* * * * *
Such was Cesar Birotteau; a worthy man, to whom the fates presiding at the birth of men had denied the faculty of judging politics and life in their entirety, and of rising above the social level of the middle classes; who followed ignorantly the track of routine, whose opinions were all imposed upon him from the outside and applied by him without examination. Blind but good, not spiritual but deeply religious, he had a pure heart. In that heart there shone one love, the light and strength of his life; for his desire to rise in life, and the limited knowledge he had gained of the world, both came from his affection for his wife and for his daughter.
As for Madame Cesar, then thirty-seven years old, she bore so close a resemblance to the Venus of Milo that all who knew her recognized the likeness when the Duc de Riviere sent the beautiful statue to Paris. In a few months sorrows were to dim with yellowing tints that dazzling fairness, to hollow and blacken the bluish circle round the lovely greenish-gray eyes so cruelly that she then wore the look of an old Madonna; for amid the coming ruin she retained her gentle sincerity, her pure though saddened glance; and no one ever thought her less than a beautiful woman, whose bearing was virtuous and full of dignity. At the ball now planned by Cesar she was to shine with a last lustre of beauty, remarked upon at the time and long remembered.
Every life has its climax,—a period when causes are at work, and are in exact relation to results. This mid-day of life, when living forces find their equilibrium and put forth their productive powers with full effect, is common not only to organized beings but to cities, nations, ideas, institutions, commerce, and commercial enterprises, all of which, like noble races and dynasties, are born and rise and fall. From whence comes the vigor with which this law of growth and decay applies itself to all organized things in this lower world? Death itself, in times of scourge, has periods when it advances, slackens, sinks back, and slumbers. Our globe is perhaps only a rocket a little more continuing than the rest. History, recording the causes of the rise and fall of all things here below, could enlighten man as to the moment when he might arrest the play of all his faculties; but neither the conquerors, nor the actors, nor the women, nor the writers in the great drama will listen to the salutary voice.
Cesar Birotteau, who might with reason think himself at the apogee of his fortunes, used this crucial pause as the point of a new departure. He did not know, moreover neither nations nor kings have attempted to make known in characters ineffaceable, the cause of the vast overthrows with which history teems, and of which so many royal and commercial houses offer signal examples. Why are there no modern pyramids to recall ceaselessly the one principle which dominates the common-weal of nations and of individual life? When the effect produced is no longer in direct relation nor in equal proportion to the cause, disorganization has begun. And yet such monuments stand everywhere; it is tradition and the stones of the earth which tell us of the past, which set a seal upon the caprices of indomitable destiny, whose hand wipes out our dreams, and shows us that all great events are summed up in one idea. Troy and Napoleon are but poems. May this present history be the poem of middle-class vicissitudes, to which no voice has given utterance because they have seemed poor in dignity, enormous as they are in volume. It is not one man with whom we are now to deal, but a whole people, or world, of sorrows.
Cesar's last thought as he fell asleep was a fear that his wife would make peremptory objections in the morning, and he ordered himself to get up very early and escape them. At the dawn of day he slipped out noiselessly, leaving his wife in bed, dressed quickly, and went down to the shop, just as the boy was taking down the numbered shutters. Birotteau, finding himself alone, the clerks not having appeared, went to the doorway to see how the boy, named Raguet, did his work,—for Birotteau knew all about it from experience. In spite of the sharp air the weather was beautiful.
"Popinot, get your hat, put on your shoes, and call Monsieur Celestin; you and I will go and have a talk in the Tuileries," he said, when he saw Anselme come down.
Popinot, the admirable antipodes of du Tillet, apprenticed to Cesar by one of those lucky chances which lead us to believe in a Sub-Providence, plays so great a part in this history that it becomes absolutely necessary to sketch his profile here. Madame Ragon was a Popinot. She had two brothers. One, the youngest of the family, was at this time a judge in the Lower courts of the Seine,—courts which take cognizance of all civil contests involving sums above a certain amount. The eldest, who was in the wholesale wool-trade, lost his property and died, leaving to the care of Madame Ragon and his brother an only son, who had lost his mother at his birth. To give him a trade, Madame Ragon placed her nephew at "The Queen of Roses," hoping he might some day succeed Birotteau. Anselme Popinot was a little fellow and club-footed,—an infirmity bestowed by fate on Lord Byron, Walter Scott, and Monsieur de Talleyrand, that others so afflicted might suffer no discouragement. He had the brilliant skin, with frequent blotches, which belongs to persons with red hair; but his clear brow, his eyes the color of a grey-veined agate, his pleasant mouth, his fair complexion, the charm of his modest youth and the shyness which grew out of his deformity, all inspired feelings of protection in those who knew him: we love the weak, and Popinot was loved. Little Popinot—everybody called him so—belonged to a family essentially religious, whose virtues were intelligent, and whose lives were simple and full of noble actions. The lad himself, brought up by his uncle the judge, presented a union of qualities which are the beauty of youth; good and affectionate, a little shame-faced though full of eagerness, gentle as a lamb but energetic in his work, devoted and sober, he was endowed with the virtues of a Christian in the early ages of the Church.
When he heard of a walk in the Tuileries,—certainly the most eccentric proposal that his august master could have made to him at that hour of the day,—Popinot felt sure that he must intend to speak to him about setting up in business. He thought suddenly of Cesarine, the true queen of roses, the living sign of the house, whom he had loved from the day when he was taken into Birotteau's employ, two months before the advent of du Tillet. As he went upstairs he was forced to pause; his heart swelled, his arteries throbbed violently. However, he soon came down again, followed by Celestin, the head-clerk. Anselme and his master turned without a word in the direction of the Tuileries.
Popinot was twenty-one years old. Birotteau himself had married at that age. Anselme therefore could see no hindrance to his marriage with Cesarine, though the wealth of the perfumer and the beauty of the daughter were immense obstacles in the path of his ambitious desires: but love gets onward by leaps of hope, and the more absurd they are the greater faith it has in them; the farther off was the mistress of Anselme's heart, the more ardent became his desires. Happy the youth who in those levelling days when all hats looked alike, had contrived to create a sense of distance between the daughter of a perfumer and himself, the scion of an old Parisian family! In spite of all his doubts and fears he was happy; did he not dine every day beside Cesarine? So, while attending to the business of the house, he threw a zeal and energy into his work which deprived it of all hardship; doing it for the sake of Cesarine, nothing tired him. Love, in a youth of twenty, feeds on devotion.
"He is a true merchant; he will succeed," Cesar would say to Madame Ragon, as he praised Anselme's activity in preparing the work at the factory, or boasted of his readiness in learning the niceties of the trade, or recalled his arduous labors when shipments had to be made, and when, with his sleeves rolled up and his arms bare, the lame lad packed and nailed up, himself alone, more cases than all the other clerks put together.
The well-known and avowed intentions of Alexandre Crottat, head-clerk to Roguin, and the wealth of his father, a rich farmer of Brie, were certainly obstacles in the lad's way; but even these were not the hardest to conquer. Popinot buried in the depths of his heart a sad secret, which widened the distance between Cesarine and himself. The property of the Ragons, on which he might have counted, was involved, and the orphan lad had the satisfaction of enabling them to live by making over to them his meagre salary. Yet with all these drawbacks he believed in success! He had sometimes caught a glance of dignified approval from Cesarine; in the depths of her blue eyes he had dared to read a secret thought full of caressing hopes. He now walked beside Cesar, heaving with these ideas, trembling, silent, agitated, as any young lad might well have been by such an occurrence in the burgeoning time of youth.
"Popinot," said the worthy man, "is your aunt well?"
"She has seemed rather anxious lately. Does anything trouble her? Listen, my boy; you must not be too reticent with me. I am half one of the family. I have known your uncle Ragon thirty-five years. I went to him in hob-nailed shoes, just as I came from my village. That place is called Les Tresorieres, but I can tell you that all my worldly goods were one louis, given me by my godmother the late Marquise d'Uxelles, a relation of Monsieur le Duc and Madame la Duchesse de Lenoncourt, who are now customers of ours. I pray every Sunday for her and for all her family; I send yearly to her niece in Touraine, Madame de Mortsauf, all her perfumery. I get a good deal of custom through them; there's Monsieur de Vandenesse who spends twelve hundred francs a year with us. If I were not grateful out of good feeling, I ought to be so out of policy; but as for you Anselme, I wish you well for you own sake, and without any other thought."
"Ah, monsieur! if you will allow me to say so, you have got a head of gold."
"No, no, my boy, that's not it. I don't say that my head-piece isn't as good as another's; but the thing is, I've been honest,—tenaciously! I've kept to good conduct; I never loved any woman except my wife. Love is a famous vehicle,—happy word used by Monsieur Villele in the tribune yesterday."
