clear light of evidence to pierce this darkness.
"Look, doctor," said Lydie, unfastening the bundle, and putting the pins in her mouth as she did so, "don't you see that she is growing thinner every day?"
La Peyrade could not answer; he kept his handkerchief over his face, and his breath came so fast from his chest that he was totally unable to utter a word.
Then, with one of those gestures of feverish impatience, to which her mental state predisposed her, she exclaimed, hastily:—
"But look at her doctor, look!" taking his arm violently and forcing him to show his features. "My God!" she cried, when she had looked him in the face.
Letting fall the linen bundle in her arms, she threw herself hastily backwards, and her eyes grew haggard. Passing her white hands rapidly over her forehead and through her hair, tossing it into disorder, she seemed to be making an effort to obtain from her memory some dormant recollection. Then, like a frightened mare, which comes to smell an object that has given it a momentary terror, she approached la Peyrade slowly, stooping to look into his face, which he kept lowered, while, in the midst of a silence inexpressible, she examined him steadily for several seconds. Suddenly a terrible cry escaped her breast; she ran for refuge into the arms of Corentin, and pressing herself against him with all her force, she exclaimed:—
"Save me! save me! It is he! the wretch! It is he who did it!"
And, with her finger pointed at la Peyrade, she seemed to nail the miserable object of her terror to his place.
After this explosion, she muttered a few disconnected words, and her eyes closed; Corentin felt the relaxing of all the muscles by which she had held him as in a vice the moment before, and he took her in his arms and laid her on the sofa, insensible.
"Do not stay here, monsieur," said Corentin. "Go into my study; I will come to you presently."
A few minutes later, after giving Lydie into the care of Katte and Bruneau, and despatching Perrache for Doctor Bianchon, Corentin rejoined la Peyrade.
"You see now, monsieur," he said with solemnity, "that in pursuing with a sort of passion the idea of this marriage, I was following, in a sense, the ways of God."
"Monsieur," said la Peyrade, with compunction, "I will confess to you—"
"Useless," said Corentin; "you can tell me nothing that I do not know; I, on the contrary, have much to tell you. Old Peyrade, your uncle, in the hope of earning a POT for this daughter whom he idolized, entered into a dangerous private enterprise, the nature of which I need not explain. In it he made enemies; enemies who stopped at nothing,—murder, poison, rape. To paralyze your uncle's action by attacking him in his dearest spot, Lydie was, not abducted, but enticed from her home and taken to a house apparently respectable, where for ten days she was kept concealed. She was not much alarmed by this detention, being told that it was done at her father's wish, and she spent her time with her music—you remember, monsieur, how she sang?"
"Oh!" exclaimed la Peyrade, covering his face with his hands.
"I told you yesterday that you might perhaps have more upon your conscience than the Thuillier house. But you were young; you had just come from your province, with that brutality, that frenzy of Southern blood in your veins which flings itself upon such an occasion. Besides, your relationship became known to those who were preparing the ruin of this new Clarissa Harlowe, and I am willing to believe than an abler and better man than you might not have escaped the entanglement into which you fell. Happily, Providence has granted that there is nothing absolutely irreparable in this horrible history. The same poison, according to the use that is made of it, may give either death or health."
"But, monsieur," said la Peyrade, "shall I not always be to her an object of horror?"
"The doctor, monsieur," said Katte, opening the door.
"How is Mademoiselle Lydie?" asked la Peyrade, eagerly.
"Very calm," replied Katte. "Just now, when we put her to bed,—though she did not want to go, saying she felt well,—I took her the bundle of linen, but she told me to take it away, and asked what I meant her to do with it."
"You see," said Corentin, grasping the Provencal's hand, "you are the lance of Achilles."
And he left the room with Katte to receive Doctor Bianchon.
Left alone, Theodose was a prey to thoughts which may perhaps be imagined. After a while the door opened, and Bruneau, the old valet, ushered in Cerizet. Seeing la Peyrade, the latter exclaimed:—
"Ha! ha! I knew it! I knew you would end by seeing du Portail. And the marriage,—how does that come on?"
"What are you doing here?" asked la Peyrade.
"Something that concerns you; or rather, something that we must do together. Du Portail, who is too busy to attend to business just now, has sent me in here to see you, and consult as to the best means of putting a spoke in Thuillier's election; it seems that the government is determined to prevent his winning it. Have you any ideas about it?"
"No," replied la Peyrade; "and I don't feel in the mood just now to be imaginative."
"Well, here's the situation," said Cerizet. "The government has another candidate, which it doesn't yet produce, because the ministerial negotiations with him have been rather difficult. During this time Thuillier's chances have been making headway. Minard, on whom they counted to create a diversion, sits, the stupid fool, in his corner; the seizure of that pamphlet has given your blockhead of a protege a certain perfume of popularity. In short, the ministry are afraid he'll be elected, and nothing could be more disagreeable to them. Pompous imbeciles, like Thuillier, are horribly embarrassing in the Opposition; they are pitchers without handles; you can't take hold of them anywhere."
"Monsieur Cerizet," said la Peyrade, beginning to assume a protecting tone, and wishing to discover his late associate's place in Corentin's confidence, "you seem to know a good deal about the secret intentions of the government; have you found your way to a certain desk in the rue de Grenelle?"
"No. All that I tell you," said Cerizet, "I get from du Portail."
"Ah ca!" said la Peyrade, lowering his voice, "who is du Portail? You seem to have known him for some time. A man of your force ought to have discovered the real character of a man who seems to me to be rather mysterious."
"My friend," replied Cerizet, "du Portail is a pretty strong man. He's an old slyboots, who has had some post, I fancy, in the administration of the national domain, or something of that kind, under government; in which, I think, he must have been employed in the departments suppressed under the Empire."
"Yes?" said la Peyrade.
"That's where I think he made his money," continued Cerizet; "and being a shrewd old fellow, and having a natural daughter to marry, he has concocted this philanthropic tale of her being the daughter of an old friend named Peyrade; and your name being the same may have given him the idea of fastening upon you—for, after all, he has to marry her to somebody."
"Yes, that's all very well; but his close relations with the government, and the interest he takes in elections, how do you explain all that?"
"Naturally enough," replied Cerizet. "Du Portail is a man who loves money, and likes to handle it; he has done Rastignac, that great manipulator of elections, who is, I think, his compatriot, several signal services as an amateur; Rastignac, in return, gives him information, obtained through Nucingen, which enables him to gamble at the Bourse."
"Did he himself tell you all this?" asked la Peyrade.
"What do you take me for?" returned Cerizet. "With that worthy old fellow, from whom I have already wormed a promise of thirty thousand francs, I play the ninny; I flatten myself to nothing. But I've made Bruneau talk, that old valet of his. You can safely ally yourself to his family, my dear fellow; du Portail is powerfully rich; he'll get you made sub-prefect somewhere; and thence to a prefecture and a fortune is but one step."
"Thanks for the information," said la Peyrade; "at least, I shall know on which foot to hop. But you yourself, how came you to know him?"
"Oh! that's quite a history; by my help he was able to get back a lot of diamonds which had been stolen from him."
At this moment Corentin entered the room.
"All is well," he said to la Peyrade. "There are signs of returning reason. Bianchon, to whom I have told all, wishes to confer with you; therefore, my dear Monsieur Cerizet, we will postpone until this evening, if you are willing, our little study over the Thuillier election."
"Well, so here you have him, at last!" said Cerizet, slapping la Peyrade's shoulder.
"Yes," said Corentin, "and you know what I promised; you may rely on that."
Cerizet departed joyful.