"Love!" exclaimed Popinot. "Oh, monsieur! can it be—"
"Bless me! there's Pere Roguin, on foot at this hour, at the top of the Place Louis XV. I wonder what he is doing there!" thought Cesar, forgetting all about Anselme and the oil of nuts.
The suspicions of his wife came back to his mind; and instead of turning in to the Tuileries Gardens, Birotteau walked on to meet the notary. Anselme followed his master at a distance, without being able to define the reason why he suddenly felt an interest in a matter so apparently unimportant, and full of joy at the encouragement he derived from Cesar's mention of the hob-nailed shoes, the one louis, and love.
In times gone by, Roguin—a large stout man, with a pimpled face, a very bald forehead, and black hair—had not been wanting in a certain force of character and countenance. He had once been young and daring; beginning as a mere clerk, he had risen to be a notary; but at this period his face showed, to the eyes of an observer, certain haggard lines, and an expression of weariness in the pursuit of pleasure. When a man plunges into the mire of excesses it is seldom that his face shows no trace of it. In the present instance the lines of the wrinkles and the heat of the complexion were markedly ignoble. Instead of the pure glow which suffuses the tissues of a virtuous man and stamps them, as it were, with the flower of health, the impurities of his blood could be seen to master the soundness of his body. His nose was ignominiously shortened like those of men in whom scrofulous humors, attacking that organ, produce a secret infirmity which a virtuous queen of France innocently believed to be a misfortune common to the whole human race, for she had never approached any man but the king sufficiently near to become aware of her blunder. Roguin hoped to conceal this misfortune by the excessive use of snuff, but he only increased the trouble which was the principal cause of his disasters.
Is it not a too-prolonged social flattery to paint men forever under false colors, and never to reveal the actual causes which underlie their vicissitudes, caused as they so often are by maladies? Physical evil, considered under the aspect of its moral ravages, examined as to its influence upon the mechanism of life, has been perhaps too much neglected by the historians of the social kingdom. Madame Cesar had guessed the secret of Roguin's household.
From the night of her marriage, the charming and only daughter of the banker Chevrel conceived for the unhappy notary an insurmountable antipathy, and wished to apply at once for a divorce. But Roguin, happy in obtaining a rich wife with five hundred thousand francs of her own, to say nothing of expectations, entreated her not to institute an action for divorce, promising to leave her free, and to accept all the consequences of such an agreement. Madame Roguin thus became sovereign mistress of the situation, and treated her husband as a courtesan treats an elderly lover. Roguin soon found his wife too expensive, and like other Parisian husbands he set up a private establishment of his own, keeping the cost, in the first instance, within the limits of moderate expenditure. In the beginning he encountered, at no great expense, grisettes who were glad of his protection; but for the past three years he had fallen a prey to one of those unconquerable passions which sometimes invade the whole being of a man between fifty and sixty years of age. It was roused by a magnificent creature known as la belle Hollandaise in the annals of prostitution, for into that gulf she was to fall back and become a noted personage through her death. She was originally brought from Bruges by a client of Roguin, who soon after left Paris in consequence of political events, presenting her to the notary in 1815. Roguin bought a house for her in the Champs-Elysees, furnished it handsomely, and in trying to satisfy her costly caprices had gradually eaten up his whole fortune.
The gloomy look on the notary's face, which he hastened to lay aside when he saw Birotteau, grew out of certain mysterious circumstances which were at the bottom of the secret fortune so rapidly acquired by du Tillet. The scheme originally planned by that adventurer had changed on the first Sunday when he saw, at Birotteau's house, the relations existing between Monsieur and Madame Roguin. He had come there not so much to seduce Madame Cesar as to obtain the offer of her daughter's hand by way of compensation for frustrated hopes, and he found little difficulty in renouncing his purpose when he discovered that Cesar, whom he supposed to be rich, was in point of fact comparatively poor. He set a watch on the notary, wormed himself into his confidence, was presented to la belle Hollandaise, made a study of their relation to each other, and soon found that she threatened to renounce her lover if he limited her luxuries. La belle Hollandaise was one of those mad-cap women who care nothing as to where the money comes from, or how it is obtained, and who are capable of giving a ball with the gold obtained by a parricide. She never thought of the morrow; for her the future was after dinner, and the end of the month eternity, even if she had bills to pay. Du Tillet, delighted to have found such a lever, exacted from la belle Hollandaise a promise that she would love Roguin for thirty thousand francs a year instead of fifty thousand,—a service which infatuated old men seldom forget.
One evening, after a supper where the wine flowed freely, Roguin unbosomed himself to du Tillet on the subject of his financial difficulties. His own estate was tied up and legally settled on his wife, and he had been led by his fatal passion to take from the funds entrusted to him by his clients a sum which was already more than half their amount. When the whole were gone, the unfortunate man intended to blow out his brains, hoping to mitigate the disgrace of his conduct by making a demand upon public pity. A fortune, rapid and secure, darted before du Tillet's eyes like a flash of lightning in a saturnalian night. He promptly reassured Roguin, and made him fire his pistols into the air.
"With such risks as yours," he said, "a man of your calibre should not behave like a fool and walk on tiptoe, but speculate—boldly."
He advised Roguin to take a large sum from the remaining trust-moneys and give it to him, du Tillet, with permission to stake it bravely on some large operation, either at the Bourse, or in one of the thousand enterprises of private speculation then about to be launched. Should he win, they were to form a banking-house, where they could turn to good account a portion of the deposits, while the profits could be used by Roguin for his pleasures. If luck went against them, Roguin was to get away and live in foreign countries, and trust to his friend du Tillet, who would be faithful to him to the last sou. It was a rope thrown to a drowning man, and Roguin did not perceive that the perfumer's clerk had flung it round his neck.
Master of Roguin's secret, du Tillet made use of it to establish his power over wife, mistress, and husband. Madame Roguin, when told of a disaster she was far from suspecting, accepted du Tillet's attentions, who about this time left his situation with Birotteau, confident of future success. He found no difficulty in persuading the mistress to risk a certain sum of money as a provision against the necessity of resorting to prostitution if misfortunes overtook her. The wife, on the other hand, regulated her accounts, and gathered together quite a little capital, which she gave to the man whom her husband confided in; for by this time the notary had given a hundred thousand francs of the remaining trust-money to his accomplice. Du Tillet's relations to Madame Roguin then became such that her interest in him was transformed into affection and finally into a violent passion. Through his three sleeping-partners Ferdinand naturally derived a profit; but not content with that profit, he had the audacity, when gambling at the Bourse in their name, to make an agreement with a pretended adversary, a man of straw, from whom he received back for himself certain sums which he had charged as losses to his clients. As soon as he had gained fifty thousand francs he was sure of fortune. He had the eye of an eagle to discern the phases through which France was then passing. He played low during the campaign of the allied armies, and high on the restoration of the Bourbons. Two months after the return of Louis XVIII., Madame Roguin was worth two hundred thousand francs, du Tillet three hundred thousand, and the notary had been able to get his accounts once more into order.
La belle Hollandaise wasted her share of the profits; for she was secretly a prey to an infamous scoundrel named Maxime de Trailles, a former page of the Emperor. Du Tillet discovered the real name of this woman in drawing out a deed. She was Sarah Gobseck. Struck by the coincidence of the name with that of a well-known usurer, he went to the old money-lender (that providence of young men of family) to find out how far he would back the credit of his relation. The Brutus of usurers was implacable towards his great-niece, but du Tillet himself pleased him by posing as Sarah's banker, and having funds to invest. The Norman nature and the rapacious nature suited each other. Gobseck happened to want a clever young man to examine into an affair in a foreign country. It chanced that an auditor of the Council of State, overtaken by the return of the Bourbons and anxious to stand well at court, had gone to Germany and bought up all the debts contracted by the princes during the emigration. He now offered the profits of the affair, which to him was merely political, to any one who would reimburse him. Gobseck would pay no money down, unless in proportion to the redemption of the debts, and insisted on a careful examination of the affair. Usurers never trust any one; they demand vouchers. With them the bird in the hand is everything; icy when they have no need of a man, they are wheedling and inclined to be gracious when they can make him useful.
Du Tillet knew the enormous underground part played in the world by such men as Werbrust and Gigonnet, commercial money-lenders in the Rues Saint-Denis and Saint-Martin; by Palma, banker in the Faubourg Poissonniere,—all of whom were closely connected with Gobseck. He accordingly offered a cash security, and obtained an interest in the affair, on condition that these gentlemen would use in their commercial loans certain moneys he should place in their hands. By this means he strengthened himself with a solid support on all sides.
Du Tillet accompanied Monsieur Clement Chardin des Lupeaulx to Germany during the Hundred Days, and came back at the second Restoration, having done more to increase his means of making a fortune than augmented the fortune itself. He was now in the secret councils of the sharpest speculators in Paris; he had secured the friendship of the man with whom he had examined into the affair of the debts, and that clever juggler had laid bare to him the secrets of legal and political science. Du Tillet possessed one of those minds which understand at half a word, and he completed his education during his travels in Germany. On his return he found Madame Roguin faithful to him. As to the notary, he longed for Ferdinand with as much impatience as his wife did, for la belle Hollandaise had once more ruined him. Du Tillet questioned the woman, but could find no outlay equal to the sum dissipated. It was then that he discovered the secret which Sarah had carefully concealed from him,—her mad passion for Maxime de Trailles, whose earliest steps in a career of vice showed him for what he was, one of those good-for-nothing members of the body politic who seem the necessary evil of all good government, and whose love of gambling renders them insatiable. On making this discovery, du Tillet at once saw the reason of Gobseck's insensibility to the claims of his niece.
Under these circumstances du Tillet the banker (for Ferdinand was now a banker) advised Roguin to lay up something against a rainy day, by persuading his clients to invest in some enterprise which might enable him to put by for himself large sums of money, in case he were forced to go into bankruptcy through the affairs of the bank. After many ups and downs, which were profitable to none but Madame Roguin and du Tillet, Roguin heard the fatal hour of his insolvency and final ruin strike. His misery was then worked upon by his faithful friend. Ferdinand invented the speculation in lands about the Madeleine. The hundred thousand francs belonging to Cesar Birotteau, which were in the hands of the notary, were made over to du Tillet; for the latter, whose object was to ruin the perfumer, had made Roguin understand that he would run less risk if he got his nearest friends into the net. "A friend," he said, "is more considerate, even if angry."
Few people realize to-day how little value the lands about the Madeleine had at the period of which we write; but at that time they were likely to be sold even below their then value, because of the difficulty of finding purchasers willing to wait for the profits of the enterprise. Now, du Tillet's aim was to seize the profits speedily without the losses of a protracted speculation. In other words, his plan was to strangle the speculation and get hold of it as a dead thing, which he might galvanize back to life when it suited him. In such a scheme the Gobsecks, Palmas, and Werbrusts would have been ready to lend a hand, but du Tillet was not yet sufficiently intimate with them to ask their aid; besides, he wanted to hide his own hand in conducting the affair, that he might get the profits of his theft without the shame of it. He felt the necessity of having under his thumb one of those living lay-figures called in commercial language a "man of straw." His former tool at the Bourse struck him as a suitable person for the post; he accordingly trenched upon Divine right, and created a man. Out of a former commercial traveller, who was without means or capacity of any kind, except that of talking indefinitely on all subjects and saying nothing, who was without a farthing or a chance to make one,—able, nevertheless, to understand a part and act it without compromising the play or the actors in it, and possessed of a rare sort of honor, that of keeping a secret and letting himself be dishonored to screen his employers,—out of such a being du Tillet now made a banker, who set on foot and directed vast enterprises; the head, namely, of the house of Claparon.
The fate of Charles Claparon would be, if du Tillet's scheme ended in bankruptcy, a swift deliverance to the tender mercies of Jews and Pharisees; and he well knew it. But to a poor devil who was despondently roaming the boulevard with a future of forty sous in his pocket when his old comrade du Tillet chanced to meet him, the little gains that he was to get out of the affair seemed an Eldorado. His friendship, his devotion, to du Tillet, increased by unreflecting gratitude and stimulated by the wants of a libertine and vagabond life, led him to say amen to everything. Having sold his honor, he saw it risked with so much caution that he ended by attaching himself to his old comrade as a dog to his master. Claparon was an ugly poodle, but as ready to jump as Curtius. In the present affair he was to represent half the purchasers of the land, while Cesar Birotteau represented the other half. The notes which Claparon was to receive from Birotteau were to be discounted by one of the usurers whose name du Tillet was authorized to use, and this would send Cesar headlong into bankruptcy so soon as Roguin had drawn from him his last funds. The assignees of the failure would, as du Tillet felt certain, follow his cue; and he, already possessed of the property paid over by the perfumer and his associates, could sell the lands at auction and buy them in at half their value with the funds of Roguin and the assets of the failure. The notary went into this scheme believing that he should enrich himself by the spoliation of Birotteau and his copartners; but the man in whose power he had placed himself intended to take, and eventually did take, the lion's share. Roguin, unable to sue du Tillet in any of the courts, was glad of the bone flung to him, month by month, in the recesses of Switzerland, where he found nymphs at a reduction. Circumstances, actual facts, and not the imagination of a tragic author inventing a catastrophe, gave birth to this horrible scheme. Hatred without a thirst for vengeance is like a seed falling on stony ground; but vengeance vowed to a Cesar by a du Tillet is a natural movement of the soul. If it were not, then we must deny the warfare between the angels of light and the spirits of darkness.
Du Tillet could not very easily assassinate the man who knew him to be guilty of a petty theft, but he could fling him into the mire and annihilate him so completely that his word and testimony would count for nothing. For a long time revenge had germinated in his heart without budding; for the men who hate most are usually those who have little time in Paris to make plans; life is too fast, too full, too much at the mercy of unexpected events. But such perpetual changes, though they hinder premeditation, nevertheless offer opportunity to thoughts lurking in the depths of a purpose which is strong enough to lie in wait for their tidal chances. When Roguin first confided his troubles to du Tillet, the latter had vaguely foreseen the possibility of destroying Cesar, and he was not mistaken. Forced at last to give up his mistress, the notary drank the dregs of his philter from a broken chalice. He went every day to the Champs Elysees returning home early in the morning. The suspicions of Madame Cesar were justified.
* * * * *
From the moment when a man consents to play the part which du Tillet had allotted to Roguin, he develops the talents of a comedian; he has the eye of a lynx and the penetration of a seer; he magnetizes his dupe. The notary had seen Birotteau some time before Birotteau had caught sight of him; when the perfumer did see him, Roguin held out his hand before they met.
"I have just been to make the will of a great personage who has only eight days to live," he said, with an easy manner. "They have treated me like a country doctor,—fetched me in a carriage, and let me walk home on foot."
These words chased away the slight shade of suspicion which clouded the face of the perfumer, and which Roguin had been quick to perceive. The notary was careful not to be the first to mention the land speculation; his part was to deal the last blow.
"After wills come marriage contracts," said Birotteau. "Such is life. Apropos, when do we marry the Madeleine? Hey! hey! papa Roguin," he added, tapping the notary on the stomach.
Among men the most chaste of bourgeois have the ambition to appear rakish.
"Well, if it is not to-day," said the notary, with a diplomatic air, "then never. We are afraid that the affair may get wind. I am much urged by two of my wealthiest clients, who want a share in this speculation. There it is, to take or leave. This morning I shall draw the deeds. You have till one o'clock to make up your mind. Adieu; I am just on my way to read over the rough draft which Xandrot has been making out during the night."
"Well, my mind is made up. I pass my word," said Birotteau, running after the notary and seizing his hand. "Take the hundred thousand francs which were laid by for my daughter's portion."
"Very good," said Roguin, leaving him.
For a moment, as Birotteau turned to rejoin little Popinot, he felt a fierce heat in his entrails, the muscles of his stomach contracted, his ears buzzed.
"What is the matter, monsieur?" asked the clerk, when he saw his master's pale face.
"Ah, my lad! I have just with one word decided on a great undertaking; no man is master of himself at such a moment. You are a party to it. In fact, I brought you here that we might talk of it at our ease; no one can overhear us. Your aunt is in trouble; how did she lose her money? Tell me."
"Monsieur, my uncle and aunt put all their property into the hands of Monsieur de Nucingen, and they were forced to accept as security certain shares in the mines at Wortschin, which as yet pay no dividends; and it is hard at their age to live on hope."
"How do they live, then?"
"They do me the great pleasure of accepting my salary."
"Right, right, Anselme!" said the perfumer, as a tear rolled down his cheek. "You are worthy of the regard I feel for you. You are about to receive a great recompense for your fidelity to my interests."
As he said these words the worthy man swelled in his own eyes as much as he did in those of Popinot, and he uttered them with a plebeian and naive emphasis which was the genuine expression of his counterfeit superiority.
"Ah, monsieur! have you guessed my love for—"
"For whom?" asked his master.
"For Mademoiselle Cesarine."
"Ah, boy, you are bold indeed!" exclaimed Birotteau. "Keep your secret. I promise to forget it. You leave my house to-morrow. I am not angry with you; in your place—the devil! the devil!—I should have done the same. She is so lovely!"
"Oh, monsieur!" said the clerk, who felt his shirt getting wet with perspiration.
"My boy, this matter is not one to be settled in a day. Cesarine is her own mistress, and her mother has fixed ideas. Control yourself, wipe your eyes, hold your heart in hand, and don't let us talk any more about it. I should not blush to have you for my son-in-law. The nephew of Monsieur Popinot, a judge of the civil courts, nephew of the Ragons, you have the right to make your way as well as anybody; but there are buts and ifs and hows and whys. What a devil of a dog you have let loose upon me, in the midst of a business conversation! Here, sit down on that chair, and let the lover give place to the clerk. Popinot, are you a loyal man?" he said, looking fixedly at the youth. "Do you feel within you the nerve to struggle with something stronger than yourself, and fight hand to hand?"
"To maintain a long and dangerous battle?"
"To destroy Macassar Oil!" said Birotteau, rising on his toes like a hero in Plutarch. "Let us not mistake; the enemy is strong, well entrenched, formidable! Macassar Oil has been vigorously launched. The conception was strong. The square bottles were original; I have thought of making ours triangular. Yet on the whole I prefer, after ripe reflection, smaller bottles of thin glass, encased in wicker; they would have a mysterious look, and customers like things which puzzle them."
"They would be expensive," said Popinot. "We must get things out as cheap as we can, so as to make a good reduction at wholesale."
"Good, my lad! That's the right principle. But now, think of it. Macassar Oil will defend itself; it is specious; the name is seductive. It is offered as a foreign importation; and we have the ill-luck to belong to our own country. Come, Popinot, have you the courage to kill Macassar? Then begin the fight in foreign lands. It seems that Macassar is really in the Indies. Now, isn't it much better to supply a French product to the Indians than to send them back what they are supposed to send to us? Make the venture. Begin the fight in India, in foreign countries, in the departments. Macassar Oil has been thoroughly advertised; we must not underrate its power, it has been pushed everywhere, the public knows it."
"I'll kill it!" cried Popinot, with fire in his eyes.
"What with?" said Birotteau. "That's the way with ardent young people. Listen till I've done."
Anselme fell into position like a soldier presenting arms to a marshal of France.
"Popinot, I have invented an oil to stimulate the growth of hair, to titillate the scalp, to revive the color of male and female tresses. This cosmetic will not be less successful than my Paste or my Lotion. But I don't intend to work it myself. I think of retiring from business. It is you, my boy, who are to launch my Oil Comagene,—from the latin word coma, which signifies 'hair,' as Monsieur Alibert, the King's physician, says. The word is found in the tragedy of Berenice, where Racine introduces a king of Comagene, lover of the queen so celebrated for the beauty of her hair; the king—no doubt as a delicate flattery—gave the name to his country. What wit and intellect there is in genius! it condescends to the minutest details."
Little Popinot kept his countenance as he listened to this absurd flourish, evidently said for his benefit as an educated young man.
"Anselme, I have cast my eyes upon you as the one to found a commercial house in the high-class druggist line, Rue des Lombards. I will be your secret partner, and supply the funds to start with. After the Oil Comagene, we will try an essence of vanilla and the spirit of peppermint. We'll tackle the drug-trade by revolutionizing it, by selling its products concentrated instead of selling them raw. Ambitious young man, are you satisfied?"
Anselme could not answer, his heart was full; but his eyes, filled with tears, answered for him. The offer seemed prompted by indulgent fatherhood, saying to him: "Deserve Cesarine by becoming rich and respected."
"Monsieur," he answered at last, "I will succeed!"
"That's what I said at your age," cried the perfumer; "that was my motto. If you don't win my daughter, at least you will win your fortune. Eh, boy! what is it?"
"Let me hope that in acquiring the one I may obtain the other."
"I can't prevent you from hoping, my friend," said Birotteau, touched by Anselme's tone.
"Well, then, monsieur, can I begin to-day to look for a shop, so as to start at once?"
"Yes, my son. To-morrow we will shut ourselves up in the workshop, you and I. Before you go to the Rue des Lombards, call at Livingston's and see if my hydraulic press will be ready to use to-morrow morning. To-night we will go, about dinner-time, to the good and illustrious Monsieur Vauquelin and consult him. He has lately been employed in studying the composition of hair; he has discovered the nature of the coloring matter and whence it comes; also the structure of the hair itself. The secret is just there, Popinot, and you shall know it; all we have to do is to work it out cleverly. Before you go to Livingston's, just stop at Pieri Berard's. My lad, the disinterested kindness of Monsieur Vauquelin is one of the sorrows of my life. I cannot make him accept any return. Happily, I found out from Chiffreville that he wished for the Dresden Madonna, engraved by a man named Muller. After two years correspondence with Germany, Berard has at last found one on Chinese paper before lettering. It cost fifteen hundred francs, my boy. To-day, my benefactor will see it in his antechamber when he bows us out; it is to be all framed, and I want you to see about it. We—that is, my wife and I—shall thus recall ourselves to his mind; as for gratitude, we have prayed to God for him daily for sixteen years. I can never forget him; but you see, Popinot, men buried in the depths of science do forget everything,—wives, friends, and those they have benefited. As for us plain people, our lack of mind keeps our hearts warm at any rate. That's the consolation for not being a great man. Look at those gentlemen of the Institute,—all brain; you will never meet one of them in a church. Monsieur Vauquelin is tied to his study or his laboratory; but I like to believe he thinks of God in analyzing the works of His hands.—Now, then, it is understood; I give you the money and put you in possession of my secret; we will go shares, and there's no need for any papers between us. Hurrah for success! we'll act in concert. Off with you, my boy! As for me, I've got my part to attend to. One minute, Popinot. I give a great ball three weeks hence; get yourself a dress-coat, and look like a merchant already launched."
This last kindness touched Popinot so deeply that he caught Cesar's big hand and kissed it; the worthy soul had flattered the lover by this confidence, and people in love are capable of anything.
"Poor boy!" thought Birotteau, as he watched him hurrying across the Tuileries. "Suppose Cesarine should love him? But he is lame, and his hair is the color of a warming-pan. Young girls are queer; still, I don't think that Cesarine—And then her mother wants to see her the wife of a notary. Alexandre Crottat can make her rich; wealth makes everything bearable, and there is no happiness that won't give way under poverty. However, I am resolved to leave my daughter mistress of herself, even if it seems a folly."
Birotteau's neighbor was a small dealer in umbrellas, parasols, and canes, named Cayron,—a man from Languedoc, doing a poor business, whom Cesar had several times befriended. Cayron wished nothing better than to confine himself to the ground-floor and let the rich perfumer take the floor above it, thus diminishing his rent.
"Well, neighbor," said Birotteau familiarly, as he entered the man's shop, "my wife consents to the enlargement of our premises. If you like, we will go and see Monsieur Molineux at eleven o'clock."
"My dear Monsieur Birotteau," said the umbrella-man, "I have not asked you any compensation for this cession; but you are aware that a good merchant ought to make money out of everything."
"What the devil!" cried Birotteau. "I'm not made of money. I don't know that my architect can do the thing at all. He told me that before concluding my arrangements I must know whether the floors were on the same level. Then, supposing Monsieur Molineux does allow me to cut a door in the wall, is it a party-wall? Moreover, I have to turn my staircase, and make a new landing, so as to get a passage-way on the same floor. All that costs money, and I don't want to ruin myself."
"Oh, monsieur," said the southerner. "Before you are ruined, the sun will have married the earth and they'll have had children."
Birotteau stroked his chin, rose on the points of his toes, and fell back upon his heels.
"Besides," resumed Cayron, "all I ask you to do is to cash these securities for me—"
And he held out sixteen notes amounting in all to five thousand francs.
"Ah!" said the perfumer turning them over. "Small fry, two months, three months—"
"Take them as low as six per cent," said the umbrella-man humbly.
"Am I a usurer?" asked the perfumer reproachfully.
"What can I do, monsieur? I went to your old clerk, du Tillet, and he would not take them at any price. No doubt he wanted to find out how much I'd be willing to lose on them."
"I don't know those signatures," said the perfumer.
"We have such queer names in canes and umbrellas; they belong to the peddlers."
"Well, I won't say that I will take all; but I'll manage the short ones."
"For the want of a thousand francs—sure to be repaid in four months—don't throw me into the hands of the blood-suckers who get the best of our profits; do take all, monsieur! I do so little in the way of discount that I have no credit; that is what kills us little retailers."
"Well, I'll cash your notes; Celestin will make out the account. Be ready at eleven, will you? There's my architect, Monsieur Grindot," said the perfumer, catching sight of the young man, with whom he had made an appointment at Monsieur de la Billardiere's the night before.
"Contrary to the custom of men of talent you are punctual, monsieur," said Cesar, displaying his finest commercial graces. "If punctuality, in the words of our king,—a man of wit as well as a statesman,—is the politeness of princes, it is also the wealth of merchants. Time, time is gold, especially to you artists. I permit myself to say to you that architecture is the union of all the arts. We will not enter through the shop," he added, opening the private door of his house.
Four years earlier Monsieur Grindot had carried off the grand prix in architecture, and had lately returned from Rome where he had spent three years at the cost of the State. In Italy the young man had dreamed of art; in Paris he thought of fortune. Government alone can pay the needful millions to raise an architect to glory; it is therefore natural that every ambitious youth of that calling, returning from Rome and thinking himself a Fontaine or a Percier, should bow before the administration. The liberal student became a royalist, and sought to win the favor of influential persons. When a grand prix man behaves thus, his comrades call him a trimmer. The young architect in question had two ways open to him,—either to serve the perfumer well, or put him under contribution. Birotteau the deputy-mayor, Birotteau the future possessor of half the lands about the Madeleine, where he would sooner or later build up a fine neighborhood, was a man to keep on good terms with. Grindot accordingly resolved to sacrifice his immediate gains to his future interests. He listened patiently to the plans, the repetitions, and the ideas of this worthy specimen of the bourgeois class, the constant butt of the witty shafts and ridicule of artists, and the object of their everlasting contempt, nodding his head as if to show the perfumer that he caught his ideas. When Cesar had thoroughly explained everything, the young man proceeded to sum up for him his own plan.
"You have now three front windows on the first floor, besides the window on the staircase which lights the landing; to these four windows you mean to add two on the same level in the next house, by turning the staircase, so as to open a way from one house to the other on the street side."
"You have understood me perfectly," said the perfumer, surprised.
"To carry out your plan, you must light the new staircase from above, and manage to get a porter's lodge beneath it."
"Yes, the space over which it rests—"
"I understand, monsieur."
"As for your own appartement, give me carte-blanche to arrange and decorate it. I wish to make it worthy—"
"Worthy! You have said the word, monsieur."
"How much time do you give me to complete the work?"
"What sum do you mean to put in the workmen's pockets?" asked Grindot.
"How much do you think it will cost?"
"An architect can estimate on a new building almost to a farthing," answered the young man; "but as I don't know how to deal with a bourgeois—ah! excuse me, monsieur, the word slipped out—I must warn you that it is impossible to calculate the costs of tearing down and rebuilding. It will take at least eight days before I can give even an approximate idea of them. Trust yourself to me: you shall have a charming staircase, lighted from above, with a pretty vestibule opening from the street, and in the space under the stairway—"
"Must that be used?"
"Don't be worried—I will find room for a little porter's lodge. Your house shall be studied and remodelled con amore. Yes, monsieur, I look to art and not to fortune. Above all things I do not want fame before I have earned it. To my mind, the best means of winning credit is not to play into the hands of contractors, but to get at good effects cheaply."
"With such ideas, young man," said Birotteau in a patronizing tone, "you will succeed."
"Therefore," resumed Grindot, "employ the masons, painters, locksmiths, carpenters, and upholsterers yourself. I will simply look over their accounts. Pay me only two thousand francs commission. It will be money well laid out. Give me the premises to-morrow at twelve o'clock, and have your workmen on the spot."
"How much it will cost, at a rough guess?" said Birotteau.
"From ten to twelve thousand francs," said Grindot. "That does not count the furniture; of course you will renew that. Give me the address of your cabinet-maker; I shall have to arrange with him about the choice of colors, so as to have everything in keeping."
"Monsieur Braschon, Rue Saint-Antoine, takes my orders," said Birotteau, assuming a ducal air.
The architect wrote down the address in one of those pretty note-books which invariably come from women.
"Well," said Birotteau, "I trust to you, monsieur; only you must wait till the lease of the adjoining house is made over to me, and I will get permission to cut through the wall."
"Send me a note this evening," said the architect; "it will take me all night to draw the plans—we would rather work for a bourgeois than for the King of Prussia, that is to say for ourselves. I will now take the dimensions, the pitch, the size of the widows, the pictures—"
"It must be finished on the appointed day," said Birotteau. "If not, no pay."
"It shall be done," said the architect. "The workmen must do without sleep; we will use drying oil in the paint. But don't let yourself be taken in by the contractors; always ask their price in advance, and have a written agreement."
"Paris is the only place in the world where you can wave a magic wand like that," said Birotteau, with an Asiatic gesture worthy of the Arabian Nights. "You will do me the honor to come to my ball, monsieur? Men of talent are not all disdainful of commerce; and you will meet a scientific man of the first order, Monsieur Vauquelin of the Institute; also Monsieur de la Billardiere, Monsieur le comte de Fontaine, Monsieur Lebas, judge and president of the Court of commerce, various magistrates, Monsieur le comte de Grandville of the royal suite, Monsieur Camusot of the Court of commerce, and Monsieur Cardot, his father-in-law, and, perhaps, Monsieur le duc de Lenoncourt, first gentleman of the bed-chamber to the king. I assemble my friends as much—to celebrate the emancipation of our territory—as to commemorate my—promotion to the order of the Legion of honor,"—here Grindot made a curious gesture. "Possibly I showed myself worthy of that—signal—and royal—favor, by my services on the bench, and by fighting for the Bourbons upon the steps of Saint-Roch on the 13th Vendemiaire, where I was wounded by Napoleon. These claims—"
Constance, in a morning gown, here came out of her daughter's bedroom, where she had been dressing; her first glance cut short Cesar's eloquence just as he was about to formulate in flowing phrase, though modestly, the tale of his merits.
"Tiens, Mimi, this is Monsieur de Grindot, a young man distinguished in his own sphere of life, and the possessor of a great talent. Monsieur is the architect recommended to us by Monsieur de la Billardiere to superintend our little alteration."
The perfumer slipped behind his wife and made a sign to the architect to take notice of the word little, putting his finger on his lips. Grindot took the cue.
"Will it be very expensive?" said Constance to the architect.
"Oh, no, madame; six thousand francs at a rough guess."
"A rough guess!" exclaimed Madame Birotteau. "Monsieur, I entreat you, begin nothing without an estimate and the specifications signed. I know the ways of contractors: six thousand francs means twenty thousand. We are not in a position to commit such extravagance. I beg you, monsieur,—though of course my husband is master in his own house,—give him time to reflect."
"Madame, monsieur the deputy-mayor has ordered me to deliver the premises, all finished, in twenty days. If we delay, you will be likely to incur the expense without obtaining the looked-for result."
"There are expenses and expenses," said the handsome mistress of "The Queen of Roses."
"Ah! madame, do you think an architect who seeks to put up public buildings finds it glorious to decorate a mere appartement? I have come down to such details merely to oblige Monsieur de la Billardiere; and if you fear—"
Here he made a movement to retreat.
"Well, well, monsieur," said Constance re-entering her daughter's room, where she threw her head on Cesarine's shoulder.
"Ah, my daughter!" she cried, "your father will ruin himself! He has engaged an architect with mustachios, who talks about public buildings! He is going to pitch the house out of windows and build us a Louvre. Cesar is never idle about his follies; he only spoke to me about it in the night, and he begins it in the morning!"
"Never mind, mamma; let papa do as he likes. The good God has always taken care of him," said Cesarine, kissing her mother and sitting down to the piano, to let the architect know that the perfumer's daughter was not ignorant of the fine arts.
When Grindot came in to measure the bedroom he was surprised and taken aback at the beauty of Cesarine. Just out of her dressing-room and wearing a pretty morning-gown, fresh and rosy as a young girl is fresh and rosy at eighteen, blond and slender, with blue eyes, Cesarine seemed to the young artist a picture of the elasticity, so rare in Paris, that fills and rounds the delicate cheek, and tints with the color adored of painters, the tracery of blue veins throbbing beneath the whiteness of her clear skin. Though she lived in the lymphatic atmosphere of a Parisian shop, where the air stagnates and the sun seldom shines, her habits gave her the same advantages which the open-air life of Rome gives to the Transteverine peasant-woman. Her hair,—which was abundant, and grew, like that of her father, in points upon her forehead,—was caught up in a twist which showed the lines of a well-set neck, and then rippled downward in curls that were scrupulously cared for, after the fashion of young shop-women, whose desire to attract attention inspires the truly English minutiae of their toilet. The beauty of this young girl was not the beauty of an English lady, nor of a French duchess, but the round and glowing beauty of a Flemish Rubens. Cesarine had the turned-up nose of her father, but it was piquant through the delicacy of its modelling,—like those noses, essentially French, which have been so well reproduced by Largilliere. Her skin, of a firm full texture, bespoke the vitality of a virgin; she had the fine brow of her mother, but it was clear with the serenity of a young girl who knows no care. Her liquid blue eyes, bathed in rich fluid, expressed the tender grace of a glowing happiness. If that happiness took from her head the poetry which painters insist on giving to their pictures my making them a shade too pensive, the vague physical languor of a young girl who has never left her mother's side made up for it, and gave her a species of ideality. Notwithstanding the graceful lines of her figure, she was strongly built. Her feet betrayed the peasant origin of her father and her own defects of race, as did the redness of her hands, the sign of the thoroughly bourgeois life. Sooner or later she would grow stout. She had caught the sentiment of dress from the elegant young women who came to the shop, and had learned from them certain movements of the head, certain ways of speaking and of moving; and she could play the well-bred woman in a way that turned the heads of all the young men, especially the clerks, in whose eyes she appeared truly distinguished. Popinot swore that he would have no other wife than Cesarine. The liquid brightness of that eye, which a look, or a tone of reproach, might cause to overflow in tears, was all that kept him to a sense of masculine superiority. The charming girl inspired love without leaving time to ask whether she had mind enough to make it durable. But of what value is the thing they call in Paris mind to a class whose principal element of happiness is virtue and good sense?
In her moral qualities Cesarine was like her mother, somewhat bettered by the superfluities of education; she loved music, drew the Madonna della Sedia in chalk, and read the works of Mmes. Cottin and Riccoboni, of Bernadin de Saint-Pierre, Fenelon, and Racine. She was never seen behind the counter with her mother except for a few moments before sitting down to dinner, or on some special occasion when she replaced her. Her father and mother, like all persons who have risen from small beginnings, and who cultivate the ingratitude of their children by putting them above themselves, delighted in deifying Cesarine, who happily had the virtues of her class, and took no advantage of their weakness.
Madame Birotteau followed the architect with an anxious and appealing eye, watching with terror, and pointing out to her daughter, the fantastic movements of the four-foot rule, that wand of architects and builders, with which Grindot was measuring. She saw in those mysterious weavings a conjuring spirit that augured evil; she wished the walls were less high, the rooms less large, and dared not question the young man on the effects of his sorcery.
"Do not be afraid, madame, I shall carry nothing off," said the artist, smiling.
Cesarine could not help smiling.
"Monsieur," said Constance, in a supplicating voice, not even noticing the tit-for-tat of the young man, "consider economy, and later we may be able to serve you—"
* * * * *
Before starting to see Monsieur Molineux, the owner of the adjoining house, Cesar wished to get from Roguin the private deed about the transference of the lease which Alexandre Crottat had been ordered to draw up. As he left the notary's house, he saw du Tillet at the window of Roguin's study. Although the liaison of his former clerk with the lawyer's wife made it not unlikely that he should see du Tillet there at this hour when the negotiations about the Madeleine were going on, Birotteau, in spite of his extreme confidence, felt uneasy. The excited manner of du Tillet seemed the sign of a discussion. "Can he be in it?" thought Cesar, with a flash of commercial prudence. The suspicion passed like lightning through his mind. He looked again and saw Madame Roguin, and the presence of du Tillet was no longer suspicious. "Still, suppose Constance were right?" he said to himself. "What a fool I am to listen to women's notions! I'll speak of it to my uncle Pillerault this morning; it is only a step from the Cour Batave, where Monsieur Molineux lives, to the Rue des Bourdonnais."
A cautious observer, or a merchant who had met with swindlers in his business career, would have been saved by this sight; but the antecedents of Birotteau, the incapacity of his mind, which had little power to follow up the chain of inductions by which a superior man reaches a conclusion, all conspired to blind him. He found the umbrella-man in full dress, and they were about to start, when Virginie, the cook, caught him by the arm:—
"Monsieur, madame does not wish you to go out—"
"Pshaw!" said Birotteau, "more women's notions!"
"—without your coffee, which is ready."
"That's true. My neighbor," he said to Cayron, "I have so many things in my head that I can't think of my stomach. Do me the kindness to go forward; we will meet at Monsieur Molineux' door, unless you are willing to go up and explain matters to him, which would save time."
Monsieur Molineux was a grotesque little man, living on his rents,—a species of being that exists nowhere but in Paris, like a certain lichen which grows only in Iceland. This comparison is all the more apt because he belonged to a mixed nature, to an animal-vegetable kingdom which some modern Mercier might build up of cryptograms that push up upon, and flower, and die in or under the plastered walls of the strange unhealthy houses where they prefer to cluster. The first aspect of this human plant—umbelliferous, judging by the fluted blue cap which crowned it, with a stalk encased in greenish trousers, and bulbous roots swathed in list shoes—offered to the eye a flat and faded countenance, which certainly betrayed nothing poisonous. In this queer product might be recognized the typical stockholder, who believes every report which the daily press baptizes with ink, and is content, for all response, to say, "Read what the papers say,"—the bourgeois, essentially the friend of order, always revolting in his moral being against power, though always obeying it; a creature feeble in the mass but fierce in isolated circumstances, hard as a constable when his own rights are in question, yet giving fresh chickweed to his bird and fish-bones to his cat, interrupting the signing of a lease to whistle to a canary, suspicious as a jailer, but apt to put his money into a bad business and then endeavor to get it back by niggardly avarice. The evil savor of this hybrid flower was only revealed by use; its nauseous bitterness needed the stewing of some business in which his interests were mingled with those of other men, to bring it fully out. Like all Parisians, Molineux had the lust of dominating; he craved the share of sovereignty which is exercised more or less by every one, even a porter, over a greater or lesser number of victims,—over wife, children, tenants, clerks, horses, dogs, monkeys, to whom they send, on the rebound, the mortifications they have endured in the higher spheres to which they aspired.
This annoying old man had neither wife, child, nephew, or niece. He bullied his servant-of-all-work too much to make her a victim; for she escaped all contact with her master by doing her work and keeping out of his way. His appetite for tyranny was thus balked; and to satisfy it in some way he patiently studied the laws relating to rentals and party-walls; he fathomed the jurisprudence which regulates the dwellings of Paris in an infinite number of petty questions as to tenants, abutters, liabilities, taxes, repairs, sweepings, decorations for the Fete-Dieu, waste-pipes, lighting, projections over the public way, and the neighborhood of unhealthy buildings. His means, his strength, in fact his whole mind was spent in keeping his proprietary rights on a complete war-footing. He had made it an amusement, and the amusement had become a monomania. He was fond of protecting citizens against the encroachment of illegal proceedings; but finding such subjects of complaint rare, he had finally turned upon his own tenants. A tenant became his enemy, his inferior, his subject, his vassal; he laid claim to his subservience, and looked upon any man as a brute who passed him on the stairway without speaking. He wrote out his bills for rent himself, and sent them on the morning of the day they fell due. The debtor who was behindhand in his payment received a legal notice to quit at an appointed time. Then followed seizures, law-suits, costs, and the whole judicial array set in motion with the rapidity of what the head's-man calls the "mechanism." Molineux granted neither grace nor time; his heart was a callus in the direction of a lease.
"I will lend you the money if you want it," he would say to a man he thought solvent, "but pay my rent; all delays carry with them a loss of interest for which the law does not indemnify us."
After long study of the caprices and capers of tenants who persisted, after the fashion of dynasties, in upsetting the arrangements of their predecessors, he had drawn up a charter of his own and followed it religiously. In accordance therewith, the old fellow made no repairs: no chimney ever smoked, the stairs were clean, the ceilings white, the cornices irreproachable, the floors firm on their joists, the paint satisfactory; the locks were never more than three years old, not a pane of glass was missing, there were no cracks, and he saw no broken tiles until a tenant vacated the premises. When he met the tenants on their first arrival he was accompanied by a locksmith and a painter and glazier,—very convenient folks, as he remarked. The lessee was at liberty to make improvements; but if the unhappy man did so, little Molineux thought night and day of how he could dislodge him and relet the improved appartement on better terms. He watched and waited and spun the web of his mischievous legal proceedings. He knew all the tricks of Parisian legislation in the matter of leases. Factious and fond of scribbling, he wrote polite and specious letters to his tenants; but at the bottom of all his civil sentences could be seen, as in his faded and cozening face, the soul of a Shylock. He always demanded six months' rent in advance, to be deducted from the last quarter of the lease under an array of prickly conditions which he invented. If new tenants offered themselves, he got information about them from the police; for he would not have people of certain callings,—he was afraid, for instance, of hammers. When the lease was to be signed, he kept the deed and spelled it over for a week, fearing what he called the et caetera of lawyers.
Outside of his notions as a proprietor, Jean-Baptiste Molineux seemed good and obliging. He played at boston without complaining of the players; he laughed at the things which make a bourgeois laugh; talked of what others of his kind talked about,—the arbitrary powers of bakers who nefariously sell false weights, of the police, of the heroic seventeen deputies of the Left. He read the "Good Sense" of the Cure Meslier, and went to Mass; not that he had any choice between deism and Christianity, but he took the wafer when offered to him, and argued that he was therefore safe from the interfering claims of the clergy. The indefatigable litigant wrote letters on this subject to the newspapers, which the newspapers did not insert and never answered. He was in other respects one of those estimable bourgeois who solemnly put Christmas logs on their fire, draw kings at play, invent April-fools, stroll on the boulevards when the weather is fine, go to see the skating, and are always to be found on the terrace of the Place Louis XV. at two o'clock on the days of the fireworks, with a roll in their pockets so that they may get and keep a front place.
The Cour Batave, where the little old man lived, is the product of one of those fantastic speculations of which no man can explain the meaning after they are once completed. This cloistral structure, with arcades and interior galleries built of free-stone, with a fountain at one end,—a parched fountain, which opens its lion's mouth less to give water than to ask it from the passers-by,—was doubtless invented to endow the Saint-Denis quarter with a species of Palais-Royal. The place, unhealthy and buried on all four sides by the high walls of its houses, has no life or movement except in the daytime; it is a central spot where dark passages meet, and connect the quarter of the markets with the Saint-Martin quarter by means of the famous Rue Quincampoix,—damp ways in which hurried foot-passengers contract rheumatism. But at night no spot in Paris is more deserted; it might be called the catacombs of commerce. In it there are various industrial cloaca, very few Dutchmen, but a great many grocers. The apartments in this merchant-place have, naturally, no other outlook than that of the common court on which all the windows give, so that rents are at a minimum.
Monsieur Molineux lived in one of the angles, on the sixth floor for sanitary reasons, the air not being pure at a less height than seventy feet above the ground. At this altitude the worthy proprietor enjoyed an enchanting view of the windmills of Montmartre as he walked among the gutters on the roof, where he cultivated flowers, in spite of police regulations against the hanging gardens of our modern Babylon. His appartement was made up of four rooms, without counting the precious anglaises on the floor above him of which he had the key; they belonged to him, he had made them, and he felt he was legally entitled to them. On entering his appartement, a repulsive barrenness plainly showed the avarice of the owner: in the antechamber were six straw chairs and a porcelain stove; on the walls, which were covered with a bottle-green paper, were four engravings bought at auction. In the dining-room were two sideboards, two cages full of birds, a table covered with oil-cloth, a barometer, a window-door which opened on the hanging gardens, and chairs of dark mahogany covered with horse-hair. The salon had little curtains of some old green-silk stuff, and furniture of painted white-wood covered with green worsted velvet. As to the chamber of the old celibate it was furnished with Louis XV. articles, so dirty and disfigured through long usage that a woman dressed in white would have been afraid of soiling herself by contact with them. The chimney-piece was adorned by a clock with two columns, between which was a dial-case that served as a pedestal to Pallas brandishing her lance: a myth. The floor was covered with plates full of scraps intended for the cats, on which there was much danger of stepping. Above a chest of drawers in rosewood hung a portrait done in pastel,—Molineux in his youth. There were also books, tables covered with shabby green bandboxes, on a bracket a number of his deceased canaries stuffed; and, finally, a chilly bed that might formerly have belonged to a Carmelite.
* * * * *
Cesar Birotteau was delighted with the extreme politeness of Molineux, whom he found wrapped in a gray woollen dressing-gown, watching his milk in a little metal heater on the edge of his fireplace, while his coffee-grounds were boiling in a little brown earthenware jug from which, every now and then, he poured a few drops into his coffee-pot. The umbrella-man, anxious not to disturb his landlord, had gone to the door to admit Birotteau. Molineux held the mayors and deputies of the city of Paris in much esteem; he called them "my municipal officers." At sight of the magistrate he rose, and remained standing, cap in hand, until the great Birotteau was seated.
"No, monsieur; yes, monsieur; ah, monsieur, if I had known I should have had the honor of receiving in the bosom of my humble penates a member of the municipality of Paris, believe me I should have made it my duty to call upon you, although I am your landlord—or, on the point of becoming so."
Birotteau made him a sign to put on his cap.
"No, I shall not; not until you are seated, and have replaced yours, if you feel the cold. My room is chilly, the smallness of my means not permitting—God grant your wishes!" he added, as Birotteau sneezed while he felt in his pockets for the deeds. In presenting them to Molineux Cesar remarked, to avoid all unnecessary delay, that Monsieur Roguin had drawn them up.
"I do not dispute the legal talents of Monsieur Roguin, an old name well-known in the notariat of Paris; but I have my own little customs, I do my own business (an excusable hobby), and my notary is—"
"But this matter is very simple," said the perfumer, who was used to the quick business methods of merchants.
"Simple!" cried Molineux. "Nothing is simple in such matters. Ah! you are not a landlord, monsieur, and you may think yourself happy. If you knew to what lengths of ingratitude tenants can go, and to what precautions we are driven! Why, monsieur, I once had a tenant—"
And for a quarter an hour he recounted how a Monsieur Gendrin, designer, had deceived the vigilance of his porter, Rue Saint-Honore. Monsieur Gendrin had committed infamies worthy of Marat,—obscene drawings at which the police winked. This Gendrin, a profoundly immoral artist, had brought in women of bad lives, and made the staircase intolerable,—conduct worthy of a man who made caricatures of the government. And why such conduct? Because his rent had been asked for on the 15th! Gendrin and Molineux were about to have a lawsuit, for, though he did not pay, Gendrin insisted on holding the empty appartement. Molineux received anonymous letters, no doubt from Gendrin, which threatened him with assassination some night in the passages about the Cour Batave.
"It has got to such a pass, monsieur," he said, winding up the tale, "that monsieur the prefect of police, to whom I confided my trouble (I profited by the occasion to drop him a few words on the modifications which should be introduced into the laws to meet the case), has authorized me to carry pistols for my personal safety."
The little old man got up and fetched the pistols.
"There they are!" he cried.
"But, monsieur, you have nothing to fear from me," said Birotteau, looking at Cayron, and giving him a glance and a smile intended to express pity for such a man.
Molineux detected it; he was mortified at such a look from an officer of the municipality, whose duty it was to protect all persons under his administration. In any one else he might have pardoned it, but in Birotteau the deputy-mayor, never!
"Monsieur," he said in a dry tone, "an esteemed commercial judge, a deputy-mayor, and an honorable merchant would not descend to such petty meannesses,—for they are meannesses. But in your case there is an opening through the wall which must be agreed to by your landlord, Monsieur le comte de Grandville; there are stipulations to be made and agreed upon about replacing the wall at the end of your lease. Besides which, rents have hitherto been low, but they are rising; the Place Vendome is looking up, the Rue Castiglione is to be built upon. I am binding myself—binding myself down!"
"Let us come to a settlement," said Birotteau, amazed. "How much do you want? I know business well enough to be certain that all your reasons can be silenced by the superior consideration of money. Well, how much is it?"
"That's only fair, monsieur the deputy. How much longer does your own lease run?"
"Seven years," answered Birotteau.
"Think what my first floor will be worth in seven years!" said Molineux. "Why, what would two furnished rooms let for in that quarter?—more than two hundred francs a month perhaps! I am binding myself—binding myself by a lease. The rent ought to be fifteen hundred francs. At that price I will consent to the transfer of the two rooms by Monsieur Cayron, here present," he said, with a sly wink at the umbrella-man; "and I will give you a lease of them for seven consecutive years. The costs of piercing the wall are to belong to you; and you must procure the consent of Monsieur le comte de Grandville and the cession of all his rights in the matter. You are responsible for all damage done in making this opening. You will not be expected to replace the wall yourself, that will be my business; but you will at once pay me five hundred francs as an indemnity towards it. We never know who may live or die, and I can't run after anybody to get the wall rebuilt."
"Those conditions seem to me pretty fair," said Birotteau.
"Next," said Molineux. "You must pay me seven hundred and fifty francs, hic et hinc, to be deducted from the last six months of your lease; this will be acknowledged in the lease itself. Oh, I will accept small bills for the value of the rent at any date you please! I am prompt and square in business. We will agree that you are to close up the door on my staircase (where you are to have no right of entry), at your own cost, in masonry. Don't fear,—I shall ask you no indemnity for that at the end of your lease; I consider it included in the five hundred francs. Monsieur, you will find me just."
"We merchants are not so sharp," said the perfumer. "It would not be possible to do business if we made so many stipulations."
"Oh, in business, that is very different, especially in perfumery, where everything fits like a glove," said the old fellow with a sour smile; "but when you come to letting houses in Paris, nothing is unimportant. Why, I have a tenant in the Rue Montorgeuil who—"
"Monsieur," said Birotteau, "I am sorry to detain you from your breakfast: here are the deeds, correct them. I agree to all that you propose, we will sign them to-morrow; but to-day let us come to an agreement by word of mouth, for my architect wants to take possession of the premises in the morning."
"Monsieur," resumed Molineux with a glance at the umbrella-merchant, "part of a quarter has expired; Monsieur Cayron would not wish to pay it; we will add it to the rest, so that your lease may run from January to January. It will be more in order."
"Very good," said Birotteau.
"And the five per cent for the porter—"
"But," said Birotteau, "if you deprive me of the right of entrance, that is not fair."
"Oh, you are a tenant," said little Molineux, peremptorily, up in arms for the principle. "You must pay the tax on doors and windows and your share in all the other charges. If everything is clearly understood there will be no difficulty. You must be doing well, monsieur; your affairs are prospering?"
"Yes," said Birotteau. "But my motive is, I may say, something different. I assemble my friends as much to celebrate the emancipation of our territory as to commemorate my promotion to the order of the Legion of honor—"
"Ah! ah!" said Molineux, "a recompense well-deserved!"
"Yes," said Birotteau, "possibly I showed myself worthy of that signal and royal favor by my services on the Bench of commerce, and by fighting for the Bourbons upon the steps of Saint-Roch on the 13th Vendemiaire. These claims—"
"Are equal to those of our brave soldiers of the old army. The ribbon is red, for it is dyed with their blood."
At these words, taken from the "Constitutionnel," Birotteau could not keep from inviting little Molineux to the ball, who thanked him profusely and felt like forgiving the disdainful look. The old man conducted his new tenant as far as the landing, and overwhelmed him with politeness. When Birotteau reached the middle of the Cour Batave he gave Cayron a merry look.
"I did not think there could exist such—weak beings!" he said, with difficulty keeping back the word fools.
"Ah, monsieur," said Cayron, "it is not everybody that has your talents."
Birotteau might easily believe himself a superior being in the presence of Monsieur Molineux; the answer of the umbrella-man made him smile agreeably, and he bowed to him with a truly royal air as they parted.
"I am close by the Markets," thought Cesar; "I'll attend to the matter of the nuts."
* * * * *
After an hour's search, Birotteau, who was sent by the market-women to the Rue de Lombards where nuts for sugarplums were to be found, heard from his friend Matifat that the fruit in bulk was only to be had of a certain Madame Angelique Madou, living in the Rue Perrin-Gasselin, the sole establishment which kept the true filbert of Provence, and the veritable white hazel-nut of the Alps.
The Rue Perrin-Gasselin is one of the narrow thoroughfares in a square labyrinth enclosed by the quay, the Rue Saint-Denis, the Rue de la Ferronnerie, and the Rue de la Monnaie; it is, as it were, one of the entrails of the city. There swarm an infinite number of heterogeneous and mixed articles of merchandise, evil-smelling and jaunty, herrings and muslin, silks and honey, butter and gauze, and above all a number of petty trades, of which Paris knows as little as a man knows of what is going on in his pancreas, and which, at the present moment, had a blood-sucker named Bidault, otherwise called Gigonnet, a money-lender, who lived in the Rue Grenetat. In this quarter old stables were filled with oil-casks, and the carriage-houses were packed with bales of cotton. Here were stored in bulk the articles that were sold at retail in the markets.
Madame Madou, formerly a fish-woman, but thrown, some ten years since, into the dried-fruit trade by a liaison with the former proprietor of her present business (an affair which had long fed the gossip of the markets), had originally a vigorous and enticing beauty, now lost however in a vast embonpoint. She lived on the lower floor of a yellow house, which was falling to ruins, and was held together at each story by iron cross-bars. The deceased proprietor had succeeded in getting rid of all competitors, and had made his business a monopoly. In spite of a few slight defects of education, his heiress was able to carry it along, and take care of her stores, which were in coachhouses, stables, and old workshops, where she fought the vermin with eminent success. Not troubled with desk or ledgers, for she could neither read nor write, she answered a letter with a blow of her fist, considering it an insult. In the main she was a good woman, with a high-colored face, and a foulard tied over her cap, who mastered with bugle voice the wagoners when they brought the merchandise; such squabbles usually ending in a bottle of the "right sort." She had no disputes with the agriculturists who consigned her the fruit, for they corresponded in ready money,—the only possible method of communication, to receive which Mere Madou paid them a visit in the fine season of the year.
Birotteau found this shrewish trader among sacks of filberts, nuts, and chestnuts.
"Good-morning, my dear lady," said Birotteau with a jaunty air.
"Your dear!" she said. "Hey! my son, what's there agreeable between us? Did we ever mount guard over kings and queens together?"
"I am a perfumer, and what is more I am deputy-mayor of the second arrondissement; thus, as magistrate and as customer, I request you to take another tone with me."
"I marry when I please," said the virago. "I don't trouble the mayor, or bother his deputies. As for my customers, they adore me, and I talk to 'em as I choose. If they don't like it, they can snake off elsewhere."
"This is the result of monopoly," thought Birotteau.
"Popole!—that's my godson,—he must have got into mischief. Have you come about him, my worthy magistrate?" she said, softening her voice.
"No; I had the honor to tell you that I came as a customer."
"Well, well! and what's your name, my lad? Haven't seen you about before, have I?"
"If you take that tone, you ought to sell your nuts cheap," said Birotteau, who proceeded to give his name and all his distinctions.
"Ha! you're the Birotteau that's got the handsome wife. And how many of the sweet little nuts may you want, my love?"
"Six thousand weight."
"That's all I have," said the seller, in a voice like a hoarse flute. "My dear monsieur, you are not one of the sluggards who waste their time on girls and perfumes. God bless you, you've got something to do! Excuse me a bit. You'll be a jolly customer, dear to the heart of the woman I love best in the world."
"Who is that?"
"Hey! the dear Madame Madou."
"What's the price of your nuts?"
"For you, old fellow, twenty-five francs a hundred, if you take them all."
"Twenty-five francs!" cried Birotteau. "Fifteen hundred francs! I shall want perhaps a hundred thousand a year."
"But just look how fine they are; fresh as a daisy," she said, plunging her red arm into a sack of filberts. "Plump, no empty ones, my dear man. Just think! grocers sell their beggarly trash at twenty-four sous a pound, and in every four pounds they put a pound of hollows. Must I lose my profits to oblige you? You're nice enough, but you don't please me all that! If you want so many, we might make a bargain at twenty francs. I don't want to send away a deputy-mayor,—bad luck to the brides, you know! Now, just handle those nuts; heavy, aren't they? Less than fifty to the pound; no worms there, I can tell you."
"Well, then, send six thousand weight, for two thousand francs at ninety days' sight, to my manufactory, Rue du Faubourg-du-Temple, to-morrow morning early."
"You're in as great a hurry as a bride! Well, adieu, monsieur the mayor; don't bear me a grudge. But if it is all the same to you," she added, following Birotteau through the yard, "I would like your note at forty days, because I have let you have them too cheap, and I don't want to lose the discount. Pere Gigonnet may have a tender heart, but he sucks the soul out of us as a spider sucks a fly."
"Well, then, fifty days. But they are to be weighed by the hundred pounds, so that there may be no hollow ones. Without that, no bargain."
"Ah, the dog! he knows what he's about," said Madame Madou; "can't make a fool of him! It is those rascals in the Rue des Lombards who have put him up to that! Those big wolves are all in a pack to eat up the innocent lambs."
This lamb was five feet high and three feet round, and she looked like a mile-post, dressed in striped calico, without a belt.
The perfumer, lost in thought, was ruminating as he went along the Rue Saint-Honore about his duel with Macassar Oil. He was meditating on the labels and the shape of the bottles, discussing the quality of the corks, the color of the placards. And yet people say there is no poetry in commerce! Newton did not make more calculations for his famous binomial than Birotteau made for his Comagene Essence,—for by this time the Oil had subsided into an Essence, and he went from one description to the other without observing any difference. His head spun with his computations, and he took the lively activity of its emptiness for the substantial work of real talent. He was so preoccupied that he passed the turn leading to his uncle's house in the Rue des Bourdonnais, and had to return upon his steps